Whitney Henderson is EdNavigator’s Chief Program Officer. A native of East St. Louis, IL, Whitney brings to her work more than 10 years of experience as an award-winning teacher, school principal, and instructional expert. Her career in education began in New Orleans, where she moved after Hurricane Katrina to become a founding teacher and eventually 7th-9th grade principal at KIPP Central City Academy.
The pandemic brought me back to my hometown of East St. Louis, Illinois. My parents are aging, and it's hard to be in New Orleans, trying to support them from afar in a pandemic. So I said, "You know what, I'm just going to go home so I don’t regret anything." I had no idea that I’d still be here six months later.
The economy here lacks progress. It’s mostly residential with a McDonalds and a couple grocery stores. That’s crazy for a city that was once the fourth largest city in the nation and honored with an All-American City designation back in 1960. Then Chicago grew, all these other cities grew, outpacing us. Now I see the streets where there were potholes when I was a kid, and those potholes are still there 20 years later. In the grocery store, I see children who look like me. From my experience as an educator, I think about the different paths that they could have but won’t choose—because they don’t know they exist. It’s heartbreaking.
After de-industrialization, most of the blue-collar jobs in the Rust Belt shut down. The jobs were central to communities here. That was the beginning of our urban decay. Cities like Indianapolis, Detroit—they’re in the midst of their own renaissance. For smaller cities, like East St. Louis, there’s nothing. I learned recently that historically, our county seat chose not to support us with federal money that was coming in—that was meant to support critically in-need cities like ours. But because of generational dynamics, rooted in racism and exclusion, the county leadership chose to allocate that money elsewhere. Think about the long-term effects, like the lack of education resources, infrastructure, and small businesses. Then imagine how residents feel, knowing that our county seat is largely responsible for the poor conditions we see today.
The cities surrounding East St. Louis are surviving and even thriving. The differences are stark. I think people have to get downright pissed off about that. And they have to question how local government works. Could it be that residents of those communities expected and demanded more? They have to understand why Belleville thrives, why Edwardsville thrives, how Fairview Heights does it, how Cahokia Heights does it. Then they have to turn the mirror to themselves and say, "What have I actually done to be a good citizen myself?” Civic engagement is the cavalry we need.
The Grow East St. Louis Fund is our incubator to get some new local small businesses going. But it’s not well-publicized yet. If you have a hairdressing business out of your mom’s basement, that's not really legal, but you know what? I'm not going to say anything about it. I just want to help get you legal so that we all can benefit. How many people can you serve in a basement? Two clients at a time? What if you had your own building? You could then charge rental fees for booths that allow other aspiring beauticians to get their start. That's passive income coming to you. And you’ve got your own salon now with your name out front. People have to know that there's opportunity out there for them, but it's going to take a nudge from someone who understands how to use their own social capital.
I don't think that we can stay in the "I'm pissed off” phase too long. We also can't stay in the "We're still learning how to be more civically engaged” phase too long. We have to actually put something into action. It’s imperative. Residents believe they have very little political power in East St. Louis, because of the lack of growth. So we the people actually have to rewrite that narrative. I think our politicians will care if we have a coalition of people who are saying, "Here's what we want to see in our city and we’re holding you accountable to it."
Once that happens, we can start to see better traction. We can start to see some of these small businesses take off and more local dollars spent within our own community. Great, the hairdresser got out of her mom's basement. She has a building on State Street now. We see her thriving. That's the strike match. Boom. That inspires the next person: "Oh, I have a lawn care business." Wonderful! Let's set you up with an LLC and storage so you can safely store your things, and then also let's build you a team.
Before you know it, we're starting a cohesive small business economy here, off the sweat of people who truly know what it means to be East St. Louis. And we then get to see people who are building generational wealth. They’re learning how to run a business. They are becoming more politically involved because they have assets to protect. And the beauty is that their children get to see their parents doing that. Now they're traveling. They take a family vacation. They get better nutrition, better opportunities, and can nurture a better overall well-being. They grow up with a totally different mindset about what East St. Louis could be, and they're going to go out and demand that they get it, because they see their parents doing the same thing. Cross-generational investment is going to be the difference that changes our community.
I took a road trip recently. I drove through Tulsa and the section known as “Black Wall Street.” It was incredible to see the spirit of people who continued to live there after the tragedy of the race riots that took place there. They came to reopen businesses because they believed in the possibilities of the Black community. I was really inspired by the parallels between their community and ours. In 1917, in an event known as the East St. Louis Massacre, hundreds of Black residents were murdered by white residents and once thriving Black businesses were burned down.
In Tulsa, I saw new Black-owned businesses that are doing well, alongside historical markers where former businesses once stood. I couldn't help but cry and think about what it could look like now. But I was inspired by the people who continue to make that community what it is—who hold tight to the narrative that the Black community there can and will rise again. They hold history in one hand, and optimism in the other. They pair that with their labor and optimism for the next generation. I think it's important to have all of that. You can't forget what happened, the same way I don't forget what happened in East St. Louis. But action has helped them rebuild, block by block, brick by brick. I see East St. Louis following the same path. Really, really slowly—but we'll get there.