In what might be a perfect match between a job description and an employee, Sarah Nash is the Gephardt Institute’s Community Engagement Manager.
Since joining the Gephardt Institute in July 2022, Nash leads program strategy and implementation to foster mutually beneficial community engagement between WashU students and community partners in the St. Louis region. Nash leads the design and scaling of the St. Louis Fellowship Program and manages EngageSTL, which immerses WashU students in St. Louis neighborhoods.
“I saw the Community Engagement Manager position at Gephardt as this really beautiful opportunity to support students who want to create social change, and support community partners and nonprofits who are really on the frontlines of doing that work with folks,” Nash said.
As leader of the St. Louis Fellows, Nash is responsible for the instruction, EngageSTL immersions, and community partner facilitation that helps the Fellows learn about community engagement as they take on internships with local non-profit and government agencies. She has overseen the growth of the program to 33 students this year.
Her goal with the fellows, said Nash, is that by working with community partners, they experience a transformation through working and learning together.
“’Mutually beneficial’ are two words that I think of when describing the desired impact of the St. Louis Fellows program,” she said. “One example from a 2022 St. Louis Fellow is that their personal interest in food justice and Black-owned urban farms actually informed, and ultimately expanded, the offerings of the [Great Rivers] Environmental Law Center where they were interning.
“My hope for Fellows is that they fall in love with St. Louis—all of its joys and all of its challenges—and that they see the city as an integral part of their time and education at WashU.”
The burgeoning Engage STL program arose out of the goal to not only help WashU students experience St. Louis neighborhoods, but to help them learn about the many complex historic and modern intersections that make those communities what they are today.
“One of my favorite memories of an Engage STL trip happened last fall when the Gephardt Institute partnered with the Office for International Students and Scholars to bring students to the South Grand neighborhood,” said Nash. “About 15 of us from WashU enjoyed a Thanksgiving meal with hundreds of newly settled immigrants and refugees. This was a particularly beautiful moment of community and connection, because for many of the international students, it was their first Thanksgiving meal, too.”
But the Community Engagement Manager role at Gephardt is only the most recent step for Nash on a civic journey replete with community service and civic engagement. Hailing from a suburb of Louisville, Ky., Nash came to St. Louis as a Saint Louis University student, and participated in its Micah Program, a community service-based housing community.
Though she started in SLU’s Doctorate of Physical Therapy program, the Micah Program also required coursework in community engagement. In her second semester there, an American Studies course on urban crises had her investigate policy and social and cultural shifts—and a mental switch was flipped for Nash.
“I remember calling my parents and saying, physical therapy is not it,” she said. “I want to do urban studies, American Studies, and they said, ‘What does that mean?” But I just knew, I knew that’s the kind of work I wanted to do. So, I dropped the physical therapy program after my first year, and I added American Studies and Sociology, and then eventually added African American studies as a third major, my junior year.”
The strength of her decision was further solidified in the summer of 2014, when Michael Brown Jr. was killed by police in Ferguson.
“I was involved in some student organizing on SLU’s campus pre-August 2014,” she said. “There had been some bias incidents and hate speech on campus that targeted Jewish students and Black students and queer students. This really kind of cool coalition of students was forming around bringing awareness that this was happening on SLU’s campus and mobilizing students to challenge that kind of behavior when we saw it in our classmates.”
The experience of bringing diverse members of a community together for action helped set the stage for the work Nash would eventually do at the Gephardt Institute.
After graduating from SLU in 2016, Nash took a full-time role at the East Side Heart & Home Family Center. It’s an organization that aims to be a catalyst for change in East St. Louis by providing people with opportunities to work and housing, and where she interned her junior and senior years.
“It was important to stay grounded in a space where I felt like I got poured into and that I could pour myself into,” she said. “And so I decided to say work full time at the Family Center, but I also sensed that there would be a next step.”
The work helped inspire her to go back to school. She enrolled in WashU’s Brown School, where she could earn a Master in Social Work (MSW) degree in Social and Economic Development, along with a Master of Divinity from Eden Theological Seminary.
As graduation from her MSW program approached, she learned of the Community Engagement Manager role at the Gephardt Institute, and knew it would be a fit.
“I get to be student facing and community facing,” she said. “I get to do the work of connecting folks, teaching best practices, telling stories, sharing meals.”