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FOCUS News: Leadership Stories

Commit to a Positive Dialogue

Friday, August 29, 2014  
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Originally published in the St. Louis Business Journal’s Letters to the Editor – August 29-September 4, 2014


Seeking to address the racial chasm in the St. Louis region, Daniel Schesch and Gregory Freeman founded Bridges in 1993. The two Leadership St. Louis graduates envisioned using the Bridges program as a tool to create informal social contact, friendships and broader understanding among people of different races.

Their vision was spot on.

Today, hundreds of people from diverse backgrounds from the St. Louis metro area meet in groups of eight to 15 six times a year over a potluck supper. They have meaningful discussions about race and culture. The goal of the program is to build trust and friendship across race and culture--fundamentally building relationships, bringing people and organizations together, and developing robust connections for a yet undefined impact. In the course of their many conversations they discover lots of significant – and sometimes surprising – ways in which they are more alike than different.

In 2002, the program, which became part of FOCUS St. Louis in 1996, was recognized as one of 19 “Solutions for America” by the Pew Partnership for Civic Change.

On the eve of the 20th Anniversary of Bridges program the FOCUS board of directors, staff and alumni recognized that more than ever the Greater St. Louis region had a need for developing leaders who understood the value of leadership, diversity and inclusion to the health of our region.  To this end FOCUS launched a Diversity Leadership Fellowship. The Diversity Leadership Fellowship program is committed to the professional development of leaders who demonstrate leadership potential and a strong drive to positively impact the community in areas of diversity, inclusion and equity. In other words, the kinds of knowledge, skills and courageous conversations we need for community leaders to have for a prosperous St. Louis. Nicole Kozma (Manager for the Child Health Advocacy and Outreach department at St. Louis Children’s Hospital), a graduate of the Diversity Leadership Fellowship, told us this week, that the DLF program gave her tools to start conversations at different levels. Other alums have told us that the discussions were topical and impactful and stressed the importance of allies and how to start and continue important but often difficult conversations.

That being said, we applaud the leadership of our members and friends, such as Rev. Mike Kinman, Rev. Traci Blackmon, Tricia Roland-Hamilton and many others who are working to effect positive change, one conversation at a time.

The recent events in Ferguson highlight the importance of programs such as Bridges and the Diversity Leadership Fellowship as badly needed vehicles for addressing racial polarization in the St. Louis region through dialogue in relaxed settings.  Programs like Bridges address change on a personal level using the development of relationships and self enlightenment as its primary lightning rods for individual growth and broader community impact.

In due time, we will seek to engage citizens from throughout the region in a vigorous dialogue on the issues the crisis in Ferguson have brought to all our attention – in a manner that teaches and provides opportunities for residents to participate in civil conversations that will then serve as a call to action for all citizens of this region. It is not meant to blame or dwell on the past, but learn from history as we courageously and collectively address the future. In order for our region to be a progressive community that attracts and retains bright, innovative people and business, we must work collaboratively to improve certain things in our region. The future strength and prosperity of the St. Louis metropolitan area rest largely on our ability to make real progress in addressing this issue in every sector, community and neighborhood of our region.


Yemi S. Akande-Bartsch, Ph.D.

Executive Director, FOCUS St. Louis.


About FOCUS St. Louis

FOCUS St. Louis® is the region’s most comprehensive leadership organization. It develops and connects diverse leaders from public, private, and civic sectors and empowers them to work together to build a thriving St. Louis community. As a neutral convener and facilitator, FOCUS engages citizens to deliberate on critical regional community issues in a trusted, nonpartisan space. Find out more at or on Twitter at @FOCUSstl.

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