Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Finding Solace in the Topsy-Turvy, Trump World


“Sylvester, are you still in despair, too?”
The question from my Facebook friend, Ellen, actually increased my anguish. Ellen reached out almost a week after the election where billionaire Donald Trump was elected the 45th President of the United States.
Damn! It’s still hard for me to put those words in a sentence. Like millions across the globe, I was slapped into a state of mental paralysis by the stark reality that this man is our president. I am among the masses still scratching our collective heads asking, “How in Holy Hell did this happen?”
Right away, I was pissed off-not at Trump-but myself. That’s what I get for negating my own motto: “Never underestimate the power of racism.” 
I allowed myself to ignore the most telling indicator of the election’s outcome; the number of whites who believe they are the primary victims of discrimination.  Yes, per polling data from 2011 onward, more whites than not feel that “anti-white racism” is now a bigger problem than racism aimed at blacks or other minorities.

I forgot the most telling indicator of the election’s outcome; the number of whites who believe they are the primary victims of discrimination.
  
Yes, I know there were other factors involved with Trump’s victory, i.e.: negative views about the economy, frustration with government, a well-known but unpopular Democratic presidential candidate, etc., etc. Still, I stubbornly maintain that “race” was the major determinant in Trump’s victory.
When announcing his campaign, he struck a chord with disgruntled white voters by defining Mexican immigrants as people with “lots of problems,” who bring drugs, crime and rape to America. His promise to “build a wall,” round up and deport Mexicans and Muslims was an out-of-the-park hit for the those fearing their diminishing population numbers or the loss of unearned privilege. 
By equating blacks with the “inner-city,” and “poverty,” by defining their neighborhoods as unfit “crime zones” with sub-par schools and rampant unemployment, Trump reinforced stubborn stereotypes that validate white superiority. His vow to avoid “political correctness” was a subtle nudge to the Klu Klux Klan and the white, “loud and proud” crowd that Trump was going to turn back the clock and truly “Make America Great Again”... for them.

His vow to avoid “political correctness” was a subtle nudge to the Klu Klux Klan and the white, “loud and proud” crowd that Trump was going to turn back the clock and truly “Make America Great Again.”

I kick myself for falling for the hype, the arrogant media predictions and the woefully wrong polls that proclaimed Clinton would defeat Trump and topple the Republican Party.  How did I allow myself to believe the pundits and pollsters over a man who spent his entire career pandering to a reality TV audience where being rude, crude, sexist and appalling are bedrocks of success?
What was completely surprising to me, however, was the roughly 53 percent of white women who voted for Trump. How could this demographic ignore their own eyes and ears? Surely they watched the video of Trump bragging about dating a 10-year old girl “in ten years.” We heard him boast of peeking at near-naked teen beauty pageant contestants, gloat over kissing and groping women without their permission and grabbing some by “the pussy” simply because he’s a “star.”

We heard him boast of peeking at near-naked teen beauty pageant contestants, gloat over kissing and groping women without their permission and grabbing some by “the p***y” simply because he’s a “star.”

The media’s immediate attempt to normalize Trump after the election increased my anxiety level. The same news outlets that continuously spoon-fed us salacious news about an immoral candidate’s character are now encouraging us to “give him a chance.” They give us tidbits about his back peddling on his most extreme campaign claims and suggest that maybe, just maybe, Trump’s on-the-stump rhetoric was a political ploy to secure the White House. I sense a wistful pretense by the media to paint Trump as some sort of genius who will drop the mask of division and become a wonderful, unifying presidential force.

The same news outlets that continuously spoon-fed us salacious news about an immoral candidate’s character are now encouraging us to “give him a chance.” 

Anythings possible, I guess but I’m Old School. If it slithers like a snake, hisses like a snake well, it’s probably a snake. I judge Trump by his words and actions...period. There is no comfort in the fact that a man whose temperament is as small as his hands will represent the US on the world stage. We’ve already gone through the political phase of white, male bravado and US exceptionalism that foolishly led to the invasion of Iraq, two unfunded wars and the deaths of hundreds of thousands. How will world leaders deal with a president who’s already stated his plans to “bomb the shit” out of Isis, take Middle Eastern oil and turn it over to mega-rich corporations like ExxonMobile?
Can we just please dispense with the characterizations of Trump as a master media manipulator? Just as Hugh Hefner and Larry Flint seized on America’s craving for porn; just as drug kingpin, El Chapo, capitalized off our dependency on heroin and cocaine, Trump simply exploited our darker desires. He took advantage of an uneducated, social media-dependent electorate seeking simple solutions to complex problems. For the media to ask that we now “give Trump a chance,” to me, is akin to hiring a pedophile as an elementary school principal and declaring “well, let’s just see what he does.”

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For the media to ask that we now “give Trump a chance,” to me, is akin to hiring a pedophile as an elementary school principal and declaring “well, let’s just see what he does.”

So, yeah, my despair level has been high following the election. I must admit, though, by Saturday night light seemed to crack my dark mood and a do-able course under a Trump Presidency seemed a bit more evident.
A dear Muslim friend of mine reached out to me Saturday afternoon. She had been brought to tears by the bodacious outpouring of hate aimed at people like her since the election. Indeed, across this nation, the ignorant and emboldened “deplorables” are acting out. Reportedly, they are accosting and harassing, Muslims, Latinos and blacks, spray-painting ugly racial epithets on walls, buildings and barns and are virally gloating “it’s our time!”
I struggled for something of comfort to share with my friend. All I could muster was this weak response: “No matter what happens, I’ll have your back.”
Later that evening, I ran into another pal of mine. She’s a spoken word artist, with a beautiful, eclectic presence who just happens to be a member of the LGBTQ community. This lovely, creative soul was broken that night. We embraced as usual but this time the hug lingered with her sobbing uncontrollably on my shoulder. Again, I struggled for the proper response:
“Now more than ever,” I whispered, “we need you. We need your creativity and your voice to articulate what so many of us feel but can’t articulate.”

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“Now more than ever,” I whispered, “we need you. We need your creativity and your voice to articulate what so many of us feel but can’t articulate.”

I can’t say if my words helped my friends or not but, in later reflection, they illuminated what my spirit needed.  Vent, yes, but we must not get stuck in victimization mode. Tears will not topple tyranny. Our words and collective actions will always be our most powerful weapons. Our Black, White, Muslim, LGBTQ and other disenfranchised communities need the strong amongst us to be their voice, to cover their backs, to show up, speak up and be there when their lives and livelihoods are threatened.
In these past few horrible days, I’ve fallen back on life-lessons. There were many times in my life when, what I perceived as tragedy, turned out to be triumph. Don’t get this twisted; I’m not applying this to Donald Trump's presidency. I use this maxim to highlight that sometimes “bad stuff” happens for good reasons. Sometimes it’s a wake-up call to do better, be better, act better.

Sometimes “bad stuff” happens for good reasons. Sometimes it’s a wake-up call to do better, be better, act better. 

If we are honest, we will have to admit that the extreme factors that fueled Trump’s victory have been brewing for quite some time. It simmered as President Obama was disrespected, demeaned, de-legitimized and derailed by Congress because of his race. It percolated as America excused, rationalized and normalized the police shootings and killings of unarmed black men, women and children. It's evident in our attempt to blame every Muslim-American for the fanatical acts of Muslims here or abroad. Dismantling the rights of the LGBTQ crowd, demeaning and denying women’s reproductive rights, stereotyping and disparaging the poor are the hateful hashtags of Evangelicals and far right political opportunists.

This homegrown beast of human oppression, racial superiority, unmitigated corporate greed, exceptionalism, homophobia, xenophobia and ugly rampant racism still lives and breathes in our society. 

As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." For too long, many of us have tolerated injustices and it is manifest in the seemingly uncontrollable, empowered monster that is America. This homegrown beast of human oppression, racial superiority, unmitigated corporate greed, exceptionalism, homophobia, xenophobia and ugly rampant racism still lives and breathes in our society.  We’ve faced and caged it many times before and, sadly, we must do it again. But, as soul-depleting and frustrating as it is, we have historic, courageous examples and the innate power to defeat it...again.
Trump is not the disease; he is but a symptom of an enduring American malady. There is solace in solidarity, peace of mind in using our minds, words, bodies and actions to stand up and protect the vulnerable, the sacred and what should be valuable in our country and in our world.

Trump is not the disease; he is but a symptom of an enduring American malady. 

So, yeah, Ellen, my despair has lessened. My venting is over (for now). We are all here for a reason and we must do our own little thing, in our own little way to address the deficiencies of government and consciousness. No one wants to fight forever but if we must suit up and battle the monster for another four years or more, so be it.  This, for me, is much-needed consolation and a way forward in a world crazily turned upside down. 


Sylvester Brown Jr. is a writer, community activist and executive director of the Sweet Potato Project, a program that seeks to empower low-income youth and adults through land-ownership and urban agriculture.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

It’s 2:00 am, Election Day and I Had a Dream


It’s election day, two o’clock in the morning and I just woke up from a crazy dream. 
I wish I could say I had this prophetic vision that had something to do with today’s electoral outcome. But I can’t. Even as I write this, it’s fading fast. But there’s a couple things that stay with me. The most important, was that my mother, who died in 2003, was there, just as alive and lively as ever.
In the dream, Mama, some of my out-of-town siblings and I were at some sort of party in Forest Park. I stepped outside for some fresh air and suddenly the whole park became filled with people in Halloween-like costumes.
You know how in dreams the familiar becomes unfamiliar and a few feet morphs into a few miles? Well, the atmosphere turned movie-style, purge-like and people became threatening, screaming, knocking over fire-lit barrels of trash and acting all loud and manic. I was worried about my family’s safety but, try as I might, I had a helluva time getting back to them. I had to navigate around out-of-control people who kept knocking me way off course.

The atmosphere turned purge-like and people became threatening, screaming, they knocked over fire-lit barrels of trash and were all loud and manic. I was worried about my family’s safety but, try as I might, I had a helluva time getting back to them.

I remained diligent and got back to the party.  My family were exiting the building when I arrived. They were all a little drunk; laughing and talking about the good time they just had. My mother, who in life rarely drank, was tipsy, too. I put here on the back of my motorcycle (which I’ve never driven in life) and told my siblings I’d meet them at the house. Turns out, “the house” was one of the shotgun shacks we inhabited as kids. I picked Mama up like a baby and carried her into a very familiar bedroom.  I swear I could smell that just-washed scent and feel the soft texture of her salt and pepper Afro brushing against my cheek.
I laid her on her bed and covered her with a fluffy comforter I suddenly remembered from decades ago. She whispered “thank you, June Bug.” It was the name she called me and the last words she said to me the night before she died. In the dream, she gave me that wonderful ole, Mama smile and fell fast asleep.
Weird, right?
Part of the dream is easily explainable. I recently submitted a piece for Washington University’s Common Reader publication related to my experiences as a child in the Pruitt-Igoe public housing complex. I called my older sister, Sharon, whose memory is a bit more accurate than mine. We not only talked about Pruitt-Igoe, we discussed several of the ghetto neighborhoods we lived after moving in 1968. Maybe that sense of nostalgia influenced my subconscious.

Thus is the world we live in. It’s topsy-turvy and we’re forced to vote out of fear…fear of what either candidate may or may not do. 

The rest of the dream had absolutely no relevance to other things on my mind. Or did it? I know I fell asleep earlier than usual while reading and worrying about today’s election. The very thought that the Republican nominee, Donald Trump-an egotistic, narcissistic, lying, misogynistic, racist, divisive, ignorant slice of inhumanity might be POTUS-shakes me to the core.  
I’m not at all pleased that I must compromise my values by voting for Democrat, Hilary Rodham Clinton, either. Even though I consider her an elitist, establishment, compromising, candidate with no real compunction to address the woes of people who live and look like me, she’s not Trump. And therein lies the rub. I’m voting for Hilary but I’m voting for who she’s not, not who she is.
Thus is the world we live in. It’s topsy-turvy and we’re forced to vote out of fear…fear of what either candidate may or may not do. It’s a social media, sloppy journalism, carnival-like environment where emotions, race, xenophobia and tribalism trumps common sense and common values. We have traveled so far from the time (eight or so years ago) when a tall, elegant candidate-who just happened to be black-urged us to “hope,” make “change” and truly make America “great” by helping it transcend its racial and religious hang-ups.
Well, we all know how that turned out. Americans are more tribal, more angrier and more divided than before the Civil War. The Klu Klux Klan has been re-invigorated because of Trump. And some of his supporters-responding to his bogus claim of a “rigged election”-are talking about armed insurrection if he loses. Some Republicans are already swearing gridlock and threatening to draft legislation to reduce the number of Supreme Court justices if Clinton is elected.
Maybe, just maybe, the part of my dream about crazy people in costumes wreaking havoc reflected my fears about our post-election country. There has been so much vitriol and hypocrisy in this election process. Most surprising has been the litany of black preachers and Evangelicals who, over the past decade or so, have been beating us over the head with their “family values” mantra. How can they can support an amoral, unscrupulous con man like Trump is a mystery to me? Hate is more important than heaven, I guess.

The Klu Klux Klan has been invigorated because of Trump. And some of his supporters-responding to his bogus claim of a “rigged election”-are talking about armed insurrection if he loses. 

Let me be clear, even if Trump loses, the sentiment that buoyed his candidacy and the people who believe the crap he spews will still be out there. They’re not just pick-up truck-driving, Mexican, Muslim, black and brown-hating, uneducated, confederate flag-waving backwoods hillbillies either. They’re pastors, cops, teachers, judges, lawyers, doctors, bankers, rural and urban city-dwellers and “others” who all bought into the whole perverted Trump clown show because they believe he reflects their values and concerns.



I am convinced that we are in another phase of the Civil Rights movement. With Obama leaving office, the symbolism of “progress” is over. We no longer have the false luxury of placing the onus of our future in the lap of the first black president. Now more than ever, black people are going to have to figure out a way to come together and save ourselves, our communities, our children. Sure, the concerned and connected can help but the responsibility is on us. The gathering of my brothers and sisters at a dire time could be applied to that sentiment.
I thought I had made peace with my voting decisions though. I’m voting for Hilary but I’m also supporting third party, down-ballot candidates who seem to carry the momentum of Bernie Sanders’ campaign. Sanders’ messages resonated with millions of people-most important young people. More than 300,000 people in Missouri voted for him during the primary. Personally, I think it’s paramount that we keep Bernie’s “revolution” in motion at all costs. Don Fitz, the Green Party candidate for governor will get my vote mainly because he is the only candidate that spoke about addressing the disproportionate social and economic woes that impact people who live and look like me. 

We no longer have the false luxury of placing the onus of our future in the lap of the first black president.  

It’s almost 4:30 now. Some are just waking up. My dream is gone but I’m sitting here still trying to make sense of it. Perhaps it’s a stretch but that comforting feeling of being with my siblings again, re-visiting my old stomping grounds and putting Mama to bed did mean something after all. Maybe it’s my mind’s way of telling me that, yes, the world has gone crazy; Yes, the charlatans are running amok; Yes, racism is on the rise…again. Maybe the dream was a subtle note to remember from whence I came; remember the times of poverty, turbulence and racial chaos; Remember to be resilient and no one ever promised “progress” without continuous struggle.
Perhaps it was just a mental movie for a restless soul. Who knows, the childlike cravings for sanity in an insane world might have taken me back home to Mama’s bedside. Maybe all I needed was that familiar, warm and wonderful smile that once again assured “June Bug” that everything’s gonna be alright.

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VOTE!!!!!!

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:

FUNDRAISING

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.

VOLUNTEERS & VOLUNTEER COORDINATORS

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.   

                  PRODUCT DEVELOPMENT/DISTRIBUTION



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.

SWEET POTATO FARMS



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.



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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.

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Click arrow to see the 2014 Ted Talk video "Bringing Community back to Communities."
Click button to donate online

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.