Monday, August 17, 2015

Why We Can’t Wait

Cowardice asks the question - is it safe?
Expediency asks the question - is it politic?
Vanity asks the question - is it popular?
But conscience asks the question - is it right?
And there comes a time when one must take a position
that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular;
but one must take it because it is right.
-      Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.



       Dr. Martin Luther King’s 1963 book, “Why We Can’t Wait” served as a blunt exploration of the forces behind the Civil Rights Movement of that time. King specifically saw 1963 as a landmark year of the movement and as the beginning of America's "Negro Revolution.” Now, some 50 years since its publication, America find itself in the throngs of another, more updated black revolution.
          It’s been a bit more than a year since the shooting death of 18-year-old Mike Brown. The tragic event exposed racial and economic injustices that have been tolerated too long in this region and throughout the country. It’s been more than a year and I am just as proud of the demonstrators today as I was in 2014.


        Some will question this with examples of violence, looting or black-on-black crime. In response, I say you’ve been manipulated by the media, bamboozled by the status quo and hoodwinked by propagandists. Instead of hearing the warranted cries of thousands, you’ve latched onto the few examples that validate your conditioned biases and justify your silence.

Instead of hearing the warranted cries of thousands, you’ve latched onto the few examples that validate your conditioned biases and justify your silence.

We owe a resounding “thank you” to the defiant, resilient and creative protesters for pulling the stained sheet of racial insolence off a region where terrorizing and profiting off the poor is the norm. Now, the world has seen the deeply embedded economic, societal and judicial daggers that have punctured the souls of black people.
   The protesters are doing their part in instigating significant change in the St. Louis metropolitan area. They have gone to jail; been maligned and ridiculed, targeted and painted as radicals by an embarrassed yet vengeful police force. It is now on us-the caring and connected-to make sure their sacrifices are not in vain.
           I keep hearing that we’re making “progress” on issues unearthed by Mike Brown’s death. I’ve read of efforts to consolidate police departments, open more charter schools and limit the amount of money greedy municipalities can collect off poor people. These are the result of many well-meaning people but, can we really call it “progress” when some of these endeavors are attached to old, stodgy agendas like merging the city and county and privatizing public schools? Is it “progress” if the young demonstrators have not been consulted nor or involved in the change promised? 
Is it progress when the “Black Lives Matter” mantra has been overruled with the snobbish “All lives matter” retort? An August 6 Post-Dispatch editorial underscores the protester's theme: “To be black in the St. Louis region means that you are more than three times as likely as your white neighbors to live in poverty, to be unemployed, to have less education, to die earlier and to see your child die in infancy.”

To be black in the St. Louis region means that you are more than three times as likely as your white neighbors to live in poverty, to be unemployed, to have less education, to die earlier and to see your child die in infancy.”

          The editorial, based on a recent study by the East-West Gateway Council of Governments, stressed that our region ranks horribly high in categories such as “black-to-white poverty, black-to-white unemployment and black-to-white infant mortality.” Bad housing, inadequate health care and poor access to quality food are all part of the equation, the editorial stressed. However, it also noted that the chief cause of these disparities is “systemic racism…a calculated effort over generations by St. Louis’ white majority to cut off access to opportunity for African-Americans.”
To be clear, there are sincere, well-meaning people-black, white and other-doing their damnedest to address the concerns unveiled in the DOJ’s report on the region. Yet, I can’t help but wonder if their ideas will eradicate the real, ugly cancer that’s metastasized in the bones of our region. Can they really change the segregated mindset that has rendered black lives meaningless? Can they eliminate systematic racism?

I can’t help but wonder if their ideas will eradicate the ugly cancer that’s metastasized in the bones of our region. 

          Maybe it’s because I’m an old dude. Or maybe it’s because I’ve been writing about racism, poverty, police brutality and protest movements for almost 30 years.  Maybe it’s because I’ve seen this movie before and we always attempt to wrap up these volatile incidents with promises of change. Whatever the motivation, I’m left with the conclusion that we can’t wait for the system to fix itself, we have to do for self.  
        Although it should be everyone’s call to help clean up St. Louis’ mess, it is the responsibility of black people to protect and provide for their children. Our young did not create the chaos in our streets. They had no control over a system of race-based mass incarceration that’s seeded a culture of crime in low-income neighborhoods. They weren’t around in the late 1960's when those who could escape areas historically occupied by blacks, left to seek opportunities promised by civil rights legislation. They did not create a society that has spent more money to lock up black kids than provide them with decent education. They had no part in crafting a world where a career of selling drugs seems more feasible than going to college or starting legitimate businesses.
The protesters today are the modern day reflection of a proud, resilient and ever-determined legacy of true justice and equality. It wasn’t just black people involved back in the day nor should it be that way today. However, just as it was during the turn of the century, black people must lead; WE must decide and define the agenda and outcomes.

As it was during the turn of the century, black people must lead; WE must define the agenda and outcomes.

        If we are honest we will admit that Jews, East Indians, Middle Easterners, Asians or any other ethnicity does not rely on American systems (educational, economic or societal) to protect, educate or employ their youth. They create or subscribe to alternative systems that ensure their cultures and histories are intertwined with their economic and educational values. Their children, relatives and friends work in their businesses; they buy from one another and most live in the same neighborhoods.
        Building a billion dollar football stadium, investing in already rich developers or privatizing public education with taxpayer’s money won’t change the negative trajectory of poor, black neighborhoods. “Empowerment” should be the litmus test of any reform effort. We should always ask if new ideas or proposals really empower black people to make the changes necessary in their neighborhoods.

Building a billion dollar football stadium, investing in already rich developers or privatizing public education with taxpayer’s money won’t change the negative trajectory of poor, black neighborhoods.

        Of course, I speak from my own interest, research and efforts. I am the director of the Sweet Potato Project. Our mission is to capitalize off the national food movement to empower people and communities. For the past four years we’ve taught kids (ages 16-to 21) to plant produce on vacant city lots and how to turn their harvest into products that they sell for sustenance. But, the more empowering goal is to get blacks to secure some of the 8,000 + vacant lots in the city alone; grow food, make products and convince grocers, restaurants, public institutions and consumers to support a North St. Louis food hub.


The more empowering goal is to get blacks to secure some of the 8,000 + vacant lots; grow food, make products and convince grocers, restaurants, public institutions and consumers to support a North St. Louis food hub.

        This is how you give people a vested interest in reclaiming and revitalizing neighborhoods. This is how you create immediate jobs and stimulate food-related small business growth like bakeries, coffee shops, fresh food grocers and trucking companies in long-neglected neighborhoods. 
        This is not the only way but it’s a powerful way to start connecting influential people, politicians, corporations and a diverse collective that sincerely believes the best way to save black neighborhoods is to empower black people.
         Again, maybe it’s just me, but I don’t believe we have the luxury of relying on broken systems or those who contributed to the brokenness. We-the caring and connected-must insist that change come from inside out, not the other way around.  Whites who actually know black people; who aren’t afraid of black neighborhoods; who really believe that the huge man-made disparities have rendered black lives meaningless; who understand that culture and ownership are important parts of holistic change can’t wait any longer.

I don’t believe we have the luxury of relying on broken systems or those who contributed to the brokenness. We-the caring and connected-must insist that change come from inside out, not the other way around.  

Back in his day, Dr. King warned that it was not the time to be cowardly; political, popular or polite. It was the time to be “right.” That mandate has not changed. The young protesters have thrown down the gauntlet of resistance and are demanding what’s “right.” We mustn’t miss the grand opportunity the victims of our apathy have given us. Now is the time to honor and build upon their courage.

        This is our test. This is our moment.  This is why we cannot wait. 



Monday, August 10, 2015

Hope & Hopelessness

This is my only son, Sylvester Thomas Brown III. We call him "Tye." He just turned thirty. It's a shame but I worry about him driving at night. You see, like Mike Brown, he's a big dude. I worry that a policeman might shoot a stereotype. While I battle with hopelessness, he writes of hope. Check it out: 



Hope

I was taught at an age near my earliest days

That I was less than the rest because of my ebony shade

Targeted, at the heart of it its simple & plain

I'd have to fight to live a life less than others have gained

These are different kinds of times deadly to all those at play

But we've got a different set of rules you don't hear what we say

We say we're trapped in a machine designed to keep us at bay

And all you silly fools can say is that we're blinded by rage

But how can you relate?

You can't fathom our faction? You don't eat the free lunch we eat or endure our actions

You don't go to schools with metal detectors or pee in decrepit bathrooms, like us

Yet you've got the nerve to tell me "be calm" while you haul off and lash us

Resist arrest and risk death is an acceptable casm?

Yet you target us, arrest us, and take our money and scatter.

We're supposed to be OK with this and pretend we still matter?

And the minute we show protest you shoot tear gas at our asses?

What are we worth to you?

What miracle will it take to get you to embrace the fact that you're hurting you

What more can we give back?  What do we have to do to get you stop slaughtering our youth?

Treat our wounds

Walk in our shoes and see why we choose to fear who's sworn to protect and serve

To Feel so scared when a siren blurs

To feel so hopeless in a world of hope

To suppress your your gifts & just learn to coast

I was raised on a plane of confusion and hate it's pillars made of jealousy it's beams of distaste

I was molded by the cold that would darken your soul

Yet still i stand before you with a sliver of hope

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Let Them Lead: Please support the Sweet Potato Project



2015 has been a challenging, yet rewarding, year for the Sweet Potato Project. So far, we've only raised about 20% of our projected budget. The board and I made the decision to cut back on recruiting new students and instead focus on our veteran students and a couple new recruits. This decision has allowed us to prepare about 15 kids to be community leaders and land-owners. By the end of August, we will have a crack team of youth prepared to harvest sweet potatoes grown on various "partner gardens," make sales presentations to bakeries, stores and individuals, meet and deliver orders and serve as mentors to the 2016 youth. 

As in 2014, the program will operate year-round. After August, we will return to our community focus on land-ownership and massive food production on vacant lots throughout the region. Today, we have a buyer-St. Louis University-who will purchase all the sweet potatoes we harvest this fall. 

By the end of the year, we hope to have a large collection of student and adult land-owners who will join our efforts to create a food hub (community farms and farmer's markets, etc.). Next year, we hope to approach other buyers ( grocers, restaurants, bakeries, schools, etc.) who will commit to buy fresh food and quality food-based products out of North St. Louis.

What follows is a photo-essay that details how we used the summer to prepare the leaders of tomorrow. The vision begins today but we need your support. Your donations will help us complete another successful summer program and operate effectively throughout the fall, winter and spring. 
Please support the Sweet Potato Project by making a donation (click here) today. 
Thanking you in advance, Sylvester Brown, Jr. / Director  


Students building raised beds at the Ville Orchid

Students planting at the Ville Orchid

Students pose with the owners of Tillie's Corner, one of our partner gardens

Planting at a plot donated by the Missouri Botanical Garden

MoBot's Executive Director, Peter Wyse-Jackson announcing SPP plot at the garden

Students present "Dream Boards," a visual representation of their hopes, dreams and wishes for the future
 
Visit to Ranken Technical School
Instructor talking about hands-on skills taught at Ranken
Ranken Technical School
Visit with entrepreneur, Sterling Moody, at Supreme Car Wash in North St. Louis
Sterling Moody sharing plans with students for a grocery store in East St. Louis
NEIGHBORHOOD WALKS
Our students went on several "Neighborhood Walks" this summer. With note books in hand, they are instructed to write down what they see in various areas. After the walks we discuss the "positives & negatives" of each community and how we can help North St. Louis become just as vibrant as other areas in the region.

Walking in the Natural Bridge & Newstead area
Visit to strip mall on Natural Bridge in North St. Louis
Visit to Scooter's Snacks & More on Natural Bridge Rd.

Visit to South Grand business district
Mo Costello, owner of Mokebe's Coffee talks business with our students

With Jessie Mueller, one of the owners of RISE coffee in the Grove
\
At City Greens in the Grove area
Learning to cook in one of SLU's industrial kitchens


Students visit the Creative Exchange Laboratory

Students discuss designing the future home of the Sweet Potato Project


Rudimentary architectural rendering of the future SPP building

On the second visit to CEL, students made clay models of their designs 



                                                                      PLEASE MAKE A DONATION TODAY:

Thursday, June 25, 2015

When God Laughs…


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


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


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