Thursday, June 25, 2015

When God Laughs…

“Wait, what? I’m dancing.”
I have been sweating bullets these past few months. We are going into the fourth year of operating the Sweet Potato Project and it’s been the worst by far for fundraising.  There are many contributing factors out of my control but, as executive director, I take it personally. Somehow, I messed up.
It is what it is and we’ve been pushing forward…by faith. We’ve started the program this summer. We have seven partner gardens; a church, a school, one community farming group, the Botanical Garden and three residents growing sweet potatoes on their land in North St. Louis.
This is all well and good but our business plan called for us to serve more kids than we did last year, grow more food, build a farmer’s market in North St. Louis; purchase our own lots and start building our “teaching farm.”   
So, suffice to say, our plans didn’t unfold as I expected and I’ve been freaking out lately. To top it off, tickets for the benefit concert we hosted on June 21st weren’t moving as fast as we hoped and I worried if anyone but our volunteers, students and I would show up.
Yet, in the midst of my ongoing panic, there I was Sunday afternoon dancing, laughing and having a ball with everyone who came out to enjoy the concert featuring 24-year-old blues prodigy, Marquise Knox.
I owe Marquis a big one. Every now and again, I stop in at Beale on Broadway, the legendary blues club on South Broadway.  I have been absolutely astounded by this kid who plays the blues like an old Mississippi master. One night, months ago, Marquis gave me a shout out from the stage. He’d read about the Sweet Potato Project. He owns land out in the Missouri boonies and told me he loved the idea of teaching youth how to farm and develop skills where they can do-for-self legally and honorably.
“Let me know what I can do for you,” he said that night.
Marquis jumped at the idea of doing a benefit concert for the project. He let me know what dates he had available and contacted John May, the owner of BB’s Jazz, Blues and Soups another iconic blues club on Broadway. Mays said “sure” and the concert was on. Unfortunately, the only date we had was Father’s Day and we only had a few weeks to promote the event.
My nerves were wracked as the date approached. Sure, about 60 people said they were coming but ticket sales didn’t match the verbal or online commitments. Turns out, enough people came out to fill the downstairs room. Turns out, it was the perfect crowd, perfect music and perfect atmosphere to meet our students and spread our message.
There’s something about the blues that causes people to just relax, groove and give it up. Marquise set the stage before he played by soliciting the crowd’s monetary support. John and one of our staffers handled the door, explaining to people off the street, who had no idea what was going on, that they could come in, have a drink, some good food and enjoy the concert.
Many did.
It turned into an old fashioned house party where good ole, down-home blues bridged our age, race and economic gaps. It was so good to mingle with longtime supporters and people I’ve only known through my social media networks. It was refreshingly cool to see our hard-working volunteers and key volunteer staffers dressed up, laughing and kicking it with one another.
The widely diverse crowd was just as engaged with the music as they were with our youth who took the stage to talk about the program or show off their musical and spoken word skills. After reading his recent commentary, I invited Mike Brown Sr. to the concert. To me, the epitome of “Father’s Day” was exemplified when the audience gave this man-who tragically lost his son last year-a hearty and supportive round of applause.

Everything that happened on and off the stage that day was completely off-script, unplanned and real. I found myself talking to the audience as if they were a bunch of longtime friends gathered in my living room for good music and good conversation.
The event left me pondering that old Yiddish proverb: "Man plans, God laughs." Yeah, our plans didn’t pan out like I expected. We face a severe money shortfall we’ll be grappling to raise funds yearlong as we run the program.
Yet, in the stillness of retrospection; another plan unfolds. After the event, another musician offered to host a concert for us. John May said we have an open invitation to host events at BB’s. So far, two individuals have offered to host fundraisers in their homes. A grandpa, who introduced me to his family on the parking lot after the show, sent me an email the next day. His three-year-old granddaughter, he wrote, couldn’t stop talking about the concert and her new “best friend, Sylvester Brown.”
How cool is that?

The lessons I’ve learned from this experience is that we’re doing something special with the Sweet Potato Project. There are people who are jazzed by this novel idea of training youth to grow and sell food and create their own opportunities within their own neighborhoods. On Sunday, I talked about our ultimate goal of massive growing on city lots; large-scale product development and creating a North St. Louis agricultural food movement. This wasn’t lost on the crowd. And I wonder how many more will “get it” once they are exposed to it and the young faces who fuel our mission?
I’ve been reminded that we must push past the obstacles. There are other venues and other good people and small business folk out there who will host fundraisers. We have to tighten our belts, make adjustments, professionalize and sell our products. We have to push forward not overly relying on nonprofit or government funding. We have to take our message to the streets, to the people and expose them to the totality of what we do and plan to do in this city and for our young people.
We’re four days past the concert. We’re two weeks into the summer program. I have a waiting list of new kids that I’m afraid to bring into the program. Promised funds have not arrived. The fear is creeping in again. Although our “plan” isn’t going as planned, I force myself to surrender to the unknown; to do the best we can do and leave the rest to the master planner.
After all, on Sunday, I danced.

Friday, June 12, 2015

A Texas Pool Party; the psyches of our Young and a wish for Uncle Ray's Death

When I published Take Five Magazine and worked as a columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, I wrote a series of columns about conversations with “Uncle Ray.” Ray was the nickname I used for “Racism.” I turned a centuries-old mental malady into an illogical, nasty, evil character that I could voice my frustrations, fears and anger through. It’s been very cathartic for me. Taking with Uncle Ray kept me from imploding.

Click here for original pool party video 

The story of black youth attending a pool party in a tony Dallas Fort Worth neighborhood and accosted by a police officer, stirs a need to talk with racism…again.

“Why do you, after all these years, refuse to die?” Through Ray, I’d ask those who blatantly or subliminally cling to the tenants of racism, if they truly understand the trauma it sparks in the psyche of black youth? Do you have any idea what it’s like to be confronted by the reality of “less than?”

For people of color-young or older-it is a life-altering reality on the job, in schools and department stores or just driving their cars or walking the streets.

As a kid born in the epicenter of the civil rights movement, I didn’t feel personally connected to the plight of my people. My siblings and I grew up as Jehovah’s Witnesses. Caring and religiously connected white people were always a part of our childhood. The religion taught us that we were not a part of “this system.” It encouraged us to be long-suffering and patient because God would correct all ills.

In my early 20s, I learned that I was indeed a part of a tainted society that viewed people of my hue as racially inferior. I was one of the last in the group of “affirmative action” hires at a local utility company. Our supervisors didn’t even try to hide their anger or disgust for this new crop of young black workers they feared would take “their jobs” or become their superiors. I was naive but not stupid. The new rules, policies and attitudes enacted to contain, punish or drive out those the government made them hire; wasn’t lost on me.

Many in this country do not understand the devastating mental disconnect that can happen when young black or brown kids confront racism for the first time. Remember, from birth-through movies, news or schools-we’re indoctrinated with the concept that America is superior to all other countries in its stance for justice and equality. My confrontations with racism on the job or with police caused me to rebel and reject the foundations of my youth. I felt the adults, teachers and religious folk that helped mold me had, in fact, lied to me. Feeling angry, lost and betrayed, I drifted into a whole slew of negative behaviors to tame the beast growing in my soul. not understand the devastating mental disconnect that happens when young black or brown kids confront racism for the first time. 

The monster roars still as I watch my kids and grand kid's generation grapple with the cruel disparities and social unrest of my youth. What might have broken in the minds of the black teens at that party who watched cops allow whites to stand around, gawk or walk about untouched while they were told to “get their asses on the ground?”

“Sir, we just came from a birthday party…”one of the handcuffed teens pleaded to the out-of-control officer, Cpl. Eric Casebolt.

What recurring nightmares will Dajerria Becton endure throughout her life? Dajerria is the 15-year old bikini-clad teen slammed to the concrete and kneeled upon by this figure of "authority" who also pointed a gun at party-goers?


The longevity of racism isn’t just a threat to the sensibilities of black kids. Conscientious white youth who have black friends or love black music, videos or films will also wrestle with the dichotomies of a society plagued with ugly, stale and stubborn racial bias.
I also worry about Brandon Brooks, the 15-year-old white kid who shot the pool party video. Brandon spoke of feeling “invisible” as now retired Officer Casebolt and fellow officers skipped “over me and (told) all my African-American friends to go sit down.”

Brandon Brooks, 15 / Click here to see Brandon's interview 
Will this incident embolden him as he strives toward manhood or will the adults in his life (and on the Internet) convince him that he’s wrong for defending his friends who were, after all, threats to the entire neighborhood?

If I could talk to racism, I'd try to find out why there seems to be a regression to an era where blacks were feared, targeted and terrorized. Does it have something to do with the election of the country's first black president? Are we witnessing the ramifications of police forces that have recruited soldiers trained in the past 11 years of war to "subdue and "occupy" at any cost?

If I could talk to racism, I'd try to find out why there seems to be a regression to an era where blacks were feared, targeted and terrorized.

I don’t know if it’s a blessing or a curse to work with the teens of the Sweet Potato Project (ages 16-20). It’s a blessing to be there, to listen as they talk about the tragic deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, 12-year-old Tamir Rice and others. But sometimes I feel it’s a curse. I see these events unfold from the perspectives of the youth we serve. I feel their heartbreak, hopelessness, betrayal, anger and possible disconnect from a society that still considers them expendable.

As mainstream media luxuriates in colorful debates about “race” sparked by police shootings or incidents like the Texas pool party, I can’t help but think we’re missing an important fact; another generation of kids-black, white and “other”-are being inculcated and molded by the deficiencies of “race.”

More than anything, this is what I want Uncle Ray to understand. If racism were really a character, I could say “Please, look at what you’re doing to our kids.” The monster would scream “STOP IT!” and the wounded warrior would openly pray for his immediate demise…once and for all.

Sylvester Brown, Jr. is a long-time St. Louis writer, community activist and executive director of the Sweet Potato Project in St. Louis, MO.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Practice what we Teach: SPP’s 2015 Challenge

You know you’ve created something special when teens vow to protect it.

This thought came to mind while talking with the Sweet Potato Project’s students-some who’ve been with the program since its inception in 2012. I’ve always made it a point to tell them the real deal. Very few programs pay students to learn life-long skills. I want them to understand they are receiving a gift thanks to people who care about them and believe in our mission.

For the past three years, we’ve paid inner-city youth summer wages to utilize entrepreneurial skills in their own neighborhoods. I maintain that until we empower youth and adults where they are, we will never effectively reduce poverty, crime or hopelessness in low-income communities. By training a generation of urban entrepreneurs, securing vacant properties, growing massive amounts of food and developing a quality product line of fresh and packaged foods for consumers, restaurants and institutions, we can create jobs and stimulate small business growth in North St. Louis.

Working under the banner of the North Area Community Development Corporation-a 501-c-3 nonprofit organization-the Sweet Potato Project (SPP) has gone from training 15 teens in 2012 to 35 in 2014. This means that at the very least, 75 young people have been shown how to make a huge difference and create opportunities for their parents, peers, siblings and neighborhoods.

We’ve been building momentum but this year has been particularly challenging. The ratio of corporate, individual and nonprofit funding has been way below par in 2015. Since national attention turned to Ferguson, many resources have been aimed at summer job creation for at-risk youth. This is a wonderful step toward reducing the black teen unemployment rate which is more than twice the rate for white teens. Summer jobs, however, are a temporary fix. We choose to remain focused on a long-term solution that will empower youth and residents in St. Louis’ hardest hit areas to create, control and maintain their economic destinies.

We’ve been building momentum but this year has been particularly challenging. 

The wonderful thing about our approach is that our students get it. They are intrigued by the idea that they will be the ones who will pave the way for jobs and opportunities for their parents, peers and siblings.

After planting recently, I told some of the teens about our fund-raising shortages this year. Right away, they launched into ideas: “Let’s do a car wash, Mr. Brown…” “Let’s have a dance and serve the sweet potato recipes we’ve created…” On and on they went.

It’s touching to know these kids are totally invested and have grasped the essence of our program. Each year, almost all bring a new recruit to the program. We’ve never been able to serve all the kids who apply but the thought of cutting back on the numbers we’ve served is quite stressful. We want to fuel the enthusiasm of youth who are excited about the idea of securing vacant properties in St. Louis. In fact, this year one of our senior students, Darryeon Bishop, will have his own plots at New Jerusalem COGIC Church on Emily Avenue in North St. Louis. While planting there two weeks ago, Antonio, a 19-year-old who joined us last summer, spied an empty lot across the street from the church:

“I’m gonna get that land, build me a house and plant sweet potatoes in the back,” he said.

SPP student, Darryeon Bishop, will have his own plots at New Jerusalem COGIC Church on Emily Avenue in North St. Louis.

Our students remind me that we have an excellent opportunity to practice what we teach. Entrepreneurism 101 dictates: “You must get tough when the going gets rough.” Another lesson from that playbook states: “Work with what you have.” 

What we have are young soldiers ready and willing to hustle to save their program. What we have are people, black, white and “other,” who have seen the value of what we are trying to do and have brought their skills, talents and resources to the table. What we have is the opportunity to do something daring, empowering and sustainable in North St. Louis.

Although SPP hasn’t purchased our own land yet, we’ve partnered with private landowners, churches and community organizations to grow sweet potatoes for us. In the fall, we will purchase their yields to create, make and sell new SPP products. In essence, we’re introducing a model for farm-based economics in North St. Louis. The mission is to boost the model; recruit more students, access more lots; involve more growers, build farmer’s markets and food-based spin-off businesses in low income areas.

2015 Partner Gardens

The Ville Family Gardens
Ville Orchid Garden
Tillie's Corner Garden

Bridges of Hope Church Garden

Penrose Garden
In the fall, SPP will purchase their yields to create, make and sell new products.  In essence, we’re introducing a model for farm-based economics in North St. Louis. 

Missouri Botanical Garden
Annie Malone's  Emerson Academy Therapeutic School 

Sometimes I get so caught up in what we need, I forget what we have. St. Louis University, a major regional institution, has been a powerful partner in our efforts. We have a grassroots mission that has been supported by a community of compassionate, talented and diverse individuals. Like our students, they get the big picture and have invested in our collective dream.

I’ve been a dishwasher, ditch-digger, gasman, magazine publisher, columnist and contributor to high-profile, published authors but SPP is the most rewarding venture of my life. Still, no one asked me to do this or promised it would be easy. So, as director, I have to practice what we teach and do a better job at articulating our needs and gathering forces for the mission.

To accomplish everything we propose in our budget, we need to raise at least $40,000 in the next two months. This means I have to knock on more doors and solicit invitations to speak at churches, businesses and even in homes to tell our story. To serve the kids better, we have to build a bigger volunteer network. SPP is a community-based success story.  Surely I can find more people willing to give their time as instructors, drivers (for field trips) and mentors.

We teach our students that sacrifice, diligence and creativity are the lifelines to success as an entrepreneur or as a valued employee. SPP may be a nonprofit but it has a game-changing, entrepreneurial undertaking. I must always remember when life gets tough; the entrepreneur gets tougher-period!

The Ville Orchid
 That said, here’s our 2015 “get tougher plan”:

1)   Start the summer program on June 4th with senior students.
2)   Secure more corporate, individual and small business support
3)   Create student teams; cooking, accounting, sales and distribution
4)   Increase revenues by focusing on wholesale and retail products
5)   Bring on new recruits starting June 15th
6)   Increase production and distribution of our products
7)   Host several public fund raisers, with the first on June 21st (click here)
8)   Help students plan and pull off their own fund-raising events
9)   Work with our partner gardeners for maximum yields
10) Lease/purchase more vacant land and assign students their own

What I love most about the Sweet Potato Project is that anyone-from the Greater Ville to Chesterfield-can play a role. All are welcome and they don’t need fancy labels or highfalutin degrees to join us. We need to surround our youth with people willing to share their passions and experiences. I especially urge the 20 and 30-somethings to simply come hang out with our students during class times. We also need entrepreneurs of all stripes to share their ups & downs and encourage our kids to strive for economic independence. We need folk who realize that traditional academia doesn’t always cover the unique realities of urban life and are willing to help fill in the gaps.

We need to surround our youth with people willing to share their passions and experiences. I especially urge the 20 and 30-somethings to simply come hang out with our students during class times. 

If our mission resonates with you, I humbly ask that you share it within your networks. Please re-tweet, share, forward--do whatever it takes to reach as many people as possible. It’s going to take an all-hands-on-deck engaged community effort to help our young people reclaim and empower themselves, their families and their neighborhoods.  

Benefit Concert for the Sweet Potato Project (click here for more information)

Frederick Douglas once said, “There is no progress without struggle.” Yes, we have our struggles but we also have “community.” If we practice what we teach, expand our reach, get more donors and volunteers involved, I’m convinced that the promise of “progress” is at hand.

By Sylvester Brown, Jr.
Executive Director of the Sweet Potato Project

* Visit SPP's "List of needs" page (click here)
* Visit SPP's "Curriculum Schedule" page (click here)
* To donate to the Sweet Potato Project (click here)

Monday, April 20, 2015

Two Months to Live

Those who have followed me over the years know I was raised a Jehovah’s Witness. Even though I’m no longer associated with the religious organization, I appreciate my scriptural foundation. One passage in particular, Psalm 46:10: “Be still, and know that I am God,” stays with me.

Yesterday, I met Jasmin Aber-a good friend, volunteer and strong supporter of the Sweet Potato Project. Aber is the director of CEL, the Creative Exchange Laboratory. She recruits architectural college students and inspires them to create “spaces” that involve and excite community residents. Jasmin and I go against the societal gain and take comfort in the idea of a grassroots approach to community enrichment. We met to talk about her upcoming exposition, where I will serve as a panelist. Anyway, as we were headed to Hodak's Restaurant & Bar for brunch and a planning session, Jasmin asks how things were going. Again, we’re good friends, so I started unloading about the lack of money for my nonprofit, being exhausted; fearing failure…blah, blah, blah.”

The place was crowded so we took a seat at the bar and placed our orders. Seated next to us were a vibrant 85-year-old man and a good-looking, engaging couple; Chuck and Sandy (not their real names). After some small talk, Chuck mentioned that he has a hereditary heart condition and was told that he has about two months to live. The elderly man advised him to ignore the doctor’s prognosis; increase his sexual activity, and everything would be fine. Like Superman, Chuck opened his shirt, revealing zig-zagging scars from past operations. “They've done all they can do,” he said. Chuck added that he wanted to spend his remaining days working with a nonprofit that helps people.

He became really jazzed after Jasmin told him about the Sweet Potato Project. I was thrilled by his enthusiasm after my one-minute description of what we’re trying to do.  The meeting turned out to be another Psalm 46:10 moment. There I was bitching and moaning about my woes then, next thing you know, I'm seated next to a man who might have 60 days left on this earth who's trying to figure out the best way he can serve humanity. Chuck’s story gave me cause to slow down, to "be still" and reflect. 

If I can manage to calm my mind, sometimes blessings will reveal themselves. Firstly, I hope I have more days than Chuck. Secondly, I have good friends like Jasmin and a host of other talented, dedicated folk traveling this precarious road with me. I have another day to fortify my base and seek additional resources. Hopefully, I have more than two months to work with my group of young students who believe we can plant produce, grow food, make products, create jobs and bring change to much-needed areas of North St. Louis.

I’m not the preachy type but I recognize divine wisdom in the universe. I have to believe we’re all here for a reason and the powers-that-be will guide and direct us to our true purpose on this planet. Yet, I often forget to just “be still.” Sometimes I allow the madness of the moment to overwhelm me. I forget that there is no “progress” without struggle. Sometimes, I forget to recognize the magic moments in everyday life.

I never eat at restaurant bars. What were the odds of meeting a man facing his last days who wants to work with a worthwhile nonprofit? The universe knew we needed to interact. I was reminded that if I had only 60 days left, I won’t have to search for an opportunity to serve. I’m a man born and raised in poverty working with young people who share my hue and some who share my dysfunctional background. What a blessing!  

If we never see each other again, I know meeting the couple was no accident. After Chuck went to the restroom, Sandy told Jasmin and me that keeping a smile on her husband's face was her daily mission. I remain humbled by the couple's courage.

I pray that Chuck outlives his doctor’s diagnosis. I am happy we met and thankful for the powerful reminder to… still.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Speech from the 2015 Catholic Social Ministry gathering in Washington D.C

The good folk who hosted the 2015 Catholic Social Ministry gathering in Washington D.C. have posted podcast of some of the presentations, including mine. Please forgive the pauses toward the end, I couldn't work the slide show that accompanied my speech. You can access the speech