Meet Charli Cooksey, activating her community as the founder of WEPOWER in St. Louis | Leadership for Educational Equity Skip to main content

Meet Charli Cooksey, activating her community as the founder of WEPOWER in St. Louis

This month, we’re thrilled to feature Charli Cooksey, former elected St. Louis School Board member and the founder of WEPOWER. Charli shared her drive to activate community leaders, and it’s our pleasure to share her story here.

Please describe your journey towards founding WEPOWER. What inspired you to launch this organization?

As a young Black woman from and still living in my northside hood of St. Louis City, I experience and observe systemic racism and oppression daily. I navigate two cities inside of one. I own my privilege as an educated professional raised by college-educated parents in a middle class household. It is hard for me to escape the stark reality of traveling to affluent areas of St. Louis and beyond to converse with donors and to access excellent educational, professional, and social opportunities that are a distant reality for my neighbors. I also remember days when my mom cried while trying to balance her checkbook, after paying bills with money she didn’t have, and working a full-time and part-time job, all so that I could attend a private school. These experiences–my privilege and also my lack of–have led me to a life of service and justice, as a TFA alum, founder and former executive director of an education nonprofit, former leader of a racial equity startup, Ferguson protestor, former elected official, and, now, the CEO and founder of WEPOWER.

I came up with WEPOWER in 2015, after the Ferguson uprising. At that time, I was an ed-nonprofit leader, disheartened by decisions made by leaders who didn’t share lived experiences with the students most impacted by educational inequity. I also realized that education alone can only do so much for kids. When sharing my frustrations, my friends challenged me to do something.

I have seen too many disempowering solutions continue to get funded and celebrated, but ultimately have no transformative impact on communities of color. It is time for communities of color, and not someone else, to use their power to envision and pursue a future that they define as excellent.

After reflection on my long term goals for my community, and intense listening to communities of color in St. Louis, I created WEPOWER, an organization dedicated to activating community power to redesign systems to be just and equitable for all.

What is WEPOWER’s mission? What is one mission-aligned success you have achieved so far?

WEPOWER’s mission is to activate community power to redesign systems—health, education, justice, and economic—to be just and equitable for all. The Tomorrow Builders Fellowship is one of WEPOWER’s mission-aligned success stories. What started as a systems design and leadership development program for 14 community members affected by the inequities of St. Louis’s early childhood education system has evolved into a robust, community-led movement that’s engaged over 1,000 St. Louisans.

What led to the publication of the Playbook? How have you shared this resource? What are your hopes for its impact in St. Louis and more broadly?

The Playbook was the culmination of the design phase of the Tomorrow Builders Fellowship, work led by Joey Saunders, LEE member and WEPOWER’s Director of Policy and Systems Change. He created and launched a systems-design process that engaged most-affected community members. Saunders identified early childhood education (ECE) as fertile ground for systems change because the issue was personal to him, having taught trauma-informed pre-K before transitioning to a policy career, and because of the profound, positive ripple effect that high-quality ECE can have on all the systems WEPOWER seeks to transform. Additionally, investing in high-quality ECE is an imperative called for in the landmark report, Forward Through Ferguson, a response to the Ferguson uprising used to inform much of our work. Saunders formed grasstops and grassroots partnerships and crafted a three-phase approach, all while applying a racial equity lens:

  1. “See the system” -- fellows engaged with research, community listening, spoke with subject matter experts, took learning trips, and grounded themselves in a shared context of the systemic racism and inequity that shaped our region and continues to be a wicked problem to date.

  2. “Reimagine & redesign” -- the Tomorrow Builders brought in hundreds of new community members to take the 1000+ community visions, delve even deeper into research and policy analysis, and identify policy and systems change priorities that would equitably transform ECE in our region.

  3. “Organizing & Advocacy” -- the community-driven movement that has formed shifts from dreaming to doing. We activate Tomorrow Builders to build community capacity to organize and advocate for the action plan they’ve laid out in The Playbook.

The Playbook was the culmination of phases one and two and serves as an action plan for phase three. It is, in short, a blueprint for building a better tomorrow, one where all kids and families, regardless of race or income, have access to an ECE experience that yields boundless possibilities. We’ve already seen a lot of impact. This effort has attracted funding for our community-centered systems-change model as well as the coordinating organization that community members call for in the Playbook’s opening section. It’s also been the impetus for initiatives in St. Louis City and County to increase public awareness and equitable investment in high-quality ECE. We hope the Playbook will continue to inspire grassroots and grasstops leaders to take action until all of the proposed solutions are realized. We also hope more communities will see the efficacy of community-led systems change and adopt similar strategies to combat racism and inequity.

Please briefly describe your experience serving on the St. Louis school board. How does your current focus on WEPOWER allow you to make an impact in your community, as compared to your time as an elected leader?

Candidly, serving on the St. Louis Public Schools school board was an incredible, often frustrating, learning experience. It underlined the importance of thinking about how to solve complex issues, like educational inequity, requires thinking systemically and the need for most-affected community members to have more than an opportunity for feedback. Community members who are most affected by racism and poverty are, all too often, consulted inauthentically or ignored altogether.

Focusing on WEPOWER has given me the opportunity to go beyond deep listening and top-down leadership to really not “empower,” a word that makes me cringe, but activate community members, so that the folks closest to the problems are designing and demanding solutions.

The PCI team is focused on supporting senior LEE members to build relationships with a variety of leaders and stakeholders to achieve community-driven, sustainable impact. Can you talk about your Theory of Change and how you rely on input from your community to set and achieve goals?

The heart of WEPOWER is more than community input, it’s actionable, results-based community leadership. Our current systems are poorly designed and harming communities of color, especially lower-income folks. This limits our collective potential to thrive. When you get input from community, it’s an excellent first step. But, chances are some things will either be lost in translation or you’ll need to go back and get more input or maybe the community is cynical because they’re fatigued by all the focus groups and listening sessions and the lack of action that they can see. This leads to apathy and a feeling of powerlessness.

We believe power is a human right. Our Theory of Change is rooted in the knowledge that when communities are activated and organized, they can own their power and lead transformational change. Gloria Nolan, a Black resident of North St. Louis City, is a mom and former school district employee who was frustrated by the bureaucracy and inequity all around her. Folks could have, and probably did, ask for her input. But she joined WEPOWER’s Power Building Academy (our entry-level changemaker initiative) because we asked for her leadership. She went from identifying public speaking and facilitation as an area of growth to joining our Tomorrow Builders Fellowship, testifying before Betsy DeVos in DC, leading a budget-transparency campaign that engaged over 20,000 residents, facilitating a months-long working group that led to the funding and access section of the aforementioned policy playbook, and is now gearing up to serve as the campaign coordinator for a ballot initiative that will generate $84 million per year in equitable public investment for early childhood education.

These sorts of stories are numerous among WEPOWER’s changemakers because our model relies on community members as leaders, not just input providers, to set and achieve goals. Our goals as an organization aren’t the wins themselves (i.e., winning an organizing campaign, ballot initiative, or investment in Black and Latinx entrepreneurs in our business accelerator); our goals are more focused on building community members’ capacity to win. This requires a shift in mental models and the way we think about creating impact and the need to build power instead of working within existing power structures -- it is a more sustainable systems-change strategy.

Little more than five years ago, St. Louis erupted in righteous anger in the wake of Mike Brown’s killing. Like many folks of color across the county, being Black in St. Louis can be enraging and painful. I’ve seen folks share in community input /feedback sessions, which is nice, if you truly feel heard. But, I’ve also seen the work our activated community leaders have done. When you move from sharing input to sharing and building power, that’s when the work takes on an undeniably inspiring energy. That energy is what sustains our work towards equity and justice.