Tuesday, December 2, 2014

After the Betrayal:


Rewarding the Young Soldiers of Justice 

“In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth, I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” 
 – Alabama Gov. George Wallace

by Sylvester Brown, Jr. 
Dec. 2, 2014 

The privileged and powerful possess a certain kind of arrogant ignorance. It prevents them from seeing how they will be viewed by the world or recorded in history. Remember that look of obnoxious righteousness the late Governor George Wallace's face during his stupid attempts to prevent black kids from integrating Alabama elementary schools? Think back to the jubilant faces of Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam after they were acquitted of murdering 14-year-old Emmett Till? A year after the 1956 trial, the pair (because of double jeopardy) publicly admitted to killing Til. They were paid handsomely to tell their stories to publications like LOOK Magazine without repudiation. 

Fast forward to 2014. With public demonstrations in Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Oakland, New York, Washington D.C., London and elsewhere, St. Louis’ powerful and privileged seem oblivious to how they’re viewed around the world or how backwards the region will appear in the nation’s history books. With stubborn determination, brute force and legal trickery, they exonerated Darren Wilson-the Ferguson cop accused of killing an unarmed black teen. With one fatal swoop, St. Louis, Missouri became the new Selma, Alabama and Darren Wilson (as he makes his media rounds) as the new  Bryant and Milam

Once again, the region has missed a magic moment: Demonstrators-many of them young and newly activated have creatively, audaciously and consistently given us potent scripts: “Don’t Shoot, Black lives matter, No more killer Cops!” With the “no-indict” grand jury verdict, the status quo provided a dangerous counter narrative: “We will shoot; Black lives don’t matter and we will protect ‘killer cops.’” 

No matter what side one falls on regarding Wilson's guilt or innocence, the judicial process was tainted. If you or I shot an unarmed suspect and more than one witness said the man had surrendered, we'd be in a trial trying to prove our innocence. Wilson, simply because he was a cop, was coddled by the powerful, allowed to skip due process and is celebrated by many as a "hero."

Arrogant ignorance prevents the region’s elected and appointed officials (and those who tolerate their racial nonsense) from seeing the damage they've wrought. Young St. Louisans struck an international chord that's resonating with millions around the globe. We taught our young to side with human rights, to stand against tyranny-no matter the source. We drenched their brains with the mantra of “liberty and justice for all.” Yet, when they stood up for justice; we treated them like domestic terrorists and assaulted their sensibilities with sanitized chicanery and legal subterfuge. 

The privileged and powerful don’t seem to realize that our youth-future lawyers, doctors, teachers, artists, writers, technicians, construction workers and more-are not stupid. They know what “justice” looks like and, with all the resources of the Internet, they can quickly detect, dissect and discard the establishment's manure as soon as they smell it. 


They saw it moments after Mike Brown was shot; when cops left his dead body on the ground for four hours. They felt it when police responded to their angst with dogs and automatic weapons. It was crystal clear when commanding officers used tanks and tear gas to stifle citizen frustration. They knew the “huge, dangerous black man” defense was again in play when Ferguson Police Chief, Thomas Jackson, released an edited video of Mike Brown stealing a pack of cigarillos but refused to release the name of the cop who shot him. They sensed the anatomy of injustice when supervisors failed to order Wilson to turn in a mandatory incident report after applying deadly force. With no written statement, he had the unheralded advantage to craft an after-the-fact story based on witness accounts. 


They sensed the anatomy of injustice when supervisors failed to order Wilson to turn in a mandatory incident report...with no written statement, he had the unheralded advantage to craft an after-the-fact story based on witness accounts. 

They instinctively knew the whole grand jury process was a sham orchestrated by a biased prosecutor, Bob McCullochWith a mother, brother, uncle and cousin that worked for the St, Louis PD and a father-a city cop killed by a black suspect in 1964-those calling for justice expected none from the county prosecutor. Rarely will defense attorneys allow their clients to appear before a grand jury. Protesters understood Wilson’s appearance before the grand jury was a signal that he had a friend in the prosecutor’s office.

They called for a special prosecutor because they knew McCulloch would use the process as political cover to exonerate Wilson. An example of the prosecutor's misuse of the grand jury system was reported by MSNBC's Lawrence O'Donnell who noted how assistant prosecutors handed jurors a copy of a 1979 Missouri law that was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1985. This is why St. Louis attorney and president of the National Bar Association, Pamela Meanes, publicly expressed concerns about the way McCulloch mis-handled the grand jury process. The "why" was explained by award-winning author and journalist Bryan Monroe in this Huffington Post commentary: “...it’s clear prosecuting attorney Robert McCulloch never had any intention of indicting officer Wilson. Never.”


Young people gave St. Louis the grand opportunity to grow beyond its segregated, backwards and predatory ways. Through their actions and media coverage, the region was exposed as one that has failed its citizens.  

St. Louis County Prosecuting attorney Robert McCulloch delivering the grand jury verdict

It’s sad, really. Young people gave St. Louis the grand opportunity to grow beyond its segregated, backwards and predatory ways. Through their actions and media coverage, the region was exposed as one that has failed its citizens. The world learned that our 90 or so municipalities (some generating 70 percent of its revenues) where profiting off poor people of color. It was mostly brave young people who shoved the issues of police shooting unarmed black men and out-of-control “militarized police forces” upon our national consciousness. Young people, willing to sacrifice their “freedoms” for ours, helped us confront and correct our demons. In return, we villainized, brutalized, targeted and detained them.


The conservative mainstream media and the stoic, “powers-that-be”stubbornly dedicated to defending one cop, played mind-numbing games, changed the rules of civic engagement and spent millions to arm an already over-armed police force. In the annals of history, St. Louis 2014 will be seen as a continuation of 1960's-era police brutality. 


In the annals of history, St. Louis 2014 will be seen as a continuation of 1960's-era police brutality. 

Conservative and Corporate media tried in vain to keep the focus on the few incidents of violence and "looting" while minimizing the power of peaceful protests here and around the world. Demonstrators didn't confront tear gas, batons, flash bomb grenades, tanks. jail time and cops with military-grade weaponry to be demeaned by the press. They didn't ask Governor Jay Nixon to create an “Office of Community Engagement” staffed by employees with six-figure salaries. Manning yet another "commission" to study the “underlying social and economic conditions” of Ferguson and the region was not on their request list. 

No, our young people, guided and supported by seasoned elders of the movement asked for one thing: JUSTICE! 

Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon

We failed to reply to that simple, moral appeal. With the world watching, the status quo sided with “injustice.” In light of this betrayal, the region should embrace the challenge of utilizing the refreshing energy of its young people. Their genius was evident in their slogans ("Hands Up!"), protest tactics, T-shirts, poems, lyrics and songs about the killing of Mike Brown. We don't need to appoint the already politically and economically-connected to "fix" Ferguson. How about empowering and employing the youth who boldly and creatively confronted injustices in St. Louis? 


How about empowering and employing the youth who boldly and creatively confronted injustices in St. Louis? 

In late August, NPR journalist Michel Martin, Beyond Housing's  aCEO, Chris Krehmeyer and I were guests on Don Marsh’s St. Louis on the Air program. In that conversation, I said St. Louis’ real challenge is not only stamping out segregated neighborhoods in the region but tackling “segregated thinking” as well. 

The privileged and powerful are victims of this malady. In city and county police departments and municipal offices this sick, seeded notion that black lives and neighborhoods don’t really matter is woefully pervasive. But it doesn't stop there. No matter if its development in Ferguson, Clayton, the Central West End, Grand Center or downtown St. Louis, “segregated thinking” makes it OK to disproportionately exclude blacks and minorities from the social and economic benefits of inclusion and participation. The segregated mindset will spend more money on incarcerating black and poor people than it will in investing in their neighborhoods or their potential.

I have little faith in the federal investigation or follow-up that will rectify the damage done. Later this month, the Sweet Potato Project will announce a venture that can utilize the bold, diverse passions of conscientious soldiers (young, old, black, white and “other”) who have incited much-needed change in our region. If no where else, they are welcome to help us build strong, safe neighborhoods where their talents, skills and dreams can flourish.  

I pray for real, substantial and sustainable solutions that will embolden our young. My hope is that history doesn't record our region as a backwards rendition of the “new south.” Let us insure that the final version of the “Ferguson Tragedy” not be scripted by the privileged and powerful but by the empowered young emissaries of real JUSTICE.

Friday, October 10, 2014

...Of Baseball & Blood

by Sylvester Brown, Jr.




This weekend, St. Louis’ Baseball Cardinals will glow in the national media spotlight as they square off against the San Francisco Giants for the 2014 National League Championship. Internationally, however, it’s more likely the media’s attention will be focused on a city embroiled in civic unrest. Tensions have escalated in the region, partly due to the fact that Ferguson MO policeman, Darren Wilson, has yet to be charged for the fatal shooting an unarmed teenager, Michael Brown, two months ago.
Ten days after that August 9th shooting, two St. Louis City police officers gunned down a knife-wielding young man, Kajieme Powell, 25, fewer than three miles from Ferguson. Then on Oct. 8th, two days after the Cards beat the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NL Division Series, an off duty St. Louis cop shot and killed an 18-year-old teen, Vonderrit Myers, in south St. Louis.
Police, according to local media, are expecting a “hot” weekend. They’re gearing up for large and possibly violent confrontations with protesters downtown and throughout the region. Protesters, like they did at a recent Powell Symphony Hall concert, are making plans to visually and creatively disrupt, make “the comfortable uncomfortable” and generally draw the world’s attention to what they view as an out-of-control and deadly police force.   
 “Baseball & Blood” is an appropriate title for this weekend’s activities. Since the Ferguson shooting, race relations, political and police power has been heavily scrutinized by media from all over the world. Our region has unexplainably become the lynchpin that’s exposing the pitfalls of whites who dominate police departments in mostly all-black neighborhoods and majority white municipalities profiting off “driving while black.” 
It’s because of St. Louis that politicians on Capitol Hill have held hearings on militarized police departments and we’re the reason why police chiefs are fumbling to explain inhumane and flawed policies and training. And, finally, we’re holding real conversations and having constructive dialogue about our region that’s famously known for still being segregated in the 21st Century.
It may sound callous but we should celebrate the duel monikers of “baseball & blood.” Just as the Red Birds earned their place for playing and winning hard, St. Louis deserves a thorough analysis of its hard-headed tolerance of institutionalized, discriminatory behaviors. Police officials still don’t understand that policies that result in the deaths of unarmed black men are not OK. Since the Ferguson shooting we’ve heard or seen several graphic cases nationwide of police unloading their guns or roughing up citizens for offenses as trivial as “seatbelt violations.”
There must be a reckoning for blood loss in the name of “law enforcement.” Hopefully, whites who sympathize and defend police-many who wore “I am Darren Wilson” wristbands-will understand that these sentiments fuel the “us vs. them” mentality of cops and reinforce the concept of killing without consequence.
The explosion in our region has been a long-time in the making. We need to ensure the region’s “talking heads” or the media’s appointed “leaders” do not dampen the revolutionary spirit of powerful protest and meaningful progress. As Dr. Cornel West pointed out in a recent op-ed, we are experiencing a “leader-less” movement, buoyed by youthful angst-not traditional religious or political stoic rhetoric.
The euphoria of strike-outs, stolen bases and home runs should run parallel with our support of bold protests and public acts of righteous indignation. Under the media’s glare, civic leaders and police officials will have to think about more than just the millions they’ll make off baseball. They’ll have to give serious thought before strapping their officers in military gear, rolling out the tanks, unleashing the dogs or hurling flash-bang grenades and tear gas canisters at downtown crowds.
I marvel at this particular moment in St. Louis and not because “our team” may be headed to the World Series. I’m prouder of the long-awaited mix of young, middle-aged and old, black and white and “other.” I stand in solidarity with the radicals, the religious and the regular folk defiantly bringing “people power” to the living rooms of the powerful. I am inspired by their willingness to say “no more” and risk it all in a region that’s in desperate need of holistic change.

It is with these thoughts and more that I gladly welcome this weekend’s unofficial theme of “baseball & blood.”


Friday, September 26, 2014

"We are the police. We can do any damn thing we want to you!"

I had nothing to fear. I was wearing a suit, had two jobs and a brand new car. Surely the officer would realize I wasn't one of “them.” 

Reflecting back on those thoughts that ran through my mind almost 30 years ago, I realize how futile they were. You see today, I recognize that racism is an illogical act, fueled by an irrational mindset. The idea that skin color makes anyone superior or inferior makes no sense whatsoever. But when confronting it for the first time, the response can be surreal. At least it was for me.
The year was 1988. I was employed at Laclede Gas Company and had just started my new business, Take Five Magazine, a monthly news publication. I was 31, had two jobs and my wife (at the time) and I both had brand new cars. Mine was a tricked-out Mazda RX-7 convertible.
To be honest, I thought I was hot stuff.  Why wouldn't I? Since I was a boy, people-especially white people-told me “I was different” or I wasn't like “them.” I was raised a Jehovah’s Witness. Six days out of the week were dedicated to studying the Bible, learning how to proselytize or going from house-to-house trying to recruit "unbelievers." I was a enthusiastic reader who could hold decent conversations with adults. Therefore, I was constantly told "you’re different.”

Anyway, on this particular night in 1988, I was supposed to meet a potential advertiser in North County. I lived in Jennings at the time and the client’s business, on West Florissant Ave, somewhere between Ferguson and Dellwood, wasn't far from home. I changed from my work clothes, put on a suit, climbed into my car and headed for my appointment.

When I arrived at my destination, I noticed that the lights in the tiny strip mall were out, except for those at a convenience store. There was a payphone in front of the establishment so I got out and proceeded to call the client. 
As I was on the phone, a police car pulled up next to mine. I watched as the young officer got out of his car, looked at my car then proceeded to shine his flashlight into my windows. I cupped my hand over the speaker part of the phone and very politely said; “that’s my car officer.” 
He ignored me, opened my car door and leaned in. I hung up the phone and walked toward him. Almost instantly three more police cars pulled up.
“Is this your car?” the first officer asked. 
“Yes sir,” I responded confidently. After all, I had nothing to fear. I was wearing a suit, had two jobs and a brand new car. Surely the officer would realize I wasn't one of “them.” 
He didn't.
“Where’d you get it?” he asked. I was dumbfounded by the question. In my mind, I thought, “I bought it, I have two jobs, what the hell do you think.” He pulled the camera off my seat and dangled in front of me: “Where’d you get this?” he demanded.
“I bought it,” I replied weakly.
By this time about three or four more policemen were surrounding my car, opening doors and rummaging through my belonging. I grew angry and shouted: “Hey, I told you; that’s my car. What’s the probl…”
Why the hell did I do that?
The officer snatched me by my suit lapels and slammed me against the convenience store window. To my horror, the lights in the store suddenly snapped off. The officer’s breath was hot in my face: 
“We are the police. We can do any damn thing we want to you!” he hissed.
They continued rifling through my car, throwing the contents on the pavement. The cop who threw me against the window went back to his car with my driver’s license in hand. When they were done; he walked back to me and flicked the license in my direction with two fingers:
“We’re looking for someone who fits your description,” he said. “Have a nice night.” They all climbed back into their patrol cars and left.
I remember standing there on that dark parking lot, panting, tears brimming in my eyes and overwhelmed with feelings of fear, betrayal, humiliation and helplessness. I realized that my suit, my two jobs, my new car and my professional demeanor meant nothing. My skin color made me “just like them.”
That incident really wasn’t my first encounter with racism. Ten years earlier, as one of the last “affirmative action” hires at Laclede Gas, we young black men had to deal with angry white bosses, most from the Missouri boonies, who did their dead-level best to let us know we weren't welcomed. 
But that’s gist for another commentary. The point is; I wasn't prepared for the illogical mindset. I was raised in a religion where white people were friends to my family, mentors and confidantes. Throughout my young life, it was mostly whites who told me I “was different.” Then, as well as now, many benevolent whites walk me to opportunities. Yet, as a child, I was too young and naïve to recognize the insult in those compliments and too needy of validation to realize I was being conditioned to think I was different or better than those who share my hue.
All these years later, the officer’s words still echo in my head. 

 I am Darren Wilson bands

Sadly, it’s a missive that's just as relevant today as it was some 26 years ago. It’s disheartening to realize that my 28 year-old-son, my daughters and my grandchildren have to deal with the deadly, illogical mindset that my parents and grandparents endured.
In class, I remember how our Sweet Potato Project youth reacted to the news of George Zimmerman’s exoneration for the shooting of Trayvon Martin and the slaying of Michael Brown this summer. Their comments reflected the sense of pain, betrayal and humiliation I felt on that dark, lonely parking lot in 1988.

What’s even sadder is that black kids today are in no way as naïve as I was at their age. Through news media, movies, music and interactions with white strangers they've already accepted the fact that they are “them”-the ones to be feared, detained, scrutinized and justifiably brutalized. 
Believe it or not, black kids do believe in "the system." They know if they or their peers screw up, they will go to jail. It's an insult to what we've taught them that the killer of an unarmed teen, Officer Darren Wilson, has yet to be detained or charged with a crime. It's painful for youth to hear people justify the killing of a kid eating a bag of Skittles or a teenager who might have stolen a pack of Cigarillos.  
It hasn't escaped me that Michael Brown was killed in the same area where I was detained and humiliated years ago. Recently, I read about Ferguson police officers who are wearing "I am Darren Wilson" wristbands. Do they have any idea what message they are sending to youth and people of color? It's illogical. It's a sick and sad irrational mindset. 
In reality, it's the same message I received almost 30 years:  
“We are the police and we can do any damn thing we want to you!”



Monday, September 22, 2014

The Long Fuse to Ferguson: How the City of St. Louis Sparked the Explosion




“The city will change, but in ways different than before. The next time the city changes, remember Pruitt-Igoe."– The Pruitt-Igoe Myth


by Sylvester Brown, Jr.

Before the credits rolled in the 2011 locally-made documentary, The Pruitt-Igoe Myth, viewers were asked to think about the failed housing complex as the city develops further. The whole region is now under government and international media scrutiny spurred by the killing of an 18-year-old black teen by a white police officer. Almost everything is under the microscope-poverty, police abuse and municipalities that profit off the poor. What has not received much attention, however, is the role St. Louis City played in creating the conditions that led to the August 2014 volatile, racial eruption.    

Be it by design, accident or benign neglect, the fuse that led to the explosion in Ferguson was lit in St. Louis more than 60 years ago. At that time, city planners were wrestling with several pressing racial and economic issues. Starting in 1947, whites started migrating outside city limits. City leaders wanted to develop downtown’s business district to draw in more major businesses and increase tax revenue. 

There was a problem: Impoverished blacks had occupied the downtown slum properties since the beginning of the 19th Century. Instead of investing in and restoring homes, businesses and schools in the historic areas, city officials developed while relying on restrictive, racial housing codes to contain the poor. In the proceeding decades, Blacks found themselves bouncing from poor city neighborhoods to county neighborhoods that-due to “white flight”-were destined to become poor as well.  

MIGRATION
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, many African Americans migrating northward to escape southern oppression settled in St. Louis. This passage set off race riots in the North. Most were sparked by media-based fears of black people and whites who thought blacks were coming to steal their jobs.

To keep blacks confined in certain areas of the city, voters overwhelmingly passed a zoning ordinance in 1916 barring black people from buying homes in any block "with more than 75 percent white" residents. The ordinance was struck down in the courts but segregated, restrictive housing covenants and real estate redlining continued for almost 40 more years.

Mill Creek Valley
Newly arriving blacks and those already in St. Louis were confined to certain areas of the city, including the Greater Ville Neighborhood and Mill Creek Valley (from Union Station to Saint Louis University), where some 20,000 blacks would eventually call “home.”

With a plan to revitalize downtown in the early 1950s, City leaders proceeded to build large public housing complexes for low-income residents. Passage of the National Housing ACT in the late 1940s and the creation of the Missouri Urban Redevelopment Corporation made federal and state dollars available for new housing developments. What planners didn't predict was the damaging impact government money would have in enticing white city residents to new affordable homes in the suburbs.

WHITE FLIGHT
Suburban housing developments began at a time when St. Louis had reached its peak population of 850,000. Between 1950 and 1970, almost 60 percent of St. Louis’ white population fled to the suburbs.
After the Pruitt-Igoe high rises opened in 1954, Mill Creek Valley with its 800 neighborhood businesses was razed for new development. The Pruitt-Igoe “experiment” came to an explosive end in 1972 with the demolition of the 33 concrete high-rises. Former residents of Mill Creek Valley and Pruitt-Igoe then migrated northward to the Greater Ville neighborhood and other inner-city low-income areas north of Delmar Blvd.
In 1975, the City commissioned the “Team Four Plan," which basically discouraged development in so-called "depletion areas" until the city "determined that redevelopment can and should begin.” It was no coincidence that these areas constituted much of North St. Louis. The plan of was never officially adopted, but, to this day, critics swear the silent agenda of “benign neglect” in North St. Louis was enforced for more than 30 years.
According to the 1980 census, mass depopulation in the city accelerated, falling from 622,230 to 452,800. Between 1970 and 1980, large numbers of African Americans crossed the “suburban color line,” moving into municipalities like Wellston, Normandy, Jennings, Ferguson and Bellefontaine Neighbors.


Much of this “flight” was due to the 1980 court-ordered school desegregation plan. The courts ruled that St. Louis public schools were still segregated and unequal long after the 1954 “Brown v. Board of Education” Supreme Court ruling. Court-ordered busing-blacks students to the county and white students to the city-was the judicial remedy. As a result, more white families moved out of the city and the majority of kids bused were black. With billions in school dollars flowing to the county and very little investment in city schools, black parents also followed the buses to the suburbs.

By the year 2000, St. Louis’ population had dropped to 348,189 and hovers around 317,000 today. For almost 60 years, blacks have been moved or shoved out of the city into suburban locales where they weren't necessarily welcomed or wanted.  As the county became more diverse, more whites moved even further north towards St. Charles County.

Although blacks are the majority population in many suburban communities, power (economic, educational, institutional and law enforcement) remains in the hands of whites. This may explain why the annual budgets of so many St. Louis County municipalities are heavily dependent on revenues collected from black traffic offenders.


St, Louis has a proud history of redeveloping and sparking economic growth in city areas such as Tower Grove, Lafayette Square, Skinker-DeBaliviere, Old North and the Central West End. Unfortunately, for decades, city leaders have maintained a “hands-off” approach to developing North St. Louis…until recently. And the big question concerning St. Louis County developer Paul McKee’s proposed multi-billion dollar North side project is will it be a boon for the current population or a stepping stone to depopulation?




The fuse that led to Ferguson burns hot in St. Louis city and county. We can only uproot, deny, demean and psychologically, physically and monetarily abuse people for so long. I maintain that another explosion can be avoided if we choose a different more inclusive route. Economic and community empowerment is possible if we change courses, attempt to rectify past mistakes and tried really, really hard to… “Remember Pruitt-Igoe.”



Thursday, September 11, 2014

No More Fergusons Part II: Through the Eyes of Our Kids

2014 Sweet Potato Project Class and staff after a visit with Chronicle Coffee owner. Jason Wilson
On Wednesday, August 9th, I stood in the audience of the William J. Harrison Education Center, beaming with pride as the Sweet Potato Project (SPP) students kicked off their end-of-summer event. One thought kept reverberating in my head as the teens talked, sang and spit rhymes about their new friendships, planting produce, making products, starting their own businesses and reclaiming communities:

End of summer celebratory event
“They get it!”

SPP has received the support, time and commitment from people of all races and faiths-whites, blacks, Christians, Jews, Muslims and more. We “get it,” too, because our students have cautiously allowed us into their fragile worlds. They've granted us the privilege to see their potential, fears and frustrations. We see how they've become a tighter, more conscientious and informed clique and the lessons we've shared this summer seems to have taken root.
LaTanya Reeves of Enterprise Bank & Trust oversaw our financial literacy courses. She arranged to have Tyler Sondag from SLU’s John Cook’s School of Business give the kids a basic course in business plan development. To my surprise, within a week, most got the essentials and a few came up with rudimentary but bold plans.
LaTanya Reeves
Tyler Sondag's Business Plan Class


Edie Adams, 18, was excited to share her idea about creating an inner-city real estate company that focused solely on securing vacant city lots that would be sold to individuals interested in redeveloping the land for farming and housing developments.
Michael Smith reading an ode to Mike Brown in class
Then there’s quirky but lovable Mike, 18, a kid who researched food companies to draft his business plan for the Sweet Potato Project. I won’t disclose 17-year-old Tytianna’s plan but I will say that this shy, withdrawn young lady came up with an idea that could very well revolutionize the multibillion dollar cell phone industry.    
Three days after our celebratory event, an unarmed teen, Michael Brown, 18, was shot dead by a Ferguson police officer and all hell broke loose. Unlike the media’s salacious focus on “looting and rioting” young people, we saw the catastrophic incident through the eyes of our students. 
Raymond Blanton

Raymond, 17, is a student who had no fear expressing unpopular opinions in class on topics such as sexual promiscuity, black-on-black crime, religion and respect for the law. This conservative-leaning kid exhibited disgust and hopelessness with “the system” after the Mike Brown shooting.

There are those who cling to the images of stealing or bottle-throwing black youth to justify the militarized assault on young protesters. I wish these callous commentators could meet Travion-a tall, dark-skinned, deadlock-wearing 19-year-old who has earned praise from our instructors and the business-owners we visited this summer. My heart dropped the day Travion told me:

“Mr. Brown, you’re the first person to tell me I’m smart.” 
Travion Johnson

About the third week of classes, Travion and his brothers, Antonio and Arthur became rather sullen. They were too playful, too distracted and sometimes disruptive. One day, one of our instructors, Muhammad Raqib, called the brothers out on their behavior.
  “Mr. Raqib, you don’t know what we’re going through!” Antonio shot back.
Antonio Johnson
He elaborated, telling the class how he and his brothers attended a party and, in the midst of the festivities, their uncle was stabbed in the neck by a female acquaintance. Antonio spoke of the helplessness he felt as he tried applied a towel to a wound that eventually robbed them of their beloved uncle.
You see, our kids grapple with death; navigate poverty, gangs, drug-related violence, public ridicule and racial mistrust. Yet, they remain hopeful, creative and open to the notion that they can make positive change in their neighborhoods.

DeVon "Lil' Usher" Hemphill
As I listened to the numerous "Mike Brown" songs that's been released, I thought of Devon, a kid we nicknamed “Lil’ Usher” because of his resemblance to the entertainer. Devon is just as comfortable crafting a beat as he is articulating ways to attract more youth and create jobs for his peers and siblings.

Marquita Williams
We've learned that "respect" is a big thing among our students. Marquita, 20, has been with us since 2012. She has the stage presence and media skill to articulate our mission on camera or in front of small and large groups. She has talent and value but when Marquita feels disrespected, she’ll dig her heels in and refuse to budge until she feels her voice has been heard.

Meet Nadia, 19-a fast-talking dreamer anxious to tackle the world. In class last year, Nadia talked about “the jump-out-boys”-plainclothes policemen, she said, who constantly harass her and her friends as they walk the streets or stand in front of their homes. The officers, she added, purposely try to provoke the youth with insults and racial expletives while rummaging through their pockets.
Nadia Epps

Thankfully, police brutality has been an ongoing discussion in our classes. To address the fears of our students, we've had high-ranking officers talk with them about effective ways to interact and resolve issues with police. It saddens me that most of what we've told them has been betrayed by police who see them as angry, violent stereotypes. We've worked with enough kids over the past three years to know that they’re no different from the young protesters in Ferguson.
The Sweet Potato Project’s basic mission is to bring “community” back to communities. We recruit “at-risk” teens, teach them how to grow food, harvest their yield, create food-based products and learn to be entrepreneurs in their own neighborhoods. We remind our youth that it is their responsibility to create positive change that will provide opportunities for their siblings, peers and parents.
However, telling them this is not enough. We have to build fertile environments for the seeds we’ve planted to flourish. Imagine teens and adults growing food together in St. Louis and in municipalities like Ferguson. Imagine these young, “urban pioneers” working side-by-side with community stakeholders building communities where everyone is personally, socially and economically vested.

Some of the students on last day of summer classes
I can go on and on about our other students-Tabby, Zavier, Nautica. Ranesha, Marissa, Dashia, Darryeon, Daja, Keon, Andivar, Maurice and the twins, Sherry & Terry. These are the faces I saw as police gassed, arrested and shot rubber bullets at protesters.
I’m always concerned about the period between the end of summer classes and the beginning our fall, winter and spring program. Raising money is a 24/7 challenge and I find myself fearing that we will lose kids within the fund-raising gap.


The Mike Brown travesty has convinced us at SPP that we’re on the right path. Getting our kids back to class, tending our gardens, harvesting and producing sweet potato-based products is our immediate directive. With your help perhaps we can go further. Perhaps we can keep our promise and help build a generation of youth who will be the stewards of a bold, new vision to reclaim and revitalize North St. Louis.

Click button to donate to the Sweet Potato Project