Monday, April 20, 2015

Two Months to Live

Those who have followed me over the years know I was raised a Jehovah’s Witness. Even though I’m no longer associated with the religious organization, I appreciate my scriptural foundation. One passage in particular, Psalm 46:10: “Be still, and know that I am God,” stays with me.

Yesterday, I met Jasmin Aber-a good friend, volunteer and strong supporter of the Sweet Potato Project. Aber is the director of CEL, the Creative Exchange Laboratory. She recruits architectural college students and inspires them to create “spaces” that involve and excite community residents. Jasmin and I go against the societal gain and take comfort in the idea of a grassroots approach to community enrichment. We met to talk about her upcoming exposition, where I will serve as a panelist. Anyway, as we were headed to Hodak's Restaurant & Bar for brunch and a planning session, Jasmin asks how things were going. Again, we’re good friends, so I started unloading about the lack of money for my nonprofit, being exhausted; fearing failure…blah, blah, blah.”

The place was crowded so we took a seat at the bar and placed our orders. Seated next to us were a vibrant 85-year-old man and a good-looking, engaging couple; Chuck and Sandy (not their real names). After some small talk, Chuck mentioned that he has a hereditary heart condition and was told that he has about two months to live. The elderly man advised him to ignore the doctor’s prognosis; increase his sexual activity, and everything would be fine. Like Superman, Chuck opened his shirt, revealing zig-zagging scars from past operations. “They've done all they can do,” he said. Chuck added that he wanted to spend his remaining days working with a nonprofit that helps people.

He became really jazzed after Jasmin told him about the Sweet Potato Project. I was thrilled by his enthusiasm after my one-minute description of what we’re trying to do.  The meeting turned out to be another Psalm 46:10 moment. There I was bitching and moaning about my woes then, next thing you know, I'm seated next to a man who might have 60 days left on this earth who's trying to figure out the best way he can serve humanity. Chuck’s story gave me cause to slow down, to "be still" and reflect. 

If I can manage to calm my mind, sometimes blessings will reveal themselves. Firstly, I hope I have more days than Chuck. Secondly, I have good friends like Jasmin and a host of other talented, dedicated folk traveling this precarious road with me. I have another day to fortify my base and seek additional resources. Hopefully, I have more than two months to work with my group of young students who believe we can plant produce, grow food, make products, create jobs and bring change to much-needed areas of North St. Louis.

I’m not the preachy type but I recognize divine wisdom in the universe. I have to believe we’re all here for a reason and the powers-that-be will guide and direct us to our true purpose on this planet. Yet, I often forget to just “be still.” Sometimes I allow the madness of the moment to overwhelm me. I forget that there is no “progress” without struggle. Sometimes, I forget to recognize the magic moments in everyday life.

I never eat at restaurant bars. What were the odds of meeting a man facing his last days who wants to work with a worthwhile nonprofit? The universe knew we needed to interact. I was reminded that if I had only 60 days left, I won’t have to search for an opportunity to serve. I’m a man born and raised in poverty working with young people who share my hue and some who share my dysfunctional background. What a blessing!  

If we never see each other again, I know meeting the couple was no accident. After Chuck went to the restroom, Sandy told Jasmin and me that keeping a smile on her husband's face was her daily mission. I remain humbled by the couple's courage.

I pray that Chuck outlives his doctor’s diagnosis. I am happy we met and thankful for the powerful reminder to… still.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Speech from the 2015 Catholic Social Ministry gathering in Washington D.C

The good folk who hosted the 2015 Catholic Social Ministry gathering in Washington D.C. have posted podcast of some of the presentations, including mine. Please forgive the pauses toward the end, I couldn't work the slide show that accompanied my speech. You can access the speech

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Turning Affirmative Nods into Affirmative Reaction

Youth from the Class of 2014 harvesting sweet potatoes

You know you’re on to something good when people start nodding before you’re finished explaining what you do. I'm one of the founders and director of the Sweet Potato Project. When asked, I tell people we recruit inner-city kids; we have them plant sweet potatoes on vacant lots; we give them a summer job where they “earn while they learn” skills in marketing, sales, land acquisition, product development and more. After the summer ends, I continue, “Our students are charged with creating a product from their harvest that they sell year round.”

Keon (18): I have been with the Sweet Potato Project for three years. I have gotten speech and agriculture skills out of this program. It gives me a sign that my community still cares and makes me happy to make change.”

I've gotten pretty good at quickly describing the basics of our program in a way that seems to resonate with people. No matter their differences, most like the idea of training young people to “do-for-self.” They know far too many impoverished teens drop out of school, wind up unemployed, in poverty or in prisons. Now that “Ferguson” has become the international catchphrase for racial dysfunction, we all know that something drastic must be done to create opportunities for the generational poor. Many see the long-range benefits of helping teens become pioneers of a sustainable, food-based economic development movement in North St. Louis.    

What I’m not so good at is turning more of those affirmative nods into affirmative action. Don’t get me wrong, I've been somewhat successful. In three years we've come a long way with very little resources. We have a couple major repeat sponsors. We've gone from providing summer jobs and training to 15 kids in 2012 to 35 teens last year to, hopefully, 40 this summer. We've grown from planting on one vacant lot to five in 2014 with plans to plant on 20 lots this year.

All this has been done in a grassroots sort of way. Caring people gave of their time and resources. A library, a church and the St. Louis Community College system graciously allowed us to conduct classes in their spaces. Other benevolent professionals have been instructors, volunteers and mentors. We have qualified individuals working on our curriculum that includes culinary skills, financial literacy, business plan and product development, food distribution and much more. Because of their efforts we are getting better and better at showing our youth how to become self-sufficient entrepreneurs in their own neighborhoods.

Tytianna (18): I've been in a lot of programs but the Sweet Potato Project helps me become better at creating and distributing products and keeping me focused on positive things. I believe in the success of the program and the helpful things we learn as we enter the world as adults.

We’re expanding the program this year. We have an institutional buyer for all the sweet potatoes we can grow. So we’re reaching out to vacant land-owners, public schools, churches and organizations. We have a very simple proposal: “You grow and we’ll buy your harvest.” If they don’t have time to tend urban gardens, our youth will grow on their property and we’ll use the harvest to make more products.

We’re on a positive path with a team of qualified individuals who've undertaken grant writing for us. However, even if we successfully secure all the grants we’re seeking those funds won’t be rewarded for at least a couple months. The “now” is my biggest concern. We need to prepare all properties now and start planting next month. The summer program begins in June. There’s a need for immediate donations now.

Edie (19): Not only does the Sweet Potato Project give urban youth a way to make money and stay out of trouble, it teaches lifelong skills that we don’t learn in school. I’m glad to be a part of such a great project and can only imagine the things it will do for the community and our futures.”

Some experienced people have warned me about putting our needs out there. “Let the ‘positive’ dictate the response,” some say. Well, I respect that and all, but I want people to take pride in their individual roles in building a powerful grassroots organization. Corporate and institutional support is wonderful but I also want a foundation of dedicated, consistent citizen-givers. I think its empowering for them to know that their donation-be it $10 or $100-helped prepare young people to become self-reliant land-owners and urban farmers. I want their chests to puff up a bit on the day they see our products on the shelves of major grocers. I want them to know that they helped do that, too.  We even make sure our students understand that raising money is a 24/7 endeavor for their project, their summer jobs and we invite them to come up with ways to generate money for the program.

Ranesha (18): This project gives me hope, confidence and makes me believe that we can actually become something and be successful at what we do.”  

I think what mostly captures people’s attention about SPP is that it’s about real empowerment: giving the disadvantaged the tools to create and sustain their own opportunities in their own neighborhoods. We imagine a collective-not just growing on 5 or 20 lots-but on whole city blocks. Imagine a North St. Louis food system where extraordinary ordinary folk are growing enough food to supply major grocers, local restaurants, bakeries, coffee shop and other retail outlets. We think we have a cost-effective way to build a farmer’s market and, later, a food manufacturing plant-both in North St. Louis. This is how you empower people, communities; this is how you create real local jobs and bring economic stability to long-neglected neighborhoods.

One day maybe we can hire the talent whose job it is to deliver this vision in a more impacting, succinct and response-getting way.  For now, I have to rely on my down-to-earth way of simply writing, talking and working harder to turn those positive nods into affirmative reactions.


Please donate today (click here). 
Any level of giving ($10...$25...) will be greatly appreciated-sbj

Friday, March 13, 2015

The Good, Bad & Ugly Sides of St. Louis

by Sylvester Brown, Jr.
March 13, 2015

There’s an upside and downside to being born and raised in St. Louis and writing about the region for more than 25 years.

First, the Good; the region has a very cool collective of resilient innovators-people who challenge and refuse to cooperate with the status quo. They do their own thing with the notion that they can bring real, progressive change to the region. They are the folk opening bars, coffee shops and speakeasies on Cherokee and Grand Avenues and in the Grove area. This eclectic group includes college kids who ignore their parents and teacher’s warning to stay on the “safe side” of the Delmar Divide. They are among the proud and strong protesters demanding justice and systematic change. The “good” in St. Louis is also reflected in the works of the Incarnate Word and Deaconess Foundations, Beyond Housing and Better Family Life and other nonprofits and corporations seeking to empower “extraordinary ordinary” individuals in their own neighborhoods.

The flip side is the historically “bad and ugly” part of St. Louis. Those not raised in the region can’t quite understand the segregated mindset that still exists here. They are unaware of the ramifications of “white flight” when the city lost more than half of its population between 1950 and 1970. Those from real metropolises can’t reconcile the open biases and sentiments that led to the violations of the constitutional rights of black residents in Ferguson and beyond, as cited in the recent Department of Justice (DOJ) report. They find it bizarre that city leaders are talking about investing millions of taxpayer dollars into a new football stadium while long-neglected neighborhoods are still in desperate need of economic attention and innovative investments.

Those not raised here can’t quite understand the segregated mindset that still exists. 

The systematic “bad” reinforces and validates “the ugly.” These voices were loud and clear when plans to stretch MetroLink's light rail transit system into St. Charles were rejected because voters feared blacks would have public access to steal their TVs. The “ugly” appears daily in the comments section of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch where anonymity gives courage to the most vile forms of blatant racism. There is a strong conservative bend in mainstream media here that coddles its “Red State” viewers, readers and listeners. This might explain why-in a time when St. Louis has been depicted nationally as the “new Alabama”-KDNL (Channel 30) launched The Allman Report.  Nothing personal against conservative talking head Jamie Allman, but it’s a little backwards to choose a platform that doesn't employ diverse voices and widens the region’s historic racial divide.

The “ugly” appears daily in the comments section of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch where anonymity gives courage to the most vile forms of blatant racism. 

Like I said, there’s an up and downside to my life in St. Louis. I’m no longer an employed journalist but I can’t shut down that part of me that knows this place; that’s oh-so-tired of seeing the same damaging thoughts and things occur in a region with so much people potential.

I run a nonprofit, the Sweet Potato Project (SPP). Even though it demands my full attention, I find myself stuck between the two worlds of a writer and an executive director. Writing about the bad and the ugly releases me to focus on the good in our region. 

We are entering our fourth year of operations and have been blessed with the support of many, many engaged, benevolent volunteers, supporters and donors-small business, corporate and individual. It’s easier to get past the negative when you’re surrounded by people who truly get your mission. We invest our time, talents and resources into empowering young people and disadvantaged neighborhoods. Since 2012, SPP has recruited teens (ages 15-20) from low-income areas of North St. Louis. They “earn while they learn,” receiving a summer salary to plant sweet potatoes on vacant lots while learning essential entrepreneurial skills such as marketing; social media design; business plan and food-based product development. The idea is to show them that there are dignified and self-sustaining ways to generate incomes while improving their communities.

It’s easier to get past the negative when you’re surrounded by people who truly get your mission. 

This year, we’re introducing a vacant land procurement initiative. The idea is to invite residents, churches and organizations to lease/purchase land with our students in low-income neighborhoods so we can collectively grow fresh produce. The good news; we already have an institutional buyer committed to purchasing produce harvested through this collective.  

This is no pie-in-the sky endeavor. Across the country, the neighborhood and small business impact from locally-grown, fresh foods and sales by local vendors have generated millions that mostly stays within targeted areas. Tower Grove’s Farmers Market, for instance, draws about 100,000 weekend customers per year with annual receipts as high as $2 million.

Like me, there are thousands of good people here seeking ways to reverse the ugly trends stubbornly lurking in our region. I’m not talking just black or white or liberal either. Our program resonates with those who voice the need for “do-for-self,” self-sustaining ideas that can offset crime, violence and poverty in our region.  We invite like-minded individuals to become a part of our long-range mission. Our goal is to create a neighborhood-based food system that promotes land re-utilization, ownership, massive farming, product distribution (major grocers, restaurants, farmer’s markets, etc.) and large-scale development of consumer-ready products from North St. Louis.

There are thousands of good people seeking ways to reverse the ugly trends stubbornly lurking in our region.

To borrow another Clint Eastwood reference; “a man has got to know his limitations.” The writer can now step aside; he knows he can’t change the mindset of the bad & ugly. His counterpart, however-the nonprofit guy-can help make a dent by humbly offering ways for others to get un-stuck from the muck and mire of nonsensical biased rhetoric and practices that unfortunately define our region.

 By reaching out to the concerned and connected; by rolling up our sleeves, investing in our young people, redeveloping long-neglected neighborhoods; creating sustainable ways to address “food deserts,” tackling malnutrition, crime, unemployment and poverty while seeding fertile ground for small business growth in North St. Louis, “the good” can effectively reduce the impact, influence and power of the “bad and ugly” in our region.


Please Join Our Mission:

The Sweet Potato Project is about to start its summer program and it 2015 land acquisition initiative. We need your support. Please visit our website and donate today.  Thank you.-SBJ

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Step Outside Yourself to be Your Best Self

“Remember, Sylvester; you’re writing for an audience for whom the majority of which do not share your life experiences.  You have to anticipate their responses and back your words with facts.”

This sage advice was shared with me back in 2003 by the then managing editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. I had just written a particularly controversial column that didn't bode well with most readers. I know, big surprise right? But for those not familiar with my writing, it was a huge deal at the time. I had just started my columnist gig at the Post and was a bit shaken when I received real-life death threats over the column and nervous when the newspaper was inundated with calls and letters calling for my immediate dismissal.

Instead of firing me, my editor chose to educate me. She encouraged me to see myself as a reader. In essence; step outside myself to be my best self.

Ethical Society of St. Louis
 Fast forward 12 years and I find myself reflecting on those words. On January 18th, I spoke at the Ethical Society of St. Louis. The Title of my speech was “Ferguson & Beyond; Building Communities where ‘race’ matters.” I discussed the 100-year+history of racial exclusion and disinvestment in North St. Louis city and county. The saddest part of post-integrated America, I said, was that working class black folk and business-owners abandoned historically-black neighborhoods. I suggested that the only real solution is for African Americans to lead the charge in coming back, reinvesting and rebuilding the “pockets of poverty” we live in throughout the region. The goal is for black, white and others (the “concerned and connected”) to do the hard work of saving disenfranchised youth and empowering the poor to effect real, long-term change.

I was a bit shaken when I received real-life death threats and nervous when the newspaper was inundated with calls and letters calling for my immediate dismissal.

After my presentation, 15 to 20 people met with me for a discussion. An older woman-whom I was later told spent a lifetime in the civil rights and integration movements-took exception to some of my words. That editor’s advice came back as I listened to this woman explain that, based on her experiences, I came off like a segregationist demanding separate societies.

I was surprised. I told the woman that I was not a segregationist but a staunch advocate of “self-preservation.” I mentioned that, in almost 50 years-even with a black president-African Americans are still the most impoverished and endangered demographic in America. I used national polls and surveys to underscore just how far apart whites and blacks are on matters of “race” and said that blacks no longer have the luxury of depending on government or the benevolence of whites to “save us.” Anybody can help but, like so many other immigrants to America, WE must be the cultivators and stewards of our own culture, opportunities and economic destinies.

I am not a segregationist but I am a staunch advocate of self-preservation.

It’s hard for me to ignore that during the period of segregation, blacks had no choice but to do-for-self. They were legally excluded from the social and economic mainstreams, so they created their own alternative, educational, economic and social opportunities. Where would we be today, if our own “systems” were still in place? Would 50 percent of black children still be dropping out of high school? Would blacks still dominate the numbers locked up in our nation’s prisons? Would the unemployment and poverty rates remain basically unchanged since the 1960s if we had chosen not to desert our communities and held on to our own neighborhood businesses?

It’s hard for me to ignore that during the period of segregation, blacks had no choice but to do-for-self. 

I’m thankful that the woman in our discussion group challenged me. It reminds me that this message of creating new alternative “systems” and “doing for self” might be a hard pill to swallow; especially for those dedicated to Martin Luther King’s dream of an integrated, totally equal society. Anticipating one-on-one push-back and remembering that we all come from different spaces and places, demands that I articulate and educate better. Just because I think “self-preservation” is the responsible and necessary course for black people doesn't erase the negative, violent interpretation of that term in people’s minds. Just because I fear that a truly color-free America is decades away; I must remember to encourage those protesting, challenging the system and fighting the fine fight to make it a reality.  

Lastly, I must clearly state that there is not one, sure-fire way to address racial inequity or to create a more just, colorblind and economically inclusive society. I operate the Sweet Potato Project. All I can do is invite others to consider our way: We recruit at-risk youth who plant sweet potatoes on vacant city lots. We provide them with summer jobs while teaching them how to make products, offer services and become entrepreneurs in their own communities…today!

This year, we want to expand our mission by inviting low-income residents, churches, organizations and some of the youth behind the police brutality demonstrations to grow food and make products with us. We see this as a real, sustainable way to create inner-city jobs and small businesses. It’s a tested model that introduces real economic activity in long-neglected, low-income areas through a food-based, revolutionary movement.

What if poor and working class people grew massive amounts of produce and produced a quality, marketable line of food-based products that can be purchased by local restaurants, major retailers, schools, institutions and consumers? I believe this is a viable way to institute an alternative, sustainable system with the potential to blossom within the current, broken systems.

What if poor and working class people grew massive amounts of produce and produced a quality, marketable line of food-based products that can be purchased by local restaurants, major retailers, schools, institutions and consumers?

This is a big vision that requires big visionaries. In my mind, nothing I described is threatening or unsettling to those pursuing various other paths to equality and justice. In fact, I foresee a scenario where anybody and everybody can put their resources, passions and skills to work. We’re talking about growing, packaging and distributing food locally, regionally and even nationally. It’s about helping urban kids and generational downtrodden adults capitalize off opportunities right outside their doors. Most important, it's a cost effective way to get disenfranchised people to become landowners who-along with the concerned and connected-can collectively create jobs and small businesses in their own neighborhoods. Call me a naive optimist but I believe we’re talking about stepping on the brink of systematic change that could very well serve as a template for revitalizing distressed communities all over the country.

I’m doing a lot of talking this month. On Wednesday, I’ll speak at a Saint Louis University College conference designed to address the complex issues of race, class, and inequity in our community. Thursday, I’ll be among the speakers at Better Family Life’s forum on “The Business of Healthy Eating.” Then next Sunday, I’ll be in Washington DC addressing the audience at the annual United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

No doubt, all members of these diverse gatherings won’t share my life experiences or perspective. But I’ll talk about our mission and present the facts as I know them. I’ll work to meet the challenge of building connections, stressing common goals and convincing folk that we have an endeavor here in St. Louis that’s worthy of their attention, time, resources and talents.

In short, I’ll be mindful of the wise words of a former editor.