Today’s American Red Cross is not the one your grandpa knew post World War II. Most people associate it with the blood drive and with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s ban on homosexual and bisexual men being able to give blood.
But the Red Cross has actually been fighting that archaic policy with a research program, and now, men who have sex with men can donate blood. Plus, the Red Cross has developed technological advances in geospatial imagery to assist in natural disasters occurring due to the climate crisis, so it is clear the organization has gotten the memo, and as the world’s largest humanitarian organization, it is making the strides needed to evolve into what we so desperately need.
Barry Falke, chief executive officer of the Missouri-Arkansas Region American Red Cross, is one of the people helping reshape the organization. Falke and his husband, A.J., live in the Central West End and spend their free time exploring the neighborhood’s food, music and art scenes while seeking their new St Louis tribe.
“I am … passionate about fostering a culture of everyday humanitarianism. In its simplest form, a humanitarian is simply someone involved in or connected to improving the lives of others and reducing human suffering,” Falke says.
A native of Fresno, California, Falke has advanced degrees in both business and theology. He first started working for the Red Cross in May 2015 as executive director of the Central Valley and Kern Chapters, serving 2.1 million residents throughout central California.
“I won’t forget all that crossed my mind when I considered applying to work for the American Red Cross in 2015,” Falke says. “I remember wondering whether it would be an organization where I could be my authentic self, and whether I would feel accepted as a member of the LGBTQ+ community. I even recall wondering whether the Red Cross would offer its services equitably to all. Now, nearly eight years later, I’m so happy I joined the humanitarian movement because it is more evident to me than ever that the American Red Cross can be a place where all are welcome.”
In his role, he coordinated with employees and volunteers to advance the organization’s life-saving work, including playing key leadership roles in several primary disaster-relief operations, such as hurricanes Harvey and Irma and the devastating wildfires that engulfed California over the years.
“Our work is truly life-saving,” Falke says. “Whether supporting communities impacted by increasing disasters due to climate change; being present for our troops, veterans and their families; collecting life-saving blood products for those who need them; or providing key life-saving skills like CPR and first aid.”
In June 2018, Falke became chief operating officer of the American Red Cross’ Pacific Division, where he worked to advance the mission and values of the organization across 10 regions throughout the western United States and all of the U.S. territories in the Pacific, serving nearly 57 million residents. Falke also served as the interim CEO for the Northern California Coastal Region.
He joined the Missouri-Arkansas region as its CEO in October of 2022. Now, he leads a team of 90 employees and 2,500 volunteers to advance all Red Cross missions in a 199-county coverage area. Moving to the Midwest, he entered the epicenter in the fight for LGBTQ+ rights.
Some activists have come to the LGBTQ community’s aid and swooped in to lead the charge against what falls under crimes against humanity. Many have been stepping up to correct the wrongs, stop discrimination and help, and Falke wants to join them.
“My team and I have been focused on some key themes,” Falke says. “Most important being how we build a Red Cross that is true for all. We are a beautifully imperfect organization. I’m the first to acknowledge that we have not always hit the mark in ensuring the Red Cross can be a place for everyone. Still, diversity and difference make us stronger and are foundational to supporting our communities equitably.”
Falke brings a commitment to St. Louis, and he is arriving just in time.
“More than ever, we need a unified focus in building a diverse coalition of humanitarians ready to make a difference,” Falke says. Grounded in a belief that service to others can heal a lost or seeking soul, Falke believes the healing that comes with humanitarian service is the foundation of the new world many humanitarians are building. What we give out to improve our world and the lives of those around us, we get back by having a better place to live. It is that simple.
“I believe each day, we can embody a generous humanitarianism with those we encounter,” Falke says. “This might be a family member, friend, neighbor, client or colleague. We have incredible power within us to make small choices that make a difference in the lives of others. That’s my vision for the American Red Cross here, a movement of people committed to the work of improving the lives of others in small and big ways.”
K. Templeton is a full-time humanitarian with the American Red Cross, currently working part time on their first novel in bursts of ADHD hyperfocus. Originally from the Ozark Mountains, K. has resided off and on in the St Louis metro for almost 20 years.
Out in STL took over the Riverfront Times for this month’s pride issue. See more of the takeover below:
See also: A Guide to Pride in St. Louis