A first meeting with long-time Shaw resident Birdie Chandler will leave one with two impressions, regardless of the conversation. The first is immediate. It is that deep, mellifluous voice, captivating due to the cadence, soothing due to pitch. Were you to close your eyes and listen to Ms. Chandler speaking, you might believe you were listening to poet and activist, Maya Angelou. Consequently, I always think of Angelou when I speak with Birdie Chandler. When I shared this with her, it was on May 31, only four days after Angelou’s passing. Chandler’s response was to share that Maya had been a hero of hers, one she had been fortunate enough to see speak, and this secret. “You know she passed away on my birthday.”
This would be the only way for me to find out Chandler had just had a birthday. Uncomfortable with being the center of attention, this St. Louis activist and advocate for children and families prefers to refocus the attention of those she encounters on what needs to be done in the Shaw neighborhood and beyond.
For over twenty years she had headed the organization she founded, The Shaw Neighborhood Youth/Family Leadership Program which seeks to meet the needs of families and children as well as building leadership qualities into the children. Chandler drops a list of activities the group has been able to participate in like it is a weekly grocery list. “We take children ages 7-12 swimming through the summer, we take them to ball games and museums, and when funding allows we go farther.” Chandler describes the goal of the program as esteem and leadership building, stating, “One objective is to let the children see beyond Shaw and also to see what is in their own area. By being exposed to things they might not be able to afford to do, we hope they will see where they fit in the world, how they can be productive and contribute.”
Because Chandler believes if children experience contributing to their community during childhood, it may inform their attitudes in adulthood, she provides opportunities for giving as well.
“Mondays in June the young and old will work together to make fleece-tie blankets at the Mt. Zion Senior Center on Park Avenue. We did this last year with blankets going to the Ronald McDonald House. It went over so well, we said. ‘Let’s do it again.’ and I’m looking forward to it.”
Many of Chandler’s program events are sponsored by those volunteers in the group, the St. Louis Mental Health Board, The Word at Shaw and SNIA through their Helping Hands Grant. “Through the years a number of neighborhood businesses have helped in different ways too.” Chandler shares, saying, “That is community.”
Chandler moved to her house on Shaw Blvd in 1974, describing her purchase in this way.
“During the time I came to live in Shaw there was such a thing as white flight, which enabled me to buy my home, because the property was in my price range. I bought from the Millers, and later on Mrs. Miller came to me and said she was sorry she ran, and left the city.”
Asked why she never ran, why she continues to live in the city, Chandler’s answer is matter-of-fact.
“It’s more affordable than the suburbs and I love the city I live in.”
Chandler calls her house a “leftover house,” explaining that as the homes on her block were being built, any leftover materials were saved, and when enough material existed to build another house, the work was done. “My house doesn’t have quite as much detail as the homes of some of my friends on Flora, but it’s still beautiful. There’s an arch inside I really like, and I love my side porches, though I don’t get to use them as much as I’d like.”
In each of these features our subjects will answer the same last three questions and those answers are featured here.
1. What or who in Shaw is the thing/person you cannot live without?
“I can’t live without Sweet Art’s art. I love Cbabi! I love his style, his art, and the food that he and Reine make there, I love that too. Cbabi and his wife are an asset to Shaw.
2. What’s on your Shaw bucket list?
“One thing I’d like to see change is that there are times when there is more involvement based on bricks than people. It can be balanced, we can care about both.”
3. If you could time-travel, what would you like to see in Shaw in the future?
“I’d love a community center in Shaw for children. It would be very nice, well structured, with volunteers and people who are interested in kids ‘growth. A center with funds enough to have different organizations in to hold panels and give speeches about conflict resolution, esteem building , leadership development-all the things children need to go forward into the world and be healthy and productive.”
If you would like more information about The Shaw Neighborhood Youth/family leadership program, contact Coordinator, Sonja Little at 314-771-9936.