WU alumna discusses white flight in St. Louis
As part of Mortar Board Week, Brittany Packnett of Teach for America St. Louis spoke in the Danforth University Center on Tuesday evening about institutionalized racism and education.
Mortar Board Week, which is held by Washington University’s chapter of the Mortar Board National College Senior Honor Society, annually addresses issues of education and engagement in and around St. Louis by hosting speakers and fundraising events.
Packnett graduated from Washington University’s undergraduate program in 2006 and currently serves as the Executive Director of TFA St. Louis. In the fall, she served as a lead activist in Ferguson, Mo., and was appointed to the interdisciplinary Ferguson Commission.
In her talk, Packnett stressed the relationships among various systems of oppression alongside the need for systemic change. According to the presentation, the large-scale movement of white families to homogenous suburbs in an effort to escape racially mixed areas such as North County and North City—a phenomenon known as “white flight”—has resulted in the movement of critical resources away from areas in need over time.
“When these families start to move, so does the quality education,” Packnett said. “It goes with them. So places like Hazelwood, Ferguson, Florissant School District before they were merged, Jennings—all of these places had these five-star education systems and [then] we started to see the decline of St. Louis Public [Schools]…and so these schools end up abandoned. If you drive through St. Louis City right now, you will see all of these big, gorgeous buildings that used to house thousands of kids every day that are just sitting there, vacant.”
Packnett specifically discussed with students the Pruitt-Igoe urban housing project of the 1950s. The project, according to junior Clark Randall, frequently serves as a symbol of the failure of urban renewal.
“It was originally designed so that there would be two 11-story buildings. One called Pruitt, one called Igoe—one for white, one for black,” Randall said. “It kind of struck down this idea that urban renewal could work.”
The complex, intended to revitalize the area, quickly became plagued with crime and poverty, partially because it lacked resources necessary for success. As the area became ghettoized, the remaining resources relocated from the City of St. Louis to St. Louis County.
“So when we started to see some of those 30,000 families that we’ve seen over the last three decades leave St. Louis city and move into St. Louis County, a lot of that started with Pruitt-Igoe,” Packnett said.
Senior Will Wilder, a Mortar Board member who will be working for Teach for America in Las Vegas next year, asked Packnett to speak during Mortar Board Week after meeting her through Teach for America events.
“She’s very busy, but today happened to be the only day this week that she could talk, which worked out really well,” Wilder said. “We just mentioned that we wanted to talk about education inequity in St. Louis and she went with that.”
Sophomore Bradley Schlesinger, who attended the discussion, described it as a catalyst for personal action.
“I guess I wasn’t aware of the extent of how these issues play out in St. Louis until hearing [about] it right now,” Schlesinger said. “It just made me really want to do something—or try to do something—to help.”