About Cultural Leadership

Who We Are

Cultural Leadership students learn the skills needed to become risk takers, activists, and problem solvers who recognize and resolve critical issues facing society while building and using a diverse network of allies.

Cultural Leadership is a youth education and leadership nonprofit organization. Based in St. Louis, we are dedicated to creating a more just community by training area youth to be the next generation of civil rights leaders.

We train high school area youth over a year long program, to stand up, speak out, and take action. Students learn about our country’s civil rights history, Jewish and African American history and cultures, and develop the skills to be agents of change. We expose middle school youth to similar concepts to provide them with experiences, leadership skills, and how to develop their ideas for change.


Our Mission

The Mission of Cultural Leadership is to create a more just and equitable community by educating middle and high school students to recognize and resolve issues of privilege and injustice through the lens of the African American and Jewish experience. Our motto is that when our students see a problem, they are to grab an ally or two or three, roll up their sleeves, and get to work creating a world of inclusion and equality.

The History of Cultural Leadership

Established in 2004 by Karen Kalish, Cultural Leadership was modeled after Operation Understanding DC, a youth leadership organization in Washington, D.C. Both programs were inspired by a similar program, Operation Understanding, begun in Philadelphia in 1985. The late Congressman William H. Gray III and the late George Ross, former President of the American Jewish Committee in Philadelphia developed this unique and profound program. All three of these programs continue to successfully demonstrate the value of instilling young people with a passion for social justice and preparing them to organize and lead others to Stand Up, Speak Out, and Take Action against prejudice and discrimination of all kinds.

Cultural Leadership has made valuable milestones over the last twelve years. Originally envisioned to be a partnership between the Jewish and African American community, Cultural Leadership expanded its student base to welcome applicants who are neither Jewish nor African American in 2009. This change greatly diversified the breadth of perspectives in our student base to include new racial, ethnic, and religious identities.

In 2014, we shifted our high school program year to align with the scholastic academic year, and expanded our programming. Camp Cultural Leadership was first offered in July, 2014, as a day camp with an overnight trip for middle school students. It’s theme of “experience, lead, change,” offers younger students the opportunity to experience our award-winning high school curriculum over a shorter period and at an age-appropriate level. Cultural Leadership continues to impact in St. Louis as an organization that has transformed over 300 teenagers into social justice advocates, and what we lovingly call “troublemakers of the best kind.”

Program Goals and Objectives

When our students see a problem, they are the ones to grab an ally, or two or three, roll up their sleeves and get to work to make our community more inclusive and socially just.

We work with students in our programs to meet five essential goals in support of our mission.

1. To promote cultural awareness and understanding to dispel ethnic and cultural stereotypes;

2. To understand the causes and consequences of social injustices and how to take action;

3.To initiate change in their schools, communities, and other circles of influence;

4. To provide exposure to leaders of social movements who are models of advocacy and activism, and to demonstrate how youth can become involved;

5. To develop leadership competence and learn public speaking; and for high school students learn group facilitation, community organizing and fundraising skills.

Cultural Leadership programs emphasize and include:

  • Self-Awareness and Understanding
  • A Transformational Journey
  • Leadership Skills to Take Action

Student Involvement

We rigorously recruit middle school and high school students from public and private schools, houses of worship, and from all communities within our region. This diversity of participants, racially, religiously, and socio-economically, ensures that students experience different perspectives and that we are building a network of allies and change agents throughout St. Louis that can impact all communities.

Cultural Leadership partners with other youth development organizations in St. Louis including College Bound and Teach For America, to identify, recruit, and holistically support students from under-resourced schools. Through generous support from individuals and local foundations, we ensure that 20-40% of each class represents low-income families.