Time to Resuscitate St. Louis

The following is the full text of the keynote speech delivered by Benjamin Ola. Akande at the Royal Vagabond’s Seventh Annual Leadership Awards.

I am honored to speak at the Royal Vagabond’s annual luncheon. And, as I look around the room, I see quite a number of regional leaders, leaders who have the wisdom, the talent and the power to challenge the paradigm that is our region. Leaders who I hope share my belief that St. Louis can and should be one of the great 21st century cities of America, that we can regain the status we held in 1904, and the momentum we experienced in the 1960’s when the gateway arch was completed. That we can be better tomorrow than we are today.

So, let me ask you some straight forward questions...

Do you hear flawed thinking and let it go, or do you take it upon yourself to change minds and attitudes? Do you challenge assumptions, seek to build consensus, and make it your mission to lead from where you are? Are you working every day to find better ways to strengthen our community?

We live in a time where common sense and reality don’t seem to get the respect they once garnered. A recent editorial in the London Times expressed this perfectly. Written as an obituary. It reads as follows:

Today we mourn the passing of a beloved old friend, first name common, last name sense, who has been with us for many years, and will be remembered as having cultivated such valuable lessons as:

  • knowing when to come in out of the rain;
  • why the early bird gets the worm;
  • that life isn’t always fair;
  • and maybe, just maybe, it was my fault.
  • those who bring light into the life of others cannot keep it from themselves
  • always make sure you are fighting the battle in front of you, and not the one behind you.

Common sense lived by simple, sound financial mantra, such as don’t spend more than you can earn, and adhere to the tried and true, that adults not children are in charge.

The health of common sense began to deteriorate rapidly when well-intentioned but overbearing regulations were set in place. Teens suspended from school for using mouthwash after lunch; and a teacher fired for reprimanding an unruly student.

Common sense finally gave up the will to live after a woman failed to realize that a steaming cup of coffee was hot. She spilled a little in her lap and was promptly awarded a huge settlement.

Common sense was preceded in death:

  • by his parents, truth and trust,
  • his uncle, integrity
  • his wife, discretion,
  • his daughter, responsibility,
  • and his only son, reason.

Not many people attended his funeral, because so few realized he was gone.

I believe that most, if not all of you here today would agree that common sense, if indeed not dead, at least is on life support.

The examples are almost too many to list. At the national level, we decry the problems that are destroying lives, then turn around and not allocate funding for programs designed to fix them. We agree that people with mental health issues should not be able to purchase firearms, but we cannot agree on steps to prevent them from buying guns.

We have validated research that confirms that early childhood education is so critical to a child’s development, but have failed to provide the resources to ensure that every child has an equal opportunity to grow, develop and learn.

We are reminded daily about the opioid crisis, which has touched every one of us, cutting short the lives of so many young people, many here in St. Louis. This crisis is responsible for 64,000 deaths in 2016. More people died from opioid than the Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq wars combined. I am worried about the pervasive impact that this epidemic will have on society.

Our public schools are underfunded, even though statistics show that only 31 percent of students in St. Louis public schools are proficient in English, 17 percent in science and only 9 percent in math. We need a common sense response to addressing this gap.

In the city of St. Louis, one in four people live in poverty, including 40 percent of our children. Common sense would say this is a reality that is not sustainable. But are we actively addressing it?

National statistics consistently list St. Louis as the murder capital of the united states with 205 deaths in 2017 and already 27 as of last week. We downplay the reports by arguing that those statistics only reflect the city’s and not regional data. But doesn’t it make more sense to focus on how to put an end to the violence?

But haven’t we ever considered the fact that those crime statistics, along with the negative image of our region almost four years after the Ferguson unrest, may be costing us jobs and future opportunities for growth.

St. Louis is no longer a destination for large companies looking to expand. And those already here too often find themselves on the flipside of mergers and acquisitions.

We like to say that St. Louis is a great place to live, an ideal place to raise a family, a big city with excellent cultural attractions, wonderful parks, manageable traffic and Midwestern values. I would agree that all of that is true. But that mindset also suggests that we are married to the status quo. We like what we are, and we don’t care to address what could make us even better.

Someone once wrote, “life is like a taxi. The meter just keeps a-ticking whether you are getting somewhere or standing still.” St. Louis is standing still even though it may look like we are moving forward.

Nowhere is our love of the status quo more apparent than in the ongoing debate over our city government fragmentation. The data is revealing.

Between St. Louis city and county and our 90 municipalities, we spend $281 million dollars a year on general government administration. That’s $7,600 per year for each family of four.

By comparison, the Louisville metro area, which has 83 municipalities and a fully integrated regional government, spends $132 million dollars less. We cannot grow and prosper in the 21st century with an 18th century governance structure.

That’s just one example. But imagine what we could do with that $132 million. Hire more police? Fix our schools? Help train people to lift them out of poverty and build a state with the best mass transit system?

Instead, we cling to the status quo and ignore facts in favor of keeping things the way they are. Isn’t it time to focus on how much greater we can be?

I know that change can be scary, and in fact the only person that likes change is a wet baby. But failure to change in the face of so many challenges is simply irresponsible.

We owe it to ourselves, our children, and their children to make St. Louis a better place to live for all. Even if it means ending the status quo.

So, what can we do? What must we do?

The Royal Vagabonds have always been an organization that is not afraid to ask tough questions. Working as leaders in the community, they have pursued new and better ways to improve the lives of those in need. What we need is a vision — that our best days are ahead of us and not behind us. We need to recognize that what we have been doing isn’t sufficient to keep irrelevancy at bay, and we need a commitment to make bold changes that put us back on the path to long-term success.

I believe St. Louis needs a new kind of commitment today more than ever.

As a first step, I suggest that it’s time we dare to step out of our current reality and take the stairs up to the balcony. A place where we can get an over-arching view of what’s wrong with St. Louis and then determine how to make it right. It’s also a time to convene to identify the problem, come together as a community to figure out what it will take to resolve it and then act within a defined timeline.

In their fine book “Leadership on the Line,” Ron Heifetz and Marty Linsky offer a practical and wise exercise for people and organizations in the midst of serious challenges.

Anyone who has been to the theater and sat in the balcony knows that you get a very unique vantage point on what is happening on stage. You are able to see things from all angles. You see it better. You get greater clarity when we view our circumstances from above the fray.

The trip to the balcony is an opportunity for all of us to take a critical look at ourselves, to reassess what we see and hear, and to re-inject common sense into our daily lives. And specifically, to take a good look at the direction in which St. Louis is going and change direction.

It begs the questions: what do you most admire about the St. Louis region? What strengths can we build upon? What are the things we need to fix – the thing we must stop doing? What needs to be changed? What will we allow to endure?

One hundred fourteen years ago, St. Louis was the most important city on the planet when in 1904 we hosted the Olympics and the World’s Fair simultaneously. People from all over the world came and admired our parks, our graceful architecture, our picturesque riverfront. Those things are all still here.

Yet some would argue that St. Louis’ past is much greater than our present. Are we to accept that the apex of this great city was more than a century ago? That all that is ahead is more disappointment and hand-wringing over what might have been?

When Amazon doesn’t deem us worthy of their consideration, (we didn’t make their top 20 cities for consideration), we chose to pat ourselves on the back for putting together what was described as a strong proposal, while others maintained that Amazon isn’t the future for every city. Amazon is looking for a stable and business-friendly environment, an urban or suburban location with a record of attracting and retaining strong technical skills and communities that think and act boldly.

Our problem is integration, separation and fracturism — it’s killing us. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote that most of the shadows in our lives are caused when we stand in front of our own sunshine. St. Louis, it’s time to get out of our own way.

When we see many of our major corporations being acquired by out-of-town corporate interests, rather than the other way around, do we shrug our shoulders and say it’s a sign of the times?

We need common sense strategy that’s bold, that harnesses our competitive advantage to create what doesn’t exist. It cannot be a strategy based on hope. What we need is a strategy based on best practices.

We need to create the kind of economic environment whereby we are the ones doing the acquiring and bringing more resources to St. Louis, rather than shipping them out. Let’s stop waiting for the future. It’s time we build it.

When our elected state officials in Jefferson City propose to cut taxes and follow the failed lead of states like Kansas and Oklahoma, where is the outcry on behalf of those who desperately need basic services that will likely get cut, and the mixed signals we send to businesses here and those who are looking for a new location? Do we respond with our voices and our votes?

A few years ago, I had the honor of introducing noted historian Tracey Campbell at a talk here in St. Louis on the history of the Gateway Arch. The book is entitled “The Gateway Arch,” and if you haven’t read it, I encourage you to do so. As you know, this coming summer we will celebrate the opening of the new museum under the Arch, marking the end of the renovation of the memorial on the riverfront.

This was a team event that brought together corporate, government, foundation and individual interest. Along the way, we created jobs and injected millions of dollars into this community.

But how many of us know the history that underlies our national monument? We seldom ask, what was there before the arch? Who benefited from its construction? Who lost? What could have been? These are questions we must ask ourselves as we seek to transform and strengthen St. Louis for the future.

The story of the Gateway Arch is much more complicated than the account provided to visitors. It involves political and economic power, short-sighted city planning, and decades of disputes.

It’s true, the Arch transformed our city and gave the nation a timeless landmark. But it also displaced hundreds of people and businesses and created an island that separated the city from the river for more than half a century, and as an example of urban planning, one could argue that, for all its merits as a tourist draw, the Arch and the surrounding grounds enhance the prestige of St. Louis or bring significant economic gains to our city.

This Gateway Arch does not stand alone as an attraction to our city. What are we doing to make St. Louis a safe place to live and visit? What was arguably the city’s greatest asset, its location along the mighty Mississippi River, is something we seem to have overlooked. Just over a century ago, St. Louis considered itself the potential equal of New York City and the site of a relocated American capital.

The city’s population today is half of what it was when the idea of the arch was first conceived. Ferguson has become a national catchword for what is wrong with St. Louis. We take pride in proclaiming what a great place St. Louis is to raise a family; yet that message does not seem to resonate with those looking in from outside who see a rising homicide rate, a city without a mass transit system, and a divided place politically. Common sense must prevail here.

Richard Florida, author of “The Rise of the Creative Class,” writes that the leading innovative and creative cities have three T’s in common – technology, talent and tolerance.

Richard affirms that the three T’s explain why cities such as Baltimore, St. Louis and Pittsburgh fail to grow economically despite their deep reservoirs of technology and world-class universities. He contends that perhaps the problem is that they are unwilling to be sufficiently tolerant even though they are open to attract and retain top creative talent.

We’ve spent several hundred million dollars to revive our landmark; the view from the balcony suggests that money is likely to do little to address what really ails our community and to resolve the lack of tolerance for what Richard Florida speaks. We have to own up to the fact that many outsiders see us as a city on the decline, and they are not willing to invest millions of dollars in such a place. It’s time we change this narrative and inform America of what we have to offer.

The reversal of perception must begin by taking a common-sense approach to prioritizing our goals, boldly addressing the challenges we face, and demonstrating the courage to change directions.

So, where is the vision to make St. Louis a truly great 21st century city? Where is the commitment to aggressively deal with the far-reaching recommendations of Forward Through Ferguson or For the Sake of All? Who will provide the courage to challenge our fragmented city structures, which eat up valuable resources and duplicate services?

I believe more than ever that St. Louis is ready for leadership who is willing to set things right, to get out of their comfort zones, to confront the paradigm, challenge assumptions, build consensus and find a better way for our community. We need our leaders to offer a vision that our best days are ahead and not behind us. Leaders who recognize that all of us cannot succeed when some of us are ignored or left behind. I’m talking about leaders who refuse to look forward to the past, and are not in love with status quo, folks afraid of the dark and suspicious of the light.

Whatever we have been doing isn’t working. It’s time to question everything; it’s time to rethink our current strategy.

But the kind of leaders St. Louis needs are not necessarily at the top. We need people like you who can be the strongest single force for transformation. Folks who are not content with things as they are, but willing to do what is necessary to challenge the status quo and its very large constituency. I’m talking individuals willing to lead from where they are.

My friends, I’m appealing to you to become – in the words of Bill Drayton – change makers: Citizens who can identify the problems in any situation, figure out ways to solve problems, lead collective action, and not only advocate for change, but become the personification of change itself.

Beyond Housing, under the leadership of Chris Krehmeyer, exists to eliminate the consequences of poverty by creating strong communities that support healthy families and children. As a comprehensive and nationally recognized community development organization, they bring civic leaders, targeted non-profits, corporate partners and residents together to help 24 communities, which surround the Normandy School District, to become better places to live. They have done it by providing support and resources in the areas of education, housing, health, employment, readiness, access, economic development and personal finance.

Since 2011, Beyond Housing has invested over $100 million in housing and economic development, health programs, support of the Normandy schools collaborative and other programs in the nationally recognized 24:1 initiative.

While much has been accomplished, we have much more to do.

My friends, I’m asking that we all take that journey to the balcony, and when we get there, to take a good long look at our communities — but we can’t stay up there. We must come down and get involved. Be the change we need. Together, we will succeed in resuscitating that dying old man in St. Louis — common sense. But the window of opportunity is closing my friends.

Great cities are not created overnight. They are the product of longstanding political, economic and cultural forces walking step by step together. In the end we only regret the chances we didn’t take, the bold bets we left on the table, and the decisions we waited too long to make.

Someone once said that common sense is a flower that doesn’t grow in everyone’s garden. I affirm that we must make our garden in St. Louis fertile ground for common sense to thrive, so that one day, in the not too distant future, when we convene once again at the annual Vagabond luncheon, we will take stock and share the stories of how the new St. Louis was built — how we were courageous enough to go to the balcony and from that unique vantage position, we saw a future that was much better than our present. And then we came down and went to work to make it a reality.

So, allow me to share with you a glimpse of what St. Louis should look like come 2025. Our city will become a national leader in four sectors — human health, plant science, technology and financial technology.

Human health in 2025: Washington University and BJC as the anchors to Cortex will become the leading recipients of NIH grants in the country, displacing Boston, Texas and California as the leaders in human health research and application.

Plant science: The Danforth Plant Science Center will have over a half-billion-dollar endowment. 500 scientists and 200 plant science companies from around the globe at 39 North. Leading the way in providing food security (a safe and abundant food supply) to the 9 billion humans on the planet. Leading the second green revolution.

National security: The new NGA facility in St. Louis opens in 2023, creating a boomerang effect because of the efforts through USGIF -United States Geospatial Intelligence Foundation. The St. Louis region will begin the journey of becoming the second-most important national security hub beside Washington, D.C.

Technology: Because of a unified effort at tech skills education, St. Louis is no longer a fly-over technology center. It hosts the broadest array of technical education opportunities in the Midwest. The product of the higher education institutional collaboration in St. Louis. There is a cluster of 400 startup companies (twice the current number).

Financial technology: as a major financial center, the community grows to be the center of excellence on cybersecurity for individuals. This technology will be deployed through Mastercard paired by other financial institutions Edward Jones, Stifel, Commerce, Enterprise Bank, Wells Fargo and others into the banking and personal investment industry.

In 2025, new companies start here. Established companies grow here. Great companies stay here! Why? We are no longer the Gateway to the West, we are the Gateway to the Future.

I end with one question — what role will you play in building this future?