Marissa Lerner ’19 on Cultivating a Sense of Civic Leadership

Civic Scholar Marissa Lerner ’19 (pictured left) considers how her experiences with Leadership Through Service (LTS) and the Civic Scholars Program have influenced her conception of her role as a civic leader on campus and as a citizen more broadly. She also reflects on her work with Urban Harvest STL, grappling with understanding her place in the larger St. Louis narrative.

“A civic leader is one who inspires through integrity, leads with listening, and motivates from ambition. In this way, a civic leader must have an open mind, integrity, vision, and resilience.” These are the first words of my Civic Scholar application essay.

When I first typed them last January, it was a sort of in-the-moment discovery, a processing simultaneous with me putting words on the page. I didn’t know I believed them until I could read them back to myself. Months later, when I ran for captain in the Women’s Ultimate Frisbee team elections, I came back to these words as anchors, touchstones, guideposts. How did I seek to lead? Who did I want to be as a civic leader? The act itself of applying to be a Civic Scholar encouraged me to self-reflect in rare and deeply, personally important ways. The Gephardt Institute excels at this—giving students the space and time to pause, think, reflect. In a world of constant communication and instant notification, this is invaluable.

This past summer, I had the privilege to work with the Founder and Executive Director of Urban Harvest STL, Mary Ostafi. She’s a brilliant, persistent woman with a strong vision for a more food secure St. Louis. Each morning I spent planting, weeding, and harvesting crops on a rooftop farm in downtown St. Louis. Each afternoon I worked to craft a network map documenting where and how food was produced, distributed, and consumed to later analyze food network strengths and weaknesses. But it was the moments with my hands in the dirt connecting with St. Louis youth, or cleaning out the chicken coop with my fellow interns, or watching a child who’d grown up on pop tarts and Doritos taste fresh tomatoes for the first time—that really stuck with me. This summer was not only about learning and loving St. Louis, but also learning my place in the puzzle. Through complex conversations with locals about race and religion while watering beets, I realized my love for the city, and my role in it.

Without the Gephardt Institute’s support and encouragement to explore outside of WashU, I would not have made these connections, stepped outside of my comfort zone, or engaged in such a meaningful way. Programs like Leadership Through Service and seminars on civic engagement in my first few months at WashU encouraged me to constantly think about St. Louis outside of a WashU context, what it means to have privilege, and my responsibility as a university student and St. Louis citizen.

In these ways, the Gephardt Institute has helped me cultivate a strong sense of civic leadership that extends to all aspects of my life and will stick with me far longer than all the math equations I’ve memorized. Through providing space and time to reflect, support and encouragement to engage outside of WashU, facilitating difficult discussions, and teaching deep listening practices—all of these systems foster life-changing personal growth that further transcend to positive community impact. Although I do not yet have the answers to society’s biggest problems, with guidance from the amazing staff and cohorts tied to the Gephardt Institute, I feel ready to start working on them because I’ve learned how to ask big questions and to listen with humility.