In August 2014, the city of Ferguson was thrown into the global spotlight after the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson. In the days that followed the Aug. 9 shooting, a QuikTrip on West Florissant Avenue was looted and burned to the ground during a riot followed by an evening of otherwise peaceful protesting.
Three years later, the site of the burned-out QuikTrip is unrecognizable from what it was following then. In its place stands a state-of-the-art, multimillion-dollar facility that houses offices for the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis, The Salvation Army’s Midland Chapter, University of Missouri Extension and Lutheran Hope Center.
At the end of July, coinciding with the National Urban League’s annual conference taking place in St. Louis, the Ferguson Community Empowerment Center opened its doors at 9420 W. Florissant Ave. Michael McMillan, the president of the local Urban League chapter, says the center has been met with a “fantastic response” from the community in the months since its opening. Much of the interest has come from walk-in traffic, he notes, with residents of the surrounding communities curious about the resources offered at the center.
One such resource is the Save Our Sons program, which was started as a direct result of the unrest in Ferguson in 2014. McMillan, who was named president of the Urban League’s local chapter in 2013, recalls the huge outcry from young people wanting their voices to be heard.
“Usually, decision-making tables consist of people who have risen in their careers to a certain level,” he says. “As a result, a lot of times you don’t have young people in the room when decisions are being made. We made a conscious choice to get out into the community and literally walk these streets to listen to what young people needed to say.”
Though the young people of the North County community expressed a variety of opinions, one thing that was overwhelmingly stressed was the need for jobs. Urban League members looked at their statistics and found that 70 percent of their clients were female heads of households. Men, they discovered, largely weren’t taking advantage of programs.
“We wanted to tailor a program just centered around them, because African-American males in North County and north St. Louis City have three times the unemployment rate of the average citizen,” McMillan says. “We wanted to make sure we did something to rectify that and deal with it as a crisis. We created Save Our Sons, working on our federal workforce model we’ve had for the past 16 years.”
Save Our Sons is a four-week program that focuses on how to get a job, how to keep a job, how to get promoted and how to become more marketable in the workplace. It’s the Urban League’s goal to place graduates of the program in new jobs.
“We don’t consider it a success until we place you somewhere,” McMillan says. “We have hiring managers and human-resource officers come in from around the region with more than 100 partner companies we work with.”
The Urban League also takes into account the candidates’ interests, working to place them in jobs that they enjoy – something beneficial for both the employer and the employee. To date, Save Our Sons has graduated 400 men and placed them in jobs in warehousing, logistics, shipping, retail, food service, construction, information technology, and parks and conservation. As the program continues to develop and expand, McMillan hopes it can be used as a model across the region and even across the country.
“There’s significant need to expand it into the city, to East St. Louis and St. Clair County,” McMillan says. “This is an epidemic all over the country, and we’d love to have [the program model] utilized everywhere. In the Urban League movement with almost 100 [chapters] across the country, we’re constantly trying to show best practices and learn from each other.”
The Ferguson Community Empowerment Center is truly a collaborative effort. Construction for the $5.8 million building was paid in full, with funding from donors, St. Louis County tax credits, co-owner The Salvation Army and TIAA Direct. University of Missouri-St. Louis’ extension program operates a satellite office out of the building, and Lutheran Hope Center also has offices there. Other organizations, like Better Family Life and Provident, will be able to use the building for events.
“We’re most proud of the fact that there’s been so much overwhelming support from everyone we asked to be a part of this in any way whatsoever,” McMillan says. “Every part of society here has been so supportive, and we couldn’t be happier.”
As for the center’s future, McMillan hopes tens of thousands of people will be able to come through its doors to get services and build better lives for themselves and the community around them.
“We want to constantly promote the spirit of giving back,” he says. “No matter a person’s circumstance, we hope they would use the gifts they’ve been given to give of their time to help others and that this building would be a beacon of that – of helping others and making a difference in the community.”
Ferguson Community Empowerment Center, 9420 W. Florissant Ave., St. Louis, 314-615-3600, ulstl.com