Dr. Suman Mishra’s Campaign to Assist Residents in Revitalizing East St. Louis

“Life shouldn’t be about survival. It should be about something a little more than that, and I think we could evolve past the point of just surviving.” —East St. Louis Resident

Once the third-largest city in the state of Illinois with a population peaking at 86,000 in 1950, East St. Louis was home to more than 200 companies that employed over 12,000 people. Outside of a healthy industrial pulse, the city was rich in artistic and cultural history, making it a popular stomping ground for people like musician Miles Davis, singer Tina Turner, dancer Katherine Dunham, and academic and poet laureate Eugene B. Redmond. 

 Over the years, East St. Louis has faced severe economic decline, job losses, corruption, and deterioration. In Spring 2019, Dr. Suman Mishra, Associate Professor and Graduate Program Director in the Department of Mass Communications, partnered with Jessica Wernli, a community organizer who works with East St. Louis community to initiate the #89BlocksStrong campaign. Mishra explained, “The idea was to empower people with knowledge and information about what was going on in their community and encourage them to participate and lead the efforts in bringing about change.”

Mishra involved SIUE Mass Communications graduate students in her media campaigns class to work on this community engagement and empowerment campaign. The broad goals of the campaign are to activate, engage, and inspire residents to make an effort to ignite a change in their community. “It is vital to actually listen to the local residents—they have their own ideas and visions of how they want to initiate a change, and we need to listen…our job is to listen,” stressed Mishra.

The campaign initially involved talking to the residents to understand their needs and motivations in getting involved in the community. Following the information gathering process, a campaign strategy was developed, and creative and communicative elements were then designed. The communication element of the campaign involved constructing and launching a website and establishing a social media presence, all of which was done within a semester by students. “We created a website to inform the residents about local organizations and events,” said Mishra. The website incorporates informative and creative elements like “Did You Know?”, “Points of Pride,” video stories from residents who are making a difference, community events, and dates and times of important local meetings, all of which are shared on social media and through flyers and posters.

Despite the negative perceptions of the area, local residents have a great sense of pride to be from the East St. Louis. In addition to establishing an online presence, Mishra found that among residents, there was a strong yearning for improving the look of their neighborhoods. She suggested an interactive mural as a part of the campaign to establish more of a visual presence for East St. Louis and to help further build community and inspire a feeling of ownership for the city. The mural was recently completed in late July of 2019 with the collaboration of East St. Louis artists, residents, and I AM EStL, The Magazine on the Majestic Theatre (built in 1928). 

“We want residents of East St. Louis to rally around that pride and use it for change.” #89BlocksStrong project was funded for by the CAS Target Funding Initiative.

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