Young Leaders Pave the Way for Progress: Advocacy & Citizen Engagement in Downtown St. Louis

Progress can be a contentious word. In Downtown St. Louis, historical and present-day progress can be spotted throughout. The Old Courthouse where Dred Scott bravely sued for his freedom stands mere blocks from the T-Rex innovation center where startups brew their latest ideas. The displacement of Mill Creek Valley (a bustling community of mostly African American businesses, places of worship and cultural centers) allowed for the creation of the Central Corridor. Neocolonialism also pushed out residents of Hop Alley, a thriving community of mostly Chinese residents and businesses, for the creation of Busch Stadium. The question remains: progress for whom?

In the heart of Downtown St. Louis, young leaders emerge to pave the way for progress that benefits entire communities. Annie Rice is an immigration analyst at a startup company and an immigration attorney working with a downtown law firm to learn civil rights litigation. In addition, she is the 8th Ward Democratic Committeewoman and the 5th Senate District Committeewoman to the Missouri Democratic Party where she serves on the 2018 platform committee. While balancing these roles, she also participates in meetings, forums, discussions, plans and protests. “It is a lot, but it is all important because there’s so much work that needs to be done,” Rice explains.

Rice does so much because she believes that the key to citizen engagement is showing up. “Showing up is huge,” says Rice. “If it is at all possible for me to be somewhere—an event, a meeting, a conversation, an action—I’m there. And I try to be there in a way that isn’t just for show, but to really participate.” As a result, one of her proudest achievements as a member of the board of the Migrant and Immigrant Community Action (MICA) Project has been directing this year’s $28,000 Trivia Night fundraiser for the MICA Project.

Another young leader is Jared Opsal, a leader of the Downtown Neighborhood Association (DNA), which is characterized by its bottom-up approach to citizen engagement. According to Opsal, “Progress for DNA is defined by our ability to connect people, inform them and provide them an avenue towards a solution to the problem the community wishes to address.” This community-led approach to progress informs DNA’s voter engagement work, which shifted Downtown St. Louis from a neighborhood that underperformed in voter turnout to one that votes at similar or higher rates than surrounding neighborhoods. Through candidate and issue forums, DNA reaches out to new and current residents to help them make informed decisions about the people and issues on their ballots.

In his leadership, Opsal follows the example of a mentor who taught him to seek “ways to disagree with people without being disagreeable.” As an advocate for clean indoor air laws, his mentor kept a positive demeanor while hearing others’ concerns without wavering on her principles. Opsal asserts that his mentors’ ability to balance positive regard, openness and leading with values “is an example I attempt to emulate every day in my interactions with people who are passionate about the issues we face.”

Instead of making closed-door decisions, young leaders like Rice and Opsal pursue progress by engaging their communities at town halls, in neighborhood meetings and on the streets. Rice is intentional about centering marginalized perspectives, saying, “I really try to listen first and to seek out the quieter or less prominent voices. It’s hard – accountability takes effort and humility.” In a technological age where isolation can quickly become the norm, Opsal challenges us to “meet people where they’re at to ensure they have an opportunity to be informed and engage in the civic sphere.”

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