especially in St. Louis County. Other than what they witness on the nightly news or the Internet, many have no connection, no understanding or dealings with black people-particularly young black boys. Corporate, civic, education and government institutions, like police departments, remain quasi-segregated and controlled and dominated by whites. As the region grows with new developments, black neighborhoods still suffer from benign neglect. In a real sense, blacks are strangers in their own deprived neighborhoods. There is no respectful, racial collusion aimed at helping them create their own economically-vibrant communities.
For the past three years, I have served as the director of the Sweet Potato Project (SPP). The 60 or so youth we've recruited since 2012, have been told that they are “urban pioneers” who will show the region that we can save communities through a food-based movement. We recruit teens (ages 16-to-20) from some of the city’s poorest zip codes. They are paid during the summer to plant sweet potatoes on vacant lots. After nine weeks of training in marketing, product development, social media and more, they’re charged with turning their yield into products.
|SPP partner garden in the 3300 block of Goodfellow|
|SPP plot at Missouri Botanical Garden|
Summer sessions have ended. Right now, as usual, we’re focusing on raising funds to regroup so our students can tend our gardens, prepare for harvest, develop more food-based products, gain more sales training and get ready to sell their products.
Since the mid-August police shooting and ensuing protests, there have been dozens of “what’s next” public discussions. During these gatherings, they ask; “what can we do to avoid another Ferguson? What’s our first priority; policing the police, policy change, political overhaul or voter registration?"
These are indeed priorities but, I contend, that what we’re doing with our project on a micro-level, should be our very first collective, large-scale priority.
It’s a cliche but, “power only concedes to power.” Well, money is power. Sadly, politics and policy are shaped by the power of money. President Obama had to raise more than a billion dollars to be reelected; Mayor Francis Slay won another term largely due to his million dollar war chest. Since the slave era, our region has been in the control of a small, tight-knit group of rich and powerful white men who don’t necessarily see the value of investing in “people power.”
|SPP students studing economic dynamic of their neighborhoods|
“Black Community Food Security Network” or Milwaukee’s “Growing Power, Inc.” These are just a few urban agricultural efforts aimed at creating sustainable, community food systems in disadvantaged neighborhoods.
|St. Louis University's Fresh Gatherings Garden|
The St. Louis region may not have the vision but has the resources. Community organizations like Better Family Life, the Greater Ville Collaborative, Beloved Streets, Beyond Housing, Sweet Sensations and others have tapped into the people power in our region. SPP has its sights on land along Martin Luther King Blvd and we've developed strategic partnerships with the likes of St. Louis University, the Creative Exchange Laboratory (CEL) and Lincoln University's Urban Impact Center. We have major sponsors like World Wide Technology and Aetna Insurance Company committed to helping us seed our vision in the Greater Ville area. I've even been contacted by a Ferguson official who has invited us to look at land in the city that may be suitable for urban farming. With the help of SLU's Department of Nutrition and Dietetics under the leadership of Chef Steve Jenkins, we can now develop high-quality, nutritional food products We're hoping to be adopted by a major food distributor in the region, to guide us through the food packaging and distribution processes.
|Vision of a SPP community garden|
Our region simply has to break out of the segregated bubble we've endured for too long.
Admittedly, I am a naive optimist. But I remain convinced that our program is on the right track to stemming other percolating explosions in our region. Maybe this time St. Louis can go beyond stereotyping, beyond indictments and beyond empty, emotional rhetoric. Maybe this time we can work our way toward developing a model that recognizes, nurtures and prepares youth to “be the change” we so desperately need. With your help, with your dedicated engagement and support, maybe this time we can create a template that empowers disadvantaged youth, adults and broken communities the world over.
Maybe, this time, St. Louis can confidently declare “No More Fergusons!”
The Sweet Potato Project
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