After 20 years on the frontlines of fighting hate speech in Missouri, eastern Kansas and southern Illinois —a tenure that encompassed Sept. 11, a fatal shooting at the Overland Park Jewish Community Center, the Ferguson protests, the rise of QAnon and much more —Karen Aroesty is ready to build upon that work, with a focus on positivity.
The longtime regional director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Heartland regional office, Aroesty left that role over the summer but remains active as chair of the St. Louis County Human Relations Commission and interim lead of the U.S. Attorney’s Hate Crimes Task Force.
She’s also launched a new venture, Aroesty Allied, with a goal of “helping individuals, communities, institutions and companies develop interactions, programs and structures to build acceptance and respect with optimism.”
“I want to continue to work in the justice and equity space, but perhaps in a slightly different platform,” said Aroesty. “I learned so much at ADL. But the nature of the conflict was really wearing me down.”
A tireless advocate in the halls of the state Capitol, Aroesty helped manage and lead coalitions that mobilized to pass the Missouri Religious Freedom Restoration Act; establish a state Commission on Holocaust Education and Awareness; ban cross burnings; and prohibit discrimination in life insurance policies for those traveling to Israel.
In the education sphere, the former ADL leader coordinated anti-bias training in schools, local police academies and private businesses across the region, partnering with institutions including the Saint Louis Art Museum and Missouri History Museum, along with countless local houses of worship, community agencies and just about anyone who would listen.
Gedlu Metaferia, former executive director of the nonprofit African Mutual Assistance Association of Missouri, had this to say about Aroesty, with whom he’d worked on racial diversity programs.
“Karen is uncompromising on anti-Semitism, bigotry and hate crimes. She is a role model for people of all races, and she brings positive leadership to our city and state,” Metaferia told the St. Louis Jewish Light in 2006. “And I don’t know how she handles it. She’s everywhere!”
Activism came early to Aroesty, who in the 10th grade worked on the winning congressional campaign of Mike Barnes, a Democrat from Montgomery County, Maryland who now chairs the board of the Office of Congressional Ethics.
A political science major and college radio DJ at Barnard College in New York City, Aroesty later worked on Walter Mondale’s 1984 presidential campaign as a field organizer and for the National Cable Television Association in D.C. before coming to St. Louis to study law at Washington University. She then practiced family and housing law with Land of Lincoln Legal Assistance before opening her own practice in civil rights litigation. She spent five years on the ADL’s regional board before being recruited to lead the local office.
The summer break allowed Aroesty, who retired her Illinois law license, to begin reactivating her Missouri law license — though she admits that whether she plans to again practice remains to be seen.
One certainty: consensus, not conflict, will define the path ahead for Aroesty.
“Maybe I’m spectacularly naïve, but if you can lift people up to say, ‘Look, you can stand by your values, as a matter of policy and politics, and yet you can do so with respect for somebody else whose ideas are different, and get to that middle ground without feeling like you’ve given in – that’s where the real governance is going to happen for everybody, not just the few,” she said.
“People don’t talk anymore about ‘getting to yes,’” she continued, referring to the classic textbook on “principled negotiations” that remains a standard of business and law schools alike. “They talk about ‘I am right, and you are wrong.’ What I’d really like to see more of is a conversation over how we get to yes.”