Interview: Anna Crosslin, President and CEO of the International Institute of St. Louis
Stepping into the sunlit hallways of the International Institute of St. Louis building—for decades home to South City’s St. Elizabeth Academy High School—a kind of placid dignity fills the air. It’s 100 degrees outside, the sky smugly absent of clouds, but inside the Institute, a calm takes over, a quiet peace. President and CEO Anna Crosslin waits in a two-room office that could serve as a gallery in its own right. Traditional and modern Japanese art hang from the walls and in stately glass vitrines. Many of these pieces, Crosslin will go on to explain, are family heirlooms. Others, she has collected herself over the years.
Crosslin moved from Japan to the United States as a toddler and took the helm of the International Institute nearly four decades ago. While the Institute’s triage of Immersion, Investment and Inclusion programs offer ever-expanding support and education for foreign-born families and individuals relocating to St. Louis, it is the vibrant Festival of Nations for which it is best-known, gathering over 125,000 visitors in just two days. This year’s Festival launches the weekend of August 26 and 27, promising to be more robust, colorful and filling than ever. Joining food favorites like Argentine and Filipino, new vendors will sell traditional ethnic food hailing everywhere from Bolivia and Colombia to Uganda and Laos. New entertainment includes performances by Beatha Cara, a youth Irish music and dance ensemble; and Yamini Saripalli, a traditional Indian dancer from Maryland. And, as always, the festival is free and open to the public in St. Louis’ Tower Grove Park.
While chatting with Crosslin in early July, it became abundantly clear how 2017’s Festival of Nations might be the most enjoyable—and symbolically important—to date. “With everything we do, we seek to build bridges between people who aren’t the same—which is so important right now,” says Crosslin.
How has the Festival of Nations evolved over the years?
Let’s step way back—the International Institute of St. Louis was founded in 1919. In a couple of years, it will be 100 years old. We actually held our first festival in May of 1920. We have, for much of our nearly 100 years, been offering festivals here in St. Louis—different names, different activities, different iterations—and it’s been one of our major purposes to connect newcomers to long-timers in the community by sharing their culture and traditions.
How did you first become involved?
I’ve been at the International Institute going on 40 years. I came to St. Louis from Seattle to attend Washington University in St. Louis, and when I finished in 1972, I worked there from 1973 until 1978 for an international-studies group at the university. Through my work, I came into contact with people who were involved with the International Institute, which was a very small operation in those days. When a vacancy occurred at the Institute, I decided that even though I didn’t know much about refugees in those days, that it would be a good fit—because at least I did know something about political science. They took a chance on me, and 40 years later I’m still here and have been able to build the Institute into something more than it was when I started.
During the time I’ve been here, we’ve had a couple of major festivals—like the International Folk Fest at Queeny Park between 1992 and 2002. Then we moved down to Grand and Gravois and wanted to do something for the neighborhood, so in 2000 we relaunched Festival of Nations. It’s been going on for about 17 years.
Arguably, the idea of the “refugee” and the “immigrant” in the United States is especially pivotal right now. What do you think more St. Louisans would benefit from knowing about its own refugee and international population?
One of the things unique about the Midwest—which can also be a bit of a challenge—is that it lacks the population diversity that you see on the coasts. There are many reasons for that. A lot of people who live here have always lived here—they’ve never moved away or spent part of the year somewhere else. As a consequence, their worldview is somewhat limited. In New York City, a third of the city is foreign-born; in Chicago, over twenty percent is foreign-born. I was raised in Seattle, heavily foreign-born. In these places, you develop a different impression of the world when immersed in diversity.
For the most part, St. Louisans haven’t had the opportunity to live with such diversity. So, some of them—who don’t travel widely or study other cultures—may feel more comfortable in an environment surrounded by people like them. And it’s much easier to do that in St. Louis than in a city where it’s almost as hard to find someone who was born there as it is here to find someone who wasn’t born here.
But one thing we shouldn’t forget is, as a nation, America has always been conflicted about diversity. It’s not new to be prejudiced against newcomers. Historically, each generation that comes to America has been scorned by the generations that are already here. But, at some point, they become accepted and the next generation is scorned instead. For example, when Germans who arrived here in St. Louis, they were manufacturers and escaping different kinds of religious persecution. They were scorned by the French fur traders. And then the Irish came and the Germans hated the Irish. If you look historically at race in St. Louis—or what was defined as race in those days—the first race riots were between the Germans and the Irish. Then later the Mediterraneans came, the Italians, and the Asians, who were then subjected to exclusion acts. Every generation, there is a new group that is not accepted by the people who are already here.
That situation becomes ameliorated in environments where everybody is from somewhere else. But one of the opportunities here by growing ethnic and racial diversity is that it provides the chance to learn about people who are not like you, to live and thrive around each other. I don’t think naturally St. Louisans are prejudiced; I think there are a fair number who are ignorant because they have not had the kinds of experiences that some of us have been blessed with—to understand the kind of hurdles that newcomers face.
Rational thought has historically helped overcome prejudice. What’s happening now is that automation is accelerating economic transitions a lot faster and replacing traditional jobs. We’re at the point that things are evolving so fast that the general population doesn’t have a chance to sit back and digest the change and decide what they’re going to do. By the time we notice it, it’s already happened. And fear of outsiders can be the result—the assumption that if we eliminate the immigrants in the United States that certain jobs will come back, when the reality isn’t that immigrants are taking these jobs, but that these jobs have left—or no longer exist. The government and the education system in America have not done a good job preparing people for this rapid change.
What are some of the communities who have come to St. Louis in your time who are really redefining what it means to be a St. Louisan?
Probably the most well-known are the Bosnians, who came in the ’90s. When they first came, I remember the pushback—because they weren’t Christians, or left their shoes on the front porch in these Scrubby Dutch neighborhoods, or wouldn’t lower their curtains at night, or had smokehouses in the backyard to cook their meat. And people would get so worked up about it. And I thought, “Don’t you have a barbecue pit? What are you talking about?”
It was a manifestation of fear, as opposed to the reality. But since 2001, the U.S. government changed its strategy with regard to refugee resettlement. It no longer resettled large singular groups to any particular city, but rather a few thousand of this group, a few thousand of that group. So today, instead of seeing one big refugee group in St. Louis, we have pockets of many kinds—which really contributes to our diversity and makes for a wonderful Festival of Nations. But they don’t have the opportunity to be as impactful in having identifiable neighborhoods, for instance. So instead, we want to think about the larger refugee community as a group and how they are impacting certain neighborhoods—including the South Side and the International District.
One of the changes that I have seen in St. Louis is in the Middle Eastern population—the Afghans, the Iraqis and, more recently, the Syrians, who are very entrepreneurial in terms of starting companies where they can hire their families in order to thrive. We now see Turkish restaurants on South Grand, and a Moroccan restaurant, and a Saudi restaurant on Cherokee. We have cleaning services where everyone speaks Swahili, and gas stations run by Congolese people. It is less about a particular group, but rather the diversity of these groups that you might not expect to see on the St. Louis landscape.
One of the many things that the Festival of Nations does is provide a summer benchmark prior to school year, introducing so many young people to the city’s diversity.
Everybody tends to look at the differences first: language, clothing, religious beliefs. We call it the “cultural iceberg,” looking above the water line. But the bigger part of the iceberg is below the water line—and that’s about shared values and behaviors. Everybody loves family. Everybody respects the privilege of being able to practice their own religion. So many love the idea that they can vote, because they’re from societies where they were oppressed before. So how do you showcase these shared values and behaviors in a manner that doesn’t lecture, but creates a welcoming environment?
Food is a common language, for example. International sports can bring people together around an event, like chess. In St. Louis we have a huge chess community, and we invite the Webster University team, and many of them are foreign-born. We’re trying to tell the story of why these people are here in St. Louis and build that into the educational component of the festival.
In the end, while we want everyone to enjoy the food and culture, our goal is to help St. Louisans look differently at these cultures when they walk away. Is there part of that they can retain and feel good about in the face of all of the awful publicity out there?
We’ve just introduced a world religions area with the Interfaith Partnership, so that visitors can learn about Islam, or the Bahá’í faith. How can anyone purport to be negative about these religions if they don’t know that much about them? How can we bring in more groups to help us normalize the issue of diversity?
In a society where we are far more connected in many ways than before—whether it be our cell phones, or Facebook, or Twitter feeds—we are amazingly disconnected in other ways. We have begun to develop relationships with too many people who are like us. Therefore we are challenged by being able to stretch our imaginations, our attitudes, to be more inclusive. Everybody doesn’t have to be alike to live together. In addition to our common values, we want to celebrate a richness of culture and arts that we all can enjoy and benefit from. In the end, it can’t be about “us” and “them.” It has to be about “we.”
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