East St. Louis panel focuses on narratives

Focusing on the stories and struggles of local community members, Project East St. Louis held a panel Wednesday to challenge the stigma associated with the area.

Project East St. Louis intended for the “Voices of East St. Louis” discussion and following activities to help educate students about the nearby area’s struggles and triumphs.

East St. Louis, Ill., is a city 10 miles away from Washington University in St. Louis. During the mid-1900s, East St. Louis suffered from de-industrialization and railroad restructuring. As the railroad and meatpacking industry declined and jobs moved out of the region, more and more people moved out of East St. Louis for better job prospects, leaving the city destitute.

Senior Daniel Sun introduced the panelists amidst a crowd of 50 students and community members by elaborating upon the group’s interest in hosting the panel.

“Over time, we [Project East St. Louis] realized that despite being a group focused on East St. Louis, we actually knew very little about East St. Louis, so we decided to interview the residents of East St. Louis and to ask them about their city and to understand their struggles and to listen to their narratives. Thus, Voices of East St. Louis was born,” Sun said.

The panel itself was the product of a year’s worth of work by students and faculty. Each panelist was granted three minutes to introduce him or herself, after which the audience was allowed 10 minutes to discuss issues raised in the introductions. To end the evening, 40 mintues were allotted to a Q-and-A session.

Panelists included Brown School associate professor Jack Kirkland, Director of the Lessie Bates Neighborhood House Samuel Mwangi, Public Health Administrator Elizabeth Patton-Whiteside, Washington University graduate student Jamal Sadrud-Din and University of Kansas full professor Jennifer Hamer, author of “Abandoned in the Heartland,” who participated in the event from her home in Kansas City via Skype.

The panelists discussed various issues ranging from the economic promise of East St. Louis to recent events in Ferguson. Throughout the night, there was an overarching theme of hope and positivity surrounding East St. Louis and its inhabitants, with multiple mentions by panelists about the important role students play in the process of aiding East St. Louis in the right direction.

Senior Delia Shen, a member of Project East St. Louis, explained the promise of student groups on campus and the effect they can have on local communities.

Toward the end of the evening, Patton declared the importance of having such a panel on the Washington University campus.

“Why should we care? Because if you want to know the real world, we are the real world. You read about things in books for academia, but you have to be able to marry it with the real world,” Patton said.

Junior Alan Zhao attended the panel to gain a better view of the reality in East St. Louis.

“East St. Louis is talked about a lot on this campus, but you don’t really hear from it very often, and this is a great way to get citizens’ perspectives. I think there are a lot of kids that just wouldn’t go to East St. Louis at any cost, and that is an issue that falls largely upon us as students to disseminate the message that East St. Louis isn’t what it appears to people. People place so much emphasis on statistics and have never experienced it for themselves,” Zhao said.

After the panel, laptops were provided for audience members to watch interview excerpts from the project. The interviews showcased a wide range of people such as Mayor Alvin Parks, community college students from the East St. Louis Community College Center, department heads of the East Side Health District, seniors from the Senior Rush Gardens Center and clergymen from St. Paul Southern Baptist Church.

Students are encouraged to reach out to Project of East St. Louis if they are interested in working on future projects and learning about the city, Kirkland said. He will also be teaching an immersion class over the summer, for which 15 students will live in the area for a week.

“These young people coming and living and working in East St. Louis are going to learn how to do these things in other communities because as I said, you show me any town that is 100,000 people, and it’s got its own East St. Louis,” Kirkland said.

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Alex SiegmanComment