A conversation with the International Institute’s outgoing president and CEO, Anna Crosslin

Anna Crosslin’s friends were always curious: How could she spend more than four decades working at the same place, in the same role, as president and CEO of the International Institute of St. Louis? The truth, Crosslin would say, is that it wasn’t the same job. There’s a need for continual reinvention in resettlement work, and the prospect of reshaping programs and solving new problems for the immigrant and refugee populations of the St. Louis region kept her energized. In 1978, she took the helm of a collective with nine staffers and an annual budget of $120,000; over the next four decades, she helped it grow into an acclaimed organization with more than 80 team members and a budget of more than $7 million. Next, Crosslin looks to retire this month.

In what ways did the organization evolve during your tenure? Every five years, it seems, we were reinventing programs. We’ve launched services, including a microlending program to help our client population start businesses. Our career path services have helped people with foreign degrees become recertified. We’ve expanded beyond refugee resettlement, though in truth we’re probably best known for that because the resettlement program touched so many lives.

Which resettlement stories have stuck with you? There are so many. There have been times when I’ve done presentations and somebody will come up to me afterward and say, “You sponsored my family in 2002,” or something like that. And I’ll go, “Oh, my God! Really? Wonderful!” We’ll talk about their family and what they’re doing. It’s a really enriching experience to have that happen.

What do you consider your proudest accomplishments? In September 1978, Missouri was the only state in the union that did not have an approved refugee resettlement program, so we had to get a refugee program into the state budget in order to accept the federal dollars for refugee resettlement. Even though I was very new at the time, I had a large role in doing that.

You also helped reenergize South Grand in the early 1980s. We are, in essence, the founder of the modern-day South Grand business district. When we started to use South Grand as the resettlement corridor, we would hear stories about how the Vietnamese refugees would ride the bus up and down Grand to the International Institute at Park Avenue to their English classes. There were closed-up business properties all over. Where some people might look at that and think, It’s so deteriorated, the refugees thought, Oh, opportunity.

How did the pandemic change the services that the institute offers? We had 40 refugee arrivals the week before we shut down. They were so new that they didn’t know how to go to the grocery store on their own or how to buy a bus pass or take the bus. Because of that and other communication needs, we were considered a first responder and part of the safety net system; we were charged with communicating with them and sharing essential information.

How did you ensure that the non–English-speaking population got urgent public health information? That was one of our biggest challenges. We bought robocall software and had a list of active clients and refugees that we had resettled in the last 36 months. I think it was about 800 phone numbers, and we divided them by language. We produced messages that they would hopefully be able to listen to in their native language, get the essential information, and do what we asked them to do. These were things such as school closings, where to pick up free lunches for kids, how to get tested if they believed that they might have been infected…

What’s next for you? I will be doing volunteer work, including continued participation on the St. Louis Mosaic Project steering committee, and I have recently been elected to the board of the Missouri Historical Society. I will also continue to write and speak about immigrants and immigration, especially from a St. Louis regional perspective.


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