Josh Wilson, founder and president of Mission: St. Louis.
JOSH WILSON, BS KINESIOLOGY 2004
By Greg Forbes Siegman
After graduating from LSU with a degree in kinesiology, Josh Wilson (2004 BACH HS&E) went to work in the school system in St. Louis, Mo. On occasion, he encountered students struggling with problems that went far beyond a tricky math equation. Their families lacked the funds to fulfill basic needs like shelter, food, and clothing. He believed there was a direct correlation between those circumstances and the students' academic results. He has been on a mission to break the cycle of poverty ever since.
As founder and president of Mission: St. Louis, Wilson oversees a team of staff and volunteers who tackle this issue on several fronts – education, employment, and community. Now in its thirteenth year, the organization assists people of all generations. Depending on the individual's age and circumstance, Wilson & Co. provides support that includes – and extends far beyond – tutoring, job training, and home repair. On behalf of LSU Alumni Magazine, Jefferson Award for Public Service honoree Greg Forbes Siegman interviewed Wilson about his life, his work, and his love of LSU.
Greg: What did you dream you would be when you grew up?
Josh: “A world class athlete. I was that kid with pages from Sports Illustrated taped on his walls.”
Greg: Did your family play a role in shaping your interest in helping others?
Josh: “Yes. My family highly valued people and relationships. My father was a pastor. As a kid, I had a front row seat watching him and my Mom love and care for people really well. It's a legacy I continue to pull from today.”
Greg: What do you hope your own legacy will be?
Josh: “A man who loved God, his family, and people, and as my Dad always told us when we borrowed anything from people around us – 'let's make sure we leave this better than we found it.' I hope my legacy will be that I've done that.”
Greg: What is something that Baton Rouge and St. Louis have in common?
Josh: “Great food.”
Greg: Knowing what you now know, were there any classes at LSU that may not seem to be related to the nonprofit sector but actually helped prepare you well for your current role?
Josh: “Communications and public speaking. It has been the foundation for a lot of what I spend my time doing as I run MSTL.”
Greg: Was there a professor at LSU who played a significant role in your life beyond the classroom?
Josh: “My exercise physiology professor, Richard McGill. My wife, Leigh Wilson (2003 BACH HS&E) played soccer for LSU. We frequently played pick-up games with the coaching staff before their practices began. One day, I found out Professor McGill loved soccer. I invited him to join our games, and he accepted. So, I got to spend that time getting to know him outside of class. His passion for life and for what he taught – his calling – has stuck with me.”
Greg: What is the mission of Mission: St. Louis?
Josh: “To bridge opportunity gaps and foster flourishing in our community.”
Greg: How do you define whether Mission: St. Louis is achieving that mission?
Josh: “Three ways: We call them Hand, Heart. and Identity. The first are measurable outcomes. Things like employment numbers, wages, literacy scores, math scores. The second are behavioral changes that are more difficult to quantify – such as choosing to train in a skill set or engaging with your children. The third are measurements that our neighbors set for themselves – like getting a driver's license.”
Greg: You started Mission: St. Louis in 2006. What advice would 2019 Josh give to 2006 Josh?
Josh: “Shut up and listen.”
Greg: What is something you've learned from listening and being around the people served by your organization?
Josh: “Community. Doing this work has allowed me to see the beauty in knowing and relying on those around me. I'm a better friend and a better neighbor because of it.”
Greg: In your experience, what is the single biggest obstacle that people dealing with poverty must overcome on the road to a better quality of life?
Josh: “Education, good health, job opportunity, food, steady shelter – all of those things are needed – but if you don’t know you are loved and valued, it is difficult to start on this path. One of the most beautiful things I get to do on a consistent basis is look someone in the eye and affirm who they are. If you know that you are loved, that you are valued, that you have a talent and skill set, and it brings value in this world, it produces the hope that it takes to overcome so many obstacles.”
Greg: For better or worse, that sense of our own value can be impacted by labels that get put on us. What do you think would be a positive label for the people you serve, a label that reinforces they are valued members of your community?
For more information on Mission: St. Louis, visit www.missionstl.org
Greg Forbes Siegman is co-author of The First Thirty (www.FirstThirty.com).