Jenny Connelly-Bowen has spent four years in St. Louis but is still finding her way around the sprawling metropolitan area and still learning the at times quirky nomenclature used by its lifelong residents.
“I know that’s probably how you can tell I’m not from here – I’ve heard that – that I call it 64 instead of 40,” Connelly-Bowen said recently, noting the different names for one of the city’s oldest and busiest traffic arteries.
It was a point that came up as Connelly-Bowen, now a student in the Master of Public Policy Administration program at the University of Missouri–St. Louis, was showing off a map of the region to a recent visitor to her office on the fourth floor of the Social Sciences & Business Building.
The map was meant to highlight just how far development in the metro area has spread beyond what was considered urbanized in 1950.
Connelly-Bowen has found herself looking at it often since last spring when she landed a job as a graduate research assistant with the Community Builders Network of Metro St. Louis. Her eyes most often are trained on the parts near the middle that have hollowed out and the neighborhoods that have decayed through decades of outward expansion.
The Community Builders Network, under the umbrella of UMSL’s Public Policy Research Center, aims to help restore and rebuild them. Its focus is on increasing the capacity of member organizations engaged in community revitalization, developing a more supportive community building system and raising public awareness of the need for and importance of community building.
The work looks to address the built environment, market realities and social justice issues while creating opportunity for people.
“She’s very committed to this community development mission that we are engaged in,” said Todd Swanstrom, who supports the Community Builders Network – and who hired Connelly-Bowen – with funding he receives as the E. Desmond Lee Endowed Professor in Community Collaboration and Public Policy. “I think she enjoys the great mosaic of neighborhoods that we have in St. Louis and wants to work with the different neighborhoods and make them better.”
Her level of commitment isn’t diminished despite Connelly-Bowen’s time in St. Louis being relatively brief.
She was born outside Chicago, grew up in Wisconsin and landed her first job after college in Michigan before being transplanted here to work in the corporate office of Earth City-based regional grocer Save-A-Lot Food Stores.
She and her husband, Adam, arrived at a time when St. Louis has been anything but a destination for young professionals, its population growth nearly stagnant since 2010.
But they have fallen in love with the area and its possibilities.
“We just made so many friends, even within the first few months, and met so many great people,” said Connelly-Bowen, who bought a house there last year.
She sought out ways to become more involved and wound up volunteering her free time for TEDxGatewayArch, a branch of a nonprofit organization that started 26 years ago in California and is devoted to spreading ideas and stimulating dialogue at the local level.
It was around the same time that Connelly-Bowen first began contemplating a career change after five years working her way up through the ranks at Save-A-Lot, beginning as a warehouse supervisor, moving to the buying department at company headquarters and finally transitioning to pricing.
“I had sort of a catalyst moment,” she recalled of her time at Save-A-Lot, a company with a stated mission to provide an affordable alternative to traditional grocery stores where customers, communities and associates are empowered. “I was sitting in a meeting, and we were going over sales goals, and I realized, ‘I really care a lot about this work, but I care a lot more about the mission side of it than I do about the business side of it.’”
Discussions taking place throughout St. Louis in the wake of the unrest in Ferguson in 2014 served as further inspiration to make a change. She began to explore community-based nonprofit work and thought it might be wise to take a few courses to brush up on skills such as grant writing before proceeding with the switch.
She thinks it was a Google search that helped her discover the Nonprofit Management and Leadership Program at UMSL, and only a few clicks from there, she learned about the MPPA program.
“I’d had grad school sort of in the back of my mind for a few years as a possibility but didn’t really know what it was going to be,” she said. “I think when I was in the corporate office, I always kind of assumed, ‘Oh, it’ll probably be an MBA because that makes sense,’ but I wasn’t ever super excited about that. This program jumped out to me as, ‘Yes, that’s what I want to be doing.’”
Her courses last year – her first in the program – helped crystallize the idea to make community development her primary focus. Among them was a policy analysis class taught by Swanstrom, who months later would hire her as his research assistant.
“She was a very accomplished student and an excellent writer,” Swanstrom said. “And then I knew that she had worked for the Save-A-Lot grocery store chain, and she had worked with large data spreadsheets. She had basically collected data on pricing and created these huge spreadsheets. That’s the kind of data work she does for us.”
Within weeks of landing the position with the Community Builders Network, Connelly-Bowen was also chosen to take part in a pilot internship program run by Rise Community Development, a nonprofit organization that aims to act as a resource and bring together non-profit organizations, financial institutions and government to make successful neighborhood revitalization possible.
As one of three Rising Stars interns, she spent the summer getting hands-on experience doing community development at a macro level with Rise, where she was tasked with coordinating and leading a training session on health equity.
But the program also gave her the opportunity to do fieldwork with a more narrow focus at Northside Community Housing, an organization focused on bringing affordable housing development to The Ville and Greater Ville neighborhoods of north St. Louis.
Northside Community Housing recently completed a strategic planning project, and Connelly-Bowen was trusted with taking the results of that work and shaping marketing materials the organization could use in its fundraising efforts.
“The best thing for me was I would give her suggestions, and she would turn it into a professional product,” President Jessica Eiland said. “I would find myself saying, ‘Oh my gosh, this is better than what I was even envisioning.’ I was just hoping to get the ball rolling.
“I felt like I could give her any small or big project, and she would take it much further than I was envisioning and just brought a lot of creativity to the table.”
Connelly-Bowen also appreciated the opportunities she had to interact with residents of the Ville and Greater Ville neighborhoods.
Her main motivation for getting into community development is to impact people’s lives, and she intends to do so in her adopted home after finishing her master’s.
“The reason I want to stay in St. Louis and do this kind of work is because we have a lot of work to do here,” Connelly-Bowen said. “For that reason, I think there’s a lot of opportunity and a lot of potential. And the reason I see community development as the way I want to do it is because it touches so many things that matter.”