How Does Our Region’s ‘Concentrated Stew’ of Complex Problems Inspire Wally Siewert? Find Out at TEDxGatewayArch
From health care to public transportation, policing to prosecution, Wally Siewert, director of civic engagement and the Impact Fellows Program at FOCUS St. Louis, is invested in understanding some of the St. Louis region’s most pressing issues. Guiding St. Louis-based leaders and public servants in workshops, public discussions and more, Siewert approaches his work with his “most deeply held political belief,” thinking about “what it takes to create cooperation among co-citizens while simultaneously respecting every individual’s right to pursue her own personal conception of the good.”
Ahead of his TEDxGatewayArch talk in St. Louis on Sept. 12 at The Pageant, Siewert discusses how he thinks we should hold public leaders to higher standards, his role at FOCUS St. Louis and his optimism for the region.
Guided: You’re a political ethicist—can you explain what that entails?
Sure. One of the defining features of sovereign government is that it claims a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. It’s my goal to understand and explore the best ways for us as a community to make the decisions that we end up imposing on each other at gunpoint, essentially. So, if we’re making decisions as a society together, and whether it’s the decision I agreed with or the government’s imposing that on me—it’s actually not the government, it’s my co-citizens that are imposing that decision on me. So, getting people to recognize each other as participants in a process, instead of thinking of government as “that thing over there” that’s doing all this stuff to us is one of my main goals.
We can think about questions of morality, which is about how individuals behave, or questions of justice, which are about the design of institutions and policies—those are two very different questions. But there’s a gray space in the middle. If you’re an individual with a public role, you have to answer to both norms, justice and morality. You could be an elected official, an appointed official, a public employee, a nonprofit leader or every single American, in their role as citizen. In all of these roles, you have to ask: How do I morally behave as an individual in order to make our democratic process as just as possible?
This is a difficult job, because democracy is an ongoing moral tragedy filled with paradox and conflict. But that’s how we know it’s working. We as a society are a moral tragedy filled with paradox and conflict.
By moral tragedy, I mean a situation in which there’s no clean moral choice. The paradigmatic example of moral tragedy created by Jean-Paul Sartre is this idea of a boy forced to choose between caring for his mother on her deathbed or signing up to defend his country at war. Either way he feels like he’s betraying someone. So, when we get into public spaces, usually the choices that we face are those kind of choices, where there’s no clean moral choice. Do I take this massive contribution that I know is going to come with strings attached? Or do I cede the race to my opponent, who I think is going to do horrible things to the people that I’m here to protect?
Understanding the difficult choices that people face is why we need to hold our public leaders to such high standards. Including our police officers. Including our elected officials, our appointed officials, nonprofit leaders, anybody that wants to step into the public space. We need to hold to that high standard.
So what does it look like to hold them to that higher standard?
Well, of course, that depends on the role they play. If they’re elected, we have term limits—they’re called elections. If they’re appointed, or if they’re public employees, we have to keep the pressure up.
One of the most difficult things that St. Louis faces is accountability for police. So, how do we deal with that? How do we think about that? How do we empower leadership in the police department to make the changes that they need to overcome the systemic racism that 400 years of intentional, institutional, interpersonal subjugation of African Americans on this continent have created?
That means fundamental basic change, and fundamental basic change is always painful, no matter what. I think that’s one of the biggest canards that people think when they’re like, “I’m looking for social justice, which means that whatever steps I take, they’re going to be obviously right and [a] clear step toward justice.” But the problem is, we are so far off the path of justice at this point, there’s no path back toward justice that doesn’t pass through injustice itself. So, they’re always hard choices.
You’re the the director of civic engagement at FOCUS St. Louis. How long you have been there and what’s your role?
I’ve been at FOCUS going on two and half years now. I came from the University of Missouri, St. Louis, where I ran the Center for Ethics and Public Life. My role at FOCUS is really twofold. On the one end, I run the Impact Fellows program. If you’re familiar with FOCUS, we have a full range of leadership development programs. Impact Fellows is a little different. We think about it as graduate school for leaders. So, I’m not going to teach you how to be a leader or a better leader, I expect you to step in as a leader. Instead, we’re going to spend the first five months deep-diving into an issue around the region, and then you’re going to pick a project and you’re going to pick a community partner and you’re going to spend the next five months actually moving the needle on that issue. It’s doing, not learning.
Our subject this year—I’m really excited about this year’s cohort—is workforce development as it relates to decarceration. So this means thinking about employment as an off-ramp on the various pipelines to prison. We have the fastest growing rates of female incarceration in the country here in Missouri. It’s absolutely ridiculous. It’s overwhelmingly women of color, and overwhelmingly they are incarcerated because of technical parole violations. These fellows are going to spend 10 months looking at this issue.
That’s one piece of my job. The other piece of my job is all of the community conversations that FOCUS hosts on the issues that are happening in the region. To give you a couple of examples: In 2017, shortly after we had the brand new police chief and the brand new director of public safety here in the city, I had those two folks, as well as Bruce Franks Jr. and Reverend Gill Ford from the NAACP, on stage together at the Missouri History Museum talking about the future of policing in St. Louis.
More recently, we had all the prosecutors from the region—Wesley Bell, Kim Gardner, but also the Trump-appointed U.S. attorney and the Republican prosecutor from St. Charles County—on stage together talking about the future of prosecution. There was some amazing alignment among them about the need for social services in prosecution offices, about the need to address the fundamental social determinants of poverty that create all the crime. Wesley Bell and Kim Gardner are on their way to trying to implement some of that.
And, most recently, we had a conversation that was trying to fill the void after Better Together collapsed a little bit and say, “Look, we need to have this conversation as a community, and not the way Better Together did it.” We had a conversation at the Missouri History Museum about equity in policing and equity and political representation for any kind of effort to reform regional government. This would include the upcoming Board of Freeholders process.
Guided: What brought you to this work?
I like to articulate the things that make sense on both sides of an argument—not falsely two-siding, but simply to understand the fundamental values that we all share that we’re just prioritizing differently. That ability to put myself on two sides of a conflict might come from the fact that I grew up in two different countries under two different cultures. I grew up partly in Germany and partly here. They’re both liberal Western democracies. Moving back and forth just made me realize how much of the world around us could easily be different and how many assumptions we make about the way things always were and the way things ought to be. I’ve always been somebody who asks questions about why things are the way they are.
The other dichotomy that brought me to this was after undergrad, I took a job doing grassroots community organizing, mostly on consumer issues, like utility deregulation—that was going to give them all kinds of power to raise people’s utility rates—health care, nuclear waste transportation and stuff like that. That was all door-to-door grassroots work, so I’ve knocked on 100,000 to 150,000 doors probably over the course of a lifetime.
That’s one end of the political spectrum. Then I went back to school and got my Ph.D. in political philosophy, and that’s the tip top of the ivory tower. We don’t even do data. That’s too dirty for us. It’s pure conceptual analysis. What is justice? What is the idea of government?
Interestingly, I found that those two levels of political engagement, that kind of pure brain abstract piece of it over here, and the kind of hardcore, street-level, knock on people’s doors, meet them where they’re at, level over here, speak to each other really well. This is because they’re both about ideals. Bringing that to public officials of all kinds people see it as useful when I’m able to take the abstract values conflicts and connect that to the real-world challenges they face. I’m not telling them how to make the decision or what decision you should make. I’m hopefully handing them some tools to think about that. I’ve found that to be really gratifying.
Guided: In your wealth of experience, why do you think that your work is particularly salient to the St. Louis region, and how do you envision the future of the St. Louis region?
I never imagined to stay in one geographical location more than five years in my adult life before I moved to St. Louis, and I’m sucked in here. I love St. Louis. I’m totally blown away by this city. But it’s not because this city is without problems—it’s partly because of the problems in the city.
Here’s the way I see it: This region has all of the nation’s problems boiled down to a nice concentrated stew. We sit in the middle—we’re North versus South, East versus West, we’ve got rich versus poor, black versus white, rural versus urban, old industrial economy versus new entrepreneurial economy. We’ve got it all, and it’s all packed into this region. And for me, either we can go the route of “we can drown in our problems” or we can become a Petri dish to grow new solutions.
I would like this region to go that direction, and I see it already happening. We are doing some really interesting and innovative stuff in this region when it comes to race. It’s been five years since the killing of Michael Brown, and I see a lot of people out there [saying] nothing’s changed. No, our institutions haven’t fundamentally changed, but it’s only been five years. That takes a while. If you’ve been in the civic conversations since then, a lot has actually changed. You cannot exist in the public space these days without addressing these issues. That doesn’t mean that everybody’s on the right side of these issues, but you cannot exist within the public space without addressing these issues. And there is a whole new generation of leadership that is just taking power in this city. Think about the fact that we have the first African American female circuit attorney in St. Louis. That Wesley Bell got elected by a 75-percent-white county. That our new director of public policy in the county is Cora Faith Walker.
I do wish things would go faster. There’s a lot of cool things that could happen, but it’s going to take people continuing to pay attention, continuing to hold public officers accountable and continuing to jump in themselves to do the work. Democracy is for those who are in for the long haul. Hold true to what you believe in and stand up and take responsibility. I hope to help people do that.
General admission and VIP tickets are available online for the TEDxGatewayArch “Crash Course,” which will feature five 18-minute talks as well as sets from musicians including the Jeremiah Johnson Band.
TEDx events are independently run, with a goal of sharing ideas within communities—and in St. Louis, all of those on stage must have local connections. Featured entertainers and speakers at The Pageant on Sept. 12 include Yvonne Osei, a visual and performance artist and curator in residence at COCA; Jean Ponzi, green resources manager at the EarthWays Center of the Missouri Botanical Garden; Jeremiah Johnson Band, playing a mix of Southern rock, country and blues; and an African youth drum-and-dance troupe with Geoffrey Soyiantet, founder, president and executive director of Vitendo4Africa.
Featured image courtesy of FOCUS St. Louis.
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