Fertile Ground

By Chris Krehmeyer, President and CEO, Beyond Housing

I just finished reading “Braiding Sweetgrass” by Robin Wall Kimerer, a botanist and poet. I could not more highly recommend this beautiful but challenging story about her Native American traditions and the amazing complexity and beauty of the world we live in. As she closes the book, she gives this remarkable passage about creating fertile ground. Both the metaphor and the reality are truly worth hearing. I really encourage you to listen to the audiobook to hear her calm but still fierce and adamant voice.

Her metaphorical notion of fertile ground is that she has tried to create fertile ground around her intellectual and emotional self to be able to plant and grow the seeds that her mentors planted for her. These mentors include elders of her tribe, family members, teachers, and most importantly, Mother Earth herself. I simply love this analogy of being reverent to those who have passed on their wisdom and guidance to you. Creating fertile ground encompasses having the humility to realize that we each have so much to learn intellectually and emotionally as we make our journey through life. The challenge is if we can be humble enough to till our own garden of knowledge and skills to receive the seeds of our elders, our family, our teachers and Mother Earth herself. Can we then nurture, care, and then share our harvest of learning and wisdom?

I have had the remarkable good fortune to have many mentors pass through my life and share their seeds of wisdom. Some very intentionally, and others simply by being themselves. Former Beyond Housing board chairs Jack Stretch, Peter Benoist Sr., Pat Arnall, Amy Rome, Jerry Pratter, Bill Gilbert, John Risberg and many others gave me an abundance of “seeds” to plant and I tried to ensure that I tended to them dutifully, faithfully and with humility. I have often said that being a leader is a unique mix of hubris and humility. One must have the confidence to believe and act as the leader trying to accomplish great things, but temper that confidence with the reality that you need help and can always keep learning.

As I think about this notion of fertile ground in relation to the work of Beyond Housing, it is clear that by addressing the root causes of poverty in a comprehensive and transformative manner, we are creating fertile ground for children and families to grow strong and vibrant.

By building new homes, rehabbing existing ones, tearing down dilapidated structures, creating economic development activities like a movie theatre, food hall, health facility, a full-service bank and more, we are tilling the fields for children and families to grow. By providing services to the families living in our over 600 rental homes to move them toward their dreams, by supporting the 3000-plus children in the Normandy Schools Collaborative from basic needs to aspirational achievement, by working closely with the leaders of the 22 municipalities in our community to help them govern and grow their communities, by planting over 1,000 trees and native plants all throughout our community, by serving the health needs of those community members in need, we are creating fertile ground for children and families to flourish.

Another concept that Kimerer espouses is one of gratitude and reciprocity. I will not do the message justice here, but as the words convey, can we be grateful for what the world has given us and, in return, offer the gifts we have? The earth gives us the things we need to live; can we, in return, care for the earth so that it may continue to share its abundance with us? We as a society have strayed so very far from the “take only what you need” philosophy of Native American culture, which is a conversation for another day.

As I am now the grateful elder statesman in the community development field here in St. Louis, or, as some say, an OG, I have been intentional to try and share some seeds with others around me. It is my reciprocity. Young, dynamic leaders who, like me when I started, want to change lives and make a difference. I have also tried to mentor younger employees here at Beyond Housing over the years and have been so gratified to see many of them continue their journeys and have great success. I even have the grandson of a former employee now working for us!

It is clear that I am wiser now in my 31st year on my job. That wisdom comes from, yes, my hard work, mistakes, and my knowledge, but let’s be clear: I have been so fortunate to have so many seeds planted around me, so many opportunities to learn and to grow. I am so grateful for those who have shaped me, helped and guided me to the place I stand today. My reciprocity to them is to do as they did and share what I have learned with humility and kindness. My reciprocity is to keep sowing the fields of the 24:1 so more children and families can plant their roots deep, grow their branches strong and reach for the sun and the stars.

One last note, let’s be clear, is that I still have much I want to accomplish and plan to do so. I will keep learning from all those around me. The ground around me is still fertile and I am still tending to my crops and await the next harvest to help move our work forward. For this chance to do this, I am grateful and will continue to give back in return.

Chris Explainer

Chris Krehmeyer I’ve been working in community development in the St. Louis area for 25 years, and I’ve been the CEO of Beyond Housing since 1993. While I’m proud of our accomplishments, I don’t claim to be an expert. At Beyond Housing, the experts we listen to are the voices of the community members we serve. I’ll be raising issues here that I believe matter to our community. I hope you’ll join the conversation. We do reserve the right not to post comments containing offensive language. To paraphrase Dr. King, we can disagree without being disagreeable.

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