From her time as a teenager, Alisha Sonnier has set out to ignite change.
A visible activist and a mental health advocate in the St. Louis region, she ran for St. Louis Public Schools Board of Education in 2021. Among her supporters was then-St. Louis City Treasurer and now-Mayor Tishaura Jones.
Sonnier narrowly lost. But in one of her first acts as mayor, Jones appointed Sonnier to the board to replace current Treasurer Adam Layne.
“Education was transformative for me,” Sonnier says. “I wanted to be of service to my community and build political power. Additionally, knowing that nationally 70% of students who receive mental health services get them through the school district inspired me to run.
“I was curious about what it would be like to be on the other side of the door, representing students like myself and trying to get the quality of education and the type of holistic education I know we deserve.”
Sonnier’s activism was heightened as she was starting college as a response to the shooting of Michael Brown in 2014. She was in Ferguson, Missouri, every night protesting but wanted to do more. She eventually founded an activist group, Tribe X.
Through her efforts in community organizing and activism, she assembled resources to give out items such as scarves and gloves as part of an endeavor called “Heat up the Hood.” From that experience, Sonnier found her voice helping others in acts of social justice.
“That was the beginning of me starting to think strategically about how I wanted to cause change,” Sonnier says.
Sonnier began college at Saint Louis University and was active on campus, helping arrange a sit-in as a response to police brutality and other social injustices. Those efforts won resources to develop initiatives aimed at making the university more accessible to a wider swath of students.
Her success brought her attention, which interfered with her studies. Facing burnout, she changed course in her academic pursuits and transferred to the University of Missouri–St. Louis.
Sonnier connected with Alan Byrd, UMSL’s former vice provost for enrollment management. He convinced her UMSL would be a place where she could feel like a regular student, focus on her goals and have the support she needed.
“He was super supportive,” Sonnier says. “I felt I could tell the difference regarding privilege at UMSL. I could see this group of professionals were used to working with everyday adults, as opposed to students fresh out of high school or more economically privileged kids and mainly white.”
She earned her bachelor’s degree in psychology in 2019 and has been working as a mental health advocate since 2020. Sonnier also started a podcast, “BlackTea,” discussing politics and culture, which she funded with a $10,000 grant from Divided City.
Sonnier has also gone back to school to take courses in nursing and is considering a career as a psychiatric nurse practitioner. Though her future isn’t set in stone, she will continue advocating for equality and equity.
“I have an idea of where I want to go,” she says, “but I know I want to continue to build political power that is truly for the people.”
This story was originally published in the spring 2022 issue of UMSL Magazine. If you have a story idea for UMSL Magazine, email email@example.com.