Monday, January 18, 2016


Tonight, I will graciously accept the 2016 Rosa L. Parks award for your meritorious service to the St. Louis community. I was selected to receive this by the Washington University Martin Luther King Jr. Commemoration Committee. Firstly, I am honored to be included among notable St. Louisans such as Margaret Bush Wilson, Chancellor Emeritus William Danforth, Malik & DeBorah Ahmed, Professor Shanti Parikh, Judge Jimmie Edwards, Ron Himes, Jamala Rogers and Norman R. Seay.

Secondly, the award, serves as a validation of sorts. As I’ve mentioned several times, 2015 was the hardest year to date for the Sweet Potato Project, the nonprofit I co-founded in 2012. It was a year of limited donations that rocked me to the core, spiritually and financially. Yes, we made it through the year but, in the eye of the storm, my sense of self esteem and self worth was under attack. That persistent, tiny little voice in my head questioned the viability of our grassroots effort and my qualifications and ability to really enact, sustainable change with youth and adults in low-income neighborhoods.
You see, I’m an ordinary Joe with no real political or influential connections. I’m a high school dropout who was blessed by dozens of benevolent people who, from my youth, recognized my gifts and walked me to opportunity. Receiving the Rosa L. Parks award reminds me that ordinary people can make a difference. Rosa Parks was a seamstress; an extraordinary ordinary woman who simply refused to give up her seat on a segregated bus. Because of her selfless act, a young Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. rose to prominence and history was indeed changed forever.
Receiving the award on the day set aside to recognize King’s birth is apropos for me as well. It reminds me of the icon’s beliefs before he was assassinated. It speaks to “other the dream” that’s not discussed much.  During this time, we’re often reminded of that one line from that one speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963:
"I have a dream that one day my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."
It was a beautiful sentence and a wonderful speech but as writer Chauncy DeVega highlighted last year in the Daily Kos, Dr. King has been homogenized and sterilized: “While Dr. King is praised as American royalty in post civil rights era America, he has been robbed of all of his radicalism, truth-telling, and criticism of white supremacy and white privilege, the latter constituting a deep existential and philosophical rot in the heart of the American political and civic project.”

“While Dr. King is praised as American royalty in post civil rights era America, he has been robbed of all of his radicalism, truth-telling, and criticism of white supremacy and white privilege..."

Many believe the “Dream” speech summarized everything King lived, fought and died for. Some conservative commentators even use the “…not be judged by the color of their skin…” part to argue that King would be against programs like affirmative action or anything “special” done to address historic racial wrongs committed against black people. It’s a direct contradiction of what King actually said: "A society that has done something special against the Negro for hundreds of years must now do something special for the Negro."
King was no pie-in-the-sky dreamer, he was some 40 years ahead of today’s polling data that suggests most whites believe racism has died and there’s no need for government programs aimed at specifically helping black people. This is why King said: “Whenever the issue of compensatory treatment for the Negro is raised, some of our friends recoil in horror. The Negro should be granted equality, they agree; but he should ask nothing more. On the surface, this appears reasonable, but it is not realistic."
King was a radical realist who, in 1965, promoted a $50 billion employment proposal aimed at helping some "20,000,000 Negroes" do-for-self.  The idea was to invest government money in poor neighborhoods where blacks could rebuild metropolitan areas. King knew if blacks had the resources, they would do what they were forced to do during Reconstruction and Jim Crow eras when they had no choice but build their own businesses, schools and depend on themselves for economic survival.
When interviewed by writer Alex Haley about the proposal, King insisted the $50 billion investment would persuade Blacks to stay in their own neighborhoods. This is important because it contradicts the idea of a colorblind Mecca that’s promoted today in his name. King emphasized the need for blacks to have, maintain and sustain their own neighborhoods, protect their own culture and build their own businesses within their own communities.
Dr. King’s version of economic advancement differed from the welfare and entitlement programs that fully came into play after his death. With the promise of economic, educational and social advancement through integration, many African Americans abandoned the neighborhoods, businesses and schools they had enjoyed or created when they had no choice but live and work amongst themselves.
The beauty of King’s plan was the potential it held to empower ordinary, people within their own neighborhoods. Now, more than ever our times call for a re-visitation of the real King. It’s been 159 years since the Supreme Court ruled that blacks had no rights which whites had to recognize with the Dred Scott decision. Today, with largely unchecked police killings of unarmed black men, boys and women; with the majority of whites believing that they are the most discriminated ethnic group in America; with political antagonists stoking the flames of racial unrest; with local civic and political leaders placing a higher priority on a billion dollar football stadium than the hugely disproportionate rates of crime, poverty, joblessness and diseases impacting its poorest wards and neighborhoods-it’s time to empower the extraordinary ordinary.
My years of researching, writing, preaching and community activism have helped me arrive at the conclusion that the only salvation for black people is to depend less on government and corporate largess or the benevolence of well-meaning whites and go about the business of creating systems (educational, economic and criminal justice) that we control and sustain.
I’m an ordinary guy with an extraordinary program, the Sweet Potato Project. It’s not the way but it is a start at empowering our youth and the extraordinary ordinary among us. The strength of our program is in its simplicity: Gain ownership of the 10,000 vacant lots in the city; educate kids and adults in growing fresh food; create a line of food and products from the produce grown in North St. Louis; reach out to a diverse collective of coffee shops, bakers, restaurants, major grocers and institutions (schools, hospitals, prisons) and convince them to buy produce and products from landowners in North St. Louis. Again, it’s not an all-out panacea but it empowers economically-invested people to secure land, pool their resources, grow mass quantities of food and create small, spin-off businesses (trucking, security, restaurants, entertainment venues, etc) in their own neighborhoods.
Like Dr. King, I realize that trying to empower black people will be an arduous task. But, today, I feel empowered and on track. Today, that tiny little voice of indecision is quiet. Today, I feel somewhat validated for surviving the rough waves of 2015. Today, I am reminded of Rosa L. Parks and the power and potential of the extraordinary, ordinary.   

Tuesday, December 15, 2015


These are the times in which a genius would wish to live. It is not in the still calm of life, or the repose of a pacific station, that great characters are formed. The habits of a vigorous mind are formed in contending with difficulties. Great necessities call out great virtues. When a mind is raised, and animated by scenes that engage the heart, then those qualities which would otherwise lay dormant, wake into life and form the character of the hero and the statesman. -- Abigail Adams 


I saved the quote above from Abigail Adams, wife of President John Adams, years ago. Today, however, it strikes a powerful chord. We are indeed living in tumultuous times; times of fear and apathy; of slick villains and burgeoning heroes…a time when the gauntlet of hatred, reinforced by 21st Century propaganda, woos the fearful but ignites courageous opposition. 

Mrs. Adams’ words resonate because bizarre, “animated scenes” engage the heart, elevate the minds and form the character of true statesmen. While a frightening number of sheep respond positively to a front-running, megalomaniac’s call to build walls based on racial and religious biases, a long-dormant giant rises to shout: “Hell No!” 

It’s reassuring that, once again, the call for conscious and compassion is emanating from the minds, voices and actions of untarnished young people. We live in a time where politicians and police have manufactured narratives that justify the inexcusable shootings of mostly unarmed black boys and men. Apathy swells despite the litany of videos depicting lives snuffed out within seconds without fear of retribution. With Nazi-like disinformation "pro-police" forces rely on stereotypes and the woes of the meek-minded to blunt a basic demand for accountability. Still, from the hallowed halls of academia to gritty, ghetto streets of urbana, a chorus of young voices insist “Black Lives Matter”…too! 

We live in a time where, once again, millions have retreated to that ugly place where acts of terrorism urges them to shred the tenants of our Constitution. Today 1.5 billion Muslims worldwide are ostracized by the acts of a few. This while believers of “Christianity” and the Confederate flag escape typecasting. Melanin-deficient malcontents, armed with government-sanctioned automatic weapons, can shoot up movie theaters, schools and clinics yet the media is still hesitant to apply the “terrorist” label upon them. 

Thankfully, the laureates, singers, rappers and spoken word aficionados offer voices of reason and resistance in the midst of heated hysteria. They relentlessly remind us we've traveled this dangerous, divisive path before. It was the state of race-based madness that sparked riots in the early 1900s when thousands of blacks migrating from the south lost their lives. It was an environment of unfettered fear that led to the deportation of immigrant and naturalized American Mexican citizens in the 1930s and the internment of Japanese Americans in the 1940s. It was the primitive quest for revenge, emboldened by presidential cowboy swagger in 2003 that instigated the bombing of an entire country-which had nothing to do with the downing of New York’s Twin Towers. 

We live in a time when pandering politicians suckling at the teat of the almighty One-Percent have the power to dictate priorities and manipulate the media’s agenda. Ours is a rich country that's able to ignore the poor and the disproportionate mass incarceration of impoverished people of color. We are a society fueled by corporate greed and warmongering politicos. They arrogantly pontificate under the simplistic notion that God loves America more than any other country and sanctions our atrocities at home and abroad. 

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a real life martyr, urged us to live lives that matter. Shortly before his assassination, in a soul-stirring 1967 sermon at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, King said we aren’t fit to live, if we haven’t found something “so dear and so precious” to die for. 

“You died when you refused to stand up for right, you died when you refused to stand up for truth, you died when you refused to stand up for justice,” King preached. 

Let us not die a metaphoric, unrighteous death. Yes, there is a measure of comfort in Abigail Adams words but we cannot rest on the laurels that people of “great character” with “great virtues” will rise up and counter the fermenting insanity in our country. 

As the year ends on another racial and religious divisive note, let us answer that clarion call to stand up. In these times of great necessity, let us stand up for our children; let us stand for truth and justice but most of all, let us stand for what Dr. King declared “so dear and so precious...”  Let us stand up for what’s right.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Ben Carson (Gulp) Spoke the Truth…

I have a feeling I’m going to regret writing this but, I actually agree with a statement retired neurosurgeon and current GOP candidate for president, Ben Carson, made in late September.  While speaking to a small group of black leaders and activists, Carson said blacks can leverage more power through their bank accounts than by putting their “fist in the air.”

Let’s be clear, I’m no Carson supporter. As Goldie Taylor with the Daily Beast noted, I’m among that group of blacks who find the Republican “brand” and many of its platforms “toxic” and “antagonistic.” Besides, the brilliant surgeon has said quite a few not-so-brilliant things like comparing Obamacare to slavery; saying Jews with guns could have prevented the Holocaust and Muslims should be disqualified from seeking the presidency. Pretty wacky stuff, however, when it comes to the empowerment of black people, Carson’s on point.  No matter what happens in politics, through legislation or the courageous acts of diverse, engaged and benevolent people, its incumbent upon black folk to adopt and pursue a “do-for-self” agenda for the survival and positive advancement of our young, our neighborhoods and our futures.
Carson was right when he told black leaders; “Jewish America understands it. Korean America understands it. Black America, if they could understand it, they could blow everybody else out of the water.”
The “IT” is economic empowerment and no one can gift that to black people. We have to understand-like every other hyphenated American group-Jewish-Americans, Italian-Americans, Asian-Americans, Arab-Americans, etc., that we must build our own systems within established systems for our collective survival. Other ethnicities, hesitant to solely rely on government structures, build and support their own educational, business and political “systems.” They make sure that their culture, history and unique interests are intertwined with their businesses, politics and children’s education. They work to ensure self-reliance and economic, social and religious independence.
From the days of slavery, throughout the Jim Crow era and into early 1970s, blacks had no choice but challenge a system that purposely excluded them. Integration and equality was the rallying cry for “freedom.” Prior to the passage of landmark civil rights legislation, however, blacks had no choice but do-for-self. As a result, they established their own educational systems, political self-interest groups and businesses within the communities where they were legally or forcefully restricted. Unfortunately, when “opportunity” was defined by the privilege to live in white neighborhoods, attend white schools or work for white-owned businesses, many blacks abandoned their neighborhoods and the businesses that sustained and protected them for decades.
Back in August, in preparation for a public library discussion on “Racial Justice in a Post-Ferguson World,” I wrote an essay titled Economic Justice: The Missing Piece in Achieving RacialJustice.” The gist of the piece was to show how so-called remedies for blacks oftentimes served systems created to benefit whites; School districts profited from busing poor, black city kids to white suburban schools; Affirmative Action benefits mostly white women; entitlements and food stamps created new revenue streams for major white-owned grocers and retailers and on and on.
We cannot blame ourselves for having to fight systems established on the artificial premise of white superiority but, at some point, we have to realize the damage in solely relying on them to propel our collective interests. One of the biggest tragedies of Obama’s legacy is that black leaders failed to dissect his initiatives, develop and articulate an agenda of self-sufficiency backed by federal assistance. I know it may sound hypocritical but the operative words are “backed” or supported; efforts that lead to self-sufficient black communities that are not solely reliant on government support.
For example, the program I co-founded in 2012, the Sweet Potato Project, was inspired in part by a federal proposal. In 2010, the Obama Administration announced the $400million Healthy Food Financing Initiative, aimed at eliminating “food deserts” and enticing food retailers into business partnerships with under-served urban and rural communities. Back then, as today, I see the “locally-grown food” movement as a viable way to empower low-income communities for the long term. We provide “at-risk” teens with a summer job to grow food on vacant lots. We teach them how to package, market and sell produce and food products. 
Why not expand the concept? We all eat, right? Why not get vacant land into the hands of the impoverished and have them grow healthy food that can be purchased by major grocers? Why not have North St. Louis landowners grow food that can be sold at farmers markets and turned into a product line of quality food products that any and everyone can purchase? It’s basic, sustainable; good for troubled neighborhoods and can spin off into dozens of other housing and business ventures.

 Carson insists that he’s not trying to get rid of “safety net programs” but create environments where entitlement programs won’t be needed. Creating mechanisms that help people rise out of states of “dependency” is the goal, the good doctor maintains. It's not that I doubt his motives; it’s that I don’t trust his affiliation with a Party known for its stubborn reliance on negative stereotypes to dismantle such programs.  
Maybe we have traveled a path outside our control to get to this point, but the fact remains that we have turned our neighborhoods and our children over to broken systems-educational, political and economic-that were not designed for our collective uplift. Challenge injustice-yes; Raise your fists; raise your voices-yes! But we must also raise our awareness to match modern day realities. Most whites believe that we’ve overcome racism and as a recent poll indicated, the majority believes they are the victims of discrimination.   
There will be no political knight in shining armor; there will be no groundswell of liberal “saviors” who will carve out a path of self-sufficiency for black people. In a way, we have to go back to go forward. We have to re-adopt the mindset of “do-for-self” with as much help as possible. It’s not radical or revolutionary. As Carson reminded us; it’s what every other ethnicity deems necessary. 

Sylvester Brown, Jr. is a former columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and current director of the Sweet Potato Project, a St. Louis initiative that teaches entrepreneurial skills to urban youth.    

Economic Justice: The Missing Piece in Achieving Racial Justice

by Sylvester Brown, Jr.
Originally published in "Check it Out" by the St. Louis Public Library's Blog

On September 9th, the Central Library hosted a panel discussion on “Racial Justice in a Post-Ferguson World.” This essay was written in an anticipation of that event

Aug. 31, 2015 

I’m looking forward to what my fellow panelists will say, but I welcome the opportunity to discuss a topic that’s been heavy on my mind. You see, my biggest fear is that remedies to racial injustice in 2015 won’t be much different than those offered more than 50 years ago. We will probably discuss ideas already out there, such as municipalities that target poor blacks for monetary gain, police training and accountability, jobs for adults and black youth, and creating more charter schools. However, I feel that very few of these reform efforts by, no doubt, well-meaning people will address what I deem the real remedy to injustice: economic empowerment.
Centuries of societal and institutionalized racism were the targets of change back in the day. However, the onus for “justice” was placed on the shoulders of white people, some who actually benefited economically. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 allowed blacks access to restaurants, theaters, sports arenas, and hotels. But that also meant whites had new, untapped revenue streams. Public housing programs were a huge boon for white construction workers. Government entitlement programs, by sheer numbers alone, helped more poor whites than poor blacks. Additionally, it provided more customers every month for white-owned grocers.
Due to the inane belief that black kids would learn better if they only attended schools with white kids, forced busing was enacted across the country. Underfunded public schools suffered as taxpayer dollars were diverted to white, mostly suburban schools. Lastly, according to the United States Labor Department, white women (ergo white families) have been the primary beneficiaries of affirmative action programs.
Let’s be clear, as I’m not talking about reparations for past racial atrocities. That idea was declared dead-on-arrival decades ago. Many liberals and conservatives alike have a particular section of Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech memorized. Reaching a form of racial utopia together is more palatable than actually giving black people money to help themselves. King spoke to this attitude in 1963: “Whenever the issue of compensatory treatment for the Negro is raised, some of our friends recoil in horror. The Negro should be granted equality, they agree; but he should ask nothing more.”
How do we bring about “racial justice in a post-Ferguson world?” I’m looking forward to the upcoming panel discussion. Personally, I want to elaborate on my staunch belief that there will be no “racial justice” in the region until we first discuss unique and collaborative ways to empower black folk-young and older-to rise above historic economic injustice.
I contend that asking more, demanding “economic justice,” is the major force to empower black people. This too is based on the words of Dr. King. In a 1965 Playboy magazine interview with legendary writer, Alex Haley, King talked about a $50 billion government employment program that would help some “20,000,000 Negroes” and other poor Americans. Since most blacks live in metropolitan areas, King theorized that a massive, dignified effort to help black people rebuild disadvantaged areas of the country would lead to “a spectacular decline in school dropouts, family breakups, crime rates, illegitimacy, swollen relief rolls, rioting, and other social evils.”
It’s important to note that King said his idea would ensure “Negroes” would stay and rebuild their own neighborhoods. In 50-year retrospective, we now understand that passage of landmark Civil Rights legislation actually led to blacks abandoning their neighborhoods. Whether they were shoved out due to redevelopment or left willingly seeking opportunities in virgin territories, “white flight” of residents and business-owners guaranteed that unwelcomed blacks would be locked in pockets of poverty throughout the St. Louis region.
As political and civic leaders talk of reform in a post-Ferguson world, they are also seeking billions in taxpayer money to build a new football stadium, help an already rich developer renovate North St. Louis, and entice more big businesses into the region. These aren’t necessarily bad ideas, but it’s a pretty sure bet that whites will once again gain economically, and the trickle down effects of their booty won’t empower poor blacks in the region.
Sylvester Brown, Jr. is a former columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and current director of the Sweet Potato Project, a St. Louis initiative that teaches entrepreneurial skills to urban youth.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

We Are Not Alone

           Many thanks to the Incarnate Word Foundation and PolicyLink, the national research and action institute dedicated to advancing economic and social equity throughout the country. Thanks to these two agencies, about 20 of us St. Louis nonprofit heads attended PolicyLink’s “Equity Summit” in Los Angeles, CA last week. 
For me, a life-long St. Louisan fed up with the seeming disconcert between powerful city leaders and the overwhelming health and economic disparities among the city’s poor and minorities, it was empowering. Like me, I’m certain other delegation members suffer from fund-raising fatigue and the sense that our missions are not at the top of regional leader’s priority lists. “Equity Summit 2015: All In for Inclusion, Justice & Prosperity” was a reminder that we are not alone.
          PolicyLink, founded in 1999 by Angela Glover Blackwell, focuses on policies affecting low-income communities and communities of color. Its guiding principle, EQUITY, is defined as “just and fair inclusion into a society in which all can participate, prosper, and reach their full potential.” It was really cool spending a few days in sunny California surrounded by 3,000 leaders, advocates and “equity stakeholders” working to enact this powerful principle. Through a series of mobile workshops, plenary sessions and presentations we were given cutting-edge strategies to help us organize, communicate, advocate and, yes, demand real and lasting change.

click video

         I needed the boost the summit provided as it stressed our individual roles in America’s “transformational change.” There are literally thousands of us nudging the country toward racial and economic justice, ending police brutality, demanding workers’ rights and addressing widening income inequality.  In a real sense, we’re prepping the nation for its future. By 2044, people of color will be the majority population in the United States. This nation will never live up to its full potential until leaders start thinking about  prosperity, education, the broken justice system, and just and fair inclusion for minorities in transportation, health and jobs. 
           The Obama administration chose the Equity Summit to announce “Performance Partnership Pilots for Disconnected Youth (P3). It’s a new program aimed at helping leaders on local levels better leverage Federal funds to help “disconnected” youth in educational, employment, and other key outcomes. The pilot program was announced in conjunction with PolicyLink's new “All-In Cities” initiative, designed to empower city officials, community advocates, and other civic leaders with policy ideas, data, and hands-on assistance to advance racial economic inclusion and economic growth. 
       “The initiative aims to fundamentally change the economy in ways that expand participation, opportunity, and power for communities of color, and to accelerate economic growth in cities, regions and the nation,” PolicyLink founder, Angela Glover Blackwell, wrote recently. “To accomplish this, we must disrupt the structures, systems and policies that have perpetuated racial inequities and uneven growth in cities.”
        I thought of the Ferguson Commission’s report calling for “equity” as Glover Blackwell gave examples of “equity-driven development.” It’s the construction of a $2.4 billion light rail line in Los Angeles that requires 40 percent (of the estimated 23,000 construction jobs) go to low- to moderate-income neighborhood residents, with 10 percent of those jobs targeted at “disadvantaged” workers such as veterans, the long-term unemployed, and formerly incarcerated people. It’s the “Inclusive Startup Fund” enacted in Portland, which will provides capital, mentoring, and business advising to startups founded by underrepresented groups. These are just two examples of efforts aimed at dismantling barriers to employment; linking the unemployed to good-paying jobs with dignity by building vital infrastructure in low-income neighborhoods.
        I don’t know if it was the Incarnate Word Foundation’s intent but the “we are not alone” message was reinforced for me as part of the St. Louis delegation. Rarely have I had the chance to be in one place at the same time with folks like Judge Jimmy Edwards founder of Innovative Concept Academy, Molly Rockamann head of EarthDance Farms, Jeremy Goss, of MetroMarket, Gibron Jones Burchett, founder of HOSCO Foods LLC and Aldermen Antonio French and Megan-Ellyia Green.
        Each of us in our own way are “equity stakeholders.” Perhaps, together we can pursue funding, challenge stagnant policies and use data and best practices to further our missions and get the higher on regional leader’s priority lists.
          This and more is what I gleaned from the three days I spent at PolicyLink’s Equity Summit 2015. The thought that I am among legions engaged in the fight for true equity is an empowering feeling. For this and more, I am truly grateful to those who made the experience possible. 
                                                                                                                        – Sincerely, Sylvester