Sunday, July 24, 2016

In Defense of Demeaned, Dismissed and Denied Young People


I’m in the process of writing a book based on my five years of experience working with the youth of the Sweet Potato Project. The tentative title is “When we Listen.” The book, which will be used as a fundraiser, is based on the one-on-one access I have to the worldview of young African Americans. I have admirably watched how they navigate a world that routinely demeans, dismisses and denies them based primarily on the color of their skin. The words the students have shared with me and the situations I’ve observed will serve to accentuate the need to invest and protect this endangered demographic.

 You see, our youth did not create the environments that feed dysfunction in their lives. They had nothing to do with the abandonment of their neighborhoods or the disinvestment in their public schools. It’s not their fault that they were born into a system that finds it easier to incarcerate them rather than nurture them. If we are to be honest, we will admit that black youth are summarily locked out of opportunity, disproportionately locked up and prematurely labeled as criminals based on stereotypical perceptions rather than facts.

Take for example the recent online petition to label Black Lives Matter a “terrorist group.” Reportedly 140,000 people signed this appeal that was sent to the White House. Never mind that American-made groups like the Klu Klux Klan and its various hybrids have never been labeled “terrorist” even though they are. According to a study by the New America Foundation, radical white supremacists groups are the biggest terror threat in the United States. Yet, Donald Trump and his supporters stoke the embers of white angst by labeling black demonstrators Public Enemy #1.

In order to drive home the message of out-of-control, lawless black youth, the GOP Convention launched a propaganda campaign suspiciously based on the ambushing of police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge. Instead of listening and responding appropriately to our young people, many choose to criminalize those who are publicly crying out for justice, accountability and that police simply stop killing unarmed black people. 
As Vox Media accurately noted, there is a troubling fervor, shared by “a deep swath of the American population…that it is important to declare that the lives of police officers matter but to declare the lives of African-Americans those officers stop matter is an unacceptably radical and potentially terroristic act.”

"...it is important to declare that the lives of police officers matter but to declare the lives of African-Americans those officers stop matter is an unacceptably radical and potentially terroristic act.”

However, it’s easy to point fingers at extreme examples of racial stereotyping. What’s harder to accept is our overall complicity in the defamation and degradation of black youth. It irks me that every time a black youth commits a horrific, violent crime, many black adults will publicly damn all black youth or their parents or hip-hop music or the so-called “culture of violence.” We participate in the blame game without even acknowledging that we helped design the game board. Older African Americans are the ones who failed to provide educational solutions, economic opportunities or alternate systems designed to clog the nefarious preschool-to-prison pipeline. 

What’s harder to accept is our overall complicity in the defamation and degradation of black youth. 

The BLM movement was birthed right here in 2014 during protests that followed the police shooting of Michael Brown, Jr. The shooting led to dozens of articles, commentaries and studies outlining the economic, health, criminal justice and social disparities in our region that help fuel negative interactions with police. All this information underscored the feelings of youth who live hellish lives of generational poverty, social and governmental neglect, police oppression and greedy municipalities that have fed off their vulnerabilities for decades.

I wasn’t surprised when young people in Ferguson came out in droves to speak out against police brutality. Why? Because a year earlier, I watched and listened to my students describe their hurt and sense of betrayal to the “not guilty” verdict handed down in the George Zimmerman case. The indignity they stressed as young people who travel unknown neighborhoods, who eat Skittles and drink Arizona Ice Tea was palpable as they realized their lives really don’t matter. So, when the body of Mike Brown lay in the street for hours; when police showed up with automatic weapons and slathering German Sheppards and later with tanks, teargas and rubber bullets, I instinctively knew “something” was about to pop off.
It stays with me that a year after Mike Brown’s death; after reams of documented disparities contained in the DOJ, Ferguson Report and Wash U’s “For the Sake of All” damning study and after all the promises to “do better”…the biggest news item of the region was an effort to use tax-payer money to build a billion-dollar football stadium in downtown St. Louis. It was as if the powers-that-be, with complete compliance of many local politicians, flipped the proverbial bird to our youth and went about business as usual.
It’s hard to point fingers at far right extremists when left-leaning politicians in the region flat out ignore the conditions and concerns of young, black youth. It’s hard to scream “racism” when black politicians sign off on initiatives and efforts that primarily benefit already rich, white developers.
According to the East West Gateway Council of Governments, St. Louis is the sixth most segregated city in the United States amongst its peer cities in terms of education, health, labor market and wealth.  

"...after all the promises to 'do better'…the biggest news item of the region was an effort to use tax-payer money to build a billion-dollar football stadium in downtown St. Louis.

Politicians, especially black politicians and leaders, can’t pretend they’re unaware of the disproportionate ills that their constituents endure daily. Recently, Michael P. McMillan, president & chief executive officer of the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis wrote an editorial about some of these inequities.  At the time of Michael Brown’s killing, McMillan wrote, black unemployment in Missouri “was 15.7 percent in the fall of 2014 – triple the state’s 4.5 percent white unemployment rate at the time.”
Last year, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch issued an editorial that should have been a clarion call for collective action when it wrote: To be black in the St. Louis region means that you are more than three times as likely as your white neighbors to live in poverty, to be unemployed, to have less education, to die earlier and to see your child die in infancy.”
There is a rabid sense of endangerment for black youth even if they survive infancy. They live in areas where bullets fly on their way to school. The color of their clothing in certain neighborhoods can result in death. Not only do they have to worry about being shot by the “bad guys,” they live with the reality of nervous cops with  fingers on triggers of guns aimed at stereotypes.

A group of elders talking with some of our students
Yet, through all these obstacles our young people manage to maintain, to navigate, to challenge our injustices, dream big dreams and try to make the best out of what a selfish, segregated society provides. 
Now some will read this and interpret it as an excuse for the behavior of violent youth. It’s not. In reality, we may have lost a whole generation of youth who have turned to crime as a means for survival or just a way of life. The point I'm trying to stress is that, unless we find a way to change their environments and nurture their inherent genius and survival skills, we will have more crime, more deaths and more black youth herded into our nation’s already over-populated juvenile detention centers and adult prisons.

Yet, through all these obstacles our young people manage to maintain, to navigate, to challenge our injustices, dream big dreams and try to make the best out of what a selfish society provides. 

A few of the young men who have participated in the Sweet Potato Project
I’ve learned that, if we listen, young people will tell us about the inequities they face and their thoughts on fixing them. The solutions may not be perfect but, if we care, we’ll attempt to address those concerns no matter how inconvenient they seem to be or how uncomfortable they make us feel.
I often wonder if people who support the petition or callously stereotype black youth have any black people in their lives. Thankfully, there are thousands who do. You've seen them protesting with BLM or speaking out against injustices designed to imprison or disenfranchise black youth.

I often wonder if people who supported the online petition or callously stereotype black youth have any black people in their lives. Thankfully, there are thousands who do.

Because I have been placed in a position where I can actually hear our youth, I’m immune to the propaganda. I don’t see young people calling for the death of police officers; I see them courageously reacting to senseless deaths enacted by the “bad cops” of a broken criminal justice system.  I don’t see a generation of thugs and drug dealers; I see young people without direction, opportunities and resources surviving alone in a cold, materialistic world.
What promises may come if we encouraged them to use their energy, creativity and naïve optimism to change their worlds? What gifts will a nation receive if it shifted its priorities from criminalizing and denying a whole generation of young people to empowering them to make great change?
This we will never know...until we listen.


Monday, July 11, 2016

How urban agriculture projects in St. Louis are investing in more than just food

 Published on JUL 6, 2016
On Wednesday’s St. Louis on the Air, host Don Marsh spoke with the directors of (local) urban agriculture initiatives to hear about how they are growing more than just food in their gardens.
Podcast version available here / SPP interview at 17:30
Sweet Potato Project
Tamara, whose last name will remain anonymous, is a second-year participant in Brown’s Sweet Potato Project. She took a break from planting seeds in a bed in front of Union Avenue Christian Church to tell us about her involvement with the program.
“I didn’t enjoy it at first because it’s a lot of work and it’s very hot,” she said. “But I’ve grown to it, and now I don’t mind doing it at all. I actually like doing it.”
Brown started the Sweet Potato Project in 2012 because he wanted to empower young people like Tamara to make a difference in their community of North St. Louis.
“I really don’t care if they stay in urban gardening or not,” Brown said. “I just want to plant that seed of entrepreneurism and healthy, natural living.”
A former columnist with the St. Louis Post Dispatch, Brown sees enormous potential for the area in what he calls the “food movement.” His vision is to use some of North St. Louis’ vacant lots to promote economic development and community pride through urban agriculture.

Accomplishing this mission, however, will require political and financial support that Brown says he is currently lacking. 
"These kids have bought into the notion that they can actually change their communities, and that's powerful stuff."

The kids who participate in the Sweet Potato Project are paid for their work, but this year Brown has encountered significant financial difficulties that forced him to limit to the number of students in the program from 35 to 15. They do not have their own piece of land yet, and acquiring that land is what he identifies as the most crucial next step for the program.
In spite of the many challenges, Brown says this is one of the most personally rewarding projects he has ever worked on.
“The beautiful thing is it’s not just a summer job,” Brown explained. “These kids have bought into the notion that they can actually change their communities, and that’s powerful stuff.”

Thursday, June 30, 2016

BET and the Articulation of a Movement



Whoever produced the 2016 BET Awards program needs a big, fat bonus. Somehow, the network, which has been marred with frivolity for years, stepped up its game and delivered a show that defined and reinforced today's movement for human and civil rights.


The program began with Beyonce (joined by Kendrick LeMar) for a live performance of "Freedom." Ebony-hued women, adorned in African-inspired body suits, marched in formation toward a water-soaked platform with dramatic bursts of fire. Heads up, shoulders steadied, eyes focused on the stage, the dancers strutted to the beat of palpitating drums synced to the words of the late Dr. Martin Luther King:

“We refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt…so we’ve come to cash this check, a check that will give us, among demand, the riches of freedom and the security of justice.”


BET used its unique platform to take us back, and perhaps, move us forward. Producers seemed to have taken survey of our great musical losses, tragic tribulations and articulated a time-proven, collective pathway forward.

For me, the opening act was a reminder that African drums were once the slave’s unspoken language of sorrow, hope, escape and revolution. MLK’s voice incorporated with the drumbeat accentuated how far we have regressed in our quest to reach the mountaintop of equality.

 

Of course, the powerful tributes to Prince and Muhammad Ali set the tone for serious reflection. Those youngsters who believe they have achieved on their own had to reckon with the spirits of legends in the room who sacrificed for their musical, social and political freedoms.

In the terrifying times of Trump, the network detoured from its far too frolicsome homage to sex, misogyny, drugs and the pubescent glorification of money. With repeated calls to “get out and vote,” the program acknowledged hip-hop while reinforcing the legacy of musical, social and political activism.

Jennifer Hudson’s gospel-tinged rendition of Prince’s Purple Rain: “Honey, I know, I know times are changing…” brought new relevance in an America gone askew. 


The exoneration of real and widely suspected police in the killings of Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland and so, so many more has re-lit the fire of righteous indignation in the hearts of many, especially young people. The legacy of musical protest in the songs of Billie Holiday, Nina Simone, Sam Cooke, Bob Dylan, Bob Marley and Curtis Mayfield have been rekindled by artists like Beyonce, Kendrick LaMar, D’Angelo, Killer Mike and Janelle Monae.

 

But sorrow without solutions; frustration without articulation can be dances in futility. Mainstream media, Donald Trump and far right loons have used the music of singers and rappers and images of protest groups like Black Lives Matter to convince whites that police are the true “victims” and a violent revolution is afoot that will somehow rob them of their “freedoms.”

At a time when civil rights actions and young angst are summarily manipulated, stereotyped and undermined, context is desperately needed. When speaking to the urban uprisings of the 1960s, Dr. King provided valuable perspective when he defined riots as “the language of the unheard.”

BET gave us a 21st Century advocate of context in "Grey's Anatomy" star, Jesse Williams, who was awarded its Humanitarian Award:

This is for the real organizers all over the country, the activists, the civil rights attorneys, the struggling parents, the families, the teachers, the students that are realizing that a system built to divide and impoverish and destroy us cannot stand if we do,” Williams said in his exceptional acceptance speech.


The actor spoke a rarely heard truth that gave balance to a show primarily dedicated to music.  In less than 700 words he honored black women for nurturing “everyone before themselves”; spoke to the foolish pursuit of getting money just to give it right back, for someone’s brand…”; chastised police who manage to “deescalate, disarm and not kill white people…” while checking critics of “our resistance” with no record of "critiquing our oppression.”

The audience had been primed, the historical backdrop had been provided; the environment for modern-day activism had already been set up before Williams laid down the preeminent ultimatum:

“We’re done watching and waiting while this invention called 'whiteness' uses and abuses us, burying black people out of sight and out of mind while extracting our culture, our dollars, our entertainment, like oil, black gold. Ghettoizing and demeaning our creations, then stealing them, gentrifying our genius, and then trying us on like costumes, before discarding our bodies like rinds of strange fruit.”

The struggle for human and civil rights in America is full with drastically divergent strategies. It was a culmination of different approaches from Nat Turner to Frederick Douglas, DuBois to Garvey, Malcolm to Martin, the Black Panthers to the NAACP and presidential candidates, Jesse Jackson to Barack Obama.  

It's possible I saw something others didn't. But as far as I'm concerned, BET communicated a modern-day template based on our unique past and present potential. Producers reminded us that the struggle is a continuum and the forces of real change must be as committed, diverse, multi-generational and absolutely creative as it has been since the dawn of slavery.

And for this, I say “Thank You.”  



Thursday, May 26, 2016

The Sweet Potato Project 2016: Facing the Challenges, Working the Opportunities


“It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.”

That quote, attributed to Winston Churchill, perfectly describes how I feel about the Sweet Potato Project (SPP). We're in trouble this year. The summer program officially starts in a week or so. We have kids ready to plant and about 15 possible sites in the city, county and East St. Louis, owned by residents, community groups and churches all ready for planting. We have a buyer, St. Louis University, committed to purchasing our collective harvest. What we don’t have is enough money to pay student’s salaries throughout the summer or help partner gardeners purchase organic dirt or build raised beds.

And therein lies the riddle. Whenever I talk about the program in private conversations or in front of an audience, people immediately start nodding their heads or complimenting our mission. I suppose it's because most Americans like the idea of poor people becoming self-sufficient instead of relying on “the system.”

Our mission is to capitalize off the “locally-grown” food movement that's booming across the country. Since 2012, we've attempted to foster a generation of young, urban entrepreneurs. We're also trying to help low-income adults take ownership and generate income in their own neighborhoods. We have restaurants, businesses and consumers interested in buying produce and products grown and made from low income ares in the region. 

It takes only a couple sentences to get those affirmative gestures: “Our students plant sweet potatoes on vacant lots,” I say. “We provide summer jobs where they learn horticulture, marketing, food production, sales, distribution and more. At summer’s end, the students are charged with turning their harvest into products that they can sell throughout the year to earn commissions.”


  

That’s it. That’s the gist of the program and the elevator pitch that everyone seems to like. Yet, funding the program is not getting easier, it’s actually getting harder. Rejection letters from potential institutional funders are always complimentary…”Your project is worthwhile but at this time…” etc., etc., but they're still rejections.

All is not completely lost. We still have a few grants in the pipeline that we hope come through. I've made some progress with a couple local aldermen who seem to see the value of growing produce on vacant lots. The mayor of East St. Louis along with other city officials there are absolutely thrilled to have the city participate in our growing collaborative. We have Karen Davis, horticulturist with Lincoln University’s Urban Impact Center helping us prepare lots for planting harvests that we'll purchase in the fall. Additionally, we’ve been awarded a grant to establish an official collaborative of food-growers but those funds won’t come in time for the sweet potato planting season which has to be done by mid-June.


A few of the vacant lots SPP will partner with this year:

Cote Brilliante Church lot
East St. Louis lot 
North County lot
Union Avenue Christian Church lot
  
Still, it’s obvious we have to take a different approach to get through the summer and beyond. Once again, we have to turn to our small circle of supporters and ask that they donate whatever they can...today. We’re also reaching out to the private sector, if you work for or own a small-to-medium size business and would like to support us, please let me know how I can get our "Ask" letter to you. Lastly, I'll officially launch our GoFundme campaign designed to raise money for student's salaries and summer operational costs in a couple days.

The students, especially my veteran students, are going to have to put some of those entrepreneurial skills they’ve learned to work. We’re planning a couple of fund-raisers where my kids will help me tell our story and gain more support. The Royale has one scheduled for June 21st. We're hoping more businesses and individuals will follow its lead. Please take note of our website and Facebook “events” pages to support these events.

On another note, SPP has to find different ways to raise money outside the traditional nonprofit support arena. With the help of St. Louis University’s Department of Nutrition & Dietetics, we have a quality product; sweet potato cookies. We already have a great baking team of experienced students. What we need is a food company or people with sales, food packaging and distribution expertise to help our students professionalize and expedite product sales, which could include more sweet potato-based products.

Call me a naive optimist but I maintain this project will someday live up to its potential. So many good people have given their time, skills and money to get us this far.  I simply have to trust that they and others, who say they like what we do, will come to our rescue. Politicians, churches and community groups are responding to our call to work together to turn vacant lots into productive, money-generating properties. In short, we're still in the game, still doing our best.

Despite the financial struggles, I find myself in a blessed position. After 30 years of writing about the historic economic and social woes of black folk, I'm in a place where I feel I'm actually helping to enact holistic change. I work with resilient, brilliant young people who inspire me and give me hope. That’s an invaluable gift. St. Louis is way behind cities like Detroit, Cleveland and Kansas City in the urban agriculture movement. Still, there's a healthy consortium of grassroots, food-related organizations here. SPP's endeavors to train youth, create a major food brand and empower low-income adults and neighborhoods can compliment these efforts.

It's going to be a rough summer. Although, after five years, I feel we should be financially stronger, no promises were ever made. Yes, I'm frustrated with the money shortage this year but that just means my students, volunteer staff and I have have to hustle harder with what we have at hand.

Someday, we'll solve this riddle, this mystery, this enigma. Someday, we'll turn more of those affirmative gestures into affirmative resources. Today, however, we have to rely on faith and the fact that we're on the right path. We have to move forward with the belief that enough like-minded, benevolent people will help us get through the summer and into that promising place of unlimited potential.


Wednesday, May 4, 2016

We’re Gonna Do it Anyway…


Dave Golliday is a retired St. Louis City policeman. His bar, Golliday’s, off Grand on Chippewa, serves as a refuge for some of the coolest, most down-to-earth people I know. Dave has also become a good, supportive friend of mine.


One of these years I’m going to start the Sweet Potato Project’s summer program with enough money to operate already in the bank. Unfortunately, this is not that year. As in other years, responses to our grant requests have either been negative or they’re still pending. With the program’s official start date less than a month away, our board, volunteers, students and I are going to have to increase our hustle if we are to meet our goals.

That’s why Dave comes to mind. He hosted a fundraiser for SPP at Golliday’s in March. It was a Saturday night affair where I got up a few times in between karaoke singing, said a few syllables about SPP, while the gracious barmaids sold raffle tickets for sweet potato cookies and/or gifts or drinks Dave provided.

The point is, I may not have the money to run this program effectively but I do have a lot of “Daves” in my life. They are friends, followers, supporters who truly get what we’re trying to accomplish with the Sweet Potato Project. Maybe this support has been garnered from writing about injustice, oppression, racism and exclusion in the region for almost 30 years. Maybe it's a result of being engaged in community activism for most of that time. Perhaps it's because I've publicly chronicled my journey from a small newspaper publisher to columnist for the region’s largest daily newspaper, to becoming the director of a fledgling nonprofit dedicated to empowering low-income youth and adults.




My life serves as inspiration for what we’re trying to do with SPP. I was a high school dropout and, at one time, a person destined to live the life of a statistic. But, for some reason, benevolent people always stepped in to remind me that I had/have something special. More important, they walked me to opportunity. That’s the mantra of the Sweet Potato Project: we train youth (ages 16-21) to plant food on vacant lots, we help them learn marketing, branding, sales, and product development skills, and expose them to opportunities in their own hard-hit neighborhoods. In other words, we walk them to entrepreneurial opportunities.

Realizing that youth need nurturing environments to employ these new-found skills, we’re inviting churches, community groups and residents to use vacant lots to grow food with us. We already have a major buyer for the produce. The big picture includes getting youth and adults to grow massive food in the region, create a “brand” for our food and food-based products, then getting major and community institutions, entities and consumers throughout the region to “buy in” by purchasing food and food products from North St. Louis.


Our program is not an all-out panacea for the challenges facing low-income youth, adults and communities but it’s a viable, organic start that can lead to other collective, self-sustaining efforts to bring jobs, small businesses and vibrant economic activity back to North St. Louis.

We’re going into our fifth year of operations and I still can’t pinpoint the reasons why we always come up short in operating funds. Maybe it’s supposed to be this hard, maybe this is supposed to be a truly grassroots effort backed by the kind of people who have supported all my endeavors. I don’t know. This much I do know; we have to do this anyway. Some of my students are returning from college. They are ready to get started with our summer program and baking cookies for distribution. Some have asked their friends or siblings to join SPP this summer.

I have to make this year’s program happen with what I have at hand, and what I have are my friends and supporters. So here’s the real deal: I need my “Daves” to come to my rescue…again. I’ll be specific:

First and foremost, we need money, lots and lots of money. Even if the grants we’ve requested come through, it won’t be in time to start classes or paying at least 20 students' salaries starting next month. Anyone and everyone can make a donation of any amount on our website by CLICKING HERE.

To all my musician friends, bar and venue-owners and my "peeps" with influential friends of their own: let’s go ahead and schedule those fund-raisers some of you have mentioned. We can do events like the one blues man, Marquis Knox did last year or the event Dave hosted in March. A few of my students and I are available for more intimate home or business gatherings. Email me (sylvesterbj@gmail.com) and let’s work out the details.


2015 Blues SPP Fundraiser at BB's Jazz & Soups featuring Marquis Knox and band 
Secondly, I have about 15 possible garden partners so far who have agreed to grow sweet potatoes that we will purchase in the fall. I can use some help collecting soil samples to determine if we can plant in the dirt or have to build raised beds and buy organic soil. We will be planting later this month but all the sites have to be ready for planting sweet potatoes by mid-June. I’ll publicly post and send out press releases and invites to volunteers who wish to help. In addition, we could definitely use a bank or two to sponsor the costs of buying material for low-income partners with contaminated soil. If you are a banker, corporation or just a generous soul, I have a letter with more details for you or someone who you think may respond accordingly. Send an email to sylvesterbj@gmail.com for specifics.

One of the most beautiful parts of the Sweet Potato Project, I think, is our approach to exposing youth to their inherent gifts and opportunities within their neighborhoods. We have a unique five-point curriculum designed to be implemented by entrepreneurs, entertainers, educators or anyone who understands that our youth need validation and exposure to positive people or those who simply give a damn about them. 

Please take a look at our “Five Point Curriculum (CLICK HERE)” for a week-by-week listing of our program. There’s no funding for instructors this year, so anyone wishing to conduct classes or presentations, help transport students to business sites or simply want to assist as supportive aides, please send an email (sylvesterbj@gmail.com) to arrange times suitable to your schedules.
 

I’ve posted a more detailed listing of our 2016 needs on our website (CLICK HERE) that breaks down our needs and the money we have to raise post-haste. Please take a look and share the link with your friends, neighbors, bosses or anyone who can help us help our youth and our hard hit communities. Contact me if you need this in letter form.

Recently, I made the conscious decision not to take our lack of funds personally. I can’t dictate the journey but this much I know: the Sweet Potato Project is the most rewarding, fulfilling yet most challenging endeavor of my life.  I have this awesome opportunity to interact with young people grappling with the poverty and challenges of my youth. I have the chance to tell them that "you have something special" and try to walk them to opportunity. Most important though, is that I have never been alone on this journey…not in the past and not now. You-my “Daves,” my friends and supporters-have my back.

Yeah, I’m a little bummed and a little nervous about the program this year but, despite the obstacles and hardships, I can cautiously say “we’re gonna do it anyway.”