MMA Feature | Nurturing Growth

John Burse By: John Burse

“As an organizer, I start from where the world is, as it is, not as I would like it to be. That we accept the world as it is does not in any sense weaken our desire to change it into what we believe it should be – it is necessary to begin where the world is if we are going to change it to what we think it should be. That means working in the system.”   Saul Alinsky

Can you envision how much smoother your journey in the early stages of your career could have been with a well-defined roadmap, guiding you through challenges, and even potentially helping you steer clear of some obstacles? This is the transformative influence of mentorship, cultivating exceptional leaders.

At Mackey Mitchell Architects, our journey with the Christopher Kelley Leadership Development Program (CKLDP) is more than just sponsorship; it’s a story of belief, commitment, and a deep-rooted passion for shaping the future of architecture and the community at large. CKLDP pays tribute to the esteemed young architect it is named after, who left a lasting and positive influence on numerous emerging architects through their activism and mentorship.

This philosophy begins with our unwavering belief in the immense potential that lies within the emerging talent of the architecture profession. We’ve seen firsthand the creativity, dedication, and fresh perspectives that young architects bring to the table. CKLDP, with its focus on leadership development, offers the perfect stage for these talents to flourish. It’s our way of saying, “We see your potential, and we’re here to help you unlock it.”

Keynote Speech, John Burse & 2023-2024 CKLDP Class


In the early years of my architecture career, I was driven by an inherent desire to give back and make a real impact. However, back then, there was no clear roadmap or established path to follow. I had to carve out my way in the field. I let inspiration lead the way and travel has always been a huge source of inspiration for me. It was during my travels in Europe that I became inspired by well-thought-out, people-centric town planning and urban design. This experience ignited a fresh perspective in me, which I fully utilized upon my arrival to St. Louis in the late ’90s. St. Louis’s architecture, reminiscent of my New England roots, instantly resonated with me. It felt like I had found a place where I could channel my passion and aspirations into something meaningful for the community.


Around this juncture, I found myself aptly reading Saul Alinsky’s “Rules for Radicals,” which emphasized the idea that to enact change in the world, one must engage with it directly. This concept resonated with me. The only challenge was that I lacked a clear path to leverage my architectural skills for this purpose. Looking back, I would have given anything for a program like CKLDP to guide me during that pivotal phase of my life.

The entirety of St. Louis City is inspiring, but I found myself deeply stirred by the promise held within the neighborhood of Old North St. Louis; it captured my imagination and pulled me in. The sight of certain sections of the city either in ruins or being underutilized awakened a profound desire within me to be part of the effort to rebuild and revitalize it. This marked the beginning of my journey into the realm of leadership, albeit with a certain degree of naivety and bravado. I had found a calling; now, I needed to bridge the gap between inspiration and action.


One afternoon, as I was driving and exploring the northside as I often did, I happened to stumble upon the job trailer of a local home developer. Without hesitation, I knocked on the trailer door. Before I knew it, I was engrossed in conversation with the developer/builder about some design pitfalls she was encountering and just a few hours later I was at home drawing up plans to better meet the needs of the city and the developer. The developer ended up utilizing aspects of my plans and I thought to myself “HOLY COW, I just accidentally influenced the built realm by volunteering an afternoon of drawing!”

Over the years, spanning from 1998 to 2012, my journey was incredibly diverse. It encompassed everything from historical research to orchestrating design charrettes, taking on the role of board chair for Old North Restoration Group, and even acquiring a 3,900-square-foot abandoned building in Old North with no utilities to restore as my residence.

Old North Design Charrette

During this formative time, I met my future wife and life partner. I proudly played a significant role in cheerleading the revitalizing of many aspects of the Old North St Louis neighborhood. While not every effort was a success, the arc of this work helped to build momentum for Old North. These projects welded me to Old North. I gained a wealth of construction and urban development knowledge, formed strong bonds with my neighbors, became well-versed in the intricacies of laying a slate roof, restoring historic windows and cornices, and, ultimately, becoming part of the community.

14th Street Mall Before and After

I consider my time working in Old North a success for many reasons, but I sometimes wonder what I would have been able to accomplish and the resources I would have been able to impart if I had the opportunity to utilize the CKLDP. Through CKLDP I would have perhaps better understood earlier on many of the aspects required to set momentum in place.  Involving the community is crucial but assembling the deep bench of other decision-makers, stakeholders, and tacticians is essential for making progress. I probably also would have known that the 3,900-square-foot abandoned building renovation would take six years not six months as I had initially anticipated – but that’s another story!  CKLDP bridges the gap between seasoned leaders and those just finding their footing.


At the heart of CKLDP is mentorship, a concept we hold dear. Mentorship has been a cornerstone of our firm’s success, and we’ve witnessed how it can transform architects into visionary leaders. Sponsoring CKLDP is our way of passing the torch, of paying forward the guidance and wisdom we’ve received over the years.

Community engagement is another chapter in our story. We passionately believe that architects should be community leaders, making a positive impact beyond our day-to-day work. CKLDP instills this sense of responsibility in its participants, aligning perfectly with our commitment to giving back and creating a better world through architecture.

But beyond all this, our participation in CKLDP is a tribute, a heartfelt acknowledgment of Christopher Kelley’s legacy. It’s our way of honoring his memory and the enduring principles of leadership and mentorship that he championed.

We extend our wholehearted support to the incoming Class of 2023-2024 and eagerly anticipate witnessing the positive change you will bring to our community!

CKLDP Class of 2023-2024

For more details on the CKLDP, we encourage you  to visit, learn more, and apply at: