Karl Guenther’s work in community development earns him Emerging Leader Award

by | Aug 23, 2016

The Missouri Workforce Housing Association recognized the Public Policy Research Center community development specialist in July at its sixth annual conference.
Karl Guenther, community development specialist

Karl Guenther, a community development specialist in the Public Policy Research Center, received the Missouri Workforce Housing Association’s Emerging Leader Award in July. (Photo by August Jennewein)

Karl Guenther grew up in between two state parks in Wildwood, Missouri, and spent much of his childhood playing outdoors, developing a deep affection for nature.

But it did not grow at the expense of his interest in the decidedly urban neighborhoods about a half-hour drive from his front door.

His father is an architect, and from him, Guenther learned about the built environment and its ability to shape people’s lives.

That notion has grown into the focus of his professional life as a community development specialist in the Public Policy Research Center at the University of Missouri–St. Louis. On July 14, the Missouri Workforce Housing Association honored Guenther with its Emerging Leader Award at its sixth annual conference.

“Community development brings together a lot of things – the built environment, market realities, social justice issues and opportunity for people,” Guenther said.

Success marrying those issues can help drive a region forward, and Guenther’s working to do just that in St. Louis while helping to staff and run the Community Builders Network of Metro St. Louis.

Todd Swanstrom, the E. Desmond Lee Endowed Professor of Public Policy and Community Collaboration, hired Guenther to the staff of the Public Policy Research Center in 2011.

Guenther, who holds a master’s degree in social work from the Brown School of Social Work at Washington University in St. Louis and is currently pursuing another in economics at UMSL, had previously worked at the Incarnate Word Foundation on strategic initiatives in north St. Louis.

His efforts with the Community Builders Network have him looking more broadly at the whole region, working with an association of community development organizations, nonprofits, banks, foundations and public sector agencies.

Guenther said the CBN works on three fronts: organizational capacity building by supporting members as they gain skills, knowledge or resources that help them do community revitalization;Ÿ civic capacity building, which involves creating a policy environment conducive to neighborhood improvement; and raising public awareness for the field and the recognition that home matters in people’s lives and their life outcomes.

“We feel like it’s important that the banking community, the nonprofit community, the philanthropic community, the public sector community feel all part of one field,” Guenther said. “We are fond of saying that community development is a team sport, and we need to play like it.”

Working with community partners, Guenther and his colleagues research practices finding success in other cities or counties. They identify the assets put to use and what the environment is like in those places and try to determine if they can replicate those locally.

He facilitated the joint efforts of CBN organizations and community reinvestment officers at local banks in forming Invest STL, a regional community economic development system.

Guenther is part of a Creating Whole Communities effort at UMSL that tries to leverage some things the university does best – research, spurring civic dialogue and leadership development – for community development.

“What we really care about most is that places are healthy,” Guenther said. “That we have places people of all different backgrounds can access, that these communities have amenities that allow them to lead vibrant and healthy lives.”

Guenther today makes his home in the Shaw neighborhood, near Tower Grove Park and the Missouri Botanical Garden, which some might say is among the best examples of community revitalization in the St. Louis area.

“Some of the business and commercial assets are starting to creep back into the neighborhood,” Guenther said. “It’s got a strong identity, and it’s got a strong civic energy to it. There are engaged neighbors. … It’s a diverse neighborhood, and I hope it stays that way. That’s one of the big reasons why my wife and I wanted to live there.”

He believes there is potential for many more successes throughout the St. Louis area.

“I think we can do great work in making sure that all parts of our region get a chance for success,” he said. “I think we can be a place where those who have maybe left or never considered St. Louis would consider it, and those who are here today can thrive. To get to do this work is energizing, and it’s something I care about deeply.”

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