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Terry Edelmann

St. Louis, MO

As a lifelong St Louis resident I am always happy to learn about local community betterment. The Grove neighborhood in midtown St Louis is a case in point. It has struggled for many years with boarded up houses and businesses, an unacceptable crime rate, drugs easily available and an overall look of decay and neglect. Recently things have been looking up. New entertainment venues have emerged, and The Grove has become a popular nightspot. Earlier in the year the Washington University Medical Center Redevelopment Corp. began moving forward with plans for new housing in the community. But what was good news for the city as a whole was anything but that for many Grove residents.

Women who had lived in the neighborhood for decades saw the handwriting on the wall. Although they wished their community well, they also were determined that lower-income residents who had called the neighborhood home for decades would be able to stay in the community - that any redevelopment plans included low-cost housing.

Several of these neighborhood women were involved in Voices of Women, VOW, a 501 (c) (3) community development corporation that began some 25 years ago as Midtown Mamas, a social group for women whose children were attending programs sponsored by Mid-Town Catholic Charities.

Over the years the group began addressing community issues. With the help of local funders such as the Incarnate Word Foundation they began their own helping hands bank to offer low-interest loans to residents. They now have a community garden to ensure healthy food for the neighborhood’s elderly population, and they have leadership programs to train women to become stronger advocates. But tackling the upcoming redevelopment, and the gentrification of the neighborhood that might ensue, raised the stakes. As VOW Chair Bobbie Sykes told me recently, their group had to be a part of the redevelopment conversation. “We had to have a place at the table,” Sykes said. Following the Smart Growth philosophy that encourages community collaboration in development decisions, Sykes knew if she and her group didn’t speak up for long-time residents, nobody would.

As VOW Community Organizer Nyree Thomas told me recently her group knows these residents better than anyone else.  “Sometimes rich people don’t really know what poor is,” Thomas said. “We know.”

Sykes said her group’s first priority was achieving the 501 status so they could be an equal partner in the discussions. The status was achieved earlier this year with the help of Washington and St. Louis University law students. And she had to become knowledgeable about the redevelopment process.  My background was child care. I had to learn the meaning of the words they use,” she said. “Sometimes the words and initials they use are intimidating so I try to use common words.” And she encourages her fellow VOW members to be brave as well. “They can be nervous about addressing the committees and I tell them to speak up by just telling their stories.” Sykes says that has been a powerful exercise. “When we have a banker sitting in a room surrounded by strong women telling their stories it makes an impact.”

The VOW members are very committed, passionate women, but they are very practical as well. They know that getting lower-income housing is critically important, but they also want to make sure residents who move into the new housing are prepared for the challenges they’ll face.  They want all facets of this program to be successful.    With the help of Catholic Charities, VOW offers finance classes and home maintenance classes that are mandatory for home buyers.

“People will learn budgeting, saving and overall money management,” she said. And they will learn how to do routine home maintenance and how to maintain their new, environmentally friendly residences.

Although Skyes said she is overjoyed at the progress they’ve made, she knows there is much work ahead. “We have to do fundraising,” she said. So many people are working two jobs but they’re paying rent and can’t put aside money for a down payment. We have to be able to help.” But daunting as that challenge is, Sykes knows they will succeed.  She said they have to. I for one have no doubt that they will.