Seed money for the grassroots: The Divided City initiative’s community-led projects

Two critical conditions of the year 2020 — the major funding cuts to local nonprofits due to the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic and the major groundswell of support for social justice activism following the killing of George Floyd — provided the impetus for an innovative community outreach effort by the Divided City initiative over the summer. 

Thanks to this new funding program, six St. Louis area projects that address urban segregation and social justice got the support they needed just as the projects were needed most.

Since it was launched in 2014, the Divided City: An Urban Humanities Initiative has brought humanities scholars into dialogue with architects, urban designers, landscape architects, legal scholars, sociologists, and community organizations around one of the most persistent and vexing issues in urban studies: spatial segregation. Funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, it is a joint effort of the Center for the Humanities (where it is housed) and the Sam Fox School of Visual Arts & Design.

In past years, the Divided City’s funding opportunities have centered on Faculty Collaborative Grants. “Community organizations were a part of many of our projects, but they had to have a WUSTL faculty partner,” says Jean Allman, co-primary investigator and the J.H. Hexter Professor in the Humanities, as well as director of the Center for the Humanities. “We would hold these informational sessions and there would often be more community people than faculty, and the community people were looking for faculty partners. The energy has always been there, but this year more than ever. So, we started thinking, what if community organizations and representatives don’t need a partner?”

Encouraged by the Mellon Foundation’s own bold and imaginative changes to its funding opportunities and parameters, Allman and co-PI Bruce Lindsey, the E. Desmond Lee Professor for Community Collaboration, modified the 2020 funding program to meet the current moment. 

Former project coordinator Tila Neguse, now the assistant director of Washington University’s Center for the Study of Race, Ethnicity, and Equity, further elaborates: “Jean, Bruce, and I were having conversations about how to respond to the global movement for Black Lives. There was a time during the summer of 2020 when every organization, department, school, corporation, etc., was putting out a statement about their support of the Black Lives Matter movement. We wanted to do something more. … Particularly, it was important to me that we were able to position the Divided City initiative as an accessible resource for the community during this time.”

With that in mind, they launched a new funding scheme to provide seed grants of up to $10,000 directly to local artists and community organizations in the St. Louis metro region engaged in community work or creative practice related to urban segregation.

Word quickly spread, and the effort garnered 82 funding applications. “I was overwhelmed by the quantity and quality of the applications,” says Neguse. “It was so incredible to see the amount of creative energy — especially among young black folks — pulsing through St. Louis metro area. There were organizations, artists, activists doing work in every field and discipline. It made me very proud of the work being done in St. Louis.” 

“It also made me realize there is a real need for these type of creative funding opportunities — particularly for young creatives and activists — in this city,” she says. “I think this was a great way for the Divided City to open ourselves up to all the vast resources available outside of the university, in the community. I met so many different individuals and organizations through this process and my hope is that we can continue to foster those connections.”

Six projects were ultimately selected for funding, for a total of $57,500. Organizers expect to launch another round of funding for community-based projects in summer 2021. Here is a look at the funded projects, with a spotlight on a couple that have already gotten underway.


Alisha Sonnier and Jami Cox

“BlackTea” is an audio/visual podcast series. Hosted by Alisha Sonnier and Jami Cox, the show pairs informational programming with hot social topics. In communities where there are educational and income disparities, there are also gaps in access to information. Tailoring their series to a young audience, the hosts of BlackTea bring much-needed attention to local and national issues perpetuating economic and racial disparities, as they work to bridge the information access gap in underserved communities in our city. Although emphasizing issues disproportionately affecting the Black community, the aim of BlackTea is to be fun and engaging for a broad audience.

Conversation with Alisha Sonnier and Jami Cox
“The grant funds have created such a grand opportunity for us and the organization BlackTea. When we applied for the grant, this organization was simply an idea. The funds allowed us to bring it to fruition with the quality that our community deserves. We’ve been able to get state-of-the-art equipment and hire people in our community to help us with branding and editing. We were able to launch with an official logo and be instantly available on all streaming platforms, and to secure one of the top-tier podcast host sites as our host site. The funds have not only benefited us, but have benefited our various listeners and the many gifted individuals we have collaborated with. … We’ll be launching the visual part of our organization very soon and have been able to have a team help us as we develop this to the quality our listeners deserve. We have several options available to us on how we approach marketing and advertising, all of this is possible due to this grant. 

“Our show covers a variety of topics that all fall under political, social, and cultural empowerment and critical thinking. In just two episodes we’ve covered a variety of topics including the Electoral College, the Supreme Court nomination process, Lebron James’ political partnership with Lyft, community and real estate development, the need to normalize therapy and mental health, the 2020 presidential election, St. Louis local elections, the tragic and sudden murder of rapper King Von and more… . ‘Community’ is an intersection of a variety of topics and individuals, and our show is reflective of that. Our ideal impact is for people to literally leave us with their cup spilling over — hence the name BlackTea.”

BlackTea is available to stream on all major streaming platforms including but not limited to Apple Podcast, Amazon Podcast, Spotify, Google and more — check out LinkTree to find all of these major platforms. Find them on social media here:
Facebook: BlackTeaSTL
Twitter: BlackTeaSTL
Instagram: blackteastl

Covid-19, Remote Learning and the Digital Divide

Antwoinette Ayers, Sharee Sileerio, and Michael Pagano with Continuity

Continuity has been working to expand diversity in media production through skills-based training, mentorship, and cultivating opportunities for untapped talent. This particular project is led by Antwoinette Ayers, 2020 Continuity graduate, producer, writer, and designer; Sharee Silerio, 2018 Continuity graduate, producer, writer, and filmmaker; Michael Pagano, Continuity Executive Director, producer. Divided City funding will support Continuity’s media training program graduates as they undertake hands-on production and technical work to create a short documentary, “Covid-19, Remote Learning, and the Digital Divide.” With the 2020-2021 school year as the setting, the documentary film will examine the impact of COVID-19 on common people as they grapple with remote learning. The film will focus on four character studies: an educator, a parent with a special needs child, a family in a higher tax bracket, and a single parent home. These vignettes will capture the frustration and difficulties families face on a daily basis while adjusting to this new normal.

From St. Louis to Louisville Healing Walls Collaboration

Elizabeth Vega, Artivists STL, Ashley Cathey, Jelani Brown, Kris Mosby

The healing wall is a collaborative mural project between St. Louis and Louisville Artivists, which emerged directly from the deaths of Mike Brown and Breonna Taylor. In April 2020, artist activists from the two cities began working together on creative direct action.  The art created from their collaboration gave meaning to shared suffering. The goal with this project is to expand the reach of artists in the movement for collective healing. Artivists STL will join the Louisville Healing Wall initiative to use mural art as a way to build deeper relationships in regional movements and to showcase Black and Brown artists.

Murals created by local BIPOC artists in collaboration with Louisville artist Ashley Cathey will be installed in three locations: two on the northside and one on the southside of St. Louis. The art will be curated by Jelanie Brown, Kris Mosby and Ashley Cathey. The murals will change every three months and will serve as an ongoing public-facing exhibit that amplifies the voices, resilience and iconography of communities too often silenced by racism and systems of oppression. Each mural completed in collaboration with ArtHouse and Artivists Stl will be celebrated with an opening of music, poetry, and community to cultivate connection, expression, and healing.

Conversation with Elizabeth Vega
“Our collaboration came directly out of both the Ferguson uprising and the Breonna Taylor uprising. Some St. Louis artivists who cut our teeth in Ferguson went to help folks in Louisville, Kentucky, to formulate some art resistance and did that big Breonna Taylor banner on the bridge. And very quickly, deep relationships formed, which got me thinking, Artists are the folks who just the way that we collaborate and think are also the ones who are going to shape the processes that are going to help us create the world that we serve. The thing that was so beautiful about this first mural [“I Will Be a Hummingbird”] was that it was both St. Louis and Louisville artists. … The hummingbird is almost like the totem for our house — there was a hummingbird wind chime when we bought the house, and there have been several moments when hummingbirds fly around the house. There’s also the story of the hummingbird, which I was told by a former housemate on the heels of one of our neighbors’ father getting shot. It was a heavy day for us. There was a hummingbird flying around the porch, and she shared this Peruvian tale: The earth was on fire and everybody was freaking out except the hummingbird. She would go to the lake, get a drop of water, and drop it on the fire. She just kept doing that, and the other animals noticed and they were like, Who does she think she is? What is this little bird going to do, how is she going to make a difference? And then they started laughing at her. And finally, the gods granted her the ability to fly standing still. She looked at those who were criticizing her and was like, You know maybe it won't make a difference, but at least I’m doing my part. And she went back to work and her work inspired others to do their part with whatever skills they had. It really makes sense that this is a hummingbird house in many ways. Everybody here is in their own way doing their part, whether it’s feeding people with our food share or protesting or just holding space for someone who’s grieving to be human.

“When we talk about social justice, when we talk about racial equity and access — this is directly addressing that in the art community in a way that I think is grassroots and meaningful and led by people who are most impacted.”

View the first mural at ArtHouse St. Louis in the Ville neighborhood, 3911 Greer Avenue, St. Louis, Missouri, 63107.
Facebook: ArtHouse St. Louis

Marquette Pool Fence ReCreated

Dutchtown South Community Corporation

In recent years, Marquette Park has become a site of renewed interest in the Dutchtown neighborhood. Pool parties, fundraising events, back to school fairs, and dance festivals in the park have all contributed to growing attention, excitement, and care for the park. Even in the midst of a pandemic, neighborhood residents are invested in the future of this park. One key issue at the park is the fence around the pool and the overall design of the outdoor pool space. The current fencing has barbed wire, which is fairly uncommon for public pools in our region and is considered by many residents to be, at best, an eyesore, and at worst, a symbol of the criminalization of low and moderate-income neighborhoods.

This project consists of a design competition aimed at completely transforming the current fence from a piece of low-quality infrastructure into a high-quality piece of functional public art. The hope is that the new fence can also serve as a cultural asset to create a new sense of place and purpose at the pool. Dutchtown South Community Corporation will work with local artists and creatives to implement a series of COVID-friendly engagement stations and activities where residents can share their ideas about the pool fence and overall park usage. It will also update and replace current signage at the pool that deals with regulations, rules, and pool safety, as well as develop additional signage to make navigation at the pool easier for residents in summer 2021.

Rivers of Women

Lyah B. Leflore-Ituen

Rivers of Women is a documentary film written & directed by Lyah B. LeFlore-Ituen. The film centers on the life and works of the late St. Louis Poet Laureate Emeritus, Shirley Bradley Price LeFlore. LeFlore, an activist and artist, worked arduously as a change agent in the in the St. Louis community. The film will capture Shirley Bradley Price LeFlore’s journey from a young girl to her rise as a national and international poet. Rivers of Women borrows its title from LeFlore’s iconic book of poetry published in 2013. The film will connect LeFlore’s life work and legacy to the experiences and issues concerning Black women within the St. Louis community. Through LeFlore’s eyes, audiences will take a historical ride — from Carr Square Village and The Ville; to Gaslight Square, the Millcreek area, and Laclede Town; to the creation of the Black Artist Group (BAG) – and on into Ferguson.  In her last years, LeFlore, as an elder, shared life changing wisdom of surviving trauma with Lezley McSpadden, mother of slain Ferguson teen, Michael Brown; McSpadden will be interviewed in the film. This prolific cinematic journey will span culture, arts, and race over nearly eight decades.

StitchCast Studio Special Edition: The Divided City

Saint Louis Story Stitchers Artists Collective

StitchCast Studio is a youth-led podcast series launched by Saint Louis Story Stitchers Artists Collective in 2019. Episodes are recorded and published on topics determined by youth of color from St. Louis: gun violence, racial divisions in St. Louis, public health and safety issues, compounding issues, and more.

“StitchCast Studio Special Edition: The Divided City” will produce and publish four 1-hour unique podcast episodes featuring African American youth, ages 16 to 24 years old, who live in neighborhoods with high crime and poverty rates in St. Louis. The conversations with Story Stitchers’ Black youth will be led by Stitchers Youth Council co-chair Branden Lewis and will feature, among others, master storyteller Bobby Norfolk; filmmaker and Washington University alumnus, Jun Bae; author and educator John A. Wright; Sowande’ Mustakeem, Ph.D., Associate Professor of History and African and African American Studies at Washington University; and LJ Punch, MD, President, Power4STL and an American Critical Care Surgeon. Four unique conversations will bring historical context to recurring topics chosen by youth in the StitchCast Studio published podcasts, including: the culture of trauma caused by poverty and repeated exposure to violence amongst families of color in St. Louis, stories of disorientation and dislocation of black families, and the power of story as healer in Black cultures through time. The series will be published through on major podcast platforms.