Blocking the Highway Exits

By on September 19, 2017

by Tom Finan, Executive Director, Construction Forum STL

This past Sunday I was part of the blockage of an entrance ramp to I64/40.

But it wasn’t by intent, and I wasn’t in a protest. The half-mile line of cars at the Maryville Center Drive exit and an equal line coming from the west were headed to Westminster Christian Academy.

They were coming from South County, West County, Clayton, Tower Grove, Metro East, and Southern Illinois. The six churches that make up The Journey were coming together to pray for St. Louis and to speak openly about the issues that brought us to this pass. 

Lead Pastor Jeremy Bedenbaugh spoke of the “disruption” that is in the message of the New Testament. A candid panel discussion addressed the different views of theology and life that separate us. The panel included the (white) director of a North St. Louis center that works with people trying to get a leg up in life but can’t really comprehend what they are feeling.

There was an African American, who was at one time a St. Louis policeman. He can understand the anger but draws the line at violence. A Grammy-winning African American singer/musician said he was impressed with the number of white protesters.

An Asian American psychologist/researcher warned that this was yet another peak in an oscillating chart of our region’s desire to get back to “normal,” while ignoring the “iceberg” beneath the surface. A white pastor described how he dealt with his fear of black people by talking with “safe” black friends, and how he one day received a phone call from his daughter that led him to meet the African American man who is now his son-in-law. He said the two of them are talking about what’s happening.

Jeremy Bedenbaugh spoke of the problems that accompany misuse of power and privilege. An African American panelist, who is an educator of young children at a private school, noted that power and privilege may feel good to some in the white community, but their abuse was a “poison” that impacts everyone in St. Louis. After the presentation one African American mother, obviously in anguish, asked the panel, “What do I tell my kids?” The educator told her, “I tell my kids to reach out to someone who is hurting more than they are. I tell them that they are not victims, that they are safe, and that God loves them.”

‘Disruption Not Destruction’

Monday morning I read a Post-Dispatch headline, “Pastor reinforces ‘disruption not destruction’ in the wake of the Stockley verdict”. For a minute I thought they were talking about the service I had attended. Then I realized that it was about the protests.

The Post article, about an African American minister, Wayman Stancil, stated, “They shut down streets to send a message to the rest of the region: ‘You kill our kids, we’ll kill your economy,” (Stancil) said.

“We will continue to shut it down until you stop killing our kids,” Stancil said. “We will shut the whole city down. We ain’t setting fires no more. We’re just shutting it down.”

He urged his congregation to practice “DARE: Daily Acts of Resistance against Evil.”

Part of me has asked, “How does destroying businesses make things better?” But I also remember Rosa Parks and buses, Cesar Chavez and the grapes. However painful, an economic statement can bring change. But we must also draw a line. Disruption and protest is embedded in our American principals. Violence is not, or should not, be.

The Korean lady who runs the dry cleaner I go to at Forest Park and Taylor is a wonderful, strong Christian woman. When I was in on Saturday, she was talking about being worried about her business Friday night. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed a black customer give her the hairy eyeball as he turned to leave. The dry cleaner understands the pain people are suffering. But she is also afraid.

Too Little, Too Late?

Friday morning when the news of the Stockley verdict broke, we were in a meeting with the Chancellor at St. Louis Community College talking about creating a pipeline for future jobs for kids — African American, immigrants/refugees — all kids.  Jeff Pittman, the SLCC chancellor, was getting email messages from the Governor’s office and had to make a statement as soon as the meeting ended. The irony wasn’t lost on me. Is what we’re doing too little, too late?

Last week we broke the story of the $150M lawsuit that Eric Vickers filed against BJC alleging racial discrimination.  Has BJC tried very hard to be inclusive? Absolutely, yes.  But there is obviously a disconnect somewhere.

Did attorney Vickers’ approach potentially set some things back in our industry’s effort to be inclusive?  Again, yes. But the woman contractor who Vickers represents was seeking redress in a system that African Americans feel is stacked against them. Eric Vickers is an old-school activist who understands the power of disruption and I can see where he’s going. Whether this really takes us anywhere positive, I’m not at all convinced.

First Seek to Understand

In my work, and in my wife’s work in community health I have gotten to know and become good friends with people who have nothing… but have amazing souls. I will never truly understand what it is to walk in their shoes. But I am trying to learn to listen well.

At the same time one of my dearest friends voted for Trump, lives in St. Charles County, drives a big SUV, and believes in concealed carry. But our love for this region is mutual. We can talk openly about the issues when we meet on The Hill for cigars. I am in constant admiration of his good heart.

Our mission at the Forum, is “Building the St. Louis region’s tomorrow, through inclusive engagement, unbiased communication, and focused action.” We started it because, as my co-founder Joe Blanner says, “St. Louis doesn’t do change well.”

Some days I’m demoralized because it seems that change in the region where six generations of Finans have lived is an impossibility. Then I think about the many varied people that I’ve been blessed to work with, and moments like driving up on that line of cars backed up on the highway exit.


About Tom Finan