Getting to Know the Keynote Speakers: Starsky Wilson

Starsky Wilson
"Forward through Ferguson: Philanthropy and the Fight for Racial Equity"
Wednesday, October 3

Tell me about you. What do you do and, more importantly, why are you passionate about what you do?

I’m originally from Dallas and went [to school] in New Orleans. Ultimately, I identify first as a son of the South, as a person of faith, and as one who is called to serve. I’m blessed to serve here as the chief executive of Deaconess Foundation, a grant-making organization focused on supporting and nurturing a movement for child well-being in the St. Louis metropolitan area. We do that primarily through supporting efforts and endeavors that advocate, that build power, and that push public policy on behalf of children and youth.

For the last ten years, I have also served as a pastor of St. John’s Church (The Beloved Community) here in North St. Louis. It’s an interracial, inner-city congregation in a pretty distressed neighborhood. That work helps to keep me grounded in the values and keep proximity to the kinds of needs that we seek to address through our philanthropy and our advocacy. I think it really is God’s vision for The Beloved Community, this community marked by justice, peace, and love, that animates me. It keeps me passionate and going. The values of faith, rooted in justice, ground me and inspire me to continue to do this work.

As some folks will know, I spent about a year and half in service to the state as leader of the Ferguson Commission. That group sought to take a community-engaged approach to the police shooting of Michael Brown and help the community try to figure out a vision for moving forward through the Ferguson Commission Report titled Forward Through Ferguson.

What inspires you to be philanthropic, and to encourage service and philanthropy in others?

I was nurtured and grown up as a volunteer. The inspiration for my service to community is really my mom. I’ve seen her engaged in work with victim’s outreach, with service organizations, always engaged in women’s organizations throughout my upbringing, and connected in community. And of course, being nurtured in the life of our church, as well. That really sends me forth.

Also, my own personal narrative. I lost my older brother and my uncle to community violence in Dallas, and those losses drive me to try to impact peaceful and peaceable communities wherever I am. As I think about those losses, I also project forward to the fact that I’m raising four kids. Three of them are young black boys, and their futures are intimately tied to my advocacy and activism. The responsibility to build a better world, a world that’s equitable and just, for our children, including my own, is the inspiration for the future.

Your keynote is titled "Forward through Ferguson: Philanthropy and the Fight for Racial Equity." Can you tell me a bit more about the topic you chose and why?

First, it’s my firm belief that the work of philanthropy, giving back to its etymological roots, is about the love of humanity. This is the root of philanthropy. All of us who do work in the social sector, including those of us who are involved in the transaction of capital in order to support this work, whether we be grantmakers, grantseekers, or development officers—those of us who are closest to the capital need, more than anyone else, to be reminded that the work is about love of humanity.

When examining the uprising in Ferguson and the community’s and nation’s responses, there are things that we can learn to inform how we do social sector work for the future. We should learn from that experience that we can’t go around and we can’t go over, we can only go through. Much of that has to do with the history of race, racism, and structural oppression in America.

The critical lesson we’ve got to learn is that we all have a role to play to get to racial equity in America. That is mission-critical work for social-sector professionals. When I say it’s mission-critical, I mean that in the American context, with its Western cultural roots, and with its history of oppression of indigenous people and people of the global majority, people of color—you actually can’t achieve a social sector mission without focusing on getting to racial equity.

This relates to donor relations, specifically. A decade ago, when I worked at United Way as a major gifts officer, I worked on targeted major giving initiatives for women, African Americans, and high net-worth donors. With African American donors, we had to make the case that a gift to United Way had impact in the African American community. This meant we needed to speak to outcomes and tell stories based upon what that particular niche group of donors cared about.

But when I went to make that case for those donors, the data didn’t bear out to return on investment for an African American donor. So we needed to do some work around diversity and inclusion within the organization to substantiate the case that we wanted to make to African American donors. That’s the application of a racial equity lens to our donor profile and to our case making. It’s critically important if we’re going to meet our goals.

Why do attendees need to hear your keynote? What do you hope they take away?

People need to hear about racial equity and philanthropy because the emerging demographics suggest the landscape upon which they work will have greater influence of people of color imminently and in the future. They need to be thoughtful about narratives that support their work and reaching those audiences.

More broadly, an executive of a social mission needs to think about how their mission is actually oriented, and how to meet that mission with shifting demographics and vast inequities present among those historically underrepresented groups. The case of Ferguson as a community and our response as a region have much to say to the world about what we’re dealing with across the nation.

For those new to St. Louis, what is one place you hope they will visit or element of the city you hope they can experience?

People should experience the Delmar divide. BBC did a great video on this.

Delmar Boulevard is effectively the dividing line of life expectancy in St. Louis. The best way to see this is to travel north-south on Kingshighway Boulevard and cross Delmar.

You see massive social determinants of health, of life expectancy, of economic well-being, of educational levels that break at that street. What also breaks at that street is the racial dividing line. You see predominantly people of color, particularly black people, living north of Delmar, and more diverse but predominantly white communities south of Delmar. I think people should spend some time to get a sense of neighborhoods, of architecture, and life experiences north and south of Delmar. It only takes driving back and forth a couple of times over that street to see it.

In June 2014, just a few months before Michael Brown was killed, St. Louis was named the most charitable region in the country by Charity Navigator. We have one of the strongest United Ways in the country, one of the strongest Urban Leagues in the country, one of the strongest Big Brothers Big Sisters outfits in the country. We have the Washington University in St. Louis with a $12 billion endowment. There are parks in almost every neighborhood. The zoo and museum are free. All of these things make for a highly charitable environment.

I want this group to see this for a very specific reason. It’s important to level set on what charity gets us as it relates to people who are marginalized. Yes, we raise funds, we support the charitable enterprise and the philanthropic giving. Yes, we are a very charitable region in St. Louis. And still, there’s an 18-year life expectancy gap if you live north of Delmar versus south of Delmar. Without the application of a racial equity lens, you can read the headlines about St. Louis being charitable and not know that two in five black and brown children live in poverty. Especially for those of us who come to St. Louis for social sector, philanthropic gatherings, we’ve got to check the headline of our region versus the reality of the people.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.