Thursday, August 9, 2018

Bob McCulloch’s Defeat: When Justice Rolls down like a Mighty Stream



Four years ago, a good friend, mused about the death of Mike Brown and the protests aimed at his killer, Ferguson police officer, Darren Wilson.

“Maybe Mike died for a reason,’ she told me. “Maybe there’s a bigger meaning to all of this.”

At the time, seething from the mounting injustice in the so-called investigation of the officer, I didn’t want to hear her. Reason was blocked by images of an over aggressive, militarized police force gassing, tasing and brutalizing protesters. As time passed, my journalistic mind wouldn’t allow me to ignore St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch’s bodacious efforts to ignore evidence and influence the grand jury impaneled to indict Wilson.

                 

I couldn’t overlook the fact that Wilson was never ordered to write a police report.  His story seemed incredulous at best. Supposedly, after ordering Mike Brown and a friend to get off the street, Brown became irate and tussled with Wilson while he sat in his police car. Wilson said Brown reached for his gun, which discharged. Mike, who was shot in the hand, took off running. Mike, who was wounded, ran more than 100 feet away from Wilson. Apparently, Mike decided the hand wound was insignificant, so he stopped, turned around and ran into more blazing, hot bullets from Wilson’s gun.


I cry B.S.! The only rational explanation for the shooting was that Mike had the audacity to disregard Wilson’s orders, tussle with him and take off running. What was more than obvious to me, was that Wilson, probably angry and insulted, decided to exact a bit of street justice in the heat of the moment.

Days after the shooting, police released a video of Mike Brown allegedly assaulting a neighborhood liquor store owner and “stealing” a pack of Cigarillos. The video was offered to the public as evidence of Mike’s violent behavior.


Turns out, it was doctored. Police left out a portion of the video that seemed to indicate Mike’s attempt to trade a bag of marijuana for the cigarillos. Jason Pollock, director of "Stranger Fruit," an independent film that chronicled the shooting and case against Wilson, said the edited film was critical in defining Brown’s guilt. Had the footage been released in its entirety, Pollock told CNN, “it would've altered the narrative that Brown was shot after robbing the store.” Instead, Pollock continued, investigators lied “to make Mike look bad, so they put out half a video to destroy his character in his death."

McCulloch’s father, a K-9 police officer, was killed by black men at the Pruitt-Igoe Housing Complex in the 1960s. Several of his relatives has worked for the St. Louis police department. McCulloch, throughout his 27-years in public office, has never prosecuted an officer-involved shooting to the point of an actual indictment. Because of his loyalty to police and his own personal experience, a special prosecutor should have been assigned to the incendiary, highly controversial case. Instead, McCulloch decided to go the grand jury route, which critics say was intentionally designed to exonerate Wilson. 

McCulloch once told reporters, “Ever since I saw my father pull on that blue uniform and go to work . . . I know that the true police officers always have been and always will be the heroes of this nation.” In an interview with St. Louis Magazine one year after Mike’s death, McCulloch asserted “there’s nothing wrong with bias. It just depends on how it manifests itself.” 


Well, his bias manifested greatly in the Darren Wilson case.   

Somehow, the witnesses, including a group of white contractors who said Brown had surrendered and had his hands in the air as Wilson emptied his gun into him, were deemed suspect or unreliable. Somehow, Wilson and his attorney were allowed the unprecedented opportunity to listen to all the grand jury witness’s testimony before offering his version of events. McCulloch failed to get an indictment against Wilson and some voters never forgot or forgave him.



Call it poetic justice, but this week, four years, almost to the day of Mike Brown’s death, voters sent Bob McCulloch packing. A virtual unknown, under-funded, black candidate, Wesley Bell, a Ferguson City Council member, beat McCulloch with nearly 57 percent of the vote. Because there’s no Republican challenger, Bell presumably has a lock on the office.


The election, to me, serves as a sweet referendum on injustice. It’s a sign that perseverance, tenacity and focus can pay off in the long run. It’s an affirmation to the hundreds of protesters who were maligned, mistreated, jailed and brutalized for standing on the side of justice. St. Louis, which garnered the world’s attention after Mike’s death, has once again offered a template for redressing systematic injustice.

Bell’s campaign promises include criminal justice reform and fundamentally changing “the culture" of the prosecutor's office. VOX.com posted an article detailing how prosecutors are the driving force behind mass incarcerations. Prosecutors, who are enormously powerful in our criminal justice system, are given huge discretion as to who gets prosecuted, or not, and when grand juries should be used for indictments. Since more than 90 percent of criminal convictions are resolved through plea agreements, the article asserts, “prosecutors and defendants — not judges and juries — have almost all the say in the great majority of cases that result in incarceration or some other punishment.


The “ByeBob” hashtag floating around the Twitter-Verse lately has much bigger implications than just St. Louis.  Despite the pro-cop, no-matter-what-they-do, “Blue Lives Matters” rhetoric exploited mostly by the conservative crowd, McCulloch’s defeat indicates that all kinds of people-not just “Black Lives Matter” protesters and black people-are fed up with systematic injustices. From their graves, Travon Martin, Tamir Rice, Mike Brown and so many others whose killers were either exonerated by the criminal justice system or were brutally slain by irresponsible police officers, can still impact elections in this country.

I find myself reflecting on my friend's observation about the meaning of Mike Brown's death. Perhaps, in retrospect, she was right. Mike's death still has meaning even four years after he left us. 

Wesley Bell’s victory is a sign that giants can be toppled, wrongs can be righted and justice-as Dr. Martin Luther King so eloquently stated-“can roll down “like water and “righteousness like a mighty stream.”


Tuesday, July 31, 2018

From Protest to Progress. Where will the BP Gas Mart Protest Lead?


Photo by Richard Reilly
      As protest go, no one can really predict what incident will kick off a series of demonstrations or what the end results may be. This thought occurred to me last week when I attended a protest at the BP Gas Mart at the intersections of Goodfellow and Delmar.

Earlier that day, two BP employees, Ahmed Qandeel, 19, and Jehad Motan, 32, were taken into custody and charged with assault. A bystander recorded the two men kicking a female customer. The video shows the workers threatening the woman:

“I’m going to put my feet in your a-s!” one shouts, just moments before kicking the woman to the ground. “You gotta go,” he continued, “You gotta go!”


Photo by Richard Reilly

The patron, Kelli Adams said the incident ensued after she tried to purchase lottery tickets at the store and was turned away. The fact that Ms. Adams may have had drug or mental health issues was a side note to people who showed up to speak for her humanity. Regardless of the details, the video went viral and drew dozens of people to the business to collectively voice their disapproval of the employees’ actions.

Assault victim, Kelli Adams 

         The genesis of the outrage stemmed from two grown men assaulting a woman. But the comments I heard ranged from how Middle-Easterners, who own a plethora of gas stations in black neighborhoods, disrespect their customers to the lack of opportunity to own and operate our own businesses. 
As I listened and talked to people at the station, I wondered where this might all lead? 

State Rep. Bruce Franks Jr., who attended one of the protests told reporters: “We saw a video where a young lady got kicked by the store owner,” Franks said. “The [workers] walked away, walked back up, and kicked her. That ain’t happening, so folks are talking about taking their community back.”

Photo by Richard Reilly
State Rep. Bruce Franks: 
"...folks are talking about taking their community back.”

What does “take our community back” really mean? And how can this incident amplify and/or move that message forward? Is it possible to parlay an economic negative into a long-term positive without alienating those who don’t live in but live off the black dollars?

In St. Louis, we have a long, proud history of mass resistance that predates the “Black Lives Matters” movement in 2014 after the police shooting of Mike Brown. Other than the fact that St. Louis created a template for mass resistance to police shootings, the end results of that tragedy are still in the making. Still, in reflection, tangible outcomes from local demonstrations are revealed.

In the summer of 1930, a black physician, Dr. Bernice A. Yancey, was electrocuted while using a defective X-ray machine at the horrendous, unsanitary City Hospital No. 2. That incident served as a rallying cry to pressure city leaders to address the health needs of its black residents. The protests eventually led to the building of a new, $3-million-dollar, state-of-the-art, 728-bed black medical facility, Homer G. Phillips Hospital in 1937.

Activists in 1963 launched daily protests aimed at Jefferson Bank & Trust Company’s discriminatory hiring practices. This led to better jobs for blacks and ushered in a new era of black political leadership that including Con. William L. Clay and Missouri legislators, Raymond Howard and Louis Ford.

During the 1960s and ‘70s, ACTION (Action Committee to Improve Opportunities for Negroes) led by Percy Green, launched sometimes aggressive protests to force major, local employers such as McDonnell Aircraft Company, Southwestern Bell, Laclede Gas and Union Electric to hire African Americans workers for higher-wage jobs. The fact that I was hired at Laclede Gas in 1977 was a direct result of ACTION’s efforts to persuade the company to hire minorities for 40 percent of its new job openings at the time.

If St. Louis history is any indication, the BP situation can have the potential to address larger issues in our region.

“For years, we’ve talked about economic injustice in our own community,” the Rev. Darryl Gray told me. “We’ve talked about the lack of black businesses and we continue to talk about black unemployment. But we don’t talk about is our own ability to employ our own.”

Photo by Richard Rielly
Rev. Darryl Gray: “We’ve talked about the lack of black businesses and we continue to talk about black unemployment. But we don’t talk about is our own ability to employ our own.”

Gray’s comments about economic injustice was echoed by many in the crowd. Their words, however, were underscored with direct action. They used their cars to block access to the gas pumps. A few protesters positioned themselves at the front doors to dissuade any potential customers from making purchases. They made an economic statement, but Gray calls for a larger conversation:

“Ninety-nine percent of this businesses’ money comes from black patrons. So, we’re saying, ‘we’re going to withdraw our enthusiasm, our finances from this business today and force a conversation’ and not just between these business owners but us and politicians and us and the community.”

I was struck by the “us” part of Gray’s assertion. As he said earlier, we’ve been talking about “economic injustice” in the black community for years. What will it take to move “us” from talk to action? Again, I wonder if effective sustainable economic can change come out of the BP conflict.

There was a Muslim gentleman, who served as a liaison of sorts at the demonstration. I later learned his name. Faizan Syed serves on the Council of Islamic Religion and is a founding member of the StLouis Metropolitan Council of Imams. Among heated questions and accusations, Syed calmly explained why he was trying to get the BP owners to come out and make a public apology, which they eventually did.

Representatives of the BP gas mart make public apology
Photo by Richard Reilly

“Their livelihood comes from all of you. You’re their customers. You’re the people who live in this neighborhood.” Syed explained adding, “Unfortunately, the owners don’t build relationships with the community. Some look at the community with suspension and that’s a cultural thing that needs to change.

“If that can come out of this situation…if the other gas station owners can see what happened here, if they can train themselves and their employees…they’ve never learned how to build community relationships.” 

Faizan Syed, photo by Bill Monroe
 “Their livelihood comes from all of you. You’re their customers. You’re the people who live in this neighborhood.” - Faizan Syed

Somewhere in between Rev. Gray’s comments about building black businesses and Syed’s concerns, I believe, there is the starting point for fruitful dialogue. The demonstrations have ended for the most part, and it seems it’s business as usual at the BP gas mart.  It would be a shame if the window of dialogue has closed without further discussion and action.

I believe, we must cautiously approach the topic of immigrants or so called “foreigners” doing business in black communities. In today’s highly toxic, xenophobic political environment, this issue can be easily exploited to drive a deeper wedge between blacks and Muslims.  

Photo by Richard Reilly 

America has proven fertile ground for immigrant entrepreneurism. Unlike blacks, immigrants have been able to transplant their cultural values and attributes into successful enterprises. They work together, raise their own seed money and employ a culture-based system of supportive, collective economics. Immigrants may have a rough go at it, but they have not been hampered by centuries of legalized cultural annihilation, dissimilation or laws that prohibited economic opportunity based on skin color, like African Americans.

German, Jewish, Korean and, now, Arab-Americans have always found opportunities in black communities, including St. Louis. They provide services many white business owners pass up. Foreign-owned gas stations in the region have perfected the art of catering to their customer’s wants and needs. In areas where grocery stores are scarce, gas stations and convenience stores provide the food, cell phone services, clothing and gold-plated bling blacks seem to desire.

There is an opportunity to build off the highly publicized incident involving Ms. Adams and the store’s employees. If black leaders are serious about creating black enterprises in their own communities, Muslim business owners can be an asset by sharing knowledge and resources aimed at creating cross-cultural economic alliances in long-ignored neighborhoods.

A couple years ago, I had a conversation with a Muslim entrepreneur who owns several gas stations in Missouri and Illinois. He welcomed the idea of selling our sweet potato cookies at his stores and, when we’re ready, I plan to revisit that conversation. What may come if we extrapolated that idea to include products-food, clothing, jewelry, etc.-made by black entrepreneurs? What’s the possibility of partnering with or supporting qualified black entrepreneurs and helping them open gas stations or other types of businesses in black neighborhoods?

It is my hope that the protests do not wind up building a bigger wedge between Muslims and the black community. I have written often about the inherent business, housing and land-ownership opportunities in economically-depressed neighborhoods in St. Louis. Muslims, like so many immigrants before them, have found gold in areas deemed worthless by prestigious developers and vision-less politicians. I for one, am looking for another historic negative transformed into a collective positive.  

Hopefully, the moment hasn’t been lost. Harkening back to the words of Rev. Gray, I’m looking forward to that “forced” conversation where Muslim business owners, politicians and “us” go from simple protest to holistic, healing all inclusive progress.

   









Wednesday, July 4, 2018

PARTY ON, PATRIOTS! INDEPENDENCE DAY IS RESULT OF PROTESTS


Here's an "Independence Day" commentary I wrote in my first year as a columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Believe or not, this piece, which I thought was well-reasoned and rational, elicited calls for my termination, hundreds of complaints and a couple of death threats. In reflection, it's just as pertinent today as it was some 15 years ago.

By Sylvester Brown Jr.  
Originally Published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Thursday, 7/3/2003

"NO MATTER THAT patriotism is too often the refuge of scoundrels. Dissent, rebellion, and all-around hell-raising remain the true duty of patriots."-- Barbara Ehrenreich, author, columnist

Friday is Independence Day. It's a day of celebration, fireworks, brats and longnecks. For many, July Fourth is one big patriotic bash. For me, it's a day of somber reflection and mixed emotions. I'm all for a party but I have one pesky little caveat: I need to know why I'm partying.

Black people had nothing to celebrate on July 4, 1776 -- the official day enacted by Congress. Black "independence" came nearly 100 years later with the passage of the 13th Amendment. But hey, independence is independence, right? While some celebrate freedom from the Brits, I can celebrate freedom from the shackles. Or can I? My problem is finding a guilt-free party on the Fourth. See, I tend to gravitate toward a pretty rebellious bunch. I can't help it. I admire people who challenge injustice, those who want to change the world for the better. But their idea of a party Friday will include shutting down the Metro or demonstrating somewhere else.

Many of my friends challenge U.S. foreign policy. Critics call them "unpatriotic" for opposing the war and "un-American" for criticizing U.S. firms that have profited from it. Does their stance disqualify them from a celebration of patriots?

Like I said, I've always been drawn to discontents. That includes the patriotic rabble-rousers of days gone by. America's radicals are as much responsible for the freedom we enjoy today as anyone. I wonder how many people realize that local dissidents like Eric Vickers, John Chasnoff, Lizz Brown or Bill Ramsey are following an honorable tradition?

It may be easy to dismiss allegations that public dollars are squandered on new educational initiatives. It might be comfortable to ignore charges that minorities aren't getting a fair share of tax-financed construction projects. But wasn't it a response to unfair taxation that led to the Boston Tea Party in 1773? Angry colonists dumped chests of tea into Boston harbor to avoid payment of a British tax. The punitive British response became the catalyst for America's independence movement.

Activists have climbed the Arch and blocked highways to make a point. History has shown us that patriots have risked even more. In 1770, Crispus Attucks became the first casualty of the American Revolution. He was shot and killed in what was later described as the Boston Massacre. In 1776, the British hung Nathan Hale as a spy. On his way to the gallows, Hale uttered words that still inspire activism: "I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country."

Organizations affiliated with the local American Friends Service Committee mounted many demonstrations before and during the Iraq war. The group was founded by Quakers. Among them was William Penn, who was responsible for helping his brethren escape persecution in England. Convinced that religious tolerance could never be achieved in England, Penn founded Philadelphia in 1682. He called the city his "Holy Experiment" and encouraged women's rights and religious freedom. Penn was jailed several times, lived as a fugitive and died a pauper for his beliefs.

History gives many more examples of patriotism that go against today's popular definition. Today's activists have nothing to apologize for. Patriotism comes in many forms. Some celebrate what the country is, while others celebrate what it has the potential to be.

So party on, St. Louis activists. Fire up the grill and hoist a brew, my fellow Americans. Friday is your day, too. On Saturday, go back to shaking things up and challenging the system. History's patriots would expect nothing less.

Monday, June 18, 2018

The North City Food Hub: Let's Go Crazy!


Dearly beloved, I’m writing today to talk about this thing called life. It’s an electric word, “LIFE,” it means forever and that's a mighty long time, but I'm here to tell you…there's something else…
My humble apologies to the late, great genius, Prince, for sampling the words from his song, “Let’s Go Crazy.” Prince’s lyrics serve as a perfect segue for this commentary about life. What gives me a great sense of comfort is the simple notion that we come into this world with the sole purpose of making life a little bit better than the way it was when we were born. This philosophy allows me to compartmentalize the things I can’t control like an immoral, unqualified, orange dictator who seems content on resurrecting the spirit and mission of Adolph Hitler.
As a black man, a father, writer and a nonprofit director, I know I can’t stop the regurgitated madness that surrounds us, like the current rise in racism and down-right, guttural hate. But, I can, in a small but significant way, write about it and try to teach young people, who look like me, how to do their part to make the world a little bit better for their siblings, their peers and themselves.
I have spent a lifetime as a journalistic voyeur of sorts. I've written about the ills that disproportionately impact my people but I haven't really done anything concrete to address these conditions. I have tried to use the experiences and influences of an impoverished, black youth with an amazing, never-give-up, Mama, to blow up stereotypes. I’ve tried to get readers, who have not lived my life, to explore the possibilities that we have more in common than not. 
It took me more than 30 years, but I have concluded that I can’t fix stupid. The impact of more than 400 years of racial oppression and conditioning is still strong among many and I’m not going to be able to change that in my lifetime or, sadly, my children’s lifetime.


What I can do, what I have done, is create something, I believe, that will help my race do-for-self and become self-sufficient no matter what turbulent wave of racism or hatred consumes us from coast-to-coast. 
Yes, my little contribution is the Sweet Potato Project (SPP).  I stubbornly believe that black folk must go back to move forward. We must return to that time where we had no choice but to depend upon and support ourselves. We can no longer rely on government or the benevolence of sympathetic whites to save us. Oh, they can help but we must commit to save ourselves. That means we must build new systems (educational, economic and judicial) that will replace or thwart those designed to keep us oppressed, depressed and locked into a dependent, childlike, helpless mindset.
In my last commentary I wrote about engaging and activating young people in community ownership. I talked about the progress on this front, by politicians, individuals and organizations in North St. Louis. Here, I want to elaborate on a new organization I also mentioned, the North City Food Hub (NCFH) and invite you to explore the possibilities with us.
On Thursday, June 28th, the NCFH and its partner organizations, which includes SPP, will host its official grand opening at its headquarters at 1034 North Sarah Street, St. Louis, MO 63113. With initial funding from the Department of Agriculture (USDA), the agency was established with a mission of making a local food system (hub) where individuals, particularly North St. Louis residents, can access resources aimed at increasing their income potential and turning food business ideas into fruitful economic realities.


“We’re looking at ways to address food insecurity while simultaneously improving personal incomes through growing of fresh food and food production,” says Milldred Mattfeldt- Beman, NCFH’s project coordinator.
During Thursday’s event, NCFH will outline its classes in legal assistance, land-ownership, “good agricultural practices (GAP)”, culinary education, food safety, business plan development, food production and much more. The agency will also unveil its 3,000 square feet food preparation and storage space which includes a shared-use kitchen where residents will receive technical assistance, training, oversight and guidance through the food production business.

“We’re looking at ways to address food insecurity while simultaneously improving personal incomes through growing of fresh food and food production.” - Milldred Mattfeldt- Beman


NCFH has partnered with St. Louis University and local nonprofits such as the Ville Collaborative, Hosco Foods, Good Life Growing, LLC. And Annie Malone Children & Family Services.  Through this unique collaboration, these nonprofits will offer additional services to the youth and adults we currently serve.  
This small but substantial endeavor compliments the affordable housing and urban gardening work that’s already being done by organizations like Better family Life, Inc., Gateway Greening, Friendly Temple Church and aldermen seeking innovative ways to bring new businesses and robust economic activity back to long-underserved and impoverished neighborhoods.
Personally, I’m ecstatic about the possibilities. My students and other North St. Louis residents now have a one-stop shop to help them gain education in accessing land, growing food, getting legal advice and small business assistance, making food products and professionally bring all this to market in and outside their own neighborhoods. 
For me, I see a way to activate young activists, so they can make their neighborhoods a little bit better than the way it was when they were born into them. Let’s give them land, give them subsidies for new, affordable homes, give them small business loans to open storefronts, urban farms, farmer’s markets, coffee, T-shirt and art shops in one designated area of development.  And, yes, I said “give.” Heck, we’ve been gifting billions to already rich developers for decades. Let’s try a new, bold, innovative approach. Let’s invest in our young so they can give us a mighty return.
The NCFH gives us a rare shot at reclaiming, remaking and reinvigorating what’s ours. Let’s take this small risk, this grand opportunity to see what can be. Let’s get to that “something else” Prince spoke of; Let’s go Crazy!








Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Getting Millennials and Low-income Residents Activated and Engaged in Community Ownership


     Seven years ago, the Sweet Potato Project was founded with a mission to inspire young people to use food as an entry into entrepreneurism. I discovered early on that training kids to grow, harvest, package and sell food and food-based products is an admirable endeavor but the full possibilities won’t be recognized unless the practices were mainstreamed in their neighborhoods.



What does this mean? It means that community-wide environments must be created where vacant land is available to low-income, youth and adults; where systems are established that help ordinary people grow and bring fresh food to market. This must include providing low cost or no cost training that will help them professionally produce, package and distribute marketable, food-based products in and outside their neighborhoods. It also means a collective adoption of the idea that food, as an engine to economize, revitalize and stabilize their neighborhoods.
This may seem like a tall order but, believe it or not, it’s happening, albeit in a seemingly disjointed, unconnected and fragile way. 
Let me explain. A few years ago, a visionary by the name of Melvin White introduced a bold idea to revitalize MLK Blvd from Wellston to East St. Louis and across the country. Every year on Dr. King’s birthday, White’s plan received national recognition. It was a cause celeb for Washington University and Harvard graduate students. For the life of me, I couldn’t understand why black aldermen along the MLK strip refused, for the most part, to get behind a plan that seemed to be marketing gold.
Melvin White founder of Beloved Streets of America

One of White’s most adamant opponents, 22nd Ward Alderman Jeffrey Boyd, endured public scrutiny for installing decorative lights along MLK Blvd. Strangely, reporter Elliot Davis on his FOX 2 News segment, “You Paid for It,” scrutinized the $1.2 million in tax dollars spent to install, as Davis put it, “fancy lights along abandoned, wrecked street.”

Elliot Davis interviews Aldermen Jeffrey Boyd about decorative lights on MLK Photo courtesy of FOX2 News

I don’t understand why Davis made a big ta-do out of the issue. These types of lights have been installed in several up and coming predominantly white neighborhoods, like the Cherokee and Grove strips. The decorative lights along MLK have brightened the area, adding a subtle layer of safety. I saw developmental potential highlighted, especially the phenomenal work of Friendly Temple Church and other mixed-income housing developments along MLK.

I didn’t hear much about Melvin White’s plan this year. My guess is that, like so many other black visionaries, he became frustrated with the backwards thinking, infighting and inaction among black politicos. If Boyd were big enough to adopt White’s vision, the lights would have been part of a bigger, more palatable economic development movement in North St. Louis.


Malik Ahmed, president and CEO of Better Family Life, was joined by community partners on May 1 to announced revitalization efforts in four St. Louis neighborhoods: Photo By Wiley Price / Courtesy of the St. Louis American
The project’s stated goal is to reduce the number of abandoned and vacant buildings and lots in North St. Louis and beautify neighborhoods with affordable houses. Malik Ahmed, BFL’s founder and chief executive, said he wants the project to attract “millennials and others in the area.”
This is a powerful move but could’ve had an even bigger impact if it was aligned with a collective, community-wide strategy to improve one segment of town at a time. How many millennials could we attract if we not only provided affordable housing but free land to grow food and subsidies to open storefronts along Page and/or MLK Blvd? What an innovative way to bring in young people who are truly vested in one designated area of revitalization.
I could get into the recent rifts between newly elected “progressive” white aldermen and a few elected black aldermen but that will be a topic for another commentary. I mention it here because, at some point, we must challenge these politicians to get past their beefs and enact the same sort of incentives in North St. Louis that’s been used to boost the Central Corridor, the Central West End, the Cortex District and other already wealthy white neighborhoods.
Here, I want to stay focused on the positives that can lead to real, healthy and lucrative development in long-ignored black neighborhoods. As I’ve stated many, many times, food can be that economic motivator that replaces lost industries in urban areas.
. Let’s be real, everybody eats. Growing, packaging and distributing fresh food and food-based products to consumers, public schools, grocery and convenience stores and public institutions can be a huge boom for low-income people. What dreams may come if everybody-consumers, restaurants, bakeries and more-all bought food that was professionally grown in North St. Louis? What would be the job and small business increase if a line of food, like Del Monte, was manufactured and distributed from the inner city?
The North City Food Hub partners include the Sweet Potato Project, Good Life Growing Inc., Hosco Foods, St. Louis University, Annie Malone Children & Family Services and City Market Cooperative.
I’m ecstatic to report that the Sweet Potato Project has joined a group of local food entities that have come together to turn these challenges into possibilities. The “North St. Louis Food Hub (NCFH)” is dedicated to creating “local food systems” specifically in North St. Louis. This summer, it will offer classes in land ownership, urban agriculture and culinary skills. Technical assistance will also be offered to help people develop business and marketing plans and become certified in “Good Agricultural Practices (GAP).” 
Good Life Growing, LLC is a member of the North City Food Hub
Photo by Wiley Price / Courtesy of the St. Louis American
NCFH will open its “shared-use kitchen” in the Greater Ville area in a couple weeks. This is where our students will turn their produce into products. It’s also where anyone can develop food products under the guidance of trained chefs (for a small hourly fee) and even earn “Food Safety” certificates. NCFH will also host classes to show people how, what and when to grow. It has partnered with or established places where urban farmers can sell their produce.
I’m a naively optimistic, big-picture kinda guy. Despite the seeming disconnect, division and political stagnation, something powerful is percolating in North St. Louis. The challenge is to pull these things together and present them in an empowering, collective narrative. Be it on MLK Blvd., or Page Ave., the Natural Bridge strip or somewhere near O’Fallon Park; black folk must choose and focus on one neighborhood. Then we can replicate the model in another neighborhood and another and so on and so forth. Because St. Louis has invested in white neighborhoods for the past 20 years, we already know that tax incentives and other government incentives can be used to improve black neighborhoods and spur small business growth.
The local food movement is spreading across the country. Those with the means and resources have been capitalizing off this for years. St. Charles developer, Paul Mckee, has already secured federal funds to grow, market and distribute fresh food near the looming NGA site. Many in the growing food market see African Americans as consumers and benefactors of fresh food. The NCFH plan, for example, seeks to empower them as entrepreneurs and landowners.  
The first step, however, is to get black people to buy into the possibilities of “doing for self” with a little government help. For me, with initiatives such as NCFH, I have a way to immediately put land in the hands of young entrepreneurs so they, too, can economically benefit from fresh produce. I see a viable pathway to get other millennials and low-income residents activated and engaged in land and community ownership. Growing and selling food and food-based products is a sound way to monetarily incentivize community development.
Let’s challenge our young and show them a workable way to put action behind their passions. Let us put aside our petty political differences and push an unique 21st Century agenda. Let us take a refreshing, collective approach to building affordable homes, land ownership, innovative entrepreneurism and neighborhood revitalization through the growing, packaging and distribution of food.  After all, everybody eats!

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

The North City Food Hub will hold its grand opening celebration on June 28th at 1034 North Sarah, St. Louis 63113. For more information call 314-258-2571 
or Alayna Sibert / Operations manager at 314-954-7090