Sowing Our Vision

Liberation in Seven Generations

In 2022, Deaconess Foundation sought feedback from residents across the Eastern Missouri and Southern Illinois region to assist in continuing to center the wisdom and vision of our community in the Foundation's policy priorities and values. Deaconess engaged key partners Gladiator Consulting and Commonality, Inc. as a project team to connect with and collect feedback across a variety of neighborhood and community gatherings, funded partner focus groups, one-on-one interviews, and national peer funder conversations and policy research. Ultimately, the insights shared from community lived experience urged the project team to imagine a journey and future which the last seven generations of Deaconess’ work has prepared the Foundation for.
This narrative, enclosed tool, and appendix are intended to inform, guide and call Deaconess Foundation, its peers, funded partners, and community to the transformative work only it can accomplish across the next seven generations.

Our First Seven Generations

The legacy of Deaconess began in St. Louis in early spring of 1889 with the establishment of the Evangelical Deaconess Society. Shortly thereafter the men and women of the Evangelical Church (now the United Church of Christ) consecrated the first Deaconess Sisters to serve the health needs of the community. The first Deaconess Home established to provide health care was located at 2119 Eugenia Street in St. Louis. It would be its second hospital building, which operated from 1897-1930, that would care for residents of St. Louis through an influenza pandemic that ravaged communities across the globe. In 1930, Deaconess opened its third and final hospital on Oakland Avenue, known then as “the magnificent new hospital on the hill.” For the next 47 years, Deaconess would truly embody its meaning...
One who is
devoted to service.

Upon the hospital system’s sale to for-profit Tenet Health System in 1997, Deaconess Foundation was formed as a grantmaking organization “to support children’s causes” across the St. Louis metropolitan area. Fueled by a vision of a future where ALL children in Eastern Missouri and Southern Illinois, especially those growing up in poverty, are made a high priority, Deaconess Foundation invested in over 600 organizations serving children and families in the region.

In 2014, Deaconess celebrated its 125th anniversary by publishing The Deaconess Spirit: 125 Years in Mission and initiating its systems-change oriented advocacy approach. Deaconess established the following public policy priorities:

All children of the St. Louis region should have universal access to comprehensive mental, physical and dental care, supported by a trauma informed care approach, a network of school-based health centers and the benefits of Medicaid expansion.
    Economic Mobility
    Families in the St. Louis region should be able to achieve economic stability within one generation in an environment marked by fair chance employment practices, family — supporting wages and asset-building supports.
      Justice and Equity
      All children of the St. Louis region should receive just treatment under the law, with specific emphasis on contact with the state’s systems for juvenile justice and foster and adoptive care.
        Early Childhood Education
        All children of the St. Louis region should enjoy full access to quality early childhood care and education from birth to Pre-Kindergarten.

          These four public policy priorities have guided Deaconess’ investment in and advocacy for a range of community-led and/or informed initiatives critical to creating conditions that support child well-being in the greater Eastern Missouri and Southern Illinois region. Further, it is upon these priorities that community members were asked to reflect, evaluate, and provide perspective.

          Since commencing its grantmaking activities in 1998, Deaconess has invested more than $100 million to improve the health of communities across St. Louis City, St. Louis, Jefferson, St. Charles, and Franklin Counties in Missouri, and Madison, St. Clair, and Monroe Counties in Illinois.

          The community celebrates these investments
          and calls us to do more.
          For 134 years in mission, Deaconess Hospital and Deaconess Foundation have joyfully demonstrated devotion through service to the children and families of our regional community, grounded in a set of organizational values that have guided the work and relationships within Deaconess Foundation and with the community we serve.
          We believe a just society is essential for the full achievement of individual and community health.
            We believe that positive health changes can occur through cooperative, intentional and well-planned efforts.
              We believe the opportunity to serve is a gift with which we have been blessed, and all our interactions should embody that spirit.
                We believe our tradition and history as a ministry of the United Church of Christ should inform and help shape our work.
                  We believe our decisions and actions should reflect a faith commitment based on God's living presence in the world, continuing revelation, and call to servanthood.
                    Rooted in these values, history, and experience, Deaconess has established a trusting relationship with the community and looks to its next 100-plus years through the lens of the community’s urgent charge for justice, belonging, and liberation.

                    2020 Census

                    To counter the historical, chronic undercounting of people of color in the United States census — which has detrimental implications for the federal funding of community resources including schools, hospitals, infrastructure and more - several of Deaconess’ Funded Partners, including Action St. Louis , Metropolitan Congregations United , Missouri Jobs with Justice , Organization for Black Struggle , and MOVE MO, organized to increase census participation in the greater St. Louis region.

                    What We Heard

                    Community Calls to Us
                    The neighbors, activists, leaders, and organizers we spoke with represent a wealth of community brilliance, lived experience and wisdom. In these conversations, individuals made clear and direct connections between intersecting challenges, such as:
                    Economic insecurity made worse by health concerns and the pandemic
                    Access to housing impacting a child’s education, mental health, and lifelong economic opportunities
                    Natural disasters creating housing insecurity and economic distress
                    (including Eastern Missouri and Southern Illinois’ recent historic, 100 year flooding)

                    Climate change impacting
                    food access

                    Repeatedly, we heard the request to address challenges in the aggregate — and that no one systemic failure could truly be addressed without great effort and action around the others.
                    It is incredibly difficult to characterize the challenges or opportunities for improvement, because it’s all compounded. Each issue dramatically impacts the others. The entire system is interconnected and broken… creating pain in every area. The compound effect of it all is crushing.”
                    Youth Focus Group

                    2020 Census

                    To counter the historical, chronic undercounting of people of color in the United States census — which has detrimental implications for the federal funding of community resources including schools, hospitals, infrastructure and more - several of Deaconess’ Funded Partners, including Action St. Louis , Metropolitan Congregations United , Missouri Jobs with Justice , Organization for Black Struggle , and MOVE MO, organized to increase census participation in the greater St. Louis region.

                    Our Opportunity

                    Responding to the Call

                    From the community, we heard the complexities of surviving and trying to thrive in a colonized, racist set of systems. The community has called Deaconess Foundation to imagine its role in seeding a future world with conditions no one alive today has ever experienced. Having demonstrated through the years, its willingness to listen, reorient and act boldly with its resources and influence, the community has challenged Deaconess Foundation to audaciously own its power in our collective journey of and to racial liberation. Liberation is not meant to simply describe an outcome — rather it is an intentional and conscious movement in which our community can freely exist, dream and thrive in the absence of oppressive systems in a culture of solidarity, respect and dignity.

                    Imagining Racial Liberation in Philanthropy

                    As we assess philanthropy across the U.S., it is critical to note that very few donors or funders can even authentically define liberation let alone apply such a definition and outcome to the concept of modern day philanthropy. Our peers are beginning their own personal work of decolonizing self and examining bias and oppression; we see institutions shifting their practice toward participatory grantmaking and inviting community members on to boards of trustees. Yet, we still see philanthropy make grants to nonprofits, and nonprofits maintaining direction and control of resources ultimately meant for the community. The decision for an institution to move toward liberation disrupts the status quo.
                    What Deaconess seeks to accomplish is
                    However, there are some examples and learnings from our peers that test the boundaries of innovation and change with a racial equity lens.

                    The Kataly Foundation moves resources to support the economic, political, and cultural power of Black and Indigenous communities, and all communities of color. By transforming our relationship between capital, the planet, and each other, Kataly will redistribute and redefine wealth in a way that leads to transformation, abundance, and regeneration.


                    A Framework for Liberation

                    The Tool
                    We are hopeful that this Liberation Framework tool will provide Deaconess a flexible path for the journey ahead. “Tool” is both a noun and verb. It helps us to shape, form and finish. It is something necessary to the performance and successful completion of a task. A tool is very much a means to our end. This doesn’t mean that we must only use this framework or that the framework isn't adaptive and responsive to what we learn through the passage of time.

                    This Framework offers
                    five distinct orientations.

                    (click on each section to learn more)

                    Deaconess Foundation Role

                    Upon applying this framework retroactively, we see that Deaconess’s commitments and activities already align with the framework’s considerations. The institution’s posture has moved between incremental innovation and reform-oriented innovation. Deaconess has been a leader among its regional peers in naming, centering and supporting Black and Brown-led/Black and Brown-centered institutions and communities. It has moved in and out of various roles across the social change ecosystem depending on what circumstances called and activated them to be — such as Healers, Frontline Responders, Caregivers and Visionaries. A comprehensive list of near-term accomplishments can be found in the appendix.

                    As Deaconess chooses to name liberation as its seven generations goal, it must be explicit in Deaconess’s identity. A key activity for the Deaconess Foundation moving forward will be to reimagine its mission, vision, values (noting our recommendations above) and theory of change to align with its adoption of an iterative, evolving liberatory framework.

                    Closing Reflection

                    Our Strategic Aspiration

                    As an institutional advocate focused on health justice and social justice, Deaconess Foundation will orient its abundant relationships and resources in pursuit of liberation within the next seven generations.
                    Primary Components of Strategy
                    Beloved Community
                    1. intentional undoing and unlearning of internal and external practices and processes rooted in white supremacy culture to create a more anti-racist, intersectional, equitable and democratic workplace which mirrors the ways Deaconess Foundation shows up and exists in community and the broader ecosystem while
                    2. elevating, celebrating, and inspiring the ecosystem in Missouri and Illinois by lifting up the liberated behaviors that are creating the conditions that lead to individual and community wellness and liberation.
                    Power Building
                    1. investing bistate to support strong enduring civic agency and engagement for equitable participation in the democratic process to public policy,
                    2. catalyzing the local, regenerative economy based on reflective, responsive, and reciprocal relationships,
                    3. brokering interdisciplinary multigenerational collaboration, and
                    4. positioning Deaconess Center for Child Well-Being as public square for community members.

                    Closing Reflection

                    Our Next Seven Generations

                    Our community, in its infinite and abundant wisdom, has called us to a new chapter of our story. We come to this place not knowing where this chapter will take us and knowing we, nor our children, will live to see its conclusion. We bring with us the legacy of the Evangelical Deaconess Society of St. Louis and Deaconess Hospital. We lead through service and ministry alongside the United Church of Christ. We are willing to experience discomfort and overcome obstacles in the spirit of racial liberation. We know that the journey to liberation might mean that the Deaconess Foundation no longer exists — as a philanthropic entity or otherwise. And on that day, our future ancestors will celebrate the seeds we planted and realize liberation.
                    For the next seven generations, Deaconess will orient our abundant relationships and resources within a liberatory framework so that our community will together realize
                    View the Deaconess Foundation Engagement Strategy Appendix below to learn more about the strategic refinement process and community engagement.
                    Download Appendix