By Debra Kennard, Board of Directors
Kyle Lackey counts among some of the best advice he’s received about college the words of a high school social studies teacher who told him to make sure to get involved. While attending Florissant Valley Community College in the St. Louis suburbs, he found his way to a Student Activities Expo where he took that advice and ran with it. He signed up with the Service Club and shortly became a leader there when he saw a lack of attention to a member who uses a wheelchair to participate. “Leadership is not a title. It’s action and feeling for those you’re serving,” he says.
A short time later, Michael Brown, Jr. was killed in Ferguson, Missouri—the same suburb where Lackey was enrolled in school. The whole experience heightened Lackey’s sense of the inherent privilege of his white body and he felt an urgent call to serve the world immediately around him. He focused his schoolwork and his extra-curricular attention on his community. He was part of a team that raised $1,000 for the Ferguson Youth Initiative.
“How I felt holding that big, symbolic check was motivating and breathtaking,” Lackey remembers.
He orchestrated a “Breaking the Boundaries” event that brought together the four St. Louis Community College campuses to get people to know Ferguson, home to the Florissant Valley campus. He also contributed to his school community as president of the student government.
He kept learning in and out of the classroom. He took sociology classes and learned that uncomfortable conversations are often where growth happens. He eventually discovered he wanted to focus his efforts on the system dynamics of higher education. He enrolled at University of Missouri-St. Louis and graduated in 2018. He volunteered with groups such as the Strategic Planning Council, the Chancellor’s Cultural Diversity Council, and the Access and Advocacy Council. He started work on his master’s degree in higher education in 2019 and is now a graduate assistant in the university’s Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. He was selected as a 2019 fellow of the St. Louis chapter of the New Leaders Council, a Washington D.C.-based leadership development organization, and in 2020 became a part of the 2020 Neighborhood Leadership Fellows cohort at UMSL.
Lackey’s goal is to make the cliched St. Louis question, “Where’d you go to high school?” obsolete. He wants to help build a new system that makes it obsolete because it won’t matter where a student lives in St. Louis. Educational access will be equitable and “all students “will be surrounded by teachers who look like them and staff that can relate to their needs.”
Lackey remembers that he never intended to go to college. As a first-generation college student with a learning disability, there were plenty of reasons to question that course of action. He saw his sister enroll in a nearby school and her example was enough to get him started.
The Scholarship Foundation of St. Louis played an important role in Lackey’s experiences throughout his educational experience. He received financial support and actively participated in the Active Advocacy Coalition (now the League of Student Advocates), which showed him real-world impact of democratic action during trips to Jefferson City, Missouri, and Washington, D.C.
“The money is a plus, but the relationships are worth even more,” he has decided.
Lackey feels the Project Know Us cohort allowed him a space to be vulnerable and authentic. The experience taught him to more fully consider his unique story, but to also appreciate that it is chiefly for him. While he doesn’t need to share his entire story, he learned that pieces of the story can wield impact when uniquely applied and shared with his community.
The exhibit Know Us: Stories of St. Louis Students Finding Their Way will be on display at the Missouri History Museum at 5700 Lindell, St. Louis through March 29, 2020. For more information about the project and the exhibit, visit sfstl.org/KnowUs.