My visit to the East St. Louis Centre of the University yesterday was memorable although very short. It was preceded with a short trip into the neighbourhood of what used to be one of the most prosperous cities in the Midwest. Now it is littered with decrepit houses and abandoned factory warehouses. Many of the abandoned houses had been tagged with graffiti and street art which reminded me that I was in a neighbourhood that is now home to some of the most impoverished, yet resourceful citizens of the state. For a moment while driving through the government housing projcts, I thought I was in one of those Brooklyn type neighbourhoods I’ve seen so many times in movies, with wall art, basketball, fast trains, and violence. There was no violence here. Only silence, from the passage of time, and migrations.
At the Charter School where we had gone to watch a Portfolio presentation by graduation students (all within the 18-19 age range), we met some of the most talented students. The presentation/performance was like a final year project where they had to face a panel and talk about their ideas, motivations, and achievements. Each one of them, as young as they were, brought a very dynamic angle to their presentation and some of them were very emotional. At such a young age, it made me proud that rather than being distracted or going into bad things common to people of their age in other cities and towns, these children were working hard to secure a good future. One of the students was an eighteen year old boy whose fraternal twin brother was already incarcerated. “People think we’re opposites,” he said, “I am here trying to make a good life for myself while he is there in jail.”
We watched each powerpoint presentation narrated by the student and gave valuable suggestions. We also asked them questions on every aspect of their presentation that wasn’t clear, and they answered.
The Charter School is fully funded by the government and serve as a support system for parents who can’t afford to send their children to private schools. The only thing that runs through these students however is not poverty at all, but ambition, skill, hope, brilliance and confidence.
It just happened yesterday that we were in time for the Portfolio presentations. The University Centre is used for several more things than just the Charter School. It houses the Eugene Redmond Writers club, and they meet there regularly for poetry readings, spoken word performances, dance, drama etc. East St. Louis itself is just a riverside city of over 31,000 people. It’s called East St. Louis because it is the last part of Illinois bordering on the eastern part of the River Mississippi just before the city of St. Louis itself that lay on the other side, in the state of Missouri.