Meet the Johnnies: Kea Wilson (A09)
August 27, 2019 | By Rebecca Waldron
Kea Wilson is the author of the novel We Eat Our Own and the director of community engagement at Strong Towns, a nonprofit shaping the conversation on growth, development, and the future of cities. Here, she discusses working in the nonprofit world, the importance of drilling down to first principles, rethinking urban design, and the creative writing life.
What first brought you to St. John’s?
Before I came to St. John’s, I went to a high school where I had a major. It was a performing arts high school called Interlochen, a boarding school up in Michigan. I majored in creative writing, but afterwards I wanted to go to a place where I had no major, which is part of how I ended up at St. John’s. I’ve known since I was a little kid that I wanted to write. It’s what I care about. It’s the process that anchors all my thinking. It’s the practice the shapes my days. I didn’t know exactly what turning that into a career would look like, and I also had all these pesky philosophical questions about how to be a good person and what it means to occupy a human body in the world. So I ended up at St. John’s as a January Freshman. But I always had half of my brain on how I could be a writer. I kept asking myself how I could use these texts we were reading to think about questions of how to live a good life as a writer.
Knowing that you wanted to end up as a professional writer, what were your first steps after graduating from St. John’s?
When I graduated from St. John’s, I sort of had the loose plan of thinking maybe I would apply to residencies or find some other way to continue the creative side of my education. I had written fiction all through school on the side, but I didn’t really know what to do next. I got a job working for the Summer Classics program in Santa Fe, which I then turned into a full-time job offer. I really loved Santa Fe, and I was happy to stay and continue the process of getting great books into people’s hands and getting the St. John’s style of dialogue into people’s brains in a professional capacity. In my spare time, I was writing fiction and trying to figure out my next move. We put on an author event for Salvatore Scibona, the alumnus and novelist, while I was working in the outreach office. I was really excited to meet him. At the time, he worked at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, MA. I was driving him to the airport after the events and I told him I was curious about the program and he asked if I had looked at MFA programs in creative writing. I said “What’s that?!” I had no idea what it was, so I started investigating and found out that there are all of these fantastic programs around the country that pay you to go to grad school and write fiction and teach fiction. That seemed like a really sweet deal, so I applied and I was stupendously lucky that I got in. Salvatore is the one who started me on that path, and I got a ton of help from my old St. John’s [tutors].
What MFA program did you attend? What was your experience like?
I ended up at Washington University in St. Louis. What I really wanted was the freedom and time to cultivate a mind that desires to write. St. John’s was an important part of my education, but it’s hard to write for yourself while you’re there. What you’re doing at St. John’s is really laying the foundation for writing later.
I can’t imagine anyone on the planet who wouldn’t enjoy two years of being able to do what they feel like they were born to do without having to have a day job to get you through it. MFA programs don’t pay handsomely, but they pay enough that I was able to get an apartment in St. Louis which is the best kept secret of urban areas in the country. It has a very, very inexpensive cost of living relative to the quality of life and the quality of culture. It’s certainly a region that has its problems, though, which is a big part of how I got into nonprofit work and started using my writing skills for other things.
What did you do after you finished your MFA?
There was a fellowship program where I won the opportunity to teach for one year after I finished. I’ve been teaching at Washington University ever since, on and off. After that, it gets a little more complicated. I’m such a weirdo; I have a lot of jobs. I’ve discovered along the way that I’m someone who—and I think this is typical of St. John’s students— [is] passionate about a lot of things and my brain works in lots of different ways. So sometimes I teach fiction, but I also do manuscript consultations with students. And then I work full-time for a non-profit called Strong Towns, which is my main job, and I also do some freelancing work on the side, talking to artists, writers, entrepreneurs, chefs, people who make soap in Kentucky, and lots of other really interesting creative people for a magazine here in St. Louis called ALIVE Magazine. I’m also a landlord. I own six apartments, and four of them are low-income housing.
How did you end up working for Strong Towns?
The story really has its roots back when I was still at St. John’s. I went to Chainbreaker Collective out in Santa Fe while I was still in school and built a bike up from scratch. I just felt like I was Aristotle discovering mechanics. It was this totally applied physics moment that was really exciting. I felt so empowered. I took to the streets and started riding my bike as my primary form of transportation. In the process, I found out that not all of Santa Fe is built with human beings on bikes in mind, and I started thinking a lot about how our cities come to be built. It became a really vivid question for me when we were reading Adam Smith, getting into Junior year, reading about economies and markets and how those things impact our built form.
I had gone to St. John’s as a way to spend time reading all these books. But it ended up changing the way I saw everything in my life. It changed the way I saw the city that I was biking around. I started nursing this weird passion for urban economics and built form. And, of course, questions about cities are very core to the St. John’s program. From Plato on, they’re all over the place.
After my fellowship, I got a job at an independent book store called Left Bank Books. It’s one of the oldest thriving independent bookstores in the country. I happened to be working there when Michael Brown Jr. was killed in Ferguson. I ended up doing a few author events for Michael Brown Jr.’s mother, Lezley McSpadden. The bookstore opened its doors to have conversations that were very painful and very powerful about race in America. That experience got me thinking about cities again because I was trying to find my place and how I could impact this region. One of the questions I kept coming back to was about what a city is, and how it shapes our behavior and our systems, like our justice systems. These were really vivid questions for me. A lot of people don’t realize that Michael Brown Jr. was killed for walking in the street on a street with no sidewalk. He was a young man who didn’t have enough money for a car in one of the most car-dependent cities in America.
I had just published my book and bought my first house, and I started looking for other jobs with these questions still at the forefront of my mind. This Strong Towns job just plummeted out of the sky. It was a posting on the internet that a friend of a friend sent me. The president, a guy named Chuck Marohn, had written an article that basically echoed, in smarter language, what I had observed about the fact that Michael Brown died walking on a street with no sidewalks by a cop who thought he shouldn’t be there.
What is Strong Towns?
Strong Towns is a movement dedicated to changing the way that average Americans and city leaders look at how cities are built in an effort to make them more financially prosperous. We’re a media organization, which was a big reason I was a good match for this. I was able to bring my skills as a writer to this organization that’s trying to impact culture rather than just impact policy. We’re working to change the values of a community. That’s how enduring change happens. I act as their communications manager, helping to tell the story of why asphalt and steel and small choices that we make about city design in fact are seismic to the way that our cities function. We also host events throughout the country. We’re trying to get communities to ask a very different set of questions, which is a very St. John’s way of approaching things.
Any advice for Johnnies who may be interested in non-profit work or the creative writing life?
For Johnnies interested in pursuing the creative writing life, I would say [that] having a day job is really good. The best advice I got as a young writer was [to] keep a low overhead and recognize that you can write in a million ways. I write every single day for my fiction work and I also write for my day job. You can use the skills of narrative and adapt them to all kinds of things in the same way that you can use the skills of inquiry and adapt them to any book. So I think that’s the biggest thing, to write everything and don’t be afraid to write everything, just like St. John’s makes you unafraid to read anything.
In terms of getting into non-profit work, in general I would say to apply your spirit of inquiry and questioning to the fundamentals of the field you’re entering. If you can go into a non-profit environment that appreciates the spirit of drilling down to first principles and unpacking ideas, figuring out what we’re actually trying to do here, whatever issue you’re tackling, it can make you really powerful in that space. I know that St. John’s skill is definitely something my employer appreciates. If your issue is homelessness, or campaign finance reform, or data security—whatever it is, there’s always going to be a deeper, more complicated problem to solve. We learn that at St. John’s over and over. People can get very dialed-in to the thought that there is one way to solve a problem. And I think St. John’s people have so much facility in asking better questions of the fields that they’re in, and that’s something that we really, really need in America right now.