Q & A with Jamala Rogers

Jamala Rogers is a community activist who has done extensive work for black causes and youth development in St. Louis. She is also a columnist for the St. Louis American and has lived and worked in several major cities. In an interview with Occasional Planet (OP), Rogers (JR) discussed youth activism and her experiences with young people.

OP: From 1993 to 2001, you were the director of St. Louis’ Office of Youth Development. After having such heavy involvement in black causes, what made you want to take on this role? How has youth involvement in the city of St. Louis changed since 2001?

JR: Well, I’ve always been involved with youth. My formal training in teaching lead me to be involved with youth development. I’ve always been drawn to youth issues so, for me, it wasn’t a quantum leap.

There are  ebbs and flows with youth activism, even on college campuses. I often go to campuses to speak on particular issues, and [the amount of activism] depends on what’s going on in the world and the capacity of leadership. If young people are passionate about something, they’ll organize. There’s a void because we haven’t had young people step up and address issues.

OP: What drives you to work with youth, in an age when young people are uneducated and apathetic toward what’s going on in their communities and the world?

JR: Young people  have raw energy, raw creativity and raw truthfulness, and these are qualities I admire. The fact that this generation and the generation before have combated so many issues and obstacles that have nothing to do with them, yet they’ve found a way not to get bogged down, is a testament to what they’re capable of accomplishing.

OP: As a young person, you were an activist for black issues during a time of great racial inequality. What do you feel is the greatest struggle for today’s youth?

JR: I still think access to social, political and educational opportunities is the biggest challenge. Even middle-class kids have varied levels of opportunity, because their parents have the capital to make these opportunities known to them. But the poor start at negative ten. The education system isn’t prepping them for opportunities, and our communities as a whole aren’t prepping them. In this age, a very technological age, when people are insensitive and callous about helping people along, you have to find a way to navigate toward your destiny with or without help from a social support system or family support system.

OP: You’ve worked in numerous cities. How does St. Louis compare to these cities and other cities you’ve lived/worked in? How does youth activism in St. Louis compare?

JR: I don’t think that St. Louis is any different from other urban cities. The same situations exist: Schools are in crises, unemployment is high, and there’s a high crime rate. It’s the same everywhere, but there may be more of one thing than the other.  It’s really a lack of cohesion and vision. If you look at St. Louis, there’s no political leadership for African-Americans saying: “The community needs this, and this is what we’ll fight for.” There’s a major lack of cohesion in terms of a plan.

I’d say there’s definitely more activism by youth in other cities. I attended the US Social Forum in Detroit, and St. Louis had three young people who attended, while some cities made it their business to bring youth to the forum. I think about Miami, New York, and Washington DC, three cities represented by large groups of organized delegates who found a way to bring issues to the attention of youth. Some organization is better than no organization.

OP: You have advanced degrees in education. What’s one thing you would do to improve the current condition of St. Louis Public schools?

JR: Start by infusing the philosophy that black children can learn. Despite all the slogans, I don’t think there’s a philosophy that our kids are worthy. You have to have the basic belief system that these kids are worth teaching. If not, you won’t do what’s necessary, and the kids feel it, and they won’t be receptive to what’s being taught. Having the proper facility and supplies are necessary, but I’ve seen kids succeed on the notion that “you’re the best, so be the best.” It’s frustrating for teachers when kids aren’t ready to learn. You need to meet kids where they are and take them to where they can be.

OP: In addition to being a contributor to blogs and websites, you’re a columnist for the St. Louis American and a member of the editorial board for the Black Commentator. What inspires you to write?

JR: I do a lot of social justice work, and I write about the issues I see. I witness people struggling in a particular situation, which is inspiring. A recent example would be when Paul McKee  [a land developer with an ambitious plan for North st. Louis] lost in court to a group of people who fought hard to hold onto their homes and their community.  Seeing people fight for human rights, to me, is very inspiring.