We believe every parent or guardian wants the best for the children in their care. However, families in St. Louis are often held back by access to reliable information and can lack the knowledge and support needed to effectively navigate our complex public institutions. Research shows that providing a little help goes a long way.
To ensure our region’s most vulnerable families get the help they need, The Opportunity Trust is investing in ways to provide families with more accessible and relevant information about school options for their children and in organizations and partnerships that build the capacity of parents and guardians, helping them to advocate for the resources their children need. One of our investments in this space is the Power Building Academy through WEPOWER.
WEPOWER launched with the creation of the Power Building Academy, a fellowship for community members to build their understanding of systems and organizing and to use this knowledge and skill to advocate for policy changes that strengthen outcomes for children. Over seven months, a class of up to 35 residents—Power Builders—partner with WEPOWER to learn, collaborate and take action based on their research and community organizing.
“They are disrupting things in a bold and unapologetic way,” says Charli Cooksey, WEPOWER founder. “Everyday folks have come together and remain deeply engaged even one year later. Now we’re activating new Power Builders. We started with 16 and now have nearly 80 people. We’re building amazing momentum and we’re also building relationships across races and areas of the city.”
“The Opportunity Trust and WEPOWER have clear alignment in creating system-level change in education,” explains Cooksey. “WEPOWER is activating the people power in this mission and The Opportunity Trust is investing in it. We each have different roles toward the shared goal of making sure everyone has access to educational opportunity that supports their ability to thrive and have a better life trajectory.”
Power Builder Spotlight: Gloria Nolan
Gloria Nolan grew up in north St. Louis and had a tumultuous childhood that included years in foster care. In junior high, she began acting out and getting in trouble. Thankfully, two teachers saw the bright student’s tremendous potential. They took Nolan under their wings and changed the course of her life.
Nolan went on to college and received a master’s degree. Over the next 16 years, she worked in various areas of education in New Hampshire and Tennessee before deciding to come back to St. Louis with her husband and two young children in 2014. After careful consideration, they decided to buy a house in north St. Louis.
“It was important to me to be a change agent for my community and to see it thrive,” Nolan says.
Reality hit when it was time to enroll her children in school and navigate the system. “It was highly frustrating,” Nolan says. “I called the superintendent and asked why the disparities were so blinding between south city and north city education. That began my personal crusade to make changes in educational equity.”
In April 2018, Nolan was one of 16 women from north St. Louis city who engaged in the process of learning about local, state and national education policies through WEPOWER’s Power Building Academy.
“A light came on,” she says. “This is a way to get things done collectively rather than on my own. I’m excited about creating a process (in the district) where the community and parents can engage as the norm to be part of necessary change.”
Transforming Concern to Advocacy
Cooksey is proud to see Nolan’s empowerment through Power Builders. “Gloria has had a mindset shift and has embraced her ability to be bold to achieve what’s necessary for children and families. To see her transform from a frustrated parent to a leader of hundreds working with her to demand change is inspiring. Folks who were concerned citizens have become action-based advocates.”
And their impact is far-reaching.
“We’re creating a new norm for people to show up and hold the school districts accountable for achieving outcomes,” Cooksey says. “The hope and vision is that we will increase accountability, increase acumen, and improve leadership decisions that ultimately will result in better outcomes for children.”