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Neighborhood Reflections on 2020, JVL — Centering Community in Jeff-Vander-Lou

This spring Invest STL is taking time to lift up voices, stories and neighborhoods to help us reflect on 2020 and celebrate some of our brighter moments of connection and impact in St. Louis neighborhoods. We sat down with some of our partners to look at their highly collaborative and responsive work spawned by the newly created Neighborhood Solidarity Fund and the urgent needs 2020 amplified in the community. Each Monday, over the next few weeks we will introduce a neighborhood leader to share perspective on what 2020 looked like in their neighborhood and how they were able to remain hopeful in the face of challenging times.

Pastor Andre Alexander, President of Tabernacle Community Development Corporation, serves the Jeff-Vander-Lou, the Ville, Greater-Ville, and O’Fallon neighborhoods. Pastor Andre leveraged the heightened sense of urgency and accelerating energy that 2020 brought to grow TCDC in a multitude of ways. Forging ahead with ongoing strategic partnerships, the NSF Stability grant, supported TCDC’s operations infrastructure and provided room to think through with others, imagine, and breathe into these relationships,

It allowed us time to begin deepening current relationships that we already had, like with Mission St. Louis, Urban K-Life, the Block Unit Federation that’s under the Urban League. Those all are things that have been able to grow as a result of looking at the pandemic going, ‘What’s the best way to strategically connect and utilize what we do great and what others do great?'” 

The TCDC also grew their physical footprint in 2020, acquiring a few additional properties, stabilizing those buildings, and readying them for families. Pastor Andre speaks with joy about their love for preparing these spaces to be the site of a family’s own stabilization and transformation process. He understands the nature of home and community, how they are critical to our well being. Andre also shares what it’s like to come through the chaos of 2020 having caught a glimpse of something promising. 

“I learned how creative and innovative, as people, we can really be. When the time comes, and I think about, ‘How do we harness that to really solve some of the challenges we face in our communities?’ It taught me that we’ve got answers and the ability to come up with answers. It’s just figuring out how we do it together and implement.

Click here to read more and get the whole conversation with Pastor Andre

“For us the pandemic didn’t bring these things to our awareness, it just highlighted them and accelerated them. These were issues people face even if COVID never came into existence they are still there. They are still very real.” 

— Pastor Andre Alexander
The following conversation took place over Zoom in mid-February of 2021, between Michael Pagano of Invest STL talking with Pastor Andre Alexander, President of Tabernacle Community Development Corporation, serving and leading in the Jeff-Vander-Lou neighborhood. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 

Michael:

Thanks again Andre for joining me today. We’re interested in hearing about the NSF Stability grant and its impact, but also the human story and your experience of 2020 and that of your community that you are a part of and serving and collaborating with. I’d like to just start with some of the basics. Can you tell us your name, organization, and the neighborhood or neighborhoods that you serve or are in?   

Andre:

Sure. I’m Pastor Andre Alexander and I am serving as President of Tabernacle Community Development Corporation. We serve primarily the Jeff-Vander-Lou neighborhood, but we also touch a fragment into the Ville, Greater-Ville, and O’Fallon neighborhoods. 

Michael:

Take us back to last spring and share your perspective on the impact you were hoping to achieve in the neighborhood and how the Stability grant supported your efforts.

Andre:

It came at a time when everybody’s pivoting and trying to shore up resources to continue the vital services that we provide as nonprofits. In particular, we primarily focus on housing and creating other community spaces for people to live, work, and play in. So it was imperative that we stay not just a float, but that we were able to thrive. 

This grant really helped with our operations because the biggest thing that many experienced, including us, was a couple of events that we simply didn’t get to have, which of course impacts the bottom line in terms of revenue. And saying revenue in nonprofits sometimes makes people uncomfortable but the reality of it is it takes funding to make us function, like any other entity, right? For us, we utilized the grant not to only function, but to thrive. It was a part of helping all of our operations stay functional and look at ways to strategically serve people well and even look for ways to grow. 

Michael:

I appreciate what you are saying there about the necessity at that time to not just stay present, but to actually increase support and grow. Can you tell me a little bit about what that growth looked like? Are there any specifics that you can point to? 

Andre:

Yes. For us, it centered on a couple things. We acquired a few additional properties. That then,  brought in more families for us to begin serving. As well as bring stabilization to those properties because the previous owner was not the greatest landlord. So you had that. You also had the continuance of the rehab of vacant structures that’s one of the things that we love to do and we got to bring a few of those online last year, even in the midst of the pandemic. Again, to move families in and help families become stabilized. And also to begin to think through infrastructure, towards the end of the year with this assistance and assistance from a couple of other foundations we were able to add some staff. Which we were desperately needing. All of that infrastructure put us in a position for this year to really engage more projects and look at really building more partnerships because we don’t try to be all things to all people. Those are some of the ways, property wise, infrastructure wise and influence we were able to grow as an organization through last year and now into this year. 

Michael:

Got you. When you talk about partnerships, I think that has been a key thread that we’ve been weaving into the storytelling around the Neighborhood Solidarity Fund and how folks are working together. Can you tell me a little bit more about the growth in partnership in 2020?

Andre:

Sure. For example, we were able to finalize and secure a relationship with Catholic Charities which represents technically 8 different alcoves from St. Francis Community Center, St. Patrick’s Center falls under that, Mary Grove, etc. Then what that allows for us is additional assistance with case management, and I don’t really like the term case management, I like people engagement, so it allows resources for people engagement. And then to bring in expertise in counseling, transitional housing, it may be legal aid, benevolence assistance in terms of rent or utilities, this whole host of things that, you know, we right now, TCDC [Tabernacle Community Development Corporation] do not do, don’t feel necessarily called to do, right. Now we have brought that into a set place in the neighborhood so now this year we are really marketing that to the community saying, “Hey this is accessible to you through this relationship.” So that’s what I mean when we look at okay, and not that we don’t work with other housing organizations but man, that just added a whole litany of resources, that we don’t currently have, don’t have the resources to manage, instantly. Certainly,  I’m proud to make known and put it out there. It also just allowed us time to begin deepening current relationships that we already had like with Mission St. Louis, Urban K-Life, the Block Unit Federation that’s under the Urban League. Those all are things that have been able to grow as a result of looking at the pandemic going, “What’s the best way to strategically connect and utilize what we do great and what others do great?” 

Another one is CHIPS which is another in health care, they primarily serve people who are without insurance and we are not too far from each other geographically. So we began to work it out and go, okay we’ve got space and we’ve got a little bit more dense neighborhood than where your facility is. How can we work together? And now we have an MOU that is signed between both parties.

That’s just some of the ways over these last twelve months that relationships have really grown between us and other entities. And I’ll mention one more that we are waiting to see how it comes out. We partnered with Trailnet on a grant from Flourish STL. If we are awarded, it will allow us to work on traffic and mobility, helping African-American moms have access and walkable spaces to health care, to jobs, etc. by improving the bus routes, the bus stops, the ability to connect technology and figure out the best routes and optimizing the times as well as creating safer streets in the neighborhood right around our facility. 

Those are just some of the ways of partnership(s) and how we approach them. I think if you listen to all of that you will notice how all of these things complement each other but yet they are not identical. 

Michael:

Sure. They kind of help build out an environment and a structure along with the relationships that connect and work within there. That makes a lot of sense. I like when you tie together the partnership and then the African-American mother who can experience the different traffic situation, so that she has access, not only in proximity and things being close by, that there are safe walkable streets and inviting environments where you would want to get out and take advantage of that. I appreciate you kind of blending the partnerships, the environmental structures being created and how one would benefit within that. Specifically that kind of image of a young mom navigating the bus routes and dealing with health care and things like that. I think that kind of speaks to the next question that I have for you.  

It sounded like 2020 was a lot of growing and laying the groundwork and getting prepared to deepen the serve in 2021. But in that effort in 2020, can you talk about the wider neighborhood   response for some of the things that you were forging or putting together around those partnerships and around those developments too?

Andre:

Neighborhood wise, I think a lot of people, just from our interactions were, I think you saw a lot more internal focus in our neighborhood. Our neighborhood specifically, I can’t speak to across the city. But I definitely think you’ve seen more of an internal focus to say, “How do I remain safe? How do I not only stay safe but, how do I keep a roof over my head?” So anything we did that could help with that was well received I think just because of the climate of what all was going on.

A lot of what we are working on and partnerships expanding, really goes back to relationships and ideas and asks of our community well before the pandemic even showed up. For us the pandemic didn’t bring these things to our awareness, it just highlighted them and accelerated them. These were issues people face even if COVID never came into existence they are still there. They are still very real. It’s just that COVID amplified them and made them accelerate due to the nature of which we had to shut down, employment impacted, housing impacted, food impacted, schooling impacted, health care impacted. All these different things just happened at a much faster pace and all at the same time. So anything that we’ve been able to do has been well received because one, people are looking at it, okay they’ve been at this a while, they’ve proven that they are not going anywhere and two, they’re doing what they are doing now at least continues to bring a light of hope into our community as well as some resources into our  community. Because it helps create jobs, it helps make things available and more accessible to where I am in terms of a parameters standpoint. So it went over well I think people did kind of miss our presence because at the height of things especially, we weren’t out and as visible, as much. Just trying to be good neighbors and love our neighbors well we weren’t out as much as we normally would be with some of the personal interaction even. And I think our neighborhood missed that and so as we begin to open up and be more boots on the ground again, you can tell that people are excited to see more of us at times when they were used to and accustomed to seeing us versus kind of being more sporadic or us doing things at an off hour. And we shared with people that we were doing that to be a part of the neighborhood fabric and keeping it safe. I believe that was well received and appreciated. 

Michael:

You mention hope and I think that is just a critical theme and part of 2020. In light of all the struggle and as you said, things happening all at the same time, so just this compounded challenge, but speaking to hope. Do you have any anecdotes or can you think back to a part of 2020 or some moment that sort of encapsulates that promise of hope for you?

Andre:

(Deep sigh)

That’s a good question. For me personally, I have to lean into my faith and what brings hope and holds me together is this short verse 1 Corinthians 13, “So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three, but the greatest of these is love.” Well, hope is anchored in love, right. And when I love somebody well I care about their well-being and that casts hope about what’s to come even though we don’t know what the outcome will be. So my faith says hope is the substance, the evidence. That’s what my faith is, it’s the hope that things won’t always be the way that they are. 

One of the things, one of the, I call her, one of the mothers of the neighborhood says all the time, she is almost 80, she’s been there 50 years, she’ll say, “Well, well we just have to do what we can and trust God with the rest.” and I figure you know what, if she’s lived by that and she’s made it to 80 and she’s been right here and has a love and respect from a whole entire community, then something about it has to work. I’m going to trust what she says.  

Michael:

Beautiful. Thank you. Thank you for going there and just sharing from your heart and from scripture and from another image. This time of an older woman, a woman who has been in the community for a long time. As you say, if that’s the type of attitude or vision that can sustain her then yeah it’s a good idea to follow suit perhaps. 

I think I’ve just got one more question for you here, this one will hopefully invite you to reflect a little bit and find a moment in 2020 that maybe resonates with this. Obviously 2020 was full of surprise and unexpected challenges related to the pandemic, but if we are thinking about your organization and the growth and the sort of newness. The things on the horizon, the partnerships you’re building, the developments. When you think about it in those terms, were there any unexpected challenges or surprises that defined your year? Or that you bring to that reflection? 

Andre:

Yeah. I can think of one major one. So, like everybody, mid-March, world shuts down. My son’s sixteenth birthday was the first week of April, we didn’t get to celebrate it. He didn’t go, he didn’t get to do the traditional thing of going and getting his license because there was no place open. This was before the drive by parties and putting the signs in the yard, before that was a thing, right. If you had seen too many cars in the neighborhood you’d call and say hey they’re breaking the protocol. So everything we had planned, (snap) like that shutdown. 

Then you add to that, a couple of weeks later my daughter gets an ear infection and my wife takes her into the doctor. Well it’s not at our normal doctor’s office because our normal doctor’s office is only seeing well patients. You know they split things up, again COVID rules at this point. We are only a month in and we have no idea what it is or is capable of at this point. So we go to a site we wouldn’t normally go to. It wasn’t as nice as what we would normally walk into and as orderly. I have a special needs child and my daughter’s mask becomes soaked, so my wife does what any mom does, she took her mask off and put it on our daughter. As they are leaving, the place with people being sick and stuff, my wife contracts COVID. And she is confined to a room for three weeks and the only time we could talk was through facetime.

Totally through our whole house off. We were trying to do virtual learning with both of our kids. Totally surprised. There was a moment in there where she left here for the ER by EMT’s. Didn’t know honestly if she was going to live or not. So when you talk about surprises and things throwing you off and in the middle of all that still trying to serve people in our neighborhood, serve my home well, serve my children well. It was a huge shocker. 

I look back and go wow. How did I? How did we make it through that? Hold in tact as a family–it’s one of the best semesters my son had in school! I mean when you start talking about that word surprise and being totally caught off guard — I have no other way to describe the situation, other than to say totally caught off guard. Knowing that it was God who sustained us and walked us through it.  

What I learned on the other side of it is, of course I think all of us have a greater appreciation for life in general, right. I think beyond just that, I learned how creative and innovative, as people, we can really be. When the time comes, and I think about often now, Michael, about how do we harness that to really solve some of the challenges we face in our communities. It taught me that we’ve got answers and the ability to come up with answers. It’s just figuring out how we do it together and implement. That would be for me the moment of reflection on challenge and the unexpected. 

Michael:

Wow. Excellent. And your wife has recovered?

Andre:

Recovered? She still has some, you know, she is one of the people, she has had some lingering health impacts as a result of it. We are hopeful again, that as they learn more about it, it would help them address some of the things she has experienced and technically recover from it. 

Michael:

Great. I just wanted to check in on that point because your story kind of, what an arc from, like you said, your sixteen year old’s birthday. It is a big thing to miss out on when you are sixteen and then that getting eclipsed by an ear infection that becomes an entire situation, like you said it just kept sort of compounding. 

And I really love what you said about beyond the general sense of finding an appreciation for life that we all sort of experienced, the way that you highlighted creativity and connectivity. Like you said about your neighborhood, and we have been hearing from other neighborhoods as well, but that idea of turning inward to support and fortify yourself, your home, your neighborhood, your community, and how inspiring that can be. And that great question of, “How do we carry this forward?” Now that we really have seen that collectively we can, sort of, turn on a dime and reformat our priorities, like within weeks we can change our collective behavior. A lot of that is very inspiring and I think that what you speak to there and putting that type of question out, is exactly the type of tone we want to share with St. Louis and with the region when we tell the story of how the Neighborhood Solidarity Fund, how investment in neighborhoods and investment in people and investment in the organizations that are crucial key components of on the ground work in those neighborhoods, how that can be lifted up and bring other people to this notion of inspiration out of that stunned sort of moment.

Andre: 

Absolutely 

Michael:

Thank you Andre. It’s great to connect with you and I look forward to talking further to try to deepen and broaden the scope of what we can share coming out of Jeff-Vander-Lou and the surrounding neighborhoods.