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IDEA Profile: Erica Williams "This is Where I Live"

Erica Williams
Founder & Executive Director
A Red Circle

Erica Williams was living a comfortable middle-class life. She commuted daily from her home in Florissant to her job as a paralegal at a firm in Clayton, where she enjoyed her very own office with an assistant and a view.  As Erica explains, she and her husband had the proverbial picket fence.  

“We are black.  All our close friends are black. We’re all middle class. We thought it was something that was wrong with the other folks that couldn’t get it together, not racism.” 

That was until the death of Michael Brown Jr. in Ferguson in 2014.

Erica began thinking, “Maybe there is something to this Black Lives Matter. Maybe we need to do some investigating.”

Erica got involved. She went to protests, talked to activists, learned about the history of systemic racism and its manifestations in our community: redlining, restrictive deed covenantsShelley v. Kraemer, real estate agents scaring white homeowners out of north county, white flight, and the impact of disinvestment.

“Wow, this explains so much,” she thought.

Erica began studying for her doctorate in public policy and administration. A class assignment to create a fictitious nonprofit sparked the idea for A Red Circle. Erica chose her own community that she loved, North County, as the example for her project.  

The small municipalities of North St. Louis County she drove through on her daily commute were significantly impacted by disinvestment, leaving scarce resources for healthy food and sustainable jobs. “You can’t even find a salad. It is nothing but fast food. How did we let this become like this?”

With a purpose to improve economic development in North County through a lens of racial equity, A Red Circle was officially founded in March of 2017. Erica is the Founder and Executive Director.

A Red Circle exists “in North County, for North County” for a very specific reason.   Erica explained that North County is often overlooked for state and federal dollars that typically flow to disinvested areas. However, although St. Louis County as a whole is doing well, the economic development dollars flow to West and South parts of the county- not North County. Additionally, because North County is not in the City of St. Louis, it is not included in funding or programs that may be aimed at disinvested areas.  She has tapped into her own network of lawyers, real estate agents, and others to spur interest and investment in projects in the area.

The biggest challenge in the early year was reminding people that systemic racism was still a problem.   Erica explains, “We live in this society where, if something isn’t right in your face, you don’t think it’s a problem.”  This was four years after Michael Brown’s death. Erica shares that when she told people she wanted to work on racial equity, reactions were, “Do you still want to talk about this? Is it still a problem? Do you have to say black? If I said black, you’re being racist. You only want to help black kids.”

According to Erica, after the death of Heather Heyer in 2017, people said, oh yeah, maybe we do still have an issue. This is when Erica quit her lucrative job at the Clayton firm to commit herself fully to A Red Circle.

“Things like police shootings get a lot of attention and get people mobilized, but its things like fast food that kill more black people and children,” said Erica. “Healthy food access is racial justice.”  

Erica isn’t kidding when she says they work toward the holistic betterment of the community. Programs and activities at A Red Circle address food and education disparities, voter education and registration, and access to the arts, just to name a few.

In the beginning, Erica and her husband self-invested to establish programs before approaching donors.  Having no prior nonprofit fundraising experience, Erica was unsure what exactly to ask for. She recalls a seminar at Washington University for nonprofit women leaders where she received sound advice, “if you don’t ask, it is already a no.”

Now her “tiny but mighty” staff includes a volunteer grant writer and a volunteer fundraising consultant that helped create a robust development plan for 2020. “And then Covid hit,” laments Erica. The fundraising plan is on the back burner until 2021, but the need for programs and assistance is very real in North County.

“The community isn’t worried about our logic model and program descriptions, they just need help,” said Erica. They pivoted to a mutual aid format, which has been extremely helpful for their program participants and many additional people in North County.

Give STL Day and Giving Black Day were both extremely successful this year and helped the mutual aid efforts.

“People are taking notice of us and are impressed with what they’re seeing,” said Erica.

Up next for A Red Circle is the North County Urban Agricultural Center: a large urban farm where they will also teach crop science, food justice, and laws impacting food and food systems (including zoning). This site, along with a smaller community garden, will serve as the training grounds for their Food and Justice Fellows program, which serves 19 to 26-year-olds by providing education, experience, advocacy and coalition-building.

 

A Red Circle is also working to address education disparities for students in North County by promoting social-emotional learning inside the classroom, not as an extracurricular activity. This connects students with teachers, helping to build trust, increase attendance and encourage retention.

Additionally, A Red Circle is helping citizens of North County engage in voting this November. They’re hosting a drive-up voter registration event in Wellston on October 3 and a voter education forum with the League of Women Voters later in the month.

A Virtual Kwanza celebration tops off a busy year.  

How to get involved

Volunteers are needed for food delivery and virtual tutoring of students in North County public schools. Financial contributions and donations of household items for mutual aid are also appreciated. Volunteer to help make phone calls to assist people in voting. Sign up for their newsletter or make a donation at aredcircle.org.

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