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Tony Messenger is the metro columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Black leaders snubbed at first Gateway Arch ribbon-cutting hold their own event

From left to right, inside circle of arch, (foreground) Tishaura Jones, City of St. Louis Treasurer, Susan Saarinen, daughter of Arch designer Eero Saarinen, State Representative D 78th Dist, Bruce Franks, Jr., Community Activist and congressional candidate, Cori Bush, and St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson, and City of St Louis Public Safety Director Jimmie Edwards. Photo by Christian Gooden, cgooden@post-dispatch.com

There’s a quote from St. Louis Treasurer Tishaura Jones that I can’t get out of my head.

She was speaking last summer at what was billed as the “People’s Ribbon Cutting” at the new Arch grounds. If you remember, the event was scheduled after the very unfortunate official ribbon-cutting for the $380 million project, in which all the participants were white.

At the much more diverse second ribbon-cutting, Jones said this:

“St. Louis needs to change. Not polite incremental change, but change that hurts.”

Jones was talking about the need to overcome the city’s long-standing racial divides, and these days, the city is hurting again because of them.

That’s because the proposed city-county merger pushed by nonprofit Better Together is reminding a lot of folks about that all-white ribbon-cutting at the Arch just one year ago.

One of the people who was horrified by the image of that ribbon-cutting so devoid of diversity was Nicole Hudson, who at the time worked in Mayor Lyda Krewson’s office.

“When we celebrate our shared assets,” Hudson told me then, “we have to be cognizant of the racial and ethnic reality that we exist in.”

As Better Together fails to gain traction in the black community in St. Louis, pressure builds for civic leaders supporting the effort to realize that this is no accident. When community leaders take a top-down approach and aren’t intentional about inviting people who don’t look like them to the table, entire swaths of the city feel left out of the decision-making process.

Yes, there are plenty of people of color either working for Better Together or involved in its process. But its end result belies its stated goals, and that shows in the dearth of public support from leaders in the black community in St. Louis.

Last month, I attended the Adelante Awards sponsored by the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Metropolitan St. Louis. At first glance, the ceremony is like so many other business events in which 500 well-dressed community leaders descend upon the Four Seasons ballroom and celebrate various business successes. But year after year, the Adelante Awards look unlike any of its peer events in St. Louis. Brown, black and white, the room is filled with a diverse group of local leaders of all colors, creeds and backgrounds. Part of the reason is that there’s nobody in the city who is more intentional about introducing people than Karlos Ramirez, the president of the Hispanic chamber. You can’t go to an event with Ramirez and not have him introduce you to somebody you’ve never met.

It’s that word — intentional — that is so often missing from the civic conversation in St. Louis.

When city leaders aren’t intentional about diversity and inclusion, they end up with embarrassing all-white ribbon cuttings.

When those trying to merge the city and county don’t invite voices to the table for difficult conversations, they end up having to try to buy the support of a county president of the NAACP and have that event blow up in their collective faces.

The irony of Jones’ quote from last summer is that for the past few years, I’ve supported the concept of a merger so big that it hurts. I tended to believe the same argument pushed these days by the Better Together folks, that incremental change isn’t going to help St. Louis achieve its potential.

What I’ve heard in my conversations with folks since Better Together announced its plan, though, is that I was wrong. Too many people — black, white and brown, city dwellers and suburbanites — aren’t ready to support a top-down proposal that feels like it’s being pushed mostly by the same folks who just one year ago brought us an all-white ribbon cutting.

That’s not to say Better Together has been a failure. In fact, in an unintentional way, the organization might have helped St. Louis reach consensus. Jones has been supportive of a city re-entry into the county, an incremental but not insignificant change to local governance that will improve regionalism and cooperation while preserving the will of black voters. The St. Louis County Municipal League has also indicated its support for such a concept. So has Mark Mantovani, the former Democratic candidate for county executive who lost to Steve Stenger, who resigned after being indicted on three felonies.

In its own misguided way, Better Together has created a path to more unity in St. Louis.

There will come a time when a new coalition must be formed to seek the unity that underlies the best elements to which Better Together aspired. That coalition must be intentional about putting people at the decision-making table who don’t get along, who don’t look like each other, whose lived experiences offer a diverse prism of thought.

It will hurt. Change always does.

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