Pastor Norma Jean Patterson grew up in East St. Louis, attended the local college and became a secondary teacher and administrator for St. Louis Public Schools. After twenty-five years, she got a calling to ministry in 2002. Since then, she has provided guidance for her community members, shared the Gospel and served the people of Good Shepherd of Faith United Church of Christ. Meanwhile, Pastor Patterson serves as an incredible advocate and community organizer for East St. Louis. She’s a leader in her community and serves as a symbol of change and hope by using the expansion of public transit to lift the East St. Louis community out of poverty.
Pastor Patterson started to become an activist for her community when she saw that minorities in her own community weren’t being hired for a federally funded construction project, building a bridge over the Mississippi River, which lines the Northwest border of East St. Louis. Patterson saw people in her community in need of jobs get bypassed right before her eyes, as the construction companies hired workers from other areas. The low-income minorities in East St. Louis who were being overlooked had no one to advocate for them, so Patterson decided to take on that role. She said, “That’s when the fight began.” It was at this time she created an initiative called 100 Ready Workers, essentially a bank of minority workers who are ready to work in the construction trades.
One of the first questions she asked herself when she began advocating for the low-income, unemployed minorities in her community was ‘who controls the money?’ She eventually found out that the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) controls all money in regards to transportation (i.e. the bridge that was being built). She also found out that the IDOT was in control of the new high speed rail line that is currently being built from Chicago to St. Louis, Missouri. Yet there were no plans of building a station in East St. Louis: the high-speed rail was going to go over the Mississippi River and the existing train station in the more prosperous city of St. Louis.
By building a high-speed rail station so many job opportunities would be created for the local community members, who are in desperate need of jobs. But politicians told Pastor Patterson they hadn’t heard a single cry from the citizens asking for a station to be built in East St. Louis.
Pastor Patterson took the idea and ran with it. She went to local schools and asked the students to write poems and stories as to why East St. Louis needs a high-speed rail station. She attended high school baseball games, high school graduations and collected over 3,000 signatures in less than a month fighting for this high-speed rail station. She got businessmen and pastors to sign the petition and got the congressman of East St. Louis to write a letter expressing the need for this station. She then organized buses of community members to the IDOT office with a bullhorn out on the lawn in front of the office asking for an explanation. The IDOT office pointed them to the Governor of Illinois and so that’s where they went next. Pastor Patterson wasn’t going to give up. She got everyone to bring all of their work clothes and their old boots and had everyone leave it at the Governor’s door to make a statement – to get his attention and it worked. Past Patterson showed Governor Quinn evidence of community support for this station, a binder full of letters, poems, stories, pictures, and signatures, and successfully convinced the governor to build a high-speed rail station in East St. Louis.
Pastor Patterson’s passion and genuine love for her community shines through everything she had done for the community and will continue to shine through her commitment to the East St. Louis community members. Patterson simply puts it and says, “You have to love people and understand that human beings can be nurtured and trained.”