Neighborhood Leadership Fellows

The Neighborhood Leadership Fellows is a nine-month advanced leadership training program for 25 residents of the St. Louis Promise Zone. It is designed to give the fellows a path to civic leadership by educating them on critical issues facing St. Louis communities and building skills to engage with those issues. (Photos submitted)

The Neighborhood Leadership Fellows program has been recognized for working to make St. Louis more equitable. Through intensive policy education, communications training and mentoring, it is helping residents lift up their communities.

FOCUS St. Louis announced Friday that the Neighborhood Leadership Fellows program will receive a What’s Right with the Region! award. The nonprofit recognizes 20 individuals, organizations and initiatives in five categories for their outstanding work and positive impact on the St. Louis region.

Neighborhood Leadership Fellows is a nine-month advanced leadership training program for community leaders and is a collaborative effort between the University of Missouri–St. Louis, the University of Missouri Extension and the St. Louis Promise Zone-St. Louis Economic Development Partnership.

The program was recognized in the “Demonstrating Innovative Solutions” category for ingenuity and vision in making the St. Louis region a better place to live, work or visit.

Karl Guenther, UMSL’s assistant vice chancellor of economic & community development; Claire Rippel, engagement specialist in community and economic development for MU Extension and director of the Neighborhood Leadership Academy; and Dwayne T. James, urban county director and county engagement specialist for MU Extension in St. Louis County, are honored to see the program’s collaborative approach celebrated.

“It’s a product of partnership across UMSL, MU Extension, the St. Louis Promise Zone and residents of our community,” Guenther said. “This program, Neighborhood Leadership Fellows, is really born out of partnership and community coming together to build an impactful program. For a community-orientated partnership to be recognized, that is pretty special.”

Claire Rippel

Claire Rippel was one of the lead developers of Neighborhood Leadership Fellows program. She now co-leads the cohort’s sessions and works to bring in a variety of guest speakers from the St. Louis region.

Rippel and James have been instrumental in the development and growth of the program. Guenther, who has worked on many community development issues in different capacities at UMSL, was also involved in its creation through Creating Whole Communities. Erica Henderson, former director with the St. Louis Promise Zone-St. Louis Economic Development Partnership, has also been an essential partner along with UMSL graduate students that provide additional expertise.

The initiative began about four years ago as an offshoot of the Neighborhood Leadership Academy, a program UMSL and MU Extension have partnered on for 20 years. The 10-week leadership class focuses on community projects, and while it has been successful, Rippel noted there were some opportunities for growth.

“While it’s a great program and a lot of the projects were really needed, we weren’t really focusing on the root causes and the systemic issues plaguing our communities,” she said. “So, we decided to start a more advanced program that looks more at how to advocate for systemic change and use policy to create equity in the St. Louis region.”

The inaugural cohort began work in 2018, and each year since then, the program has selected 25 residents of the St. Louis Promise Zone – north St. Louis city and portions of north St. Louis County that have seen disinvestment or neglect – to participate.

Each cohort runs from January to September and sessions are held one weekend a month on Fridays and Saturdays and one Wednesday a month. Each participant also receives a $2,000 stipend in recognition of the necessary time commitment and a Chancellor’s Certificate in Civic Leadership.

The program is designed to give the fellows a path to civic leadership by educating them on critical issues facing St. Louis communities and building skills to engage with those issues. Rippel said the program is particularly focused on encouraging fellows to pursue positions on local boards and commissions and elected office.

Dwayne James

Dwayne T. James is the urban county director and county engagement specialist for MU Extension in St. Louis County and plays a lead role in helping facilitate the Neighborhood Leadership Fellows program.

“The mission of Neighborhood Leadership Fellows is to increase and amplify the voices of St. Louis Promise Zone residents at civic decision-making tables in order to produce more equitable regional policies for neighborhoods,” she said.

The monthly sessions typically include educational workshops on a variety of topics such as economic development, workforce readiness and education, as well as trainings on communication, organizing and positional power.

Rippel and James facilitate the sessions along with the graduate assistants and also bring in guest speakers.

“We usually bring upward of 50 speakers every year, not only to inform our fellows but also to build networks,” Rippel said. “Part of the program is to build the connectivity between people in the cohort with the broader community because we think that that does make the impact more meaningful.”

Over the course of nine months, the cohort breaks into small groups and each group works on a policy opportunity that could potentially be implemented in the region.

“We strive to address the inequities that effect our region on a systematic level,” James said. “We focus on opportunities that combine data and statistics from regional reports with the lived-experience, strengths, assets and networks of our fellows.”

This year, the policy opportunities will focus on community-based restoration and purchasing, community benefits agreements, building a community engagement framework, developing sustainable communities based on housing and establishing a community review board model.

Only in its fourth year, the program seems to be making a difference. It has produced two state representatives, seven public board and commission members, three city council members and two municipal aldermen.

There’s more work to be done, but the results thus far are encouraging.

“We are thrilled that many of our fellows have sought elected office and continued their community leadership with service on boards and commissions.” James said. “I also think it important to note the collaboration efforts and support for each other that has transpired based on the fellows participation in the program.”

“I think we’re definitely seeing a deeper commitment to addressing many of the inequities that have been in our region for a long, long time,” Guenther said. “I think efforts like this where we can bring together partners around making sure that there’s more community representation – whether that be government, community or civic organizations – is one part of the puzzle that we’ve got to take action on.”

All What’s Right with the Region! honorees will be recognized at a virtual celebration on May 13. Tickets can be purchased at: www.focus-stl.org/WRWR

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