James Clark and Norm White want their Neighborhood Alliance to save St. Louis' worst neighborhoods. Then they want it to save America.

For decades, smart men with sensible plans have tried to empower inner-city communities, and they have failed. So it requires a good deal of audacity for James Clark and Norm White to think that they can change St. Louis.

They're posted at opposite sides of the room at 6017 Natural Bridge Avenue on this Saturday morning, Clark standing in the front and White sitting in the back. Between them, in rows of white folding chairs, are the 30 or so soldiers who believe in their plan to fix St. Louis — the Most Dangerous City in America! — one neighborhood at a time, one person at a time. The soldiers themselves are proof that it could work. There's Kenneth McClain, 21, Adrian Robinson, 28, Naheem Houston, 21, and Teddy Willingham, 38 — all former gang members and drug dealers, all now in college or employed and dedicated to the cause.

"We have got to fight for peace in our neighborhoods. This time we've got to get our civil rights from each other. And when we do that, it's gon' change America. It's gon' change the world," says James Clark.
Jennifer Silverberg
"We have got to fight for peace in our neighborhoods. This time we've got to get our civil rights from each other. And when we do that, it's gon' change America. It's gon' change the world," says James Clark.
Unlike many other academics, Norm White immerses himself in the neighborhoods. He spends his free time cruising north city and county, stopping to talk to residents sitting on porches or walking down the street.
Jennifer Silverberg
Unlike many other academics, Norm White immerses himself in the neighborhoods. He spends his free time cruising north city and county, stopping to talk to residents sitting on porches or walking down the street.

Clark leans his elbows on the podium and scans the room.

"What we're dealing with is the early steps of the next revolution," says Clark, his voice booming and deep. "There are people who say, 'Our neighborhoods can never get better. We will always have violence in our neighborhoods. We will always have black men killing black men. Our young men will never be respectful to their families. Our neighborhoods are never going to change.'"

He pauses. The room is silent, every eye on the larger-than-life figure before them. Clark is 44 years old, six-foot-two-inches tall and built like a redwood. People joke that he looks like LL Cool J. He's vice president of community outreach for Better Family Life, a St. Louis-based nonprofit organization focused on community development. But the title's not important. To the people in this room, James Clark is the leader of a movement.

The underpinning of the movement is Neighborhood Alliance, Clark's two-year-old community-mobilization strategy, which focuses on saturating a neighborhood with faces and resources.

And so every Saturday after these 10 a.m. meetings, Clark and his soldiers hit the streets of the Penrose and Hamilton Heights neighborhoods. They slip fliers in mailboxes and under welcome mats and hand them out to drivers at intersections. They knock on doors and shake hands with every person they cross. They tell them about the weekly meetings and the resources they have to offer. They show the community that there are people who care about them.

In the two years since Clark implemented his strategy, crime in these neighborhoods has decreased at four times the rate of the rest of the city. And his movement is growing. Now White, a criminologist at Saint Louis University, is working to take Clark's strategy from a grassroots initiative to a model for combating urban poverty and crime and blight.

At this morning's meeting, Clark talks about how some slaves didn't initially believe they could be free. And how people doubted Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr., doubted they could ever sit in the front of the bus.

"And now we're hearing our people say to us, 'Our neighborhoods will never get better. Our children will never respect us. Our neighborhoods will always have gun violence. We will always have bad schools.'"

As Clark speaks, White, who is 58, leans back in his chair with his arms crossed, his face straight and his head nodding. He's a stocky man, an inch or two taller than Clark, with short curly hair and a gold hoop earring the size of a dime in his left lobe.

"I am encouraged by the people who come willing to fight an insurmountable fight," Clark continues. "We have got to fight for the right to life in our neighborhoods. We have got to fight for peace in our neighborhoods. This time we've got to get our civil rights from each other. And when we do that, it's gon' change America. It's gon' change the world."

The room bursts in applause. A spatter of "Amen, brother!" pops out.

As the cheering dies down, Clark looks to his right and asks a woman in a pink shirt to come up. His voice is softer now. The woman holds a plastic container with a thin slit at the top. Earlier in the week, her twenty-year-old son was killed. Police say it was a case of mistaken identity. She is taking up a collection to help pay for the funeral. Clark tapes a photo of the son onto the podium. The woman brings her right palm to her face and sobs, her shoulders slumped and quivering.

Another murder in the murder capital. Another strike against the revolution.


James Clark came up with the idea for Neighborhood Alliance in 2009. He was speaking to a group of job-seekers at the MET Center, an old brick factory building in Wellston that Better Family Life turned into a vocational training center.

One day, as Clark was describing the programs to a packed room, he wondered, "What if all these people lived in the same neighborhood? Wouldn't that completely change that neighborhood?" His idea was, and still is, to channel as much energy as possible into a handful of blocks, prioritizing depth over breadth to ensure that every resident in those blocks receives maximum attention.

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38 comments
Alex3redromero
Alex3redromero

oh yeah! River Front Times, should have more articles like this every monthly issue and special reports..keep up the good work RFT

Alex Romero
Alex Romero

yeah I was told by a friend to read this compelling story of change in the st.louis area and community..it was worth my time thanks...keep up the good work of community outreach..hopefully this will and should catch on like wild fire

Martha
Martha

I am a student that transfered from L.A. valley community college to Saint louis University, i know that Los angeles has its problem with crime and poverty..but i believe like Dr. Norm White that our inner city neighborhoods need resources and more job readiness initiatives for the urban enviroment and people that see no hope...keep up the good work Dr. White and Clark...P.S. I pray that this project works and grow to every city west of the Arch until it reaches the gang capitol of the world Los Angeles and then the rest of America..

Margo Elrolas
Margo Elrolas

I really thought that this was a story that is very awsome because every inner city from new york to my home town of los angeles need a neighborhood alliance built from the gound up and not the top down to rebuild the united states inner city...good job mr,clark and better family life

Donte
Donte

Good Article...Like 2Pac said "they will see me in Hell before they see in Jail..peace in the streets

Luvator
Luvator

I really love how Mr. Clark and Mr. Bush always educate and inform young men every Saturday @ the BFL "put down the pistol" meetings..towards young black men Respecting women, even if they do not respect themselves.I heard them both say "a man is never violent or aggressive with women, a man is a father to his children, a man is a role model for all children. Also a good man respects the law, and knows this does not make him weak..I really agree that with a relationship with God a man is active in the building of his block and neighborhood. He sets an example, that others follow..We must teach this everyday to our boys and girls , to help them grow to become productive men and women in our community and families.we need basic morals and good personal ethicsand not AT RISK lil kids having lil kids,,babys raising babies...Keep up the Good Work BFL Outreach...Mr Bush and Mr clark

Luvatormarys
Luvatormarys

I really love how Mr. Clark and Mr. Bush always educate and inform young men every Saturday @ the BFL "put down the pistol" meetings..towards young black men Respecting women, even if they do not respect themselves.I heard them both say "a man is never violent or aggressive with women, a man is a father to his children, a man is a role model for all children. Also a good man respects the law, and knows this does not make him weak..I really agree that with a relationship with God a man is active in the building of his block and neighborhood. He sets an example, that others follow..We must teach this everyday to our boys and girls , to help them grow to become productive men and women in our community and families.we need basic morals and good personal ethicsand not AT RISK lil kids having lil kids,,babys raising babies...Keep up the Good Work BFL Outreach...Mr Bush and Mr clark

susieque2
susieque2

Talk to your kids like this when they're young: "One of the things you own from being born in the United States is a free education. You own it, it's yours.''Now if someone stole your lunch, your books, your Ipod, you'd be pssd. You'd be mad. You'd try to get even. You'd go looking for your stuff back. When you mess up your free education you're robbing yourself, and not even blinking about it. Even those kids on the street corner selling dope have to add and subtract, multiply and divide. The ones who can't are sort of slaves to ones who can.'When you say, 'No, I'm not gonna do well in school,' you're giving away money for the rest of your life. When you say, 'No, I'm not going to college' you're giving away money for the rest of your life. When you're a baby raising a baby, you're giving away money for the rest of your life. When you get caught with dope or become and addict like (fill in a real person's name here) you're giving away freedom for the rest of your life.' 'You're robbing yourself, and you're not even smart enough to be mad about it."Then, go to the bars, the dope houses, the churches and tell everyone, "You can have a house for $1." because that's what the LRA sells 'em for. Home ownership is where the poor community falls down for generations. Look at 203k loans. Look at HUD's programs to invest in 'blighted' communities. There's money there and people can have work working on rehabbing houses. They can own their own homes.

Ebony
Ebony

I remember Mr. Clark from the1990's....he came to speak to us at the Juvenile Center.....he has been helping people for a long time.....

St. Louis is in trouble.....there is too much violence.....we need to stand UP!!!

Ben W
Ben W

It's awesome to read an uplifting story about St. Louis, and the work of these two men.

CityFred
CityFred

James Clark should run for Mayor.......He would get my vote!I hope the City gets behind this program....

Tgreaney3000
Tgreaney3000

Great story. This man is a hero.

NoBS
NoBS

So James Clark claims he wants to clean up St.Louis neighborhoods? Why did he and his wife then abandon a home and leave it to foreclosure, not only ensuring its vacancy for months but also driving down property values due to the foreclosure. He could have at least attempted to sell the property instead of just becoming another deadbeat because it was more convenient for him. This is a role model and a neighborhood improver? Gimme a break.

Donte
Donte

yeah u sound like ah little grown as Dude

guest
guest

talk about missing the bigger picture

anton
anton

Nobody is perfect. Forelosing on a home does not make James Clark a deadbeat. He is still considered a great guy doing a good cause.Celebrities and athletes have foreclosed on their homes, too.To name a few, but popular ones: Michael Jackson on his Neverland was auctioned.Latrell Spreewell, Jose Canseco, Micahel Vick, as well.Good job, James Clark and Norman White!

Larryjohnson2
Larryjohnson2

NoBs, I agree that leaving a house was a bad thing to do. But, the man's car was shot up....his home was broken into, burgular alarm wire cut. His wife said, to him, "I do not feel safe". For me, I would have done the same thing......also...the house sold, and he is still active in that neighborhood.....

The young men that he works with pledged to stand guard at his home, morning, noon, and night.....he told them that would not last long. He appreciated their love and pledged support, but he moved for his family....yet, he continues to serve the neighborhood

Advent Gabriel Rall
Advent Gabriel Rall

We have ah modern Martin Luther King among us..let us not wait until this hits ah higher stage to support and help this movement grow and catch on fire in every hood in America..the writer of this RFT article Albert Samaha, did ah great job of describing the fire in this Vision of "Put down the Pistol"... also big shout out to the photo shooter Ms. Silverberg...and the BFL family peace Fam,cuz,shorty-mane

 
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