Finding a Voice: John Oke-Thomas
By Tom Carlson
John Oke-Thomas knows what it is like to live the life of the privileged class. He also knows what it is like to be in the minority.
The Springfield architect was born in Nigeria in an upper middle-class family, but since leaving home after high school, he has been in the minority while in Italy, France, the United Kingdom and finally in the United States.
Working for social justice is in John’s DNA. His father, after graduating from pharmacy school in London, moved back to Nigeria and joined the Unity Party and was active politically. The Unity Party was the only political party at the time that promoted free education for everyone in the country. It dissolved after losing to other parties whose focus was tribal based.
“The various parties were constantly at war with each other,” he remembers. “If your party was out of power, you might end up in jail as my father did. The country suffered and the military through a coup took control in order to stabilize the country. Forty years later, tribal tensions still brew under the surface.”
After graduating from high school, John left Nigeria and headed for Europe to continue his education. He moved to Milan, Italy for six months but Italian didn’t come easily and then moved to Paris. He lived there for another six months before settling in London where people spoke English, his first language.
John received an Associate Degree at The Polytechnical of Northern London then went to work in the city’s public works department. “I spent two years making sure that cobblestones on the streets of London where turned right side up,” he joked.
Coming to Drury
John hoped to obtain a degree in architecture from a small school similar to the one he attended in London. He was accepted at the University of Kansas but was surprised at the size of KU in a town the size of Lawrence. A friend suggested Drury College. He visited it over a weekend, liked it, talked to Admissions on Monday and decided to enroll in January 1984.
While working on his architecture degree, John worked at Trotters Restaurant, which used to be on the corner of Chestnut and Glenstone. In 1987 he had one credit hour to complete in order to receive his degree. At the time, however, Drury’s architecture program was not yet accredited. Waiting for the accreditation to come through, John took a job in a Los Angeles area firm.
In 1990 Drury’s program received its accreditation and John took his last credit hour – in weightlifting – and received his degree. He then completed the required three-year internship with Warren & Goodin before sitting for his boards in 1993.
During this time, he met Helen Little, who was studying nursing, and they got married in 1991. John and Helen, a nurse practitioner for CoxHealth, have raised four children here. The oldest Amanda graduated from Georgetown University and is a vice-president at Wintrust Bank in Chicago; Wesley graduated from Missouri State University and is a medical rep in Kansas City; Philip who is attending University of Colorado in Colorado Springs; and Mariah will attend University of Missouri - Columbia this fall.
In 1993, John was hired by Springfield Public Schools to assist in construction and remodeling of its facilities. Then in 1996, he moved to private practice with Drury as one of his main clients.
He managed renovation of several buildings on Drury campus. Drury President John Moore also retained him to assist in the development of a new campus master plan. “Dr. Moore is my mentor and a cheerleader; Helen and I are greatly appreciative of his assistance and his friendship,” says John.
It wasn’t long until his job description expanded to include Community Liaison.
Washington Avenue Baptist Church Controversy
Dr. Moore had worked for years to raise $20 million for a new science building. The master plan recommended purchasing the Washington Avenue Baptist Church, an African-American institution dating back to 1868. In 1906 when three black men were lynched on the Square without a trial, the church was a sanctuary for African Americans who fled there.
When Drury negotiated to buy the church to make way for the Science Building, both John and incoming pastor Maurice Tate were unaware of the church’s significance to the African-American community.
Drury’s deal with the church called for Drury to purchase another larger church building over a mile away on North National and then to raze the original building. However, once news of the arrangement got out, it was met with a community uproar about destroying a historically significant structure. It fell upon John to develop a compromise.
“One idea was to hire the firm that moved London Bridge to Arizona,” John said, “but the cost was $1 million, and they would not guarantee the work.”
For the next several months he acted as the liaison between Drury, church members and historical advocates. He convinced Dr. Moore to adopt his solution which was modeled after the London Bridge project.
Just as in moving the bridge, the deconstruction crew disassembled the church brick by brick, numbering each brick and each pallet and wrapping them in plastic. Then they built a new shell just north at 803 North Washington Avenue and replaced each brick back in its original configuration. The inside of the church mirrors the original configuration as well.
“During construction, we discovered that the stained glass had been installed inside out originally, and that is the way we put it back,” John said. Drury spent $500,000 on the project and named it the Diversity Center at Historic Washington Avenue Baptist Church and received a “Commendation Letter” from the Missouri Department of Natural Resources for the project.
“My proudest moment was when a former congregant living in California came into the church and did even realize it had been moved,” he said.
Minorities in Business
After the Washington Avenue Baptist Church experience, John joined the church and the political and social activist roots that he inherited from his father were aroused and awakened.
Historically, ambitious young black Springfieldians leave Springfield as soon as they can. “Young African-Americans want to move to an urban area like St. Louis or Kansas City where they have greater opportunities,” he said. “We have had a brain drain in this area.”
In 2009 John, Lyle Foster and Wes Pratt formed Minorities in Business. Lyle moved to Springfield from Chicago to start Big Momma’s Coffee and Espresso Bar on Commercial Street after one of his visits here. Pratt grew up in Springfield and lived in San Diego, California, where he served on the City Council before moving back to take a job in administration at MSU.
Their objective was to assist minority entrepreneurs in growing their businesses. The three MIB co-founders conducted workshops on marketing skills and networking. They urged local government institutions to accelerate efforts to recruit minorities to Springfield.
At the University level, the issue of diversity is one of the criteria considered in the process of continuing accreditation. Aware of the benefits of diversity and in response to complaints from the black community of racial profiling, the City tried to recruit minorities from Kansas City and St. Louis for its police force.
These efforts had mixed results. The truth is that a well-qualified minority applicant did not have to move to Springfield to get a good job. Frequently, there had to be special situations - such as relatives from here - for someone to decide to make the move.
MIB argued local institutions should adopt preferential score points to minority owned enterprises as done in urban areas. This is frequently done by some government agencies awarding public contracts that use a point system. A general contractor, for example, who promises to use subcontractors owned by a woman or minority has an advantage in the bidding process.
But this argument for preferences can cut both ways. Local governments are urged from time to time to give preferences to local firms. Why shouldn’t local tax paying firms be preferred to out-of-state competitors? Keep the money that is raised locally, spent locally; or so goes the argument. In practice, however, preferring local or minority bidders can have some bad results. The devil is in the details.
If a local contractor is given a three-point advantage, this imposes an additional expense on the taxpayers. Out-of-the-area bidders may decide not to bid at all. Without that competition, the costs can escalate much more than the preference. And finally, there are the games that bidders play. The company owned by the husband and wife is now owned 51% by her and 49% by him. Or if you need an advantage, grant an equity interest in your company to a woman or a minority so you get a few points on the bid sheet.
Because of these complications, public institutions have restricted themselves to requiring good faith efforts in the bidding process. They have modified their bidding policies by requiring evidence that local bidders had expended at least some efforts to recruit minority participation.
But if you are in a minority, you ask yourself “is good faith good enough when you are not getting any work?” MIB has worked cooperatively with local institutions to advance their goals, but when they felt their efforts were not being heard, they were willing to be more aggressive.
For example, in March 2013 Springfield Public Schools had scheduled a bond issue. A week before the election, the Springfield News-Leader reported that MIB, which had grown to 45 members by then, urged a “No” vote. Lyle Foster was quoted as saying that the District had spent $200 million in recent years but “not a single penny” went to “diverse businesses or entrepreneurs.”
After the announcement, a meeting was convened at the Chamber with Jim Anderson, Superintendent Norm Ridder and John, who was then the president of MIB and a member of the Chamber’s board of directors. The message was softened and MIB issued a letter stating “MIB urges every citizen to go out and vote on behalf of our children on Tuesday, April 2.” The bond issue passed.
Aware that greater diversity is linked with economic development, the Chamber made an extended effort to link its efforts to minority business owners in 2010. "Architect Tim Rosenbury said, 'People who look like me will probably not be the next workforce we have in Springfield,'” John remembers. “That was a powerful statement then. It was gratifying to see that the Chamber was also acknowledging the changing face of the workforce.”
And it was controversial in some quarters. “There were push backs at that time. I believe some members resigned from the Chamber,” John said, “but Jim Anderson decided it was the right thing for the Chamber to do.”
The Chamber’s initiative strengthened the relationship between MIB and the Chamber. “Chamber members started coming to our monthly meetings, and not too long after that I was invited to serve on the Chamber board,” says John.
Is Springfield less prejudiced than it was 30 years ago, I asked him. “In some ways yes, and in some ways, we still have a long way to go,” he replied.
We All Rise or Fall Together
John says a diverse society is best for all concerned. Remembering tribal conflicts in his native Nigeria, he notes that if present trends continue, Caucasians will be in the minority in a few decades. “The question is how do we navigate these trends so that the shoe does not end up on the other foot. Diversity is all about the right building blocks, so we don’t end up in that type of situation.”
While overt racial issues have declined in the last 15 years, he says, Springfield still has a “welcoming deficit.”
“What I mean by a welcoming deficit is that while we are making improvements, we are reluctant to be intentional in our approach to redressing grievances, we still see inclusion as a “zero sum game,” instead of a “win-win” situation.
People are more accepting now but it is still at arm’s length, therefore, it is incumbent on our leaders to set the right tone. It doesn’t matter how we got here; we are in the same boat now and none of us is going anywhere.” he said.
Perhaps surprisingly, he said political liberals are also part of the problem.
“Far left liberals have made it very difficult to have a conversation,” he said. Because of the importance of being politically correct in liberal circles, ordinary whites are reluctant to engage in honest conversation with blacks out of fear of saying something not PC.
“What I find is that white people who mean well guard their conversations. They are afraid of being brow-beaten," says John.
Black people have limited power to extend the conversation. Barriers cannot be lowered between the races if whites are reluctant to have a conversation. “We need to allow people to say what they are thinking so we can have a meaningful and solution-based dialogue,” he said.
John's efforts on the Chamber have expanded to workforce development. The workforce encompasses everyone in the economic spectrum. He believes society needs to increase its effort to train young people in the vocational and technical trades. “A four-year college degree is not for everyone,” he says.
“I see it every day in my business as an architect. There is a shortage of carpenters, masonry, plumbing and HVAC technicians,” he says. “If we are not careful, we are going to find ourselves in a tough situation in five or six years, as we will not have the necessary workforce to fill these positions.”
The sociologist Margaret Mead once said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.”
Forty years after leaving his country, John too remains strong in that commitment.
This article is part of the Chamber's special Centennial publication. Click here to return to the main page.