Last month, the White House’s World Refugee Day Champions of Change recognized Anna Crosslin, president and CEO of the International Institute of St. Louis, for her efforts in working with immigrants. Crosslin was among only 10 people in the country selected for the honor. “I was shocked, pleased and humbled,” she says. “I attended a ceremony at the White House, and got to serve on a panel about my perspective on refugees and what we can do better as a region and as a country.”
Crosslin isn’t a newcomer to the St. Louis immigrant community and the International Institute– she’s been the organization's director for 37 years. “I’ve been drawn to this kind of work my whole life,” she explains. “I’m Japanese-American, and came to the United States when I was 2-and-a-half. I grew up with a foot in two cultural worlds: the world of my Japanese-immigrant mom and American-born father.”
In high school, Crosslin was president of her school's chapter of American Field Service, a program that exchanged foreign-born high schoolers with members of the chapter school for a year. When Crosslin moved on to college, she majored in political science and Asian studies. She started at the International Institute in September 1978, and has been working to help the immigrant population in St. Louis ever since.
The Institute was quite different from what it is now when Crosslin started in the late 70s. Nine staff members worked in a Victorian mansion in the Central West End with a budget of $120,000. Now, it has a staff of 75, and a budget of $5.5 million.
Every day, Crosslin works with two populations: the newcomers (immigrants and refugees) and the St. Louis community at-large. “The newcomers integrate into the community very successfully, if provided the right opportunities,” she explains. “The community at-large benefits from a global perspective, living and working around people from many different cultures.”
Crosslin brings up a surprising and disheartening statistic: Missouri has one of the lowest issuance rates for passports. “(Missourians) don’t travel much around the world, aside from Mexico and Bermuda,” she notes. “When we want to compete in a global economic market, we cannot negotiate effectively. We’re at a disadvantage if we don’t develop that perspective.” Having more foreign-born people in the region brings a more global perspective to St. Louis and can help us take our rightful position on the global stage, she notes.
At the International Institute, Crosslin aims to help build and strengthen that bridge between newcomers and residents who have lived in St. Louis, for many years. The Institute serves about 7,500 immigrants and refugees from 80 different countries. Crosslin and her staff offer job training, counseling, and language and citizenship classes. She’s also the director of the Festival of Nations, which takes place every August in Tower Grove Park. Next month's event is August 29 and 30.
“It’s very satisfying work,” Crosslin says. “I’ve been blessed in these 37 years. I have a spectacular staff and volunteer group that have really been able to implement the strategies defined for the Institute. It takes a village.”