Passionate St. Louis community leaders converge on campus

NLA, 2017

Activists from across the St. Louis region celebrate their graduation from the Neighborhood Leadership Academy on May 17. (Photo by August Jennewein)

As a resident and former educator in the Shaw neighborhood of St. Louis, Darion Robinson is well versed on the educational needs of area schools.

Last year, when learning of students’ alarmingly low scores on the state science exam, Robinson was motivated to take action. He hopes to spark collaboration between schools and generate interest in science, technology, engineering and math careers by implementing an after-school coding program for students.

“Shaw has some of the basic things neighborhoods want to add, like a dog park or community garden,” Robinson said. “We are pretty lucky to have a lot of those things, so I wanted to do something that would make a real impact in our community. Especially with my passion for education, I wanted to reach the kids in our neighborhood.”

After graduating from the Neighborhood Leadership Academy, which is hosted at the University of Missouri–St. Louis, Robinson is ready to pitch his solo project to a partner organization and share with Shaw-area schools this fall.

During the 10-session course, NLA connects UMSL resources – Creating Whole Communities and University of Missouri Extension – with residents throughout the metropolitan area who are interested in improving communities. NLA is offered yearly and has a network of more than 250 alumni, with participants earning a Chancellor’s Certificate from UMSL.

Through the project-based curriculum, students develop a community improvement concept. At the conclusion of the course, they craft a three-minute pitch and written summary to present to funders, government officials or neighborhood associations.

Co-facilitator Claire Wolff, who works alongside UMSL Assistant Professor of Social Work Kristen Wagner, believes the benefits of the comprehensive program are not only in the curriculum, but also in the unity of participants.

“The beauty of NLA is that graduates come out with this network of other leaders and community members who are doing great things,” Wolff said. “Some people might have different areas of expertise, so they have a crew of people they can call on to help support them as they try to improve their own communities.”

While project ideas vary – from assisting low-income entrepreneurs to providing light bulbs to residents for strengthened home security – they share a common goal of building a better region.

“It’s really powerful to think how many people are working in their communities every day and have this passion for making their neighborhoods better,” Wolff said. “There is so much energy, talent and excitement about St. Louis. It’s exciting to see how all of that collectively makes a really great community.”

Robinson, who has ambitions to run for public office, said the program inspired and prepared him for future endeavors.

“It was a really good experience,” Robinson said. “I learned a lot from it, and they pushed me to think about things like I haven’t done before. I would recommend the program not just to people who want to do work in their communities, but the leadership skills you gain from the program are skills that you can use anywhere, personally and professionally.”

Registration is still open for the fall Neighborhood Leadership Academy.

The UMSL Experience

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