Sunday, May 11, 2014

Remembering Mama

On this day-one set aside to honor our mothers-I think of mine. Rereading this piece I wrote while employed at the Post-Dispatch gave me measures of sorrow and comfort. Hope you enjoy. 

"Mother's passing": Finality of words proved stunning 

by Sylvester Brown, Jr.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch

"I'll see you tomorrow, Bug."

When she was in a good mood, she called me Junior, Junebug or simply . . . Bug. When she was upset, I was called by my father's name. The day before her operation, she called me Bug. She was feeling good.

My mother, Evalena Brown, had been in the hospital for eight weeks. What started as complications from diabetes spiraled into a multitude of other life-threatening problems. To the surprise of her doctors, she battled her way back from each threat.

Mama was scheduled for surgery on Wednesday last week to repair a defective valve in her heart. The tests looked good, and the doctors felt confident about her operation and recovery. The day before the surgery, she told my sister that the "cute surgeon took her breath away." She was her old self. She was strong. She was in a good mood. She called me Bug.

"Your mother's passing."

Those words seemed foreign. "Mother" and "passing" wouldn't register in my mind. The operation was moved up five hours. No one in my family was notified until it was already under way.

After arriving at the hospital, we were ushered into the intensive care unit. A lunch tray outside my mother's door contradicted the doctor's ominous prediction. She was supposed to be eating, not "passing." The words made no sense.

"Do something!" my heart pleaded.

But there was nothing to be done. The operation had been successful, but her blood wouldn't cooperate. It was too thin. It wouldn't clot. My mother left strict orders based on her religious belief: no blood transfusions. She held fast to her convictions. But that was little comfort. She was "passing," and there was nothing anyone could do.

Mama was 68 and she was gone.

At least six people I know have lost a parent recently. If I had known this pain, this emptiness, I would have said more than, "I'm sorry." I would have offered a shoulder, held a hand or tried to tend a broken spirit.

Pain is expected. What's unexpected is the foggy feeling of disconnect. My life's quilt now has a gaping hole in the center. My knees buckle when the words, "Mama's gone," echo in my mind.

Images vividly come to me. I see Mama's nut-brown hand making me a malted at the drugstore where she worked. Mama's friends remember her as a "stylish dresser." I recall the hats, how she loved her colorful hats. She also loved to dance. We kids had to be careful walking into a room when one of Mama's favorite tunes was playing. When the mood struck, she'd grab whoever was near for an impromptu dance. I remember how she rocked to B.B. King's guitar and swooned to Johnny Taylor's jukebox blues.

My fondest memory is the day I came home for lunch with a busted lip. Mama didn't ask who did it. She didn't send me back to school. She just hugged me, and we spent the rest of the day together. I'd gladly trade a busted lip for another day like that.

Evalena Brown had 11 children. She married and stood by a man addicted to alcohol. She shouldered all the responsibilities of parenthood. Some assumed that ours was a family of poverty. In reality, our home was one of laughter, good food, music and contentment. Mama made it that way.

I am in awe of how she managed. She didn't believe in giving up or giving in. By example, she taught us to take what we have and make it better. With a bag of beans, cornmeal and flour, she'd make a meal. If there was sugar, there was dessert. Mama remembered and created our favorite dishes. She supported our individual dreams at the same time.

I wonder if she knew she was passing. A few weeks ago, she told my sister she was at peace. Over the years, Mama and I were at odds over things I've written. In our last conversations, she spoke only of being proud.

Maybe Mama really did know. Maybe she just wanted to let me know it was OK. Maybe that's why she called me Bug.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Listening to "My Kids"

Sweet Potato Project Youth Speak to the Power of Our Program

by Sylvester Brown, Jr.


The Sweet Potato Project has a bodacious but very basic mission; we teach inner-city youth that, despite negative perceptions and expectations, they and their neighborhoods have value. As co-founder and director, nothing is more inspiring for me than listening to “my kids” explain what the program means to them:

photo by Benjamin Gandhi-Shepard
“The Sweet Potato Project is a program for youth looking for something better than drug-related stuff, breaking into houses, stealing cars or doing something inappropriate that will either leave them dead or in jail,” said Paul Miller (age 20).

Nadia Epps (age 19), echoes Paul’s reflections about the program:

photo by Benjamin Gandhi-Shepard
“It’s a way to help youth escape bad peer pressure and bad environments; help them regain knowledge of the world around them and learn more about society. We grow sweet potatoes and sell them to our community. We’re basically introducing the community to something new.”

Nadia, Paul and another young man from our program, Keith Young, were interviewed for the Creative Exchange Laboratory’s (CEL) online series “Youth and the City.” They talked about the challenges of growing up around poverty, crime and drug-dealing and their visions for a brighter future. But, as Nadia inferred, we’re introducing the community to the idea that our young people, the ones who are most often denied, dismissed, locked up and locked out, hold the solution for turning around disadvantaged and dysfunctional neighborhoods.

I call them “urban pioneers” because our teens are showing the region that we can indeed grow produce and sell food-based products from “the hood.” What they’re doing on a micro level can be multiplied exponentially to include massive farming, packagingand food manufacturing in North St. Louis. It’s a massive endeavor that requires many individuals and resources. Yet, when I listen to our youth talk about the program, the “impossible” suddenly seems possible.

Andivar Allen
“This is a real urban youth program,” said Andivar (age 17). “A lot of people can’t get business and management skills for free like we do. I’m really learning how to cook-I've never baked a lot which is a lot of fun.”

Andivar and I talked this past weekend after St. Louis University's Chef Steve Jenkins and Chef Bryan Rogers had us bake an updated version of our cookies. The teens bake and sell chocolate chip and spiced sweet potato cookies-both varieties are made from the produce they plant. We work to show them that there’s opportunity right outside their doors. They don’t need to do destructive things to make money. It’s as simple as selling something grown from dirt.

Most of our youth come from neighborhoods where one out of every three black boys are at risk of imprisonment during their lifetime 

During our conversation, Andivar noted that our program is designed for any young person, even if they’re on the edge:

“I’d recommend it to anyone with negative habits. A drug dealer for instance has business, marketing and selling skills. So he can use all those skills to run a legitimate business. It’s the same process, just a different product.”

Keon Williams, Mychael King, and Darryeon Bishop / photo by Jori Jacobi of the stlcurator
Most of our youth come from neighborhoods where one out of every three black boys are at risk of imprisonment during their lifetime and nine out of ten homicides will involve black youth.  Of the thousands murdered nationwide, half will be black males under the age of 30.  These are more than statistics to Darryeon (age 19), it’s reality. I remember picking him up one day this summer and noticing a detached bumper, broken glass and car parts strewn in front of a light pole across from his apartment. When I asked about the car accident, Darryeon informed me that it was the aftermath of a shooting. Its incidents like this that negatively impacts my students and their peers.

“Growing up in rough neighborhoods, you look around and see crime, vacant buildings and empty lots… it’s a bad thing to see,” Darryeon explained. “You feel helpless and you ask yourself ‘why is there killing in my neighborhood?’”

Darryeon is studying mass communication and video production at Meramec St. Louis Community College. Shy and withdrawn when we first met in 2012, he’s blossomed into one of my most dependable leaders. Darryeon takes great pride in this accomplishment:

Darryeon Bishop
“This program helped me build my confidence. I have become a team leader. I've stepped up. It really helps me knowing how far I've come because the skills I’m learning I will use to build my own business someday.”

What’s personally gratifying for me is the sense of accountability that most of our youth adopt. Yes, they like getting paid and earning commissions on sales but they’re developing a sense of ownership that underscores everything we try to teach. They've become emissaries and representatives of something positive in the neighborhood. However, as Andivar notes, this isn't always a good thing:

“A lot of people know me. I go to a public school so when they see me on the website or whatever and then hear me using profanity or something, they act surprised. So now I have to watch what I say and how I act.”

Darryeon is a bit intimidated but he’s embracing the fact that he’ll be a role model for the 2014 freshman Sweet Potato Project class:

“Wow, I’ll be a mentor now but I think I’m ready for it.”

This project has been no cake walk. We pay the youth a bi-weekly stipend during the summer and we’re forever short of money for programming and supplies. However, I don’t sugar coat these facts with our youth. They know that this is an under-funded program that they must build and sell to the community.

Again, they’re up to the task:

“I’ve learned that my community not only needs help it needs empowerment,” Nadia said during her CEL interview. “Truly, it’s every man for themselves out here right. But we need young people to understand that they’re not alone and more people can come together to help.”

African American kids think people look at them negatively because of their skin color, Marquita (age 19) says; “That’s the kinda rap that we get.  But what motivates me is when people buy from us and the fact that people are interested in what we do. They go to our website and check us out, they show up to hear us speak and they support us because we’re doing something positive. The feedback really helps. It gives some of us the idea that we’re important.”

African American kids think people look at them negatively because of their skin color. That’s the kinda rap that we get.  - Marquita

With the passage of landmark civil rights legislation, many working class African American families and business owners left black neighborhoods. For at least 50 years, cycles of poverty have left a void that’s been filled with crime, illegal drug usage and sales, imprisonment and early death. Media messaging has convinced "outsiders" and our youth that they come from “bad” neighborhoods; that they must escape if they ever want to make something of their lives. Our goal is to flip that script by empowering a generation of young people who will use their inherent skills, talents and neighborhood know-how to bring economic vitality back to North St. Louis.

For at least 50 years, cycles of poverty have left a void that’s been filled with crime, illegal drug usage and sales, imprisonment and early deaths. 

Our youth seem eager to step up to the challenge. Again, the key to success is community engagement and support.

“All the stereotypes and judgments and what the media puts out there about us doesn't feel good to my generation,” Andivar told me recently. “But when people see a difference in us other than the negative things it makes me elated. It’s like we’re really doing something in the community.

SPP Youth baking in SLU's kitchen

SPP Youth learning healthy sweet potato recipes from St. Louis public Health department instructors

photo by Benjamin Gandhi-Shepard 

It tells me that I can be a part of something powerful. It shows me that they care about me and other youth. - Darryeon

Darryeon believes the project can grow to the point where one day it operates its own manufacturing plant. But, he adds, the challenge is on us to convince people that we’re serious:

“Yes, we can have our own land, building and our own place if we just keep doing what we’re doing. If we push harder to better the program and get our name out there, I think more people will recognize what we’re doing and help us out.”

Darryeon also stressed what it means when the larger community recognizing that he and his fellow SPP youth are trying to make positive changes:

“It tells me that I can be a part of something powerful. It shows me that they care about me and other youth.” 

Please support the Sweet Potato Project's Spring fund-raising campaign. Click here for more information and details and  how to donate:

For more information please visit

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

“We can do this!”: Reflections on my Recent Bill Cosby Interview in DC

Me in Washington DC, Dec. 15 & 16, 2013

“Mr. Brown, we can do this!” 

I remember those words most from the phone conversation I had with comedian/actor/philanthropist Dr. William Cosby in 2005. At the time, I was a Post-Dispatch columnist who’d written about Cosby’s 2004 controversial comments during a 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education even. There, Cosby lit into "the lower economic people"-criticizing the way they dressed, cursed, loitered, committed crimes and their parents who, apparently, failed to raise them correctly.

Long story abbreviated; I wrote that Cosby-as America’s “favorite dad” legitimized the opinions of racists and bigots and validated their stereotypes of poor, black people. As a result of what I wrote, Cosby called me. We discussed the matter, his passions and perspective. I brought him to St. Louis that year. We had a packed house and, thankfully, were able to expand the dialogue.

The "2005 Call Out" with Bill Cosby

This past weekend I was flown to Washington DC to be interviewed about my experience with Cosby for a feature-length documentary to be released sometime next year. It was my first time back in DC since 2009 when my visit led to my termination at the Post-Dispatch. At the time, I had no idea that accepting an invitation to a conference (at my own expense, mind you) with international leaders working to build sustainable communities worldwide would be deemed a “violation of ethics.” But, that’s all water under the bridge. I can honestly say, that my ill-timed departure put me on the path to the Sweet Potato Project-a fulfilling effort to empower young, urban entrepreneurs who will lead a movement to establish sustainable, economically-vibrant North St. Louis neighborhoods.

Much-needed perspective was my gift after spending about four hours interviewing with the documentary’s production crew. Renowned comedian, St. Louisan and health guru, Dick Gregory was wrapping up his interview before I started my session. I had interviewed Gregory around the same time I wrote about Cosby’s comments. Gregory had, in fact, introduced Cosby the night he made remarks that set off a national firestorm. He and Cosby have been friends for decades. It was Gregory who, during our May 2004 PD interview, told me I had every right to disagree with his friend, Dr. Cosby:

Dick Gregory and me in Washington DC

"There's 10,000 compassionate ways he could have said what he said,” Gregory told me. “Of course there's a problem facing black youth, but there's a problem facing America. There are problems with education, there are problems with drugs, there's problems with television violence. If blacks are on the lowest rung of the social and economic ladder, of course we're going to suffer more."

My disagreements aside, reflecting on my time with Cosby resurrected his unspoken challenge for me to write more, do more, and be more actively involved in the battle to save young people from poverty, prison and early deaths. For more than 25 years, I had been writing about the challenges black people face. But I was just a “talker” when I needed to be more of a “doer.”

When the creator of Fat Albert and Little Bill, “I Spy’s” debonair detective Alexander “Scotty” Scott and the beloved Dr. Heathcliff Huxtable said “we can do this” it was like encouragement from a Grio; a challenge from a respected grandparent, a gauntlet passed from an esteemed elder. It planted a seed of pro-action in me that-eight years later-bloomed into something.

Hours before boarding my flight to Washington, I spent the day at a local holiday event with some of the Sweet Potato Project youth as they sold cookies made from this year’s yield. Away from the daily hustle and bustle and fundraising efforts, I had a chance to reflect and appreciate the progress the North Area Community Development Corporation and I have had in less than two years.
More than 35 teens have been impacted by our program. Even those who have left, gone on to college or have been swallowed up by the distractions of dysfunctional low-income communities now know they have viable, legal options to make money in their own communities. Next year, we’ll recruit 35 more kids. We will secure at least 10 more vacant lots to grow produce. And, through strategic institutional partnerships we will actually be able to create more food-based products and buy produce from residents. Unbelievably, we will begin the empowering process of engaging in economic activity in targeted disadvantaged neighborhoods.

2005 Cosby event at Harris Stowe State College
Dick Gregory seemed ecstatic about our program's possibilities. Cosby wasn’t there for the interviews. That’s too bad. I would have loved to have thanked him for the inspiration he gave me back in 2005. I would have shook his hand and said, “Mr. Cosby, you were absolutely right. We can do this.”


Donations for 2014 program are desperately needed. Please donate today (click below):

Thursday, October 17, 2013

The Pioneers are Back

I can’t express how good it felt to have harvested our sweet potato crop last Saturday with 16 of the 25 kids of this summer’s Sweet Potato Project. I knew they face many challenges with some struggling to get loans for college, find jobs or just deal with the plethora of pressures and challenges young people grapple with, especially those living in our disadvantaged neighborhoods.


We delivered our yield to Salus Processing Center inside St. Louis University’s College for Public Health and Social Justice. The youth met Chef Steve Jenkins, assistant professor and director of SLU’s Food Innovation and Entrepreneurship program. Thorough a wonderful partnership with the University, Jenkins will help our youth produce, bake and their distribute sweet potato cookies and perhaps another product this year.

Saint Louis University

Sweet Potato Project youth chat with Chef Steve Jenkins, assistant professor and director of SLU’s Food Innovation and Entrepreneurship program. Chef Steve will help students bake cookies.
What’s so cool is that We've gotten the kids back together. I know some of “the stuff” they’re dealing with. The ones with no job, no way to attend college and are susceptible to peer pressure are my major concern. I quietly worried about the gap between the time summer classes ended and the lack of funds to resume classes in the fall. But thanks to a few kind donors and another wonderful $15,000 matching grant challenge (see details below), the board and I decided to officially start classes and cookie production.

What’s more significant about our gathering again is that we’re following up on a promise. I've told the Sweet Potato Project youth that they are urban pioneers. By example, we will prove that produce grown in North St. Louis can be made in viable marketable products. Our relationship with St. Louis University puts us ahead of our goals. Our program is in line with the department’s desire to grow more fresh food in the city and introduce healthy, food-based product lines to consumers. More important, they are just as anxious as we are to create a food-based economy in North St. Louis that will eventually lead to job and small business creation.

The teens aren't the only pioneers in this effort. The Sweet Potato Project is a grassroots effort that has been sustained by so many kind and helpful individuals, donors and corporations.  

The youth are back in the fold and we’re ready to get cooking. Our path is promising but we still have challenges ahead. Please read the attached “What We Have/What We Need” mailer below. If you can help, please do.

To help us reach our matching grant please click button below: