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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