St. Louis Children Deserve Love, Truth, and Power

We believe we can and we must rebuild our education systems without destroying each other and our children.

Charli Cooksey
12 min readApr 5, 2021

WEPOWER is a team full of brilliant and unflinching changemakers, the majority of whom identify as Black women. For us, co-creating the future currently looks like activating families to lead the disruption and reimagination of an educational system that is actively holding thousands of Black and brown children hostage from a future where they freely realize their fullest potential. There’s no such thing as reforming or improving upon white supremacy. Liberation requires systems — education, carceral, health, and economic ones — rooted in racism to be reimagined and rebuilt from the ground up, led by historically oppressed communities. We believe we can and we must rebuild our education systems without destroying each other and our children.

So, yes, we believe Saint Louis Public Schools, any charter school, any private school, and any other institution that is the educational home of our children must be transformed if it has historically and is actively doing harm. It’s a paradigm shift to imagine an entirely new (set of) school system(s), but it’s a necessary one. Our school systems — ALL OF THEM — are criminally failing Black and brown children. Our radical imagination and our courage to act on that imagination can lead to the design and building of a revolutionary educational experience in the future. Yet, as a limited-resourced, newly-formed organization, WEPOWER has chosen to focus our efforts. With nearly two out of every three students enrolled in Saint Louis Public Schools, this is where we’ve decided to start our work.

I never thought that starting our work where the greatest number of Black children are being negatively impacted would be so controversial. I am still surprised by the unfounded accusations, especially from folks who assert they are racial equity advocates. One day, we hope to activate families’ power towards disrupting and reimagining any and every institution that is failing its children, including but not limited to charter schools.

I’ve avoided making a formal statement because this work is too complex and nuanced to have such an important conversation via a blog post or Facebook group. It requires deep examination and dialogue to properly diagnose root causes. We must understand root causes to collectively co-create solutions that truly have the potential to realize a liberated future for our children.

I have divided my reflections into three themes: love, truth, and power. Each is required for us to achieve equity, and to move towards liberation. Love explores ways in which we can lean away from villainizing and othering the folks doing the work, often Black women and fellow historically marginalized peoples, and lean towards centering our beliefs, our words, and our actions in love and curiosity that expands what is possible. Truth explores the data, provides context for consideration, and sets the record straight on mischaracterizations intended to keep us divided and siloed. Power is about rejecting the either/or thinking of white supremacy that protects the status quo and reclaiming our right to imagine and build the future our children deserve by creating systems that are responsive and just. I invite you to consider what WEPOWER is building power towards and to join us.


“In this society, there is no powerful discourse on love emerging either from politically progressive radicals or from the Left. The absence of a sustained focus on love in progressive circles arises from a collective failure to acknowledge the needs of the spirit and an overdetermined emphasis on material concerns. Without an ethic of love shaping the direction of our political vision and our radical aspirations, we are often seduced, in one way or the other, into continued allegiance to systems of domination — imperialism, sexism, racism, classism. ” — bell hooks

Women, especially Black women, have always led us to freedom. There’s nothing like the fierce love and fight of a Black woman for her children, our children. When you attack us, individually and collectively, you are attacking the potential for our children and the systems accountable for educating them to be well and just.

Love does not look like villainizing one another in the name of liberation or racial equity. Love does not look like disparaging social media posts that attack Black women’s fight for our children, our city, our future. Love does not look like celebrating and leveraging your resources to advance political candidates and leaders who are fiercely protecting a set of education, carceral, health, and economic systems that are figuratively and literally killing our children. Love does not look like celebrating one woman’s path towards fighting for child wellbeing at the cost of demonizing another woman.

“I want us to be particularly rigorous about holding complexity and accountability well for Black people in our movement communities who are already struggling to keep our heads above water and build trust and move towards life under intersecting weights of white supremacy, racialized capitalism, police brutality, philanthropic competition culture, and lack of healing support. I never want to see us initiate processes for Black accountability where those who are not invested in Black life can see it, store it, and weaponize it.” — adrienne maree brown

So, what does love look like, especially in the context of fighting, together, for our children?

Love looks like awareness. It means noticing and giving attention to the ways in which we internalize our oppression and/or privilege and act on it. As oppressed and privileged people, it looks like acknowledging the way hatred manifests itself as the words we speak, the beliefs we internalize, and the actions we take. It looks like being truthful about the history of our educational institutions, the current outcomes it is producing, how we might be benefiting from it, and how our unconscious or ignored bias allows white supremacist behaviors to continue and children to be subjected to it.

Love looks like community. This work requires we be in a real relationship with one another so that we can affirm one another, ask critical questions, lean into complexity, challenge assumptions, and hold one another accountable in our journey towards co-creating a racially equitable K12 education system. In community, we are better equipped to analyze and understand the experiences of our children, educators, and parents, then work together to transform the system to more deeply value their wellbeing.

We often forget that radical love requires radical accountability. WEPOWER’s accountability of SLPS has always been grounded in love, a commitment to constantly maintain awareness of our relationship to educational inequity and disrupt it. As a community, led by majority Black women — parents, educators, aunts, and grandmas — our relationships with one another have allowed us to better analyze the education system, fight for the education system to change, and hold each other and the education system accountable.

Accountability only truly works when you are in relationship. That’s why, every step of the way, our community leaders have relentlessly made an effort to reach out to school board members, district leaders, and as many families as possible to be in relationship with one another so that we are held accountable and can hold the system accountable. A call for budgeting transparency, a call for equitable approaches to school closures, a call for reimagining the system together have always been about love. We won’t waver in our love for our children, which means we won’t waver in our commitment to be in community, and to hold SLPS accountable. One day, we also hope to be in relationship with charter schools, a relationship that will involve community and accountability.

Gloria Nolan, one of our full-time organizers, an inaugural K12 Education Power Builder, and an inaugural early childhood Tomorrow Builder recently transitioned off the team. Our love for her won’t change. We love her Black womanhood and motherhood. We love her commitment to North St. Louis City. We love the way her fire inside led us towards a historic win for early childhood through Prop R, winning millions of dollars annually for programs in the City of St. Louis. She recently shared comments that incorrectly imply WEPOWER has aligned itself around an effort to privatize public education and grow charters, which is a misrepresentation of our goal to reimagine St. Louis City’s education system toward racial equity. While we are deeply hurt by her mischaracterization of our team’s and community leaders’ hard work, that doesn’t change our steadfast commitment to being in relationship with her towards a future grounded in truth, love, and power. It also does not change our belief that our public school system must be transformed, not simply improved upon if it is to produce equitable outcomes for Black and brown children.


As a region, we have begun to master the language of racial equity, but we have yet to master the execution of transformational actions required to manifest it. Racial equity is a state in which life outcomes are no longer predictable by race. It’s not a feeling. It’s certainly not the protection of the status quo or divisive either/or thinking veiled by tweets, Facebook posts, and pontifications. Our language, without boldly different, transformative action, means we will continue to hold very harmful problems in place.

This work is about shifting outcomes. Period. If we are truly agents of racial equity, of a future where Black and brown children are free to live out their authentic brilliance, first we must confront the outcomes, the truths, and the facts we are subjecting our children to today. A foundational truth is that our public education systems were not designed to cultivate the brilliance of Black and brown children. In some cases, they were designed to do the opposite. The data is so clear that we must not protect a set of systems that are actively and blatantly harming children.

Before we dive into the current system outcomes, let’s clarify some things about charter schools that are often used to foil deeper conversations about systemic inequities. The data shared here can begin to properly diagnose root causes and collectively journey towards impactful solutions.

A Note On Charter Schools, Not An Endorsement.

  • Charter schools are tuition-free public schools and enrollment is open to all students. They are independently operated schools that run with more autonomy than traditional public schools in exchange for increased accountability. (Source)
  • Missouri charter schools are governed by independent boards and are non-profit organizations. (Source) Their board meetings must be held publicly and they must publicly report their financial activities.
  • Similar to charter schools, SLPS has begun to run some of their lowest-performing schools independently, managed by a separate 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. SLPS named this model the Consortium Partnership Schools Network (CPN).
  • There are no for-profit charter schools in the state of Missouri. In fact, charter school per-pupil funding is slightly less than what the local school district receives. (Source)
  • Privatization is when “tax dollars that would otherwise be invested in local public school systems are instead being spent on private schools or for-profit entities.” Therefore, we do not consider our local charter schools nor the CPN a privatization effort. (Source)

A Focus On Racial Equity Requires A Focus On The Outcomes.

Racial segregation is pervasive within SLPS and across our entire K-12 education system in St. Louis City and St. Louis County. Although SLPS has a majority Black student population, white students are overwhelmingly represented in the highest performing schools in the district. Choice is practiced within SLPS and across the entire public and public charter education system in St. Louis City.

Black children are overwhelmingly being failed by our current public and public charter systems.

Please note: we excluded the percentages of “unknown” racial and ethnic makeup for each school, and the numbers in parentheses designate the ranking of each school based on academic achievement.

Some argue that we simply need to increase resources for SLPS. It’s true that increasing funding can improve student outcomes. However, when increased funding isn’t strategically leveraged, it can be detrimental. Between 2013–2016, SLPS received over $11.5m to turnaround performance in 8 schools: Sumner, Roosevelt, Yeatman, Oak Hill, Nance, Meramec, Laclede, and Dunbar. Three years later, in 2019, only 9% of students across these schools were scoring Proficient/Advanced in English Language Arts (ELA) compared to 16.2% in 2013.

We acknowledge that the data is limited and is nowhere near holistic. We also recognize there are serious challenges well beyond the four walls of the classroom that impact students. We hope to arrive at a day where we can collectively and transparently measure and report on much more than test scores, especially including social-emotional wellbeing and school climate, but these data matter. Reading proficiency impacts life outcomes including employment and earnings potential, health behaviors and outcomes, and incarceration.

Setting the Record Straight on WEPOWER.

  • WEPOWER has never advocated for adding more public charter schools nor supported an effort to privatize public schools. You can learn about our K-12 policy priorities here: Better Budgets, Better Schools, What’s Next SLPS, our latest calls to action for school board candidates.
  • WEPOWER’s curriculum focused on analyzing the K-12 education system and community organizing has never encouraged adding more public charter schools, nor private schools.
  • WEPOWER has never encouraged any of our community leaders or staff to support public charter schools or private schools.
  • With the launch of Better Budgets, Better Schools (checkout the deck developed by our leaders), we made our short and long-term policy solutions very clear, which include the creation of a new state funding formula (similar to California’s) and a revised local funding system that limits tax breaks.
  • WEPOWER believes in democracy. We believe that whenever possible policies, governance structures, and decisions should be democratically decided upon. While this isn’t true across our entire public education system and its various governance structures, we try to model it in the way that policies are developed and prioritized by the community members with whom we partner.
  • WEPOWER has received unrestricted funding from the Opportunity Trust before, like many other organizations working to achieve educational and racial equity. We have never tried to hide this from the public. The Opportunity Trust is not our sole funder, nor our largest funder. They have never influenced and will never influence our policy priorities, which are developed by community members. We have never and will never accept a contribution from any foundation or individual who attempts to dictate how to use the funds or encourages us to engage in actions that do not reflect our values.
  • We are a nonprofit organization, with all the benefits, limitations, and public accountability mandated by the tax code. Our latest tax reporting (form 990) is easily accessible on our website. We have to raise funds to pay the bills — ensuring our team earns quality wages, we deliver effective community leadership development, and provide grants to entrepreneurs of color, among other things. Receipt of funds does not equate allegiance to our funders’ values or agreement with all of their decisions and strategies.

As we shift from racial equity as a buzzword to racial equity as a fundamental realignment of behaviors, we MUST ask ourselves, at every step, “And how are the children? Are the children well?”


We are unapologetically building power. For us, power is the ability for Black and Latinx families to self-determine their future, one full of systems that nurture our children’s well-being, dreams, and joy. This makes some people and institutions uncomfortable. That people are trying to divide us is evidence that our collective power to transform is growing. We understand that when we disrupt and push systems to change, those who are currently benefiting from the system as it is designed will work to protect the status quo.

We are more powerful together. The more we tap into our collective power, the stronger our movement becomes. So, we invite you to join us as we focus on three major policy priorities this year and beyond:

  1. Call on SLPS to commit to policies that support budgeting transparency and equitable and community-led school closure processes, and join us and others in following the lead of educators, parents, and students as they redesign the K-12 education system across St. Louis City to center racial equity.
  2. Launch a resident-led coalition across East St. Louis and St. Louis to pursue a community benefits agreement ordinance and negotiate with developers in ways that guarantee living wage jobs, avoid displacement, and align to the wellbeing and increased resources for our public education system.
  3. Ensure equitable allocation of Prop R funds and begin to explore increased funding for early childhood education to address the approximate $1.3 billion annual gap.

We are continuously working to cultivate collectivity, give compassion and grace to all people. We aim to make all people feel like each place where our organization lives and builds power is a space where they feel affirmed, accountable, and activated to wield that power towards a radically different future that our children truly deserve.

These are my imperfect thoughts as an educator, social entrepreneur, and fierce believer in a better St. Louis. I am hopeful we can keep this conversation going in a way that moves us forward.

Committed to love, truth, and power,