Thursday, May 26, 2016

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


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

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

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

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

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


  

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Wednesday, May 4, 2016

We’re Gonna Do it Anyway…


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


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

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

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




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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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



Thursday, April 14, 2016

Remembering What I Forget

by Sylvester Brown, Jr. / Director, the Sweet Potato project

It’s time for a little honesty: I’m not doing a good job with the Sweet Potato Project. Worse yet, I talk the talk without walking the walk.

I’m a hypocrite.

There’s a Scripture that has stuck with me since the Jehovah’s Witness days of my youth; Psalms 46:10: “Be still and know that I am God.” My interpretation means that God, the Universe, divine intelligence-whatever suits you-has our backs. If we just slow down, clear our heads and take inventory of our blessings, we’ll gain the necessary oomph to do what we’re destined to do.

I’ve written and preached this for years. But lately I haven’t been “still.” I’ve gotten so worked up over the lacks and barriers and struggles that I’ve allowed them to slow my roll, frustrate me to no end and sap my faith.  

Here’s the promise and the problem; I’ve stumbled upon the best endeavor of my life. I am the director of a project that allows me to interact, challenge and inspire young people who share my hue and are grappling with some of the same stuff I did as an impoverished youth. Every year, we give them a summer job where they learn how to plant food on vacant lots, and learn the economics of their communities. They turn produce into products and gain valuable entrepreneurial skills by selling products made from their harvest.

I am the director of a project that allows me to interact, challenge and inspire young people who share my hue and are grappling with some of the same stuff I did as an impoverished youth. 

This project, multiplied exponentially, holds the recipe for community re-development in disadvantaged neighborhoods. We grow massive amounts of food on the plethora of vacant lots in the ‘hood. We create our own brand of food products. If grocers, institutions, schools, restaurants, coffee shops and consumers throughout the region purchased the food and products, we can have sustainable, viable food-based economic activity in North St. Louis.

Cool, right?

What distracts me from this grand vision is money. I’m always needing it, always chasing it and always falling short of having enough to run the program effectively. I’m knocking hard on the door to my sixties and the older I get, the harder it is to stay motivated when the wolves are frothing at the door.

In a way, this situation is a reminder of the problem we’re working to eradicate. Make no mistake about it; poverty is the main distraction. There are adults and so, so many brilliant, resilient young people whose dreams are derailed by poverty. What un-christian "Christians" and placating politicians can’t seem to wrap their stubborn skulls around is the fact that poverty kills aspiration, fuels desperation and robs many of their ability to dream.

If you’ve read my writings, you know lately I’ve been railing against the elitist machine of the powerful and political who happily dole out unused land, tax-payer money and resources to already rich developers and established entities while ignoring worthy people and projects, like mine, that are trying like hell to address poverty, crime and other dire social and economic conditions in poor areas.

Here’s the rub and my hypocrisy in all this. The problems I mentioned are not the real problemI am. I haven’t been STILL; I’ve been so caught up in the distracting, hurly-burly world of plain ole survival, I haven’t slowed down enough or taken inventory of all the universal blessings happening around me.

The problems I mentioned are not the real problemI am.

A couple weeks ago I was in Boston taking part in a conference sponsored by Harvard University exploring the history of racial exclusion in our region. There, I re-connected with local politicians, Ald. Antonio French and State Senator Jamilah Nasheed. I realized that their work and objectives to serve impoverished communities are similar to mine, especially French’s “North Campus” initiative. In Boston we shared our desired outcomes and both politicians encouraged me to reconnect and explore ways to work together.

Shortly after my return, I attended a dinner hosted by Bridget Flood of the Incarnate Word Foundation. In attendance were individuals involved with the local food movement such as Jeremy Goss with St. Louis MetroMarket, Gibron Jones, director of Hosco Foods, people from the Missouri Foundation for Health, Gateway Greening and other agencies. It's clear that Flood, in her wisdom, put us together for a reason. This was evidenced when Goss leaned over and said, “We have to see how the MetroMarket can purchase sweet potatoes from you guys.”

I write. And even though I’ve been in constant hustle-mode and haven’t consciously slowed down, writing has forced me to reflect. In reflection, I recognize blessings in the midst of adversity.  I am surrounded by people with the same passions, interests and belief that we can help the poor help themselves. Good people like Mo Costello of MokaBe’s Coffeehouse, has been a consistent supporter and dear friend. Last summer, Mo took the time out of her crazy schedule to talk to my students about entrepreneurism. Soon after, she said she’d be interested in carrying the kids products at her coffee shop. And Mo is not the only one who’s made that offer or allowed my students to visit their businesses and hear their stories of struggle and success.

My life illustrates the stigma of poverty and its impact on the psyche. Even if you reach levels of “success,” for many of us, there’s this lingering feeling of unworthiness and low self-esteem. Knowing this, I stress to our students that they’re here for a reason: that no matter how they or their neighborhoods are portrayed or how poor they are, they have “the right stuff” to make things better for themselves, their peers and siblings and their communities.

My life illustrates the stigma of poverty and its impact on the psyche. 

While chasing that “big” grant, that grand endowment or that major, problem-solving donation, I’ve failed to effectively respond to the gestures of non-monetary support that I receive almost daily. People write asking how they can volunteer or help out in other ways. But I have this inane idea that the project has to be better structured to utilize their talents. Perhaps it’s the other way around; I should enlist their talents now to build the better structure I desire.

Allowing myself to doubt myself, basically because of money or the lack thereof, is a dishonor to SLU’s Chef Steve Jenkins, horticulturalist Karen Davis, Herman Noah, Maureen Hughes, Robert Powell, Shirley Emerson and other members of SPP’s board and advisory board or those who have donated money, time or professional expertise to help “grow” this mission.

Being still dictates I take my own advice. No one asked me to start this project or promised it would be easy. Maybe, just maybe, it’s supposed to be this hard, this soul-sapping and this vulnerable. Maybe there’s divine wisdom in the fact that it’s a bottom-up endeavor that's destined to be shaped-not by the rich or powerful-but by plain ole, everyday people who simply give a damn.

Maybe, just maybe, it’s supposed to be this hard, this soul-sapping and this vulnerable. 

OK, I have publicly confessed the problems and the promises at hand. I’m an ordinary dude surrounded by benevolence who has an extraordinary opportunity to enact great change. I’m a flawed man born, raised and still trying to escape poverty. I'm a writer who has been placed in this awesome position to help at-risk kids and people distracted by the life-threatening condition of impoverishment.

Don’t get me wrong, I still need your help. Having the money to officially start our program next month will help me breathe, plan and operate better. But I can’t sit back whining and waiting for that luxury. Apparently, this has to be done the hard way. But that’s OK. In the blessed reflection of literary articulation, I’m reminded that the universe has my back-always has and, hopefully, always will.  

I remember that I have everything I need to succeed.

I just have to be still.


*********************************

Please Donate to the Sweet Potato Project. CLICK HERE

To review SPP's 2016 list of needs CLICK HERE


Tuesday, April 5, 2016

HARVARD, THE NEW NGA DEAL & DEJA VU

       
Slide from Joseph Heathcott's keynote panel address
This weird deja vu feeling swept over me as the Harvard University conference came to its conclusion.  The 3-day symposium, Voices & Visions of St. Louis: Past, Present, Future, was comprehensive. Scholars, activists and politicians thoroughly dissected our region’s unique history of racial exclusion from the Civil War to 1940's era political shenanigans, health and wealth disparities to redlining, segregated housing and gentrification to large development projects that destroyed black communities and displaced African American residents.

"Race, Space & Design" GSD workshop
Harvard's Gund Hall, site of presentations & workshops
Because the St. Louis region became the national focal point for racial injustice after the killing of 18-year-old Mike Brown by a Ferguson, MO policeman, the conveners have committed to “multi-year trans-disciplinary conversations” that address questions of injustice, inequality and exclusion in our city and throughout the country. Even as a long-time journalist and St. Louis native, I was blown away by the national and local presenter. Together we explored the deeply embedded layers of legal and pseudo segregation from the Civil War up to modern times, examining the ramifications and implications for the future.
Ald. Antonio French

At the end of the presentations, news broke that North St. Louis had been selected as
the new location for the 100-acre National Geospatial Agency (NGA) site. The building of a $1.7 billion facility — including $1 billion in construction- $15 million in infrastructure and street repair, a brand new retail district, new housing developments and plans for more restaurants and office spaces; is all cause for celebration.
Slide from Antonio French's presentation

Still, because of the region’s history of exclusion, I was struck by a deja vu feeling. It was like thoroughly studying the history of damage caused by trains on questionable tracks then confronting a new mammoth locomotive barreling down on the black community with unknown consequences.

I spoke during a panel discussion titled “Exposing Exclusion,” outlining the purposeful decision not to invest in North St. Louis. Thousands of housing units were razed in the 1950's to revitalize downtown St. Louis. One of those areas was Millcreek Valley where 80,000 black people lived and 800 businesses operated. After the Pruitt Igoe public housing units (near the new NGA site) were demolished in the early 1970's, a strange set of “unofficial” policies went into motion that prohibited development in North St. Louis for more than 30 years.


Slide from Joseph Heathcott's keynote panel address
Back then, Black leaders took serious offense to language proposed by two white aldermen in board bills 19 and 20 that defined North St. Louis as “an insignificant residential area not worthy of special maintenance effort.” These bills, critics contend, led to the “Team Four Plan.” This 1974 study paid for by the city recommended a policy of “Benign Neglect.” In other words, do nothing, no investments and no s in North St. Louis for at least 30 years. The goal, the plan outlined, was to come back after at least three decades and reclaim and revitalize that portion of the city.
Joseph Heathcott's, State Senator Jamilah Nasheed and Harvard's Diane Davis
Of course, city leaders swear the Team Four Plan was never officially adopted but, by “happenstance,” there was no major investment or development in North St. Louis until St. Charles-area developer, Paul McKee introduced his multi-billion-dollar Northside Regeneration plan. The developer quietly amassed hundreds of parcels of land in depressed areas of North St. Louis. In true “Team Four” fashion, McKee did nothing with most of his dilapidated properties which added further blight to the area and lowered property values of home-owners. According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, local politicians helped draft legislation that led to McKee receiving more than $40 million in state tax credits that helped buy parcels of land. City officials also agreed to provide up to $390 million in TIF aid and mortgaged city-owned buildings to help McKee with property deals and lawsuits.


Washington University's Patty Heyda's  presentation slide
“And therein,” as The Bard phrased it, “lies the rub.” In a perfect world bad behavior that displaces poor black folk and empowers rich white folk should not be rewarded. Landing the NGA deal is great news for the region but perhaps not so much for residents and small businesses that's been basically ignored for decades. There is a reason city officials have not invested in North St. Louis for more than 50 years and has used land and tax dollars to land the NGA deal and stubbornly support McKee’s project in the same imprint.


City planners examining the soon-to-be demolished Milcreek Valley area
St. Louis has never gotten over the exodus of almost 500,000 people (mostly white) between the years 1950 and 1990. There is a reason development in North St. Louis-so close to downtown developments-is now the Cause De jure. If it feels like gentrification, smells and looks like gentrification…well, it’s probably gentrification.

However, all is not lost. The Harvard University Graduate School of Design (GSD) in collaboration with Washington University has provided the history and information that demands immediate redress and a new, holistic way forward in addressing racial exclusion by design. National and local urban planners and architects like Jasmin Aber of the Creative Exchange Laboratory (CEL) are dedicated to using proven methodologies that can establish new agendas in urban planning and design. Organizations and individuals like Beloved Streets of America, the Ville Collaborative, Beyond Housing, Better Family Life Inc., State Sen. Jamilah Nasheed and Alderman Antonio French have introduced inclusive, holistic ways to educate and empower poor people and low-income communities.

If it feels like gentrification, smells and looks like gentrification…well, it’s probably gentrification.


Panel for "Reconstructing a Better Future": Michael Willis, Margaret Garb, Patty Heyda, Antonio French and Toni Griffin

What needs further exploration are endeavors like the Sweet Potato Project, which seeks to economically empower at-risk youth and poor people so they can create and sustain self-empowered communities. We need a North St. Louis agenda that’s not separate from but complimentary and inclusive of developments like the NGA and McKee initiatives.

My weird deja vu feeling is not without cause. We've seen this movie before. However, I’m still somewhat invigorated… despite my fears of gentrification in North St. Louis. The Harvard University conference spoke to our pitiful past and our perilous present but it also provides a well-researched path and inkling of promise for our future.

St. Louis has a long history of pushing people and problems into other areas of the region. With our hugely racially-tinged health and wealth disparities, it’s way past time for a new direction.  Although city leaders still seem stuck in the segregated past, there are viable, collective opportunities to reclaim and revitalize other segments of North St. Louis. Black politicians have voted for and/or supported efforts of giving land and money to outsiders to build in the city. It’s time for a little quid pro quo.  We can’t wait on the region to grow up and become inclusive. We have to follow McKee’s and the NGA’s lead and develop an agenda and an empowerment plan for the rest of North St. Louis.

                                                                  

Monday, March 28, 2016

Moving Beyond the Segregationist Mindset of St. Louis..with your Help

It’s almost enough to make you throw your hands up and just give up:   


The March 25th St. Louis Business Journal article reports how Mayor Francis Slay and the City of St. Louis plan to sell a Chicago company 42 acres of vacant land in North St. Louis for $1 so it can grow trees.

Rendering of an urban tree farm / courtesy St. Louis Business Journal

Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against planting trees or any ill intent towards the company Fresh Coast Capital or their desire to help beautify cities like St. Louis and Kansas City. What bothers me is this city’s stubborn desire to empower folks who look nothing like the residents of North St. Louis while refusing to invest in the people who live, work and struggle there.

I’ve been writing about this for years and have reached out to aldermen asking that they help identify some of the 8,000 + vacant properties in their wards that it can be given to low-income people to grow food. The Sweet Potato Project (SPP) is not only training youth in entrepreneurship and urban agriculture, we’re working to build a collective of residents who grow and sell food in (were many food deserts are located) and outside their neighborhoods.

What bothers me is this city’s stubborn desire to empower folks who look nothing like the residents of North St. Louis while refusing to invest in the people who live, work and struggle there.

In my perhaps biased mind we’re offering a win/win scenario for anybody interested in revitalizing North St. Louis. By giving land to residents; we give them a vested interest in protecting and rebuilding their neighborhoods. As a collective, we can grow massive amounts of fresh produce; we can erect a couple farmers markets in the city so youth and adults can sell their produce and wares starting this summer. We want to develop a brand of “value-added” products (cookies, pies, spices, canned goods, etc) so restaurants, coffee shops, major grocers and consumers can all support the effort by purchasing produce and products from newly empowered North St. Louis residents.

By giving land to residents; we give them a vested interest in protecting and rebuilding their own neighborhoods. 

It boggles my mind how the city will work with a rich St. Charles-area developer to access hundreds of acres of North St. Louis land (covertly mind you); allow those properties to rot for years then help write legislation that rewards the developer millions in tax dollars. There’s no “free land” for residents but plenty to woo the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency to locate near the old Pruitt-Igoe site. Eminent domain has been and is now being employed again to kick residents out of neighborhoods they’ve occupied for decades.

I have no desire to fight City Hall or insult North St. Louis aldermen. I’m trying my best to operate an under-funded nonprofit but I’m also a journalist who, damn it, has no choice but speak truth to power. And the truth is that there’s an inflexible segregationist mindset that still holds the region in a vice-like grip. As it revitalizes downtown, Grand Center and now North St. Louis, there is no compulsion to include or empower residents of these areas. After all the post-Ferguson reports, negative disparity studies and proof of long-term exclusion the region is just as racially exclusionary today as it was more than 50 years ago.

...the truth is that there’s an inflexible segregationist mindset that still holds the region in a vice-like grip.

I’ve been working with urban youth for about five years. I have experienced their brilliance, natural survival skills and hunger for direction. I’ve heard the cries and demands of young people who are challenging “the systems” (economic, educational and criminal justice) to realize that their lives matter, too. It's not like we have to start from scratch either. There are dozens of grassroots urban farmers growing food in North St. Louis. We just need to get more land, grow more food and market our produce as a collective. 

I envision environments that nurture these youth and adults and provides self-sustaining economic opportunities in their neighborhoods. Growing and selling food and food products will not be an all out panacea but it is a viable means to inspire and lead youth and adults into other areas of self-empowerment.  

Clarity can be a curse sometimes. I can see this vision as clear as a cloudless sky but many with the juice to make things happen in St. Louis don’t share my enthusiasm. We’re either ignored by politicians or dissuaded by funders who doubt the viability of a community controlled food-based movement. It seems city planners have more faith in outsiders than local folk. I'm not looking for an "either or" thing, I'm hoping for a "both and" approach. Invest with outsiders if you must but let's be inclusive and support long-time city residents, too.


I'm not looking for an "either or" thing, I'm hoping for a "both and" approach. Invest with outsiders if you must but be inclusive and support long-time city residents, too.

I’m getting old and have less and less interest in fighting for what I deem a common sense approach to making poverty-stricken, deadly neighborhoods healthier, safe and economically vibrant. What keeps me going, first and foremost, are the young people we serve. Secondly, it’s the people who share or who have adopted our mission. It’s institutions like St. Louis University and Chef Steve Jenkins who provide culinary and product development services for the Sweet Potato Project; it’s our board and advisers who give their time and expertise: It’s all the generous people and entities that have donated money, time, space and have volunteered to share their knowledge with our students.

Yeah, I grow tired of struggling and grappling with the mindset of movers and shakers who apparently believe that North St. Louis’ resurrection lies in the hands of outsiders.  I’ve come to the realization that if SPP’s long term vision of community revitalization and empowerment is to be actualized, it has to happen on the grassroots level-first. It’s going to happen because the idea resonates with all kinds of people who believe in its powerful premise.  

I’ve come to the realization that if SPP’s long term vision of community revitalization and empowerment is to be actualized, it has to happen on the grassroots level-first. 

So, in the spirit of Booker T. Washington, we have to cast our buckets down where we are and work harder with the folk who truly believe. The Sweet Potato Project requires help in all sorts of areas. For a detailed listing of our 2016 needs click here. Additionally, our goal is to have 25 partner gardeners growing food with us this year. Right now we have a buyer, St. Louis University, for all the sweet potatoes we grow as a collective. We invite churches, community organizations and individuals who own or can access vacant properties to join us. Click here for more information.

...if we can develop a grassroots template of food-based development that empowers poor people, we can impact the trajectory of “community development” in North St. Louis and beyond.

We will never effectively address disproportionate levels of crime, poverty or hopelessness until we can empower poor people to make and sustain the change we all desire. I may still be a naive optimist but I maintain that if we can develop a grassroots template of food-based development that empowers poor people, we can impact the trajectory of “community development” in North St. Louis and beyond. If we can convince politicians and city planners that ordinary people in the areas they’ve targeted for development can stay in their own neighborhoods and generate money from food like they’ve done in Soulard, Tower Grove and places like Kansas City, we’ll be in a position to demand the same energy, passion and taxpayer dollars doled out to rich developers and other entities.

This revelation is enough to keep one going until the region wakes up.