Thursday, January 9, 2020

Why Local Black Leaders Must Adopt Dr. King’s Economic Dream

by Sylvester Brown. Jr.

“Let us be dissatisfied until the tragic walls that separate the outer city of wealth and comfort from the inner city of poverty and despair shall be crushed by the battering forces of justice.”– Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

January, the annual time of year when the nation revisits the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Locally, dignitaries, preachers, politicians and pundits will, no doubt, remind us that we have much work to do in order to make Dr. King’s dream of racial equality a reality. In this, the Trump era, many will lament the fact that the president’s 2020 proposed budget calls for cutting $1 trillion over the next decade from programs that help low-and moderate-income households. For example, hundreds of thousands of poor people will be denied food stamps under Trump’s new proposed guidelines.
It is appropriate to use this month to reflect on the racial and economic disparities King lived and died trying to address. But wouldn’t it be refreshing if local politicians-particularly local black politicians- proclaimed a plan based on King’s other dream of economic emancipation, inclusion and self-sufficiency?

Wouldn’t it be refreshing if local politicians-particularly local black politicians- proclaimed a plan based on King’s other dream of economic emancipation, inclusion and self-sufficiency?

In 1965, Dr. King advocated a $50 billion federal program aimed at employing poor people across the nation to rebuild their own neighborhoods and communities. He outlined the public works program in an interview with writer Alex Haley for Playboy Magazine. The “Negro rehabilitation” program, King said, could be designed in the same breath as the GI Bill of Rights which encouraged the same business and home loans as well as “preferential employment” for the disadvantaged as it did for veterans.
The physical ghetto itself, King said, must be eliminated, adding that it “is both socially and morally suicidal to continue a pattern of deploring effects while failing to come to grips with the causes.”
St. Louis has yet to come to grips with the causes of crime and poverty in its disadvantaged neighborhoods. The city’s long and sordid history of segregated development thrives in modern times. Back in 2016, Molly Metzger, an assistant professor at Washington University’s Brown School of Social Work warned that the city, through public policies was “re-segregating” itself. Metzger, one of several scholars quoted in a St. Louis Magazine article, challenged city leaders who okayed the spending millions in tax-payer dollars on incentives designed to lure people back to the city.

The city’s long and sordid history of segregated development thrives in modern times.

After 1950, St. Louis’ peak population shrunk from almost 900,000 to about 320,000 today. City leaders desperately want to bring middle-class whites back to the city. In order to do this, the city finally wants to invest and revitalize long ignored areas in North St. Louis.  For example, the ballyhooed National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency’s (NGA) new $1.75 billion headquarters on Jefferson and Cass avenues will serve as the linchpin for massive neighborhood turnaround and gentrification in north St. Louis.
On his Facebook page in December, former comptroller, Virvus Jones called out black aldermen who voted to approve $34.45 million in tax-payer subsidies for “millionaire developers” while not appropriating “one dime to alleviate poverty.” Some of these perks include $11.85 million in tax-increment financing to redevelop the former Post-Dispatch building downtown with high-end apartments. Another $14.1 million in incentives will be allocated for apartments, retail and parking spaces near the Forest Park-DeBaliviere MetroLink station.
Fine, I get it. Investments in tony developments, baseball, soccer, Ferris wheels and aquariums might increase tourism, maybe improve the city’s image and probably attract younger, working-class people to the city. What I can’t wrap my head around, however, is why black politicians-who sign off on these deals-can’t get a little quid-pro-quo for the areas they supposedly represent.
On several occasions, King spoke of the government’s willingness to dole out free land and resources to European immigrants seeking a better life in America. If free land was the economic remedy for whites back then, King asked, why can’t it be a tool to combat poverty today? 

What I can’t wrap my head around, however, is why black politicians-who sign off on these deals-can’t get a little quid-pro-quo for the areas they supposedly represent.

In the month that we celebrate the iconic civil rights leader, it would be so cool to hear black politicians outline a plan that touches on his dream of equity and sustainability. A 2018 resilience assessment study released by Mayor Lyda Krewson’s office noted that the city has 25,000 vacant lots that contribute to blight, “lower property values and declining city revenues.”
Of the millions and millions politicians gift to fat cat developers, surely there’s a way to set aside a couple million for a plan similar to King’s 1965 public works proposal. Here are my thoughts: First, the city should GIVE vacant land and abandoned buildings to residents. Second, it should provide stipends to potential home and landowners to help rehab buildings and turn vacant lots into food-producing land. Third, it should fund programs that teach and employ young people to demolish and/or rehab vacant buildings.
I’m not just talking pie-in-the-sky rhetoric here. Last year, with the help of Grace Hill Settlement House and a private landowner, my nonprofit, the Sweet Potato Project, secured a few vacant lots in the College Hill neighborhood. Three of those lots were gifted to a young mother who wants to grow fresh food. I connected with the nonprofits Gateway Greening and the North City Food Hub. Our plan and my personal goal is to raise the funds necessary to provide this young lady and others with classes and resources to not only transform vacant land and grow food but to take their produce to market and create marketable food-based products that can be sold locally.
This may be a pebble-in-the-ocean approach but, if successful, it could have wide-ranging benefits for the city and hundreds of low-income residents. Because everybody eats, I maintain that growing, packaging and distributing fresh food can serve as the new economic engine in North St. Louis. Instead of forcing residents out of neighborhoods in the wave of encroaching development, this plan can help them become vested participants, benefactors of change.  
All that’s needed is vision, a new much-needed approach and the wiliness of politicians to seriously direct tax dollars and incentives to poor residents and blighted areas in need.  
In the Playboy interview, King talked about the need to help “the Negro” develop “a sense of stewardship.” Wouldn’t it be uplifting to hear speeches about a local economic development plan that could inspire vested home and landowners to serve as the eyes, ears and hearts in troubled neighborhoods?

All that’s needed is vision, a new much-needed approach and the wiliness of politicians to seriously direct tax dollars and incentives to poor residents and blighted areas in need.  

What better time than now to align ourselves with the words of the assassinated leader who challenged us to never, ever be satisfied…” until those who live on the outskirts of hope are brought into the metropolis of daily security. Let us be dissatisfied until slums are cast into the junk heaps of history, and every family will live in a decent, sanitary home.”


Sylvester Brown, Jr. is a former columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, founder of the Sweet Potato Project, an entrepreneurial program for urban youth and author of  “When We Listen: Recognizing the Potential of Urban Youth.”

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Reflections on Mortality and Change

By Sylvester Brown, Jr.

As a boy, I knew, without a doubt, that I’d be dead at the age of nineteen.

My feelings had nothing to do with my impoverished, crime-filled chaotic, life. It was because my mother and the adults of our religion, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, all believed that the world was going to end in 1975.
Surely God knew my “impure” thoughts. I knew I wasn’t going to make the cut when vengeful Jesus and the four horsemen of the apocalypse came to, as prophesied, wipe the wicked from the earth. As I knocked on doors preaching salvation; as I participated in religious meetings five days a week, my teenage mind was mostly consumed with S.E.X. In brief, I was one of the “wicked.”
  After 1975, when the world remained the same, I hadn’t. I had already dropped out of high school, had my own car, my second apartment, 4th job and had basically “lost my religion.” To this day, I am respectful but skeptical of any individual or organization that professes to “speak for God.”

  Why am I writing about my ancient history? Well, at 62, I’ve been questioning my mortality-what I’ve done in life and what I think I can do before I slip off to the great unknown. I’m not seriously ill, I don’t think I am anyway. But as the old saying goes: “life is promised to no one.” Lately, I’ve been taking inventory of who I am, what I do and trying to make sure that the next 10 or 20 years are spent doing what I truly love: writing, communicating, sharing stories.
As many of you know, I’ve been operating the Sweet Potato Project (SPP) for the past eight years. It’s an extremely rewarding endeavor, but it’s outgrown me. It needs a better parent, someone or something that can give it the expertise and resources to reach its full potential. The idea of teaching kids to learn entrepreneurial skills through growing and selling fresh food and products, to start neighborhood businesses and reclaim disadvantaged neighborhoods is still valid and worthwhile. But it needs to be backed by a movement of motivated black people who believe they can accomplish the goals of self-sufficiency and community responsibility. This is not a new idea. It was preached by Marcus Garvey, Elijah Muhammad, Malcom X, Martin Luther King, Jr. and many others.
This past year, I’ve met with the heads of religious, educational and community organizations trying to convince them into bringing SPP under their wings. I’m still operating the program, particularly the land-ownership part of it. Through an agreement with Grace Hill Settlement House, we have a few vacant lots available in the College Hill Neighborhood. I’ve joined its “Peace Park” initiative where Grace Hill and Washington University have launched a community-led effort to renovate areas surrounding the North Grand Water Tower. Before the year is out, I am committed to giving a few promising young people or a youth group vacant lots with a donation to help them prepare the land for food growth.
Going back to the start of this commentary, this shift in my focus with my nonprofit reflects the life I’ve led. Once I survived Armageddon, I adopted a sort of “Just Do It” attitude long before Nike patented the phrase. In 1987, after books and reading rescued me, I followed through on my desire to make sure no person who looked like me would be as ignorant as I was about my people, my history or the events shaping my world. So, I started my own publication, Take Five Magazine. If not for it, I would not have been hired as a columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.  If not for the P.D., Tavis Smiley wouldn’t have hired me to work with him and other authors of his book company, Smiley Books. If not for being in the environment of some of the nation’s most prestigious “black thinkers”-Smiley, Dr. Cornel West, Minister Louis Farrakhan, Tom Burrell, Al Sharpton and others, I wouldn’t have been inspired to start a program aimed at investing in our youth and salvaging poor neighborhoods.

In summary, everything in my life, “good and bad,” happened for a reason. My “Just Do It” philosophy has its ups and downs though. During its 15-year duration, Take Five never made any real money. What it did was win a lot of awards and bring a cadre of gifted writers, editors and loyal readers into my world. Most important, it allowed me to learn how to write on my terms.
When the Post tried to concoct a reason to fire me in 2009, I held a press conference and resigned. I told union officials not to fight to get a job back that I no longer wanted.  It was a pride thing. But it cost me dearly. Working for Tavis was cool but I wasn’t getting the kind of money I did at the newspaper. I lost everything, new cars, benefits, my house and, eventually, my marriage crumbled.

2009 Press conference where I announced my resignation from the Post-Dispatch

I’ve spent the past decade rebuilding my life. I’m at a meager but comfortable place. I know I am loved and I give love in return. Who can ask for more?
SPP, however, has become a burden. When I started the program in 2012, my goal was to simply educate kids while paying them a summer salary. That worked out fine until 2016 after I incorporated the project, created a board and recruited a competent volunteer CPA. She alerted us that we had not been paying payroll taxes for the students. We started paying those taxes but, unfortunately, penalties and fines had added up and the IRS had no sympathy for our nonprofit, no matter how noble our cause. It came after us...hard!
Some of the students of the 2012 Sweet Potato project class
It’s funny, when people read or you tell them that you have IRS issues, they give you that sympathetic, terminal cancer patient look and write you off.  Maybe I’m naive but I don’t see the problem as insurmountable. IRS agents will work with you to resolve the issue. And that’s what happened. We’re almost caught up on all our taxes and prepared to make an “offer of compromise” on the remaining debt.
Still, the entire process has sucked the fun out this endeavor for me. I just want to hang out with young people, motivate and empower them. My “strengths” do not include administration, fundraising or delegation. The Sweet Potato Project would be better suited under the umbrella of a larger organization with the people and resources to take it to its designated place.
My friends at Good Life Growing and Gateway Greening have perfected the art of teaching people the best way to grow and market food. My energies will remain focused on empowering people through land-ownership and working to make sure food is a self-sustaining economic engine in North St. Louis. 
So, coming full circle, I’m again at a point of change. Early this year, I self-published my first book, “When We Listen.” While restructuring SPP, I managed to complete my first fiction novel. There are a good six or seven books left in me. Apparently, I still have a lot to say, write and share.  I will always be the visionary behind SPP and I still plan to be its spokesman, point person and, hopefully, play some role in its long-term mission under new leadership.
In summary, every challenge in my life came with the promise of renewal and the wonderful opportunity to craft my own destiny. Nothing I’ve done happened without the kind, benevolent and like-minded people who believed in me. You have diligently supported this twisty, curvy, strange but blessed journey.  
The kid who didn’t believe he’d outlive his teens is still here. He cherishes the fact that misinformation, poverty, career challenges and personal setbacks molded him into who and what he is today.
For this and more, in this next unknown phase of life, I am eternally optimistic, humbly grateful and blessed beyond my youthful imagination.


Sylvester Brown, Jr. is a former columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, founder of the Sweet Potato Project, an entrepreneurial program for urban youth and author of  “When We Listen: Recognizing the Potential of Urban Youth.”

Monday, September 23, 2019

When Good People do Bad Things: Why Political Leader's Crime Solutions are Recipes for Disaster

by Sylvester Brown, Jr.

“Every generation makes mistakes. Sometimes these errors are relatively harmless or easily fixed. But every so often, a misstep is so damaging that future generations are left shaking their heads in disbelief. ‘What were they thinking?’ we ask each other.”

Gov. Mike Parson (center), Mayor Lyda Krewson (right)
In his book, “Locking Up Our Own,” author James Forman, Jr. examines the role African Americans played in instituting the “War on Drugs” in the 1970s.
Black lawmakers, Forman writes, including “California Congresswoman Maxine Waters and former United States Attorney General Eric Holder—pushed for tough-on-crime penalties not only for drug crimes, but also for gun possession.”
The sentiments of Waters and Holder were shared by black politicians on almost every political level. Black citizens also demanded more police action, tougher drug laws and stricter sentencing. They were legitimately angry, frustrated and felt terrorized by the crime and violence associated with the growing crack epidemic.

These weren’t bad or malicious people. As Forman wrote, what black leaders “didn't—couldn't—know, was what tragic collateral consequences would come to a head in later years.”  He further added, It is now widely recognized that the drug war has caused tremendous damage—especially in the low-income African American communities that have been its primary target.”

Forman’s book validates my growing fear in the wake of a surge in violence in our city. I’ve read about or heard from local black political leaders and ordinary citizens who are fed up with gun violence, especially the tragic loss of young lives. I maintain that these are good people with no desire to punish non-violent blacks. Yet, I fear that in this hyperventilating climate of fear and anger, we are poised to repeat the mistakes of the past.

I fear that in this hyperventilating climate of fear and anger, we are poised to repeat the mistakes of the past.

After a recent crime summit with political and law enforcement officials, Missouri Gov. Mike Parson announced that he’s dedicating state funds, sending highway patrolmen and other state workers to St. Louis to address our crime surge.
I don’t think black leaders who reached out to the governor asking that he send in the national guard or supply more money and resources have nefarious intentions. I just think they’re participating in an approach that’s short-sighted, publicity-oriented and, most of all, dangerous.

To date, the turn-to solution for crime and violence has been increased police forces and mass incarceration. In the conclusion of my book, “When We Listen…” I write about this and other mostly ignored models aimed at reducing crime.
For example, I highlight the work of Patrick Sharkey, professor and chair of sociology at New York University and author of “Uneasy Peace: The Great Crime Decline, the Renewal of City Life, and the Next War on Violence. In 2018, Sharkey wrote an excellent Los Angeles Times article that stressed how community investment, not increased police forces or extreme punishment, is key to reducing violence.
Uneasy Peace by Patrick Sharkey
Sharkey details how “police forces have grown larger and more militant, how prosecutors have become more aggressive, and criminal justice policies have become increasingly harsher.” He explores the punishment model which “expanded and intensified in the 1990s and has become increasingly militarized after the police shooting of Michael Brown in 2014.
My concern is that politically expedient, quick fix remedies like what we’re pushing in St. Louis will simply guarantee that more young people, more poor people of color will be incarcerated for most of their lives. Prisons, especially private prisons, will continue making billions from cheap, slave-like labor and communities of color will remain stagnant bastions of replicated poverty, crime and hopelessness.

My concern is that politically expedient, quick fix remedies like what we’re pushing in St. Louis will simply guarantee that more young people, more poor people of color will be incarcerated for most of their lives. 

To truly reform our criminal justice system, I agree with Sharkey who suggests we move away from the “punishment” mind-set and turn to a new model based on “sufficient evidence” aimed at countering violence. The professor suggests we look to the “community investment model.” He provides data that illustrates how community organizations can play key roles in bringing crime rates down. In fact, his research found that “in a typical city with 100,000 residents, every ten additional organizations formed to address violence and build stronger communities led to a 9% drop in the murder rate.”
St. Louis is like Chicago, Detroit, Memphis or any other city with disproportionately high crime, murder or poverty rates. I have spent decades writing, researching and explaining the socio/economic factors that lead to or fuel crime in poor, black neighborhoods. After all these years, I’ve come to one simple conclusion: We must empower people, especially young people, to make and sustain the change we all desire.

The problem with this approach is that it’s not a quick fix. It can’t be boiled down to a promising headline that makes people feel it’s safe to move into the city or attend sporting or entertainment events downtown. Not only will it take real monetary investment, like the kind city leaders dole out to already rich developers, it will take time, strategy and “buy-in” from politicians, police, businesses and the community at large.
I don’t think it’s necessary to discuss the bad, disrespectful or deadly behavior of police. Nor will I delve into the consequences of bringing more militarized officers into low-income areas where they don’t relate or-based on some of their social media comments-literally loathe the people living in poor neighborhoods. Not now, anyway. Here, I want to proceed under the theory that there are good cops who want to do good in the communities they are supposed to serve.
But, here, too, we must invest in models that will help police better interact with poor people and poor neighborhoods. The long-range approach should focus on investing in nonprofits working to provide affordable homes and small businesses in troubled neighborhoods. If people, especially young people, own homes and businesses in their own neighborhoods, they will have a vested interest in protecting what’s theirs. If they are vested, they can become the eyes, ears and hearts of the community. Their businesses can provide economic opportunities and hope for young folk who may believe that illegal drug activity is their only money-making option. Empowered homeowners can then set up neighborhood watch groups that work in tangent with police to control crime. Heck, with a little vision and resources, people from poor neighborhoods can be hired for private security companies in majority black North St. Louis like they have in the Central West End and other predominantly white neighborhoods.

I want to proceed under the theory that there are good cops who want to do good in the communities they are supposed to serve.

Although I totally understand and share the frustrations of black people who want to do something, anything, to reduce crime in our city, I stress caution. We must always remember that there is a history of a criminal justice system backed by politicians who are anxious to use our pain and passion to legitimize mass incarceration.
My wish is that we don’t repeat patterns of the past to semi-address today’s problems.  I’m not suggesting that Gov. Parson’s attempt to deal with our crime problem is a bad thing. To me, it’s just short-sighted and a possible repeat of what has never worked to combat crime or address the factors that contribute to crime.
I’m stressing the idea that “good people” have the capacity to learn from their mistakes. As we move forward in this effort to combat crime, my hope is that we do so not in a narrow-minded, dangerous way but a multifaceted, proactive way that addresses the issue not only today but in decades to come.

Sylvester Brown, Jr. is a former columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the founder of the Sweet Potato Project, an entrepreneurial program for urban youth and the author of the newly released book “When We Listen: Recognizing the Potential of Urban Youth.”

Sunday, August 18, 2019

Playing the “What if” Game: How an Annual Festival Can Serve as a Template for Community Renewal

by Sylvester Brown, Jr.
Photo courtesy of the Saint Louis African American Artifacts Festival and Bazaar

Yesterday, I attended the 6th Annual Saint Louis African American Artifacts Festival and Bazaar in Old North Yesterday. At first, I wasn’t going. I’m on deadline for a writing assignment. But a friend stopped by and suggested we go. Why not, the festival starting on St. Louis Ave. and 14th Street is literally two blocks from home. So, I went and I’m glad I did.

 The most inspiring aspect of the festival for me was the young, entrepreneurial vendors and the parents who worked with them at some of the spaces. A young mother with the words “Momma Fresh” emblazoned on her T-shirt stood quietly behind her ten-year-old son, “Mr. Fresh.” The boy gave a brief elevator pitch telling how he wanted to start a car business but settled on selling car fresheners for now.
“So, what do you want to buy from me,” Mr. Fresh asked us.
I bought a bottle of “Yellow Rose” freshener.

And so it went. There was a father and sister helping a young artist sell his cool collection of t-shirts, posters and coloring books. Another father tried to get me to buy one of his family’s wooden, hand-painted boards with colorful, inspiring and welcoming words designed to compliment any home, business or classroom. Then, there was one of my former Sweet Potato Project students, Mirramoni Buford, doing caricature art.


 The whole experience kicked off the “what if” game for me. What if all these young, budding entrepreneurs not only had this annual festival to promote their talents and wares but a year-round hub? What if all the eclectic musicians, spoken word artists, vendors with aromatic, ethnic foods, hand-made candles, clothing and more had a designated place in the city that welcomed the lush, robust beautiful crowds I witnessed Saturday?
     What if Martin Luther King Drive from Wellston to, let’s say, Clara Avenue, was chosen as the designated spot for a huge monetary investment in a cultural district? Why there? I’ll give you at least four good reasons.
Gov. Mike Parson visits Melvin White, founder of the Beloved Streets initiative 

#1: It could start at MLK and Skinker/Kienlen Blvd. It’s not that far from the U. City Loop on Skinker and Delmar, an already touristy area. A tram, Uber, bus or short car ride could take folk from U. City to the new Black Arts District in minutes. Surely, we can copy Joe Edwards’ vision of the U. City Loop which started with blocks and blocks of creative, specialty shops with a cool, cultural vibe.
#2: MLK to Clara would put us in the Friendly Temple Church imprint. Under the leadership of Pastor Michael Jones, the church has revitalized the area with senior resident facilities, new sanctuaries, a school, an early childhood development center, affordable family housing and a full-service bank. Friendly Temple’s base and beyond could be greatly complimented by a host of new small businesses, social establishments, community gardens, affordable homes, restaurants and cultural establishments and schools.


Development on MLK Blvd. led by Friendly Temple Church

#3: A black cultural/business zone could breathe new life into the Beloved Streets of America initiative aimed at revitalizing MLK Blvd. throughout the city. Perhaps politicians can think equitably and help bring agricultural and empowerment zone money and other government dollars to beautify and monetize another designated area in a long-ignored part of the city. After all, tax dollars have been used to bolster the NGA and Paul McKee plans, the Grove, the Cortex District, the Central West End and other tonier areas of the city. Surely there are some politicians, visionaries and corporate donors who can help steer dollars to a massive regeneration plan in the heart of North St. Louis. Lastly, choosing this area would guarantee local, regional and national media exposure every January on MLK’s birthday.

#4: For at least the past five years, Robert Powell of Portfolio Art Gallery, has been trying to institutionalize black art in the region. He wants to use the same tax base that supports the Art Museum, the History Museum, Grand Center, the Botanical Garden and the Symphony Orchestra. The verbiage for such a district is already on the books. From my talks with Robert, all that is needed to become a reality is for local and state politicians to get the measure on a ballot for voter support. Think about it; a cultural destination, supported by tax dollars that be an attraction for locals and out-of-towners on a regular basis.  
 What if we dreamed a bit more deliberately and proactively? What if we boldly stated that we were going to empower regular people in the designated area? What if, say, $20 million were identified and set aside to help young entrepreneurs like those I met at the festival, start small enterprises on the MLK strip? What might happen if each one qualified for a $10,000 stipend to start their business? Now, this doesn’t include the money necessary to tear down or rehab structures along the strip. It’s money set aside to help small business owners build in the newly designated “cultural empowerment zone.”
Let’s go further. Page Blvd. is less than a mile south of MLK. The organization, Better Family Life (BFL) has already initiated the demolition of dilapidated buildings and have started building affordable homes just east of Skinker on Page Blvd. What if we added to this effort with an incentive plan to help new entrepreneurs and other millennials buy homes in the identified areas between MLK and Page Blvd. I have read of nonprofit efforts around the country where nice, sturdy homes can be built for under $40,000. What if banks, corporations, benevolent donors and the City chipped in to provide, say, a $10,000 stipend for anyone interested in living in the designated area. With this type of investment, home ownership can be just as affordable as renting an apartment.

Those who know me, know I believe that the growing and selling of fresh food and food-based products can serve as a new economic engine in the region. Why not? Everybody eats. With thousands and thousands of vacant lots owned by the city, surely a few hundred can be given to urban farmers. Yes, I said “given.” The City doles out vacant land to major developers all the time. It can give lots to North St. Louis. With a stipend, they build a fence around their lot and set it up to grow food year round.
There are several nonprofits-Gateway Greening, Good Life Growing, the Sweet Potato Project and more-dedicated to showing young people how to grow and market certain food and food products. Imagine a huge farmer’s market, like the ones in Soulard, Tower Grove or Maplewood. The corner of MLK and Kienlen, would serve as an excellent weekend spot for food, clothing, mini concerts and merchandise vendors.  A food manufacturing plant, with its on brand in the MLK/Page imprint would not only create neighborhood jobs, it would serve as a long-term partner to residents who grow food.   
Imagine young people living and working in an area designated for rebirth. Now, they have a vested interest in protecting their own neighborhoods and businesses. What if we give hip-hop and sports figures a place to expand their “buy-the-block” rhetoric? What if rappers used their influence and money to make owing homes and businesses in “the hood” as hot as their music?
I read about a private security company in Detroit. It was started by a former military man and an ex-cop, I believe. The private security firm hires folk from the neighborhoods they patrol. They also work hand-in-hand with the Detroit police Department. Perhaps this is a model St. Louis can use to deal with its huge crime epidemic. It’s a healthy and proactive way to get police engaged with community residents. It’s also another way to invest and empower extraordinary, ordinary people to do-for-self in areas where they live and work.
Behind the “what if” scenario is the “what is” reality. What we have is a lack of vision, black division and political impotency. Stale, stoic race-based thinking, a collective refusal to invest in anything “black” in the city are all part of the “what is.”
I sat in the shade for awhile with Malik Ahmed, founder of BFL. I told him I had a hard time grappling with the notion that we have everything we need to change the trajectory of North St. Louis. We have organizations like his, we have templates of revitalization in the city, just not many in the black parts of St. Louis. We have young entrepreneurs, musicians and activists. We have nonprofits doing good work…we’re just not doing it in a collective, unified way. We have stated mandates for progressive change echoed after the death of Mike Brown. We have renowned institutions like Washington University and Harris Stowe and the momentum from those seeking a better, more equitable St. Louis. What we don’t have is a strategic plan with a designated place to start.   

It’s obvious I’ve thought a lot about this stuff. This weekend’s festival just reinforced what I already believe can happen. Maybe, the dream begins there. Instead of waiting for politicians and city leaders to wake up, maybe there’s a way to corral the energies and talents of the young entrepreneurs and their parents. Perhaps they can lead the charge from “what if” to “what is.”


Sylvester Brown, Jr. is a former columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the founder of the Sweet Potato Project, an entrepreneurial program for urban youth and the author of the newly released book “When We Listen: Recognizing the Potential of Urban Youth.”