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Better Family Life’s CEO talks money, movement and motivation

HAMILTON HEIGHTS – Meet Malik Ahmed. 

He’s the mastermind behind the preeminent black community advocacy nonprofit Better Family Life. 

His salary? A cool $137,000 a year. That’s roughly a $2,600 paycheck per week. 

Annual grant funding: between $7 million and $ 11 million. Last year’s funding for this current operational year: $7.5 million. That, of course, doesn’t include the recent half-million that St. Louis dished out to the nonprofit for its continued street fight against gun violence. 

Just how does Ahmed justify his salary and convert millions into a better (family) life for struggling area residents, his mission for the past 36 years? 

Ahmed, BFL’s founder and CEO, points to the organization’s five core programs that spawn about 30 to 35 other services. The cores are: housing/asset development; cultural art; workforce development; community alliance and engagement; and youth, family and clinical services. 

On top that, he said, there are about 150 full time employees, all of whom are paid comparable to industry standards, plus benefits. There are about 50 part-timers and contractors.  

“This is a pretty expensive operation. It takes roughly $1 million a month to stay in business,” Ahmed said, including operational costs of the nonprofit’s national headquarters. 

The nonprofit’s Cultural, Business and Educational Center is situated at 5415 Page Boulevard, in the former Ralph Waldo Emerson School. BFL purchased the former St. Louis Public Schools surplus property for $750,000 in June 2005. 

It wasn’t until 2013 that it finally opened its doors. The 60,000-square-foot urban center spans a half-city block in the 26th Ward.  

After fundraising more than $2 million in hard equity, BFL benefited from real estate development company McCormack Baron and Salazar’s Urban Initiative program. MBS granted $13 million in new markets tax credit investment, combined with turnkey developer services to complete the building’s transformation. 

Between 20,000 and 30,000 people a year visit the center. There, they can meet with retailers and receive job, life and other skill-based offerings, including financial and asset building, computer literacy and other education classes. 

Approximately 150 free hot, nutritious meals are served per day in the summer. During the upcoming school year, more than 400 meals a day will be served after school. That’s been happening for about eight years. 

The center is also where Dexter Mims travels to from Florissant to renew his food stamps. 

“They treat you like family: I go right upstairs and they handle it; it’s hands-on, not electronic, there are people,” Mims said at the center.

The center is now where Ahmed goes to work every day, something he says is hard to place value on – pay-wise. 

“I think we should not get so caught up in how much we make – it’s how much we are able to contribute to forward the development of the African-American community. You can’t put a value on it – that’s invaluable,” Ahmed said.

He added, “When you able to raise just one child to beat all the odds, and come out to be a strong, contributing member of society, a leader in their respective fields – if you can do that for tens of thousands of people, that should be worth millions of dollars. 

“You measure  your success by the impact that you are making on the community, people by people, one person at a time, one block, one neighborhood at a time.” 

Ahmed also said that on any given week, he and other dedicated employees at BFL could easily put in 60 to 80 hours a week.

“You can’t expect to get compensated on that level, so part of this work is like missionary work. It’s beyond the money,” said Ahmed, who is no stranger to missionary work. 

A New York native, Ahmed served three years in the Peace Corp., volunteering in Africa in the ’70s. 

“I’ve always had a fondness for studying black movements, so I wanted to see what I could do to throw my hat in the ring in terms of creating black movement,” Ahmed said. 

“I didn’t start BFL to just be some small, singular community organization – it started as the beginning of a national movement that would be all over the country and someday be all over the world,” he added. There is a BFL location in New Orleans. 

Beyond the money, Ahmed said, heading and succeeding in a community advocating agency such as his BFL takes an undying love for black people. It takes wanting them to succeed. Because of organizational setbacks, it takes patience and optimism. And it also takes a love of working with people. 

Cash doesn’t rule everything around Ahmed, but it’s still the rule of the day. They are always searching for dollars, he said. And one challenge is black dollars. The nonprofit strives to get people to believe in themselves and rise from marginal lots in life. 

“To be a champion of black people and not get support from the middle class or the higher income level of black people, is very disheartening; and even not to get the nickels and dimes from people on the grassroots level,” he said, and added, “We have got to be supportive of our institutions.”

Ahmed is a practitioner, rather than an armchair intellectual. He meets his clients where they are, he said.

He started his institution, he explained, because he’s always had an interest in his people, especially those struggling, fighting institutional racism and striving to make the best of their lives. 

Bill Beene

bill.beene@thenorthsider.com Bill Beene was born and raised in north St. Louis. He has been a journalist for 12 years. He enjoys cooking and roller skating. He lives in the historic Ville neighborhood.

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