Thursday, May 11, 2017

Food-Based Economic Empowerment: It’s Happening in North St. Louis

It’s a humbling when a vision finally takes wings. Since 2012, the Sweet Potato Project has sought to educate youth in urban agriculture as a pathway to entrepreneurism. In brief, we show them how to plant food on vacant lots and how to market, brand and distribute food and food-based products. One of our concerns is that we can only impact our students during the summer months that they’re paid to work. After that many of our youth return to lives of social and economic chaos. To engage and inspire these urban pioneers year-round, we have to expand our mission into their environments to a point where growing, packaging and distributing fresh food is a 24/7, all-inclusive endeavor.




Well, six years later, I’m happy to report that the partners and elements are in place to create a food-based economic engine in North St. Louis. Several grassroots nonprofits, including the Sweet Potato Project, have collaborated to make sure growing food and bringing it to market is easier and do-able, particularly for low-income youth and adults. The North City Food Hub includes former staffers of St. Louis University’s Nutrition and Dietetics Department, the Greater Ville Collaborative, Good Life Growing, Annie Malone Children’s Home and HOSCO Food.  This summer, there will be a shared-use, commercial kitchen where anyone can develop food-based products under the supervision of professional chefs. Additional plans call for a café, fresh food market, home delivery food service, a culinary certification program, and sessions designed to help residents lease or own some of the vast vacant properties in the city.

  



The Sweet Potato Project’s role in this collaborative is to bring as many youth and adults into the fold as possible. My challenge is to convince ordinary people who’ve been locked out of development in North St. Louis that we can reverse that trend. We have to convince those committed to equity that the food movement is real, economic game-changer in our neighborhoods, too. We have paint a powerful picture of massive inner-city farming where land-owners grow the food and earn money from their yields of sweet potatoes and other produce. That picture should include farmer’s markets in the hood with spin-off businesses like bakeries, restaurants and bars that draw people in and generate millions like the Tower Grove Farmer’s Market. The vision must include a brand of food like Del Monte or Glory Foods that offers packaged and canned foods from land-owners in North St. Louis. These products must be of such quality that public schools, hotels, restaurants, public institutions, and a broad array of consumers are thrilled to buy knowing that they are supporting a movement of empowerment in North St. Louis.




Collaborations have been the key to current momentum.  To be truly successful, we must get politicians, city leaders and influential individuals to adopt this vision. We must encourage them to invest the same energy, creativity, and resources into this community endeavor as they’ve gifted to wealthy developers and tony neighborhoods for decades. Industrialization in St. Louis and across the nation has been on the decline for the past 50 years. But, because everybody eats and more and more people are turning to locally-grown food, there is a real opportunity to change the course of decline in North St. Louis and beyond.

Shared-Use Kitchen
Metro Food Bus



The thing I love most about the Sweet Potato Project is that it invites everyone and anyone to play a role in educating our youth and developing North St. Louis. You can help build community gardens, plant sweet potatoes, mentor young people, support the “brand” and, of course, buy food and food products lavishly and consistently.

We invite anyone and everyone to join us. Bring us your passions, skills, and talents to help us ensure that low-income youth and adults have a chance at economic empowerment, too. Fresh food can be a fresh start for long-neglected neighborhoods in our region and beyond.  Please help us take full advantage of this magic moment. Be a part of expanding and creating a food-based economic movement in North St. Louis.


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

Thursday, April 27, 2017

When Clichés Come True: Sweet Potato Project 2017

Clichés like “It is always darkest before the dawn,” and “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle” can be inspirational but frustrating. When you’re in the eye of the storm, you’re not exactly craving uplifting words. You’re looking for immediate relief.

 This speaks to my feelings about the past few years of my program, the Sweet Potato Project (SPP). For those not aware, we recruit “at-risk” teens (ages 16 to 21). We provide them a summer job where they plant produce on vacant or community lots. They learn horticulture, marketing, branding, product development and much more. At the end of the summer, they’re charged with turning their yield into marketable food products. To date, the kids make and sell sweet potato cookies. We teach young, urban youth how to become entrepreneurs in their own neighborhoods…today, not after they graduate college.



There was steady momentum since we started in 2012, but by 2015, we had a reversal of fortune. Funding from our traditional sources dried up. We had to cut back on the number of students we served, the program started to accumulate debt. If not for a small number of dedicated supporters and donors we would have folded last year. So this year, with no obvious hope in sight, I prepared for the inevitable; the Sweet Potato Project would have to cease operations.

If not for a small number of dedicated supporters and donors we would have folded last year. 

But then, about a month or so ago, the meaning of the clichés became relevant. I had the opportunity to sit with businessman and philanthropist, David Steward. Steward, the founder of World Wide Technology (WWT), a global technology solution provider, was one of our biggest supporters since its inception. However, we lost touch with WWT a couple years ago. The clouds lifted after Steward called recently to ask what he could do. This year, WWT and the Steward Family Foundation has more than doubled its annual gift. Of course, we need more than three times as much to operate the program effectively but today we have a much stronger start than we've had in the past three years.



We have a lot to do and very little time to do it. Last year I wrote a commentary about facing my limitations and the need to bring in more talented, committed individuals to help me take SPP to where it needs to be. Some of you responded but we were still in a state of flux. I’m re-issuing that clarion call today with the hopes that a solid group of us can make sure we can rise to the challenges of recruiting youth, planting sweet potatoes, and developing the class schedule and year-round marketing and fund-raising plans in the next 30 days.

The good news is that the urban agricultural movement is finally gaining traction in the city. During the campaign, our new mayor, Lyda Krewson, has heard from grassroots, community organizations who’ve been busting their butts to make great, progressive change in St. Louis. Mayor Krewson has voiced support for SPP. Hopefully, she will chart a new course where organizations like ours get a share of the love and resources former Mayor Slay lavished on the rich and powerful.

Hopefully, Mayor Krewson will chart a new course where organizations like ours get a share of the love and resources Slay lavished on the rich and powerful.

Additionally, a North City Food Hub will be birthed in the Greater Ville area. SPP is part of this collaborative that includes former staffers of St. Louis University’s Nutrition and Dietetics department, the Greater Ville Collaborative, Good Life Growing, Annie Malone Children’s Home and HOSCO Food.  This summer, there will be a shared-use, commercial kitchen where people can develop food-based products under the supervision of professional chefs. The plans also include a café, fresh food market, home delivery service, a culinary certification program, and sessions designed to help residents lease or own some of the vast vacant properties in the city. Through this initiative, low-income residents can grow and bring fresh food and “value-added products” to market.

For us, this translates into SPP youth having year-round opportunities to learn entrepreneurial skills and put them into practice. They will participate in a stronger food-based environment in their own neighborhoods. It means there will be a food-based economic engine in North St. Louis that reinforces land-ownership and build community pride. It will provide an exciting way for restaurants, schools, grocers, consumers, and the entire region to buy fresh, locally-grown food and products made in North St. Louis.



I am so grateful that the Sweet Potato Project still has the chance to play a part in bringing economic opportunity to long-ignored parts of our region. I am thankful that I’ll have another shot at nurturing, teaching and learning from young, brilliant but challenged youth in our city. To those who’ve stood with us or have expressed a desire to help in a variety of ways, expect to hear from me. In the next few weeks I’ll host meetings to outline volunteer opportunities and specific tasks we must undertake, quickly.  


I am so grateful that the Sweet Potato Project still has the chance to play a part in bringing economic opportunity to long-ignored parts of our region.



Today, in retrospect, I appreciate the meaning of those inspirational clichés. The clouds have parted but I know there are more storms on the horizon. No one promised this work would be easy. However, I am emboldened by the fact that good people, no matter how few, have always supported our good work. 

Thankfully, we begin another year. To the “good people” in our world, we have another shot. And, with your  help and support, we can continue the “good work.”




 DONATE



   







Sunday, March 12, 2017

Tishaura Jones and Undeniable, Unstoppable Change

Photo  by Wiley Price. Courtesy of the St.Louis American
Oh, how the obscenities flew. 

It was Tuesday, election night. I’d left candidate Tishaura Jones’ watch party in the Grove neighborhood feeling a bit hopeful. She was surging and had captured the #2 spot behind 28th Ward Alderwoman, Lyda Krewson. The wonderfully diverse and eclectic crowd were in high-spirits. We were riding high thanks to State Rep. Jamillah Nasheed’s words of encouragement. “We got this!”

Well, we didn’t. Krewson won. And, as widely predicted, the number of black candidates canceled each other out in the race. The bottom three major contenders (Antonio French, Lewis Reed and Jeffrey Boyd) garnered almost 20,000 votes between them. Jones, lost by a mere 888 votes.


Let us cry not for her. Jones did what she was supposed to do against great, stubborn, and institutionalized odds.

“Damnit!” I spat through the night. “We (meaning black folk) just gave this thing away! Why, oh why, couldn’t you (meaning the black candidates) read the tea leaves? Why didn’t you listen to those who worried about the obvious? Why wasn’t there a strategy to actually win the race?”

I’m happy I decided to wait a few days before writing anything about the contest. It took that time to change my perspective. Two days after the primary, newly-elected State Representative, Bruce Franks, announced he was going to challenge Krewson as a write-in candidate in next month’s general election.


The bottom three major contenders (Antonio French, Lewis Reed and Jeffrey Boyd) garnered almost 20,000 votes between them. Jones, lost by a mere 888 votes.

He didn’t. Franks rescinded the claim after realizing his representative seat could possibly go unfilled if he won the mayoral election. Considering that voters in his district put a lot of energy into helping Franks challenge the disproportionate absentee ballots that caused his loss to a dynasty candidate, it was probably a wise decision. Personally, I’d like to see Franks make an impact in the space he currently holds before seeking another political role.

Still, Franks’ announcement was an indication of what Jones’ campaign had accomplished. For one moment the tidal wave of progressive politics that’s been growing since the 2014 killing of Mike Brown, threatened complacent, establishment, elitist politics in our city. It would have given the almost 40,000 voters who rejected Krewson’s candidacy a dynamic do-over to accomplish what they couldn’t in the primary. It would have coalesced a broad swath of voters behind one black candidate, not four. It would have rocked the status quo by introducing a new people-powered paradigm in a backwards city in desperate need of diverse, progressive, and inclusive transformation.

We owe that wonderful possibility to Jones’ campaign which illustrated that big money and dirty, mainstream media tricks are not the obstacles they once were. Remember though, Jones victory was in the making long before she announced her bid for mayor. Democrats in this city, this state and this country have failed to recognize the simple fact that voters are sick and tired of a party that’s grown accustomed to unearned loyalty. They’ve grown nauseous of its slave-like ties to the capitalist system while resting on the tired laurels of “liberalism.”


Jones’ campaign illustrated that big money and dirty, mainstream media tricks are not the obstacles they once were. 

The party, nationally and locally, has been fractured by a huge swath of voters still seeking a Bernie Sanders-like apostle. This explains why a Bruce Franks or a Megan Ellyia-Green (15th Ward Alderwoman), or a Dan Guenther (newly-elected 9th Ward Alderman) or a Tishaura Jones could topple giants and arouse the passions of voters and supporters.

For the first time in my almost six decades of life here, a new narrative is spreading throughout the city. Thanks to a new wave of aldermen like Green and Guenther, the city’s south side is shifting from its base of predictable segregated politics. There’s new energy, new engagement, and new activism aimed at promoting true equity and age, gender and racial inclusivity.

A valuable lesson was reinforced for me during the Town Hall mayoral forum on Arts and Culture that I co-moderated with activist, De Nichols.  There, a group of stakeholders made a solid case for investing in local arts and culture that’s just as lucrative as casinos and the Ballpark Village to stabilize neighborhoods and generate local revenues. The work has already begun. With vision, the racially and culturally-eclectic Cherokee Street can become St. Louis’ version of the 24-hour entertainment-oriented Bourbon Street in New Orleans. In fact, it could be better because, unlike downtown venues where suburbanites drive in and drive out after a ballgame, locals can participate and benefit economically.


For the first time in my almost six decades of life here, a new narrative is spreading throughout the city.

Mayoral Arts & Culture Forum on Cherokee Street

The narrative of progressive prosperity is not just restricted to the south side. Because of issues raised during the mayoral campaign, north side residents are now aware that their lives and priorities have been rendered irrelevant. They know that they’ve been shafted during the past 16 years under Mayor Francis Slay. They understand that the will, creativity, and vision has actually improved already stable and already majority white neighborhoods. They are cognizant that their political representatives failed to muster the political hutzpah to improve long-neglected Northside neighborhoods while signing off on and divving up more than a billion dollars in public money to “big-box” developments in areas were the black population is dwindling or nonexistent.


Arts & Culture Forum

There is a cadre of nonprofits in the black community that are doing the hard, unappreciated work of fighting crime, educating, and employing youth, providing adult job and entrepreneur-training, building affordable housing and trying to create sustainable, food-based systems in the city. Like other arts and culture groups, we can’t wait for politics to come to us; we have to organize, strategize and take our work to the politicians. We must demand their support, and influence and force them to adopt an equitable use of tax dollars to further our community-oriented endeavors...too.

If black political leaders are wise, they will get their act together quick-like. They will never, ever allow egos or personal agendas to jeopardize the greater good. They’ll realize that just being “black” no longer equates to winning elections. Perhaps those who’ve sided with establishment politicians will turn from the no-return policy of “aldermanic courtesy.” Maybe they’ll demand something, anything for their lapdog support of publicly-subsidized stadiums, high-rise, high-end condos in high-income areas and other trickle-down adventures that only gift millionaires billions at the expense of public schools and poor people.  


If black political leaders are wise, they will get their act together. They will never, ever allow egos or personal agendas to jeopardize the greater good.     

Undeniable, unstoppable change has taken root in St. Louis. Some may not like it but the city has made history. With Krewson it has elected its first female mayor. Throughout the debates that highlighted the problems and promise of our city, my hope is that she really listened. Only Krewson can decide if she’s just going to be the city's first female mayor or a GREAT female mayor. If she fails, we know the burgeoning powers of progress will erase her legacy in just four years.

I won’t say that I’m not disappointed by the election results. A dream deferred can be a bitter reality. However, with the luxury of quiet, unemotional reflection, I am hopeful and committed. There are setbacks and challenges, distractions, and disappointments. But real, significant, life-altering dreams never die. They marinate, they resonate and then they rise when the time is right.

Only Krewson can decide if she’s just going to be the city's first female mayor or a GREAT female mayor.

Tishaura Jones is young, determined and still holds a powerful position in city government. Her future in whatever she aspires to do is solid. Let us cry not for her. She did what she was supposed to do against great, stubborn, and institutionalized odds. 

Jones' candidacy was just another needed-reminder of what dreams may come and what possibilities are on the immediate horizon…when the time is right.




Monday, March 6, 2017

Tomorrow’s Promise: Coming to Grips with a Challenging Decision


Photo courtesy of DeLux Magazine
The election tomorrow (Tuesday, March 7th) represents a crossroads in St. Louis politics and future social and economic developments. Mayor Francis Slay’s unexpected announcement last year that he was not seeking a 5th term caught many by surprise. Slay has endorsed 28th ward Aldermen, Lyda Krewson who has the cash and influence to win the election, especially with four well-known black candidates vying for the seat. The fact that the candidates threaten to split the black vote at this crucial time is an indication of how fractured and powerless the state of local black politics has become in the city.

The fact that the candidates threaten to split the black vote at this crucial time is an indication of how fractured and powerless the state of local black politics has become.

Whatever the reason-ego or unexpected opportunity-the black candidates are challenging voters with a difficult decision. Therefore, we are obligated to challenge them and base our support on who will best take the city into a new, progressive and inclusive direction.  

For me, it’s rather simple. I’m supporting the candidate who I think is aware and prepared to advance the positive momentum percolating in our city.

This new energy started brewing in mid-2014 after the police shooting of Mike Brown. Mass frustration with the callousness of black life and militarized policing shined an unwelcomed, international spotlight on the region. Journalist from outside the area questioned tolerated racial segregation and police oppression in the Gateway City and beyond. They noted how, in the name of “development” black people were purposefully pushed out of the city and into surrounding municipalities. They documented the practice of police targeting black people as human collateral to flow millions into the coffers of small, unjust municipal fiefdoms.

For me, it’s rather simple. I’m supporting the candidate who I think is aware and prepared to advance the positive momentum percolating in our city.

To the horror of the region’s power brokers, people of all colors, ages and genders braved tanks, rubber bullets, tear gas, and overly aggressive police to amplify the “black lives matter” mantra. Injustice was directly linked to the city, two months after Brown’s death, when another white policeman shot and killed another black teenager. The shooting of VonDerrit Myers Jr.in the 4100 block of Shaw Boulevard increased the intensity of an already diverse and mostly younger crowd of protesters.  On November 25th, 2014, dozens of protesters were trapped inside MoKabe’s, a coffee shop known for its “progressive” and diverse clientele. Eye witnesses stated that police in armored vehicles intentionally dropped gas canisters directly in front of the coffee house which immediately filled the building.

This new group of passionate dissidents refused to play by the old rules. In no uncertain terms, they let civil rights icons like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton know that they weren’t playing by their antiquated playbook. A new kind of grassroots protest included but eclipsed old traditions of mass marches and highway shutdowns. Showing up and acting out at football games, the St. Louis Symphony and other “safe zones” for the unconnected and uncaring brought attention to a city were systematized racism had been deeply embedded for decades. Colorful plywood murals on boarded-up buildings, militant and malevolent songs, the stinging lyrics of spoken word artists, and creative and resilient protests became signals of a cultural and racial revolution.

Bernies Sanders’ local campaign benefited from this new movement. In the Missouri Democratic primary, Hilary Clinton only beat Sanders by a mere 1,531 votes.  A deep dissatisfaction with status quo politicians, has created a hunger for fresh alternative political voices.  The special elections of activists Bruce Franks and Rasheen Aldridge which challenged political dynasty candidates was a direct result of “progressive” political input and influence. A new wave of aldermen intent on disrupting the establishment south side machine include Megan Ellyia Green (Ward 15), Shane Cohn (Ward 25), Cara Spencer (20th Ward), Scott Ogilvie (24th Ward).

The special elections of activists Bruce Franks and Rasheen Aldridge was a direct result of “progressive” political input and influence. 

Two of the leading black mayoral candidates-one an alderman, the other president  of aldermanic board-speak of unifying our divided city. Yet, it’s City Treasurer Tishaura Jones who’s been endorsed by most of the progressive south side aldermen and Bernie Sander’s followers involved with groups like Mobilize Missouri. If there is to be unity and equity, it seems Jones has recruited the people power to fulfill that promise.

Creativity, Vision and Equity

Racial unity is not the only criteria for positive change in our city. We live in a region where black lives are deemed irrelevant. Accordingly, I’ve written that we need a black mayor that’s empathetic to racial disparities and capable of reversing the more than 60-year-old trend of de facto segregation.   

A series of STL Magazine and Riverfront Times articles detailed a 16-year, purposeful collusion of politicians and developers to exploit tax incentives and special rewards at the expense of public schools and real blighted neighborhoods. This, a couple of the articles stressed, was done to ensure the number of white residents rose in certain areas while black residents in those same neighborhoods decreased significantly.

After reading the articles, the defining questions for me were what role did the black aldermanic candidates have in enabling, halting or exposing how public money bypassed their constituents and wound up improving majority white wards and empowering already rich developers? How could they sign off on a billion dollars in tax perks without demanding some kind of reciprocity in their own wards?

What role did the black aldermanic candidates have in enabling, halting or exposing how public money bypassed their constituents and wound up improving white wards and empowering rich developers? 

I’ve listened to a few of the mayoral forums and conducted one-on-one interviews with some of the candidates. All the black candidates promise more inclusive development and racial inclusion for North St. Louis. However, in explaining the reasons why there’s been little to no real development in long-ignored areas of the city, their responses reeked of impotency. I've heard “there’s little black aldermen could do because they’re out-voted by white aldermen. Some described Slay's office as an omnipotent, elitist club that poo-poos anything that didn’t fit with the mayor's “sustainability plan” designed exclusively for downtown and the central corridor. Some of them put the blame squarely on the shoulders of developers who are hesitant to invest in North St. Louis.

These answers, to me, lack courage, vision and activism. It also highlighted an unwillingness to amalgamate the powers at-hand in the city. My organization, the Sweet Potato Project, is among a myriad of nonprofits investing our time, energy and meager resources in educating and employing young people, developing community-based food systems, building affordable homes or combating crime, poverty and hopelessness.  None of the black candidates, while in office, sought to use their clout to make sure hard-working nonprofits and small black businesses got the same love or a fraction of the resources gifted to power brokers, powerful developers and "big-box" businesses.

Again, it was Tishaura Jones who convinced me that she’s creative enough and outgoing enough to stand for racial and economic equity. She’s demonstrated the ability to beat back attacks from defenders of the status quo who have identified her as the one audacious enough to shake-up a system that’s addicted to luring big businesses to the city with lavish, unnecessary tax incentives. 

St. Louis is rich with higher-learning institutions like Washington University, Harris Stowe, and St. Louis University. These halls of academia are stuffed with research, and real-life templates for the equitable use of public funds to dramatically change low-income communities. Our next mayor must be adept at collaborating with local universities and using their plans and proposals to propel the city forward. Jones is the only candidate I’ve heard who’s talked about putting the power of local universities to work on a city-wide sustainability plan.

Jones seems to be the one with the audacity to shake up a system that’s grown addicted to luring big businesses to the city with lavish, unnecessary tax incentives.

After much deliberation, I’ve thrown my support behind Jones. She seems to be the one who will galvanize the grassroots, political and people-powered progressive forces that have taken root in our city and throughout the region. The fact that she’s modernized the city’s parking system, saved millions in revenue and created programs to teach financial literacy to the poor and prepare kindergartners for college speaks to her vision. She’s demonstrated that she’s courageous enough to go anywhere to seek out and implement best practices from other locales and our home-based universities.

To be clear, it won’t upset me if any of the black candidates win the mayoral race. They’ve all spoke to the sharing of taxpayer wealth and city resources to prioritize equitable progress throughout the region. For me, it’s not just about what they will do as a newly elected mayor, it’s about what they’ve done in their respective offices to date.

It won’t upset me if any of the black candidates win the race. But it’s not about what they will do, it’s about what they’ve done in their respective offices to date.

Candidate Antonio French told me that robust voter turnout will dictate the outcome of the mayoral competition. Personally, I don’t see how a larger turnout will change the percentage of voters torn between four black contenders and one status quo white candidate, but French might be correct. But more so, I’m hoping for a massive, informed electorate that’s keenly aware of the powerful collaborations and opportunities at hand under new mayoral leadership.

We are at a crossroads, St. Louis. We have a once-in-four-year opportunity to set a new, more inclusive course for the Gateway City. Here’s hoping that the promises at hand soon becomes the fruit of our future. 



  




Friday, March 3, 2017

Tishaura Jones for St. Louis Mayor


I’m not a politician or head of any political group. I represent myself, someone born, raised and, as a journalist, written about this place for more than 30 years. For these reasons and more I support Tishaura Jones as the next mayor of our city.

I applaud all the mayoral candidates. They have engaged, excited and informed voters about an outgoing administration that has wantonly supported rich developers and pumped obscene amounts of public money into already stable neighborhoods. This at the expense of public schools and poor neighborhoods. Voters are now acutely aware of our disproportionate poverty, crime, high school dropout and unemployment rates. They also know that some candidates have been far too comfortably, too compliant and way too complacent as dire conditions in disadvantaged neighborhoods have mounted without abatement for at least the past 16 years.

Unlike her competitors, Jones has boldly declared an agenda of racial equity. As the city’s treasurer, she’s proven that she’s willing to go anywhere to seek out and implement the best ideas and best practices from other locales or from our outstanding universities. She’s beat back vicious attacks from those invested in protecting and empowering the status quo. Jones has gained the support and endorsements of progressive south side politicians and organizations that are equally invested in growing past our racial hang-ups. She’s supported by engaged individuals who are bucking our divisive past and challenging the old guard. Some have gained elected office because they have embraced the true transforming power of diversity.

We can no longer tolerate political elitism or business-as-usual politicians.  It’s time to nurture the blossoming seeds of change. Now is the time for the city to reach its full potential, to become a real, diverse, and absolutely cool Metropolis. The resolve, the will and the energy is already here. All we need is the right leader, with the right vision and the right stuff to help us all wade into that wonderful pool of inclusivity.

St. Louis, with all its untapped potential is finally waking up and inching past its stagnant history. Our next Mayor must make sure the momentum is respected and continues. This is why I support Tishaura Jones for the next Mayor of St. Louis


Sincerely,