Mid-Missouri author shares mission of spreading hope

Author has earned the nickname “The Defender of the Defenseless”

By Colin Willard, Staff Writer
Posted 11/1/23

VIENNA — The Heartland Regional Library System’s Author Talk series highlighting Missouri authors had its latest presentation on Oct. 12 at the Vienna Library.

The featured speaker …

This item is available in full to subscribers.

Please log in to continue

Log in

Mid-Missouri author shares mission of spreading hope

Author has earned the nickname “The Defender of the Defenseless”


VIENNA — The Heartland Regional Library System’s Author Talk series highlighting Missouri authors had its latest presentation on Oct. 12 at the Vienna Library.

The featured speaker was Dr. Sean Siebert from Cuba. He is the author of “Fighting The Good Fight: finding hope where hope has been lost,” which has earned him the nickname “The Defender of the Defenseless” with some inmates in the Maries County Jail.

Siebert began the discussion by describing how his career path led him to write his book. He started working in higher education. He worked on the administrative side of the University of Missouri’s Department of Medicine before working as the executive vice president of graduate programs and later dean of the College of Business at William Woods University in Fulton, Mo. His career eventually led him to work as an entrepreneur professor at Columbia College.

“That was the first life,” Siebert said.

In 2012, Siebert started his own company. The following year, Regional Economic Development Inc. (REDI), a company that works to stimulate business in Boone County, contacted Siebert with a goal. REDI wanted to make Columbia the youth entrepreneurial capital of the United States. The company asked Siebert to partner with it to achieve the goal.

Once Siebert agreed to work with REDI, he began his first speaking tour called #Boom. He described the tour as a series of localized TED Talks — in reference to the popular online video series.

“I went and found a bunch of really amazing tech entrepreneurs and people that had awesome business stories,” he said. “They were my speakers. Then I traveled all around the state to get people interested to come to our event.”

When the speakers gathered, the event was a success with about 660 people showing up in person and an estimated 60,000 people viewing online.

“People caught the fever,” Siebert said.

Siebert’s next idea was a pitch competition, which he compared to the show “Shark Tank.” The top three finishers won cash prizes to invest in their ideas. While traveling around the state, he found 36 people to compete in the competition.

The success of the events caught attention from around the state. Callaway County and the city of Fulton asked Siebert for help fundraising and together they raised money for the Show-Me Innovation Center. He also helped Columbia College to found the Fishman Center for Entrepreneurship.

Helping to establish places for entrepreneurship led Siebert to begin his own program. Between 2014 and 2015, 194 people went through the program. Graduates began opening and expanding new businesses across the state.

Siebert has received multiple invitations from Gov. Mike Parson and former Gov. Jay Nixon to speak at state economic development conferences. His topic of choice for those presentations was mental wellness and its impact on the economy and workforce.

In 2017, Siebert began working with the Meramec Regional Planning Commission to combat the opioid epidemic. He created a program that sends him into county jails to talk with inmates. He also goes to shelters and recovery groups.

“I help people at their absolute lowest and darkest,” Siebert said. “I give them hope. If they can see that glimmer of hope, and they can grab it, that glimmer is where they will build a lifetime of resilience.”

Siebert said he has spoken with many jail administrators who have told him that seeing someone in their early 20s at risk of incarceration for the first time is sickening.

“There is a significant probability that they will never exit the justice system,” Siebert said about young incarcerated people. “They will die in it. The reason is because our processes are designed to bring them back.”

Problems people face after release from jail include poor credit and struggles to find transportation, housing and employment. Parole appointments can conflict with work schedules, which leads people to make tough choices between their jobs and facing more jail time.

“Even when you’re trying to do the right thing, you end up back (in jail),” Siebert said. “Why would you have any hope? Why would you ever believe that you can get out of it?”

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Siebert gave some of the inmates he worked with the WorkKeys test, which assesses job and career readiness. Eleven of the 67 people who took the test had results that suggested they could do about 90 percent of jobs.

Siebert said when he spoke at a recent state economic development conference, he suggested closing the workforce gap by looking at the skills of the incarcerated population.

“Not only is it a skilled population, it’s a highly intelligent population,” he said. “We just have to rethink our relationship.”

Siebert said his reason for writing “Fighting The Good Fight: finding hope where hope has been lost” is to help people, especially incarcerated people, see themselves differently. The book is a collection of shorter pieces Siebert wrote over a period of time. He showed pictures of cards made by people he had helped.

One of the ways Siebert helps incarcerated people is by helping them form step-by-step plans for what they will do after their release. He encourages them to think about who will pick them up, where they will go, where they can find employment and more. The only thing he ever asks of the people he works with is that they see themselves the way he sees them. He also encourages people to see who they were in the past as different people from who they are in the present and who they will be in the future.

Siebert’s goal for his book is to get a copy of it in every county jail in Missouri. His first stop was the Dent County Jail. While he was there, he made a social media post about the visit. Within a day, six alternative learning centers had contacted him to get copies of the book for their facilities. Other people who have wanted the book for their workplaces include VFW directors, directors of child advocacy centers and senior center directors.

Siebert plans to continue his “book in every jail” mission as a keynote speaker at the Missouri Sheriffs’ Association conference later this month. By the end of 2024, he hopes to have visited every county in the state.

One signature presentation has given Siebert his reputation in schools, jails and many other places as the “$50 by Friday Guy.” During the presentation, he presents a challenge to the audience: make $50 by the following Friday using their skills. He asks people to consider ideas that could change their lives. Those ideas are often already thoughts people have but do not put into action.

“Even when we know what we can do, and we know exactly how we could do it, we still don’t go do it,” Siebert said. “My question is why is that?”

Siebert said a variety of factors contribute to a lack of action on good ideas. They include grief, missed career opportunities or even what Siebert calls “ancestral baggage,” which are disadvantages inherited through family lines.

The presentation included some success stories inspired by the “$50 by Friday” talk. One was a student at Bourbon High School who helped to support his family through a minimum wage job that only allowed him to work part-time hours seven days per week. It kept him out of school activities.

After seeing the presentation, he went home and found a power washer in the garage. He found a house in need of a wash, knocked on the door and offered to power wash for the owner. When the student saw Siebert again the next fall, he said he had made $4,000 over the summer. The student also had time to manage some of the sports teams at school because he made his own schedule.

The student continued his business after graduating high school. He used his A+ scholarship to attend community college for two years while also power washing for work. After obtaining his associate degree, he had saved enough money to cover the last two years of a bachelor’s degree at the Missouri University of Science and Technology.

Another story Siebert told was about a student from Hermann High School. The student’s family had bought a skid-steer. Within a week of hearing the “$50 by Friday” presentation, the student overheard his principal say he needed work done on his yard. The student offered to do the work. After he did, word got around that he did a good job. It led to more jobs, and he was able to pay off the skid-steer after a few months of work.

Throughout the presentation, Siebert shared anecdotes and photos of more students who had taken the message of “$50 by Friday” and applied it to their lives.

“The different individuals that we’ve worked with and the different ideas that they have, every single one of these individuals right here has a story of their own,” Siebert said while showing a collage of entrepreneurs inspired by his presentation.

Siebert also highlighted a letter a middle school student wrote him about selling his video games and video game systems to begin saving for college. The boy was the first person in his family who saw a path to higher education that avoided substance abuse or misuse, neglect, poverty or jail.

“For so many families in this country, jail is just part of the experience,” Siebert said. “It’s socially acceptable, and they are reared and raised to know that ‘hey, you’re 8-years-old, and I’m telling you right now that at some point in your life, you’re going to go to jail for a while.’”

Although many of the stories Siebert shared were about young people, he also talked about a project he worked on with an older artist named Glen Tutterrow. When Tutterrow needed to move on from his career as a taxidermist, he shared an idea with Siebert. Tutterrow wanted to make the largest monument dedicated to the Osage Nation, which resided in the Ozark Plateau until the state and federal governments forced the people to move west during the first quarter of the 19th century. They went first to Kansas before having to move again and settle in Oklahoma.

Siebert showed a picture of the original monument prototype. He said the first step after seeing the prototype was to contact Osage leadership. A friend called the Osage Office of the Chief, but when he told the person on the phone that he was calling from Missouri, the office ended the call. A week later, he called again and got the same reaction. The Osage Nation’s relationship with the State of Missouri had been nonexistent since Missouri had forced them out in 1825.

The process took eight months, but Siebert and others working on the project eventually got in touch with the Osage Nation about the project. Osage leadership made a few edits to the design. Then, Siebert got a call from the Office of the Chief informing him that the chief would be visiting Cuba to meet about the project.

Siebert shared a photo of himself with Chief Geoffrey M. Standing Bear.

“The significance of that picture is that’s the first time in two centuries, 200 years, that someone invited the Osage back to their homelands to do something with them that didn’t involve the excavation and the removal of their burial grounds because we wanted it for our commercial real estate development,” Siebert said.

After the Osage people visited to consult on the monument project, the state reached out to Siebert to ask if he could connect Missouri and the Osage Nation to begin rebuilding the broken relationship. He showed another photo of himself and Osage leadership on the floor of the Missouri Senate. The visit to the Capitol included a proclamation to work to mend the relationship between the state and the Osage Nation.

The monument resides at the Cuba Visitor Center off Interstate 44. Siebert said Tutterrow selected a location near the interstate because before the land was interstate it was one of the Osage Trails that wildlife had created. The Osage Nation followed animals along the trail while hunting.

When the monument opened, Osage leadership invited the people of the nation to return to their homeland in Missouri to see it. Siebert shared photos of Osage people in ceremonial dress visiting the monument.

“The point of all of this is that a guy who was a taxidermist had an idea,” Siebert said. “He was never a taxidermist; he was always an artist.”

During one of Chief Standing Bear’s earlier visits, he brought seeds from the Osage Nation’s seed bank, which contains original seeds from when the Osage people first left Missouri. Siebert gave the seeds to FFA students who planted them. When the Osage people returned for the monument dedication, the people behind the monument gave them corn grown from those seeds as a gift.

“If ever there was a full-circle moment in my lifetime, I don’t know that I will ever see something more unique than that,” Siebert said.