Friday, September 30, 2016

The Sweet Potato Project and Facing My Limitations

That line from the 1973 Clint Eastwood film, Magnum Force, has new meaning for me. Begrudgingly, I’ve come to the conclusion that my skills are not enough to operate the Sweet Potato Project (SPP) effectively. I’ve given it my best but my best has not been enough to take it where I feel it’s supposed to be. Funding has decreased significantly; we barely made it through the 2016 summer program. All this has me thinking about my limitations.

I co-founded SPP with the North Area Community Development Corporation (NACDC) in 2012. I can honestly say it's the most rewarding yet challenging effort of my long career. We’ve come this far thanks to a few dedicated volunteers, board members, limited nonprofit and corporate funding and generous people who’ve donated or helped us raise money to keep chugging along. But I’m almost 60 (groan) and can no longer wear all the hats of fund-raiser, urban farmer, marketer, educator, driver, delivery man, etc., etc., like I did just a few years ago.

There is no doubt that SPP’s basic but powerful mission is worthwhile. We teach youth how to be entrepreneurs today, in their own neighborhoods. We give them a summer job where they plant sweet potatoes on vacant or community lots. Students (ages 16-to-21) learn horticulture, marketing, branding, business skills, sales, product development and more. After harvest, they turn their produce into products. Right now, they’re selling sweet potato cookies on commission. I am constantly inspired by the discipline, grit, tenacity and brilliance of the low-income youth we serve.


I’m a writer and I’m more than comfortable promoting and articulating SPP’s mission. I get all animated when speaking about the vision of blocks and blocks of low-income urban farmers who own vacant lots, youth and adults who grow, package and distribute produce and developing our very own line of food products. I try to paint an electric picture of a sustainable, food-based North St. Louis economic engine that supplies fresh food to schools, public institutions, restaurants, grocers and consumers locally and even nationally.

This crystal clear vision is my daily motivation. My real friends know that, if I truly believe in something, I’ll chomp down like a pit bull and refuse to let go until my vice-like grip is weakened by reality. After all, I stubbornly held on to my struggling but award-winning publication, Take Five Magazine, for 15 years even though it never made money. I did so because I believed in its mission to inform, enlighten and serve as a source of needed change in our community.

After five years, I’m in no way ready to give up on the Sweet Potato Project.  I am however, ready to reconcile that I have limitations and need to rectify the situation. There are people out there-some I know and many, many I don’t-who share my passion and possess the skills and qualifications we need. You know who you are. If you’ve been feeling me but have been hesitant to reach out, now is the time. I’ve got about six months to turn this puppy around.

If you’re willing to bring your talents to our table, what follows are the specific areas of development where your gifts will be put to good use:


I am the primary fund-raiser for our project. With the help of one of our board members, we do it but I don’t consider us really good at it. There’s an art to writing grants, getting corporate sponsorship, planning fundraisers and closing the deal. I need more than well-intentioned people; I need folks who’ve done it before; who have professional marketing and promotional skills, who confidently know how to navigate gatekeepers, reach decision-makers, raise awareness and the necessary funds to help a promising, grassroots nonprofit soar.


My eldest daughter calls me a “control freak.” I don’t try to be, it’s just that I’m not comfortable asking unpaid people to do too much. We need qualified and motivated volunteers but we also need people who are good with volunteers; who understand the vision and can delegate and follow up on assigned tasks.   


SPP has the opportunity to develop its own revenue source through making, selling and distributing products made from the food we grow. Through our partnership with St. Louis University’s Department of Nutrition & Dietetics, our students currently bake and sell delicious sweet potato cookies. We have consumers ready to buy and vendors (restaurants, coffee shops, gas stations, etc.) who have expressed interest in carrying our cookies. I’ve been hesitant to commit until I’m sure we can deliver consistent quantities of professionally baked and packaged products. I’m hoping that a major food manufacturer will adopt this vision and/or skilled individuals will commit to teaching our budding entrepreneurs how to package, sell, meet consumer demand and distribute current and new products in a professional and timely manner.


Part of our overall mission is to develop a sustainable economic engine in North St. Louis. We not only want to train young entrepreneurs, we want to help stimulate nurturing environments where youth and adults can capitalize off the burgeoning locally-grown food movement. We received a small grant to create a collective of urban farmers who will grow food, make food products at SLU and bring their goods to market. We need political, civic and corporate support to assist us as we attempt to help low-income residents gain access to some of the 8,000 vacant lots in the city of St. Louis alone. I would also like to have professional marketers help us promote and gain support for this grand vision. The major goals are to develop massive, inner-city food growth, make Sweet Potato Farms a recognized brand (i.e. Glory Foods) that helps people earn money and consumers know that their purchases will empower disadvantaged individuals and neighborhoods in North St. Louis. We’re hoping a major food manufacturer or people with the needed expertise will adopt this vision and partner with us to make it a sustainable and replicable success.


So there you have it; our vision, our challenges and our needs. The mission is powerful but I and our small group of fervent supporters can only do so much. I will be touching base with certain talented individuals I know, those who have written expressing an interest in getting involved and those who respond to this missive.  For the next six months, we will meet, discuss, prepare, restructure and put things in motion before we start recruiting youth for planting in late May and the 2017 summer program.

There are good people in my life that have cautioned me not to write about the challenges involved with this endeavor. "People only want to hear the positive" or "someone with more resources may steal the idea," they say. I understand that but it’s not my way. I’m human and I do indeed have limitations. Basically, I’m a writer and most of the blessings in my life have come from publicly articulating what is and what needs to be. Besides, I write because I’m jazzed by the potential of our disregarded youth and the possibilities of creating a grassroots template for real sustainable change in low-income communities.

If you feel me, then join me. With your donations of money, time and expertise, all things I’ve laid out and more are extremely possible.


Click arrow to see the 2014 Ted Talk video "Bringing Community back to Communities."
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Monday, September 12, 2016

When an Award Reveals Rewards

My reward was the crystallization of a major multi-faceted approach to real community development.

MC Tracey J. Shanklin with BSA founder, Melvin White at the MLK Legacy Dinner
On Friday, Sept. 9th, I was awarded the 2016 MLK Legacy Award for “Outstanding Service in the Community.” About four other individuals were also honored during The Beloved Streets of America’s first annual MLK Legacy Dinner. It’s always nice to be recognized for trying to do something positive but, for me, the true reward was the event itself and the realization that I am a part of a game-changing group with unrecognized potential.

I have to be honest, I’ve been besieged with doubt about the Sweet Potato Project (SPP). Our mission is basic but powerful. For the past five years, we’ve been working with at-risk teens to show them how to become self-sufficient and make money in their own neighborhoods. Students plant produce on vacant lots, after harvesting they turn produce into products.

Simple right?

I’ve been besieged with doubt about the Sweet Potato Project...Our funding has decreased significantly within the past two years... 

Our bigger mission is to help low-income people gain access to vacant lots, grow food and develop ways to sell through farmer’s markets, direct delivery or by selling food-based products like our sweet potato cookies. If hundreds of poor folk are growing and thousands are buying from local urban farmers, we have a shot at creating a real economic engine in North St. Louis.

Powerful, right?

Well, not so much-at least not for SPP. Our funding has decreased significantly within the past two years. Our students made it through the summer, with the help of a few individuals who hosted fund-raisers for us. However, it’s become painfully obvious that we can’t continue operating with a tiny staff, limited funds on a shoestring budget.  

If hundreds of poor folk are growing and thousands are buying from local urban farmers, we have a shot at creating a real economic engine in North St. Louis.

So that was the sort of funk I was in when I arrived at Friday’s event. The real reward, though, came in the form of inspiration through the activities of other awardees and some extraordinary ordinary people I know who are also striving to enact social and economic change in the black community.

Melvin White founder of Beloved Streets of America
First, let’s start with Melvin White, the founder of Beloved Streets of America. Melvin is a postal worker who saw a need and seeks to address it. After visiting the Delmar Loop area one day, he asked himself why couldn’t the street named after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. be just as robust and dynamic? That simple question fueled his mission to bring economic revitalization not only to the MLK strip from Wellston to East St. Louis but all over the country.

Even though Melvin, for some inexplicable reason, has been ostracized by some black aldermen, his idea has been recognized nationally. Harvard University was so intrigued with the concept that they sent a professor and a team of grad students here to explore its possibilities.  That visit led to a partnership between Harvard and Washington University called “A Divided City: Urban Humanities Initiative,” designed to dissect and dismantle segregation in our region and across the country.

Even though Melvin, for some inexplicable reason, has been ostracized by some black aldermen, his idea has been recognized nationally 

Malik and Deborah Ahmed, founders of Better Family Life, Inc., were also recipients of a community service award Friday night. The 33-year-old organization is legendary for its work in crime reduction, home ownership, employment training and the general social and economic elevation of low income families. The Ahmeds were not only a strong reminder of what good things may come from being persistent, they reinforced my oft-forgotten belief that the black community already has the players and solutions needed to dramatically reinvigorate North St. Louis.

Deborah & Malik Ahmed with other BSA honorees

I sat at a table with Robert Powell, founder of the now shuttered Portfolio Art Gallery in the Grand Arts District. His wife Carol and Eddie Davis, former UE executive and founder of the Center for the Acceleration of African American Businesses (CAAAB) were also at the table. Robert is working to build an African American Arts District that will showcase, support and enhance black art and black artists in our region. Eddie’s organization trains people to open and successfully operate business ventures.

Robert Powell
My reward of that night was the crystallization of a major multi-faceted approach to community development. After accepting my award, I asked the audience to dream with me. Imagine a vibrant and refurbished MLK (Beloved Streets), I said, where people own homes (BFL); with dozens of black-owned storefronts (CAAAB) in an area like the U. City Loop where art and culture is part of the neighborhood’s fabric (Portfolio); where economically empowered landowners grow food that supplies the entire region (SPP).

The real reward was inspiration via some extraordinary ordinary people I know striving to enact change in the black community.

I was also reminded of the five or so food-related entities already working in the Greater Ville area on or near MLK Blvd. St. Louis University recently applied for a USDA grant to help fund these agencies. SPP is a part of that collaborative. If funded, there will be a food market, industrial kitchen to develop “value-added” food products and more urban farms in the area. If more funds were directed to these entities and organizations recognized at the Beloved Streets event, we’d have a huge swath of MLK in North St. Louis dedicated to empowering low-income youth and adults, job creation, home and land ownership and small business growth-which can all lead to neighborhood safety and sustainability.

There are basically two obstacles that impede this grand vision. First, as Malik Ahmed noted after he and Deborah received their awards, black organizations must collaborate, strategize and go after funding as a collective. The second challenge is the lack of vision among politicians, city planners, nonprofit funders and corporations. St. Louis leaders seem to have one model for community develop: “Let’s give these rich guys and powerful entities millions upon millions in state, local and federal tax breaks and public money and, hopefully, their success will trickle down to people in poor communities.”

Politicians have exuberantly signed off on developments such as the $16 million failed attempt to keep the Rams in St. Louis along with the billion-dollars to build them a new football stadium. Then there’s Paul McKee’s Northside Regeneration project which will receive up to $390 million in tax-increment financing. The estimated $2.1 billion Cortex District and the $1.75 billion National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency’s headquarters are all buoyed by tax incentives, deferred taxes and public money.

There are basically two obstacles that impede this grand vision: black organizations not collaborating and the lack of vision among politicians and city planners...

This is all well and good, I suppose, but if we’re leveraging the city’s tax base for the rich, implementing gentrification in North St. Louis and short-changing public schools dependent on tax dollars, shouldn’t a fraction of the public money go to sacrificing, struggling black organizations that are dedicated to empowering residents, educating young people and building businesses within the most disadvantaged and ignored areas of our city?

If we’re leveraging the city’s tax base for the rich, implementing gentrification in North St. Louis and short-changing public schools dependent on tax dollars, shouldn’t a fraction of the public money go to sacrificing, struggling black organizations

When it comes to sharing public money and investing in the black community, we’re up against a decades-old, stubborn, segregationist mindset in St. Louis. Still, I have hope. Can politicians-particularly black and progressive politicians-simply call for a time-out on doling out dollars to the rich and powerful? Can’t they insist on a little quid-pro-quo for their loyalty and demand that elitist city planners include black organizations in the mix? If those of us dedicated to enacting real, people-centered change worked together, perhaps we can help introduce a new template for development that actually empowers people to do-for-self economically.

These things and more are the fruits of an award that emphasized the potential rewards right here, today, within our midst.  

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Photo courtesy of

For much of my first 20 years of my life, I was Colin Kaepernick.

For those completely shut off from the media, Kaepernick is the San Francisco 49ers quarterback who’s refusing to stand for the playing of the national anthem. The flag-which everyone faces during recitation of the anthem-represents “a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” Kaepernick told reporters.

As a kid and young adult, I didn’t sing the national anthem, recite the Pledge of Allegiance or salute the flag. It was against my religious beliefs. I was raised a Jehovah’s Witness, a religion that taught that pledging allegiance to the flag was a violation of Scripture, specifically Exodus 20:4:

Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth:” Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God" -(King James version)

I was sometimes ostracized by my peers or scolded by my teachers but no one could make me salute the flag. The Supreme Court, in 1943, reversed a 1940 decision involving two Pennsylvania JW students who refused to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. In essence, the high court ruled that patriotism did not trump an individual’s spiritual right to not violate the Ten Commandments.

I received nowhere near the backlash Kaepernick has endured. Football fans-some gleefully resorting to the use of the “N-word” to describe Kaepernick- are demanding he be fired or that he leave the country that has “blessed him” with a lucrative football career. The San Francisco Police Officers Association wrote a letter to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and 49ers president and CEO Jed York, demanding that Kaepernick apologize for besmirching police with “false narrative and misinformation that lacks any factual basis.”

Many will argue, as did the 49ers’ management, that reciting the national anthem or saluting the flag is just a pre-game “opportunity to honor our country and reflect on the great liberties we are afforded as its citizens.”

That’s all well and good but some people actually pay attention to words. At least the Jehovah’s Witnesses do.

“…the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air… ’Tis the star-spangled banner: O, long may it wave…” are examples JW leaders cite that speak to the glorification of war and the celebration of a “craven image.”

It’s also hard to argue that pledging allegiance “to the Flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands…” before even mentioning GOD isn’t placing a symbolic image before a “jealous God.” Further, as many have noted, Francis Scott-Key’s third stanza of the Star Spangled Banner actually revels in the deaths of black slaves who joined British forces during the Revolutionary War.

To be clear, Kaepernick has not relied on a spiritual defense. His rationale seems to be supported by his moral beliefs:

To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”

It seems to me that Kaepernick’s decision raises the following question: “Does a moral stance carry the same weight as a spiritual stance?”

Well, yeah. Despite today’s patriotic, hyperbole words still matter. America set itself up for centuries of rebuke when it issued the Declaration of Independence in 1776. Moral push-back should be expected in response to factually, hypocritical words etched behind the backdrop of human slavery:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness…”

Many Americans are faced with an inconvenient truth. Looking at the negative, disproportionate rates of black mortality, health, wealth, poverty, unemployment and diseases, it is self-evident that all men (and women) do not enjoy the rights of “life, liberty or the pursuit of happiness” simply due to the color of their skin.

Then there’s the disproportionate rates of incarceration, judicial oppression and the shootings of blacks by police in which Kaepernick bases his argument. According to a project by the Guardian that tracks police killings in America, 136 black people have been shot by police so far this year. In 2015, the project estimated that at least 306 black people were killed by police.

I am no longer a Jehovah’s Witness but my spiritual upbringing influences my moral leanings. I am appalled that my children and grandchildren have to carry the yolk of racial injustice that has burdened their father, grandparents and their ancestors since the birth of this nation. Vestiges of my previous faith remain. I may stand during the Pledge of Allegiance or the singing of the Star Spangled Banner but I never swear my allegiance to the flag. It’s my choice.

Be it spiritual or moral, Kaepernick has the right to stand (or sit) for his beliefs in a country that’s still in opposition of its constitutional tenets. It concerns me that many are questioning his allegiance, calling for his job or, like GOP candidate, Donald Trump, demanding that he leave America.

Kaepernick, is exercising the same right as did novelist, essayist, playwright, poet, and social critic, James Baldwin who wrote:

I love America more than any other country in the world and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.”

Be it spiritual or moral, Kaepernick and anybody else who shares his concerns have the God-given, constitutionally backed, racially-relevant right to criticize their country continuously until that nation stands up to its principles perpetually.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Donald Trump and Mis-Messaging Black Voters

Photo Courtesy of Counter Current News

The last thing I want is to be perceived as a supporter of GOP presidential candidate, Donald Trump. If the election weren’t just 60 or so days away or if it wasn’t too late to save Trump’s sinking campaign; perhaps I wouldn’t write this. But, at this point, I believe it’s OK to point out how Trump has blown any chance of garnering any great number of black votes come November.

"You live in your poverty, your schools are no good, you have no jobs, 58 percent of your youth is unemployed. What the hell do you have to lose?"

Incredulously, this is Trump’s appeal to black voters. Talking to them as if they are confused and abused children further illustrates why the maniacal, celebrity candidate is simply not ready for prime-time politics. 

Maybe Trump was just putting on a show; denigrating blacks while trying to convince his white voter base that's he's not quite the racist monster people say he is. After all, why would any presidential contender assume that all black people are impoverished, unemployed and uneducated? Why base an outreach message on the bizarre notion that blacks are so downtrodden, so pathetic, so desperate they have nothing to lose by electing someone, anyone who’s not a Democrat?

I’m not going to delve much into what blacks actually have to lose by supporting Trump. After all, this is the candidate who’s been sued for racially-biased housing practices; who publicly questioned the citizenship of America’s first black President; excised people from his rallies based on skin color and religious beliefs; who’s supported by white supremacists and who has accused black protesters of encouraging people to kill police officers.

Although Trump has dug his own grave in regards to minority outreach, I’m compelled to dissect his messaging. Why? Well, Trump’s appeal to African American voters may be the most condescending and crass in recent history but it’s not too far removed from political petitions from other candidates-Republican or Democratic, white, black or “other.” Though more nuanced, Hilary Clinton’s repeated message to black folk isn’t tailored to their needs; it’s based on the fact that we have more to lose if we vote for the boogeyman, Trump, than her.

First and foremost, pandering politicians fail to see black people as most of us see ourselves. Few of us view politics or politicians as the sole deliverers of our collective salvation. Since the abolition of slavery, the brief Reconstruction period and throughout the civil rights movement, it was black people who pulled politicians in progressive directions-not the other way around. Folk like WEB DuBois, Martin Luther King, Jr., A. Philip Randolph, James Farmer and Fannie Lou Hammer force-fed reluctant politicians the spoonful’s of “progress” they (mostly Democrats) now claim as their legacy. Politics helped fuel social and economic advancements for blacks but in instances of criminal justice or social welfare reforms or legislation it also impeded progress.

Obama’s occasional mention aside, we’ve yet to see a politician vying for national office who appeals to blacks based on their history of resilience, creativity, entrepreneurism and “can do” spirit. Like Trump, most see black voters as impoverished, unemployed, uneducated victims, solely dependent on government for our ultimate survival and progression.

When Trump uttered his “what do you have to lose” challenge to blacks he spoke before a mostly white audience in Dimondale, Mich. Failing to recognize the success of more than 32,000 black-owned businesses in Detroit, a mere 90 minutes away from Dimondale, was a strategic boo-boo. Trump, who considers himself a “self-made” billionaire, should have grasped the opportunity to validate the entrepreneurial spirit of black Detroiters. These were the people, as noted by Huffington Post reporter, Kate Abbey-Lambertz, who “kept their businesses going on shoestring budgets” during the economic downturn. These potential black voters reflect millions who, as the writer phrased it, “feel excluded from conversations about economic revival and access to (government) resources.”

Many polls indicate that Trump has blown his chance to capture a significant number of black votes. Other GOP candidates, however, still have an opportunity to one-up Democrats by introducing fresh and relevant ideas that may appeal to this demographic. All they have to do is employ and articulate their “bootstrap” rhetoric and revisit promising platforms of the past.

For example, in 1996, former Oklahoma GOP congressman J.C. Watts and Missouri Congressmen Jim Talent (R-MO) introduced the American Community Renewal Act which was signed into law in 2000. Although it wasn’t created to help blacks specifically, the program sought to aim federal dollars at resuscitating 100 poor metropolitan neighborhoods through enterprise zones backed by public-private partnerships, tax breaks, regulatory reforms and school vouchers. The proposal was designed to boost educational and entrepreneurial opportunities for those who needed resources most.

“(Watts) worked tirelessly to grow the Republican Party by communicating our message of compassionate conservatism not only to our base, but also to swing, moderate and disenfranchised voters," said Rep. Tom Davis, former chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Watts worked tirelessly to grow the Republican Party by communicating our message of compassionate conservatism not only to our base, but also to swing, moderate and disenfranchised voters.-Rep. Tom Davis

Watts and Talent did a yeoman’s job of presenting a conservative message that resonated with some black voters. Unfortunately, their efforts seem to have been in vain. After the election of George W. Bush in 2001-that drew impressive numbers of black and Latino voters by the way-the Party seems to be losing the war of race, gender and ethnic messaging.

Republicans only point to what Democrats haven’t done for blacks. They never present plans that show what they will do to uplift blacks if they’re elected. Without progressive, inclusive communication, the Party left a huge vacuum that’s been filled by a pompous, race-baiting candidate who seems to believe that a “what the hell do you have to lose” message is enough to sway votes in his favor.

The only real route to collective progress will be dictated by black voters and black leaders who abandon the illusory script of salvation through politics. We must assume the historical role of fixing our own problems while prodding politicians to further our mandates, follow our lead and talk to us as responsible adults with potential-not hapless victims of political policy.  

Based on polls today, Hilary Clinton stands a better chance of becoming our next president than Donald Trump. If and when she wins, rest assured, it won’t be a sign of black progression. It will be just another signal that the Democratic candidate's message is less volatile than that of her Republican challenger.

In reality, when it comes to reaching out, neither Party has perfected the art of talking to black voters. Both rely on emotional, fear-based appeals without any real substance. Both take black voters for granted.

It's just that Trump seems to be a master of mismanaged messaging.


Friday, July 29, 2016

Another Gathering of the Cool People

 Any of my local Blues Brothers or Sister have (any) free time between 5pm-9pm this Sunday?”
The Facebook message above, posted by local blues icon Marquise Knox, means a lot to me. Knox, who hosted a fundraiser for the Sweet Potato Project (SPP) last year, was asking his friends if they had time to join us this weekend for another fundraiser. This one, co-hosted by the owners of San Loo and Red Guitar Bread, will be this Sunday. You can find more information here:
Knox is a true friend who continues to offer words and deeds of support. Because of this and more, he fits in the category of the “cool people.” 

Banner from SPP's 2015 blues fundraising concert

As a journalist of color, I’ve had the pain and pleasure of writing, discussing, debating and working in a region that’s still very much segregated. Yet, with all our hang-ups and divisions, there’s always been a subset of people here who rise above racial boundaries and imaginary fear-based borders. They are quirky, tenacious, gracious and earthy oddballs. They are white, black and “other” who subscribe to the unpopular notion that we’re all here to do our thing without demeaning or stepping on the backs of the less fortunate in order to claim our sliver of the American Dream.
They’re the ones who don’t hesitate to say “Black Lives Matter,” who build neighborhoods like the Grove, the Ville and the Cherokee strip without the permission or largesse of the rich and powerful. They are the politicians, spoken word and graphic artists, musicians, bakers and coffee shop owners (I’m talkin’ ‘bout y'all, Mo, Jason and Jessie) who open their hearts and storefronts to anyone and everyone who simply want to…well, be.
They are the cool people and I’m humbled to call them my friends. They are the ones who gave me needed balance when I had my own magazine or wrote for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. After writing something race-related, I’d receive a barrage of negative feedback that sometimes made me question my words. The cool people always chimed in to encourage me to keep pushing the envelope, even if they disagreed with my positions.  
After I lost my job at the PD and found myself in dire straits a year or so later, it was people like Tom “Papa” Ray of Vintage Vinyl who called to encourage me to “hang in there” and even gave me a few bucks to ease whatever crisis I faced at the time. Papa Ray is but one of many who’ve been there to support whatever endeavor I was attempting over the years.

Tom "Papa" Ray
The youth we serve are the primary reason I keep trying to push the Sweet Potato Project boulder up, what at times, seems like a tumultuous hill. The secondary reason is that so many cool people believe in and support our mission to educate and empower youth while working to seed food-based economic opportunity in North St. Louis. How can I say “No, I can’t…” when so many down-to-earth, benevolent people who volunteer, donate, mentor or buy our products say, “Yes, you can?”
I’m always in awe of circumstances that, at first, seem tragic but wind up placing me on pathways to my perceived purpose. If I hadn’t been fired from the PD, I would have never started SPP. A year after losing that job, my wife and I broke up. I forget how (and I’m sorta embarrassed to admit this) but I started singing sad “break up” songs at karaoke bars. I’ve since developed a more diverse repertoire and I’m now a certified slut of the local karaoke scene. Singing, dancing and listening to good, live music, mostly blues, is the only release for this old, suave hipster.
I’m mentioning this because I’ve been exposed to a whole subset of really cool singers and performers here in St. Louis. Karaoke people, for the most part, are extroverts who sing because they love music and life itself. They, like me, are hard-working, passionate, creative people who happen to let their hair down through song. For me, music has been the bridge to real conversations with local musicians, performers, singers and otherwise “cool people.”
Attorney Sarah Tupper sings mean versions of songs by Patsy Kline, Ray Charles and other bygone era singers. We became fast friends through karaoke. Most of Sarah’s clan has adopted me and SPP as well. The family firm has given us pro bono services and her partner, Alex, is co-hosting Sunday’s fundraiser. Alex Carlson is a member of the local group Trigger 5 and owner of Red Guitar Bread on Cherokee next to the San Loo Bar. Last year, he met with our youth, talked with them about entrepreneurism while letting them sample fresh bread and pizzas. Sarah, Alex and his parents, Frank and Nancy, have been to every fundraiser we’ve held and have been above-board supportive. 

Alex Carlson of Red Guitar Bread and Trigger 5   
I absolutely love BB’s Jazz & Soups where Knox hosted the fundraiser for us last year. Another favorite blues place is Beale on Broadway across the street. That’s where I met another local blues aficionado, Jeremiah Johnson. One evening we were outside talking about our upbringings in St. Louis. Johnson told me about his humble beginnings and the issues of “race” that he grapples with on a constant basis. He knew about SPP and vowed to lend his support when he could. This Sunday, he’s making good on that promise by joining musicians for our event.

Jeremiah Johnson will perform at SPP's fundraiser this Sunday


I enjoy our fundraisers because I get to meet and converse with the cool people of St. Louis. This was true with the one hosted earlier this year by Dave Golliday, a retired cop and owner of Golliday’s bar and Grill on Chippewa. It also relates to the event we held in June at the Royale, hosted by local foodie Brian DeSmet and the owner, Steven Fitzpatrick Smith. The event was attended by long-time friends, followers and grass root folk who simply want the best for our region.

Photos from the June 21, 2016 fundraiser at the Royale  
   I’ve said that SPP is the most rewarding yet challenging thing I’ve ever tried to do in my lifetime. I’m working with some good people trying to figure out ways to increase funding from traditional and private sector sources. What’s gratifying for me, though, is that we’ve made it thus far and have touched the lives of many, many young people because of the contributions of myriads of wonderful local people.
So, come on out and join us this Sunday. I’m jazzed about the musicians who will show up for the impromptu jam session. I’m geeked about our friends meeting some of our students, hearing their stories and trying out their delicious sweet potato cookies. Most of all I’m looking forward to another great gathering with some of the coolest people of St. Louis.  

What: The Sweet Potato Project Fundraiser
When: Sunday, July 31st 5-9pm
Where: San Loo / 3211 Cherokee St / St. Louis, MO 63118
Hosted by: San Loo, Red Guitar Bread and Earthbound Beer

$2 cover / Local musicians / Snacks / Sweet Potato Cookies

For more information contact Sylvester Brown at 314-341-4071 or