About two years ago, Jake Hollander left a promising public relations career in D.C. to come home and found St. Louis Strong. The organization is working to bring all corners of the city and county together to move toward reunification.
Unlike previous attempts, Hollander and his organization are including everyone in the city rather than just the major players, and don’t endorse any one plan. Instead, the organization hosted a series of community discussions that Hollander says will be the first step in his “people first” approach to drafting a plan for reunification that is truly from the people of the city and county – a plan that he hopes will come to a vote at an upcoming election.
Why does he do this?
Because he believes in St. Louis.
Hollander is a native St. Louisan, but growing up he never thought he would stay – or come back to town. Then “Ferguson” happened.
Up in D.C., Hollander found himself standing in a rapid response room surrounded by monitors broadcasting images of “my home town imploding under the weight of it’s ugly history,” he said.
He felt like he had to do something about it.
Hollander had been studying and writing about fragmentation in the region for a few years, “So, I dug up [an] old pitch idea, turned it into a business plan, and said ‘I don’t have a kid, a dog, a mortgage, I can live with my parents if I need to, so I’m going to take this crazy leap of faith and come back home and start this organization to fight fragmentation.’”
At a recent event, Hollander began to list all of the fragmentation he sees. “We have 684 elected officials in the city and county (which is more than the United States Congress), we have 573 taxing districts, 57 police departments, 81 courts… I’ll stop because it’s really tedious to list all of them,” he said.
So how is he building that groundswell of support he needs?
“Part of it is education, If you care about the economy here are the economic numbers – that we spend $2.38 billion a year, $283 million on general administration. If you care about racial disparities there’s a life expectancy gap between Wildwood and Kinlock of 36 years. If you want opportunities for people to live and grow and raise their families here you should know that most of your children have moved away and that trend is continuing,” said Hollander.
“When you have 91 cities and 2 counties, all with their own ideas of how to do economic development, you have 91 horses pulling the cart in different directions,” he continued. “Let’s get those barriers out of the way in order to start to grow our region’s prosperity again.”
It seems like a lot of issues to take on, but Hollander says his biggest roadblock is generational attitudes.
“When you get such a fractured region, that leads to perceptual challenges. Attitudes that we have will get passed down generation to generation. Those stigmas stick around. ‘I don’t want to go to the City because it’s dangerous’ so people end up staying in the county and never see that Washington Ave. on a Friday afternoon is full of people and it’s hard to get lunch because the lines are so long,” said Hollander.
“We rally around our sports teams, then hop on the highway back to where we’re from. Outsiders and our residents see our region as lagging behind,” said Hollander.
Overall, he’s hopeful that if city and county residents keep engaging and keep talking to each other from where they are right now, St. Louis Strong will continue to build momentum and succeed in “lifting the gateway higher.”
We dig into Hollander’s organization in November’s episode of Impact, but Hollander isn’t the only story of a St. Louisan making an impact in the area that we’ll feature.
Scott Monette started the 100 Percent Wine Project to help people with disabilities find and keep jobs. This non-profit project gives 100% of its profits to organizations that help people with a disability find and keep employment.
We also introduce you to the Disabled Athletes Sports Association (DASA) which provides the opportunity to play team and individual sports to children with disabilities. We talk with a young boy who lost his leg and learn what DASA means to him.
In addition, we look at the history behind the site of the new western headquarters for the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency. It will be built where the old Pruitt Igo housing complex once stood in North St. Louis. We look at the impact of the project on the neighborhood and the region.
Lastly, we bring you the story of the Madagascar Project where Washington University students and the Missouri Botanical Garden are developing sustainable, replicable projects that benefit a village in Madagascar.
Look for Hollander’s segment on hectv.org next week, and for the full episode of Impact on November 18th.