Thursday, September 11, 2014

No More Fergusons Part II: Through the Eyes of Our Kids

2014 Sweet Potato Project Class and staff after a visit with Chronicle Coffee owner. Jason Wilson
On Wednesday, August 9th, I stood in the audience of the William J. Harrison Education Center, beaming with pride as the Sweet Potato Project (SPP) students kicked off their end-of-summer event. One thought kept reverberating in my head as the teens talked, sang and spit rhymes about their new friendships, planting produce, making products, starting their own businesses and reclaiming communities:

End of summer celebratory event
“They get it!”

SPP has received the support, time and commitment from people of all races and faiths-whites, blacks, Christians, Jews, Muslims and more. We “get it,” too, because our students have cautiously allowed us into their fragile worlds. They've granted us the privilege to see their potential, fears and frustrations. We see how they've become a tighter, more conscientious and informed clique and the lessons we've shared this summer seems to have taken root.
LaTanya Reeves of Enterprise Bank & Trust oversaw our financial literacy courses. She arranged to have Tyler Sondag from SLU’s John Cook’s School of Business give the kids a basic course in business plan development. To my surprise, within a week, most got the essentials and a few came up with rudimentary but bold plans.
LaTanya Reeves
Tyler Sondag's Business Plan Class

Edie Adams, 18, was excited to share her idea about creating an inner-city real estate company that focused solely on securing vacant city lots that would be sold to individuals interested in redeveloping the land for farming and housing developments.
Michael Smith reading an ode to Mike Brown in class
Then there’s quirky but lovable Mike, 18, a kid who researched food companies to draft his business plan for the Sweet Potato Project. I won’t disclose 17-year-old Tytianna’s plan but I will say that this shy, withdrawn young lady came up with an idea that could very well revolutionize the multibillion dollar cell phone industry.    
Three days after our celebratory event, an unarmed teen, Michael Brown, 18, was shot dead by a Ferguson police officer and all hell broke loose. Unlike the media’s salacious focus on “looting and rioting” young people, we saw the catastrophic incident through the eyes of our students. 
Raymond Blanton

Raymond, 17, is a student who had no fear expressing unpopular opinions in class on topics such as sexual promiscuity, black-on-black crime, religion and respect for the law. This conservative-leaning kid exhibited disgust and hopelessness with “the system” after the Mike Brown shooting.

There are those who cling to the images of stealing or bottle-throwing black youth to justify the militarized assault on young protesters. I wish these callous commentators could meet Travion-a tall, dark-skinned, deadlock-wearing 19-year-old who has earned praise from our instructors and the business-owners we visited this summer. My heart dropped the day Travion told me:

“Mr. Brown, you’re the first person to tell me I’m smart.” 
Travion Johnson

About the third week of classes, Travion and his brothers, Antonio and Arthur became rather sullen. They were too playful, too distracted and sometimes disruptive. One day, one of our instructors, Muhammad Raqib, called the brothers out on their behavior.
  “Mr. Raqib, you don’t know what we’re going through!” Antonio shot back.
Antonio Johnson
He elaborated, telling the class how he and his brothers attended a party and, in the midst of the festivities, their uncle was stabbed in the neck by a female acquaintance. Antonio spoke of the helplessness he felt as he tried applied a towel to a wound that eventually robbed them of their beloved uncle.
You see, our kids grapple with death; navigate poverty, gangs, drug-related violence, public ridicule and racial mistrust. Yet, they remain hopeful, creative and open to the notion that they can make positive change in their neighborhoods.

DeVon "Lil' Usher" Hemphill
As I listened to the numerous "Mike Brown" songs that's been released, I thought of Devon, a kid we nicknamed “Lil’ Usher” because of his resemblance to the entertainer. Devon is just as comfortable crafting a beat as he is articulating ways to attract more youth and create jobs for his peers and siblings.

Marquita Williams
We've learned that "respect" is a big thing among our students. Marquita, 20, has been with us since 2012. She has the stage presence and media skill to articulate our mission on camera or in front of small and large groups. She has talent and value but when Marquita feels disrespected, she’ll dig her heels in and refuse to budge until she feels her voice has been heard.

Meet Nadia, 19-a fast-talking dreamer anxious to tackle the world. In class last year, Nadia talked about “the jump-out-boys”-plainclothes policemen, she said, who constantly harass her and her friends as they walk the streets or stand in front of their homes. The officers, she added, purposely try to provoke the youth with insults and racial expletives while rummaging through their pockets.
Nadia Epps

Thankfully, police brutality has been an ongoing discussion in our classes. To address the fears of our students, we've had high-ranking officers talk with them about effective ways to interact and resolve issues with police. It saddens me that most of what we've told them has been betrayed by police who see them as angry, violent stereotypes. We've worked with enough kids over the past three years to know that they’re no different from the young protesters in Ferguson.
The Sweet Potato Project’s basic mission is to bring “community” back to communities. We recruit “at-risk” teens, teach them how to grow food, harvest their yield, create food-based products and learn to be entrepreneurs in their own neighborhoods. We remind our youth that it is their responsibility to create positive change that will provide opportunities for their siblings, peers and parents.
However, telling them this is not enough. We have to build fertile environments for the seeds we’ve planted to flourish. Imagine teens and adults growing food together in St. Louis and in municipalities like Ferguson. Imagine these young, “urban pioneers” working side-by-side with community stakeholders building communities where everyone is personally, socially and economically vested.

Some of the students on last day of summer classes
I can go on and on about our other students-Tabby, Zavier, Nautica. Ranesha, Marissa, Dashia, Darryeon, Daja, Keon, Andivar, Maurice and the twins, Sherry & Terry. These are the faces I saw as police gassed, arrested and shot rubber bullets at protesters.
I’m always concerned about the period between the end of summer classes and the beginning our fall, winter and spring program. Raising money is a 24/7 challenge and I find myself fearing that we will lose kids within the fund-raising gap.

The Mike Brown travesty has convinced us at SPP that we’re on the right path. Getting our kids back to class, tending our gardens, harvesting and producing sweet potato-based products is our immediate directive. With your help perhaps we can go further. Perhaps we can keep our promise and help build a generation of youth who will be the stewards of a bold, new vision to reclaim and revitalize North St. Louis.

Click button to donate to the Sweet Potato Project

Monday, September 1, 2014

No More Fergusons: The SPP Approach

The Sweet Potato Project was created to tackle the root causes that tendered the explosion we’re witnessing in the City of Ferguson today.
Almost 50 years ago, with the passage of much-needed civil rights legislation, African Americans started leaving designated areas of St. Louis City where they had been legally contained since the early 1900s.  Working-class black families and entrepreneurs sought new opportunities in desegregated neighborhoods and companies. Of course, this “black flight” ignited “white flight” which in turn left black areas throughout the region void of opportunities and dominated by poverty, unemployment, crime and disproportionate incarceration.
Economic power, however, remained in the hands of whites, especially in St. Louis County. Other than what they witness on the nightly news or the Internet, many have no connection, no understanding or dealings with black people-particularly young black boys. Corporate, civic, education and government institutions, like police departments, remain quasi-segregated and controlled and dominated by whites. As the region grows with new developments, black neighborhoods still suffer from benign neglect. In a real sense, blacks are strangers in their own deprived neighborhoods. There is no respectful, racial collusion aimed at helping them create their own economically-vibrant communities.
For the past three years, I have served as the director of the Sweet Potato Project (SPP). The 60 or so youth we've recruited since 2012, have been told that they are “urban pioneers” who will show the region that we can save communities through a food-based movement. We recruit teens (ages 16-to-20) from some of the city’s poorest zip codes. They are paid during the summer to plant sweet potatoes on vacant lots. After nine weeks of training in marketing, product development, social media and more, they’re charged with turning their yield into products.

SPP partner garden in the 3300 block of Goodfellow
SPP plot at Missouri Botanical Garden
Summer sessions have ended. Right now, as usual, we’re focusing on raising funds to regroup so our students can tend our gardens, prepare for harvest, develop more food-based products, gain more sales training and get ready to sell their products.

Since the mid-August police shooting and ensuing protests, there have been dozens of “what’s next” public discussions. During these gatherings, they ask; “what can we do to avoid another Ferguson? What’s our first priority; policing the police, policy change, political overhaul or voter registration?"
These are indeed priorities but, I contend, that what we’re doing with our project on a micro-level, should be our very first collective, large-scale priority.
It’s a cliche but, “power only concedes to power.” Well, money is power. Sadly, politics and policy are shaped by the power of money. President Obama had to raise more than a billion dollars to be reelected; Mayor Francis Slay won another term largely due to his million dollar war chest. Since the slave era, our region has been in the control of a small, tight-knit group of rich and powerful white men who don’t necessarily see the value of investing in “people power.”
SPP’s goal is to flip that script. We secure vacant lots and teach young people how to grow food. We turn our produce into food-based products. After harvesting, we produce and sell our product-sweet potato cookies. Throughout the fall, winter and spring our students earn commissions on the products they sell.

SPP students studing economic dynamic of their neighborhoods
The Sweet Potato Project youth get it. They are invested in real, powerful community change. They understand that their neighborhoods, their peers and siblings will be trapped in poverty and wrapped in all its life-threatening tentacles unless they do something.

What if we dreamed bigger? What if we dreamed together?

According to a report by the Show Me Institute, there are 8,000 vacant lots in the city of St. Louis. What if “regular people” owned some of those lots? What if this collective grew and harvested food together? What if they were able to sell their yield to a community-owned food packaging and manufacturing plant in North St. Louis?
 What if major grocers, restaurants, schools and other city and state agencies committed to “buying locally-grown food” from the collective instead of depending on corporations for food that’s transported some 1,800 miles away? What if a national brand of food products out of North St. Louis was created and loyal consumers (locally, regionally and nationally) understood that their dollars were supplementing viable, self-sustainable neighborhoods? How many jobs and small businesses can we create in neglected conclaves based on this local food movement and the work of a diverse group of vested stakeholders?
This isn't pie-in-the-sky rhetoric either. Although most St. Louis leaders are stuck in the “one-powerful-idea” led by “one-powerful-developer” lane, food-based, community cooperatives are sweeping the country. Just look at Cleveland’s “Evergreen Cooperatives,” Brooklyn's Hattie Cartham Community Gardens, “Black Community Food Security Network” or Milwaukee’s “Growing Power, Inc.” These are just a few urban agricultural efforts aimed at creating sustainable, community food systems in disadvantaged neighborhoods.

St. Louis University's Fresh Gatherings Garden
The St. Louis region may not have the vision but has the resources. Community organizations like Better Family Life, the Greater Ville Collaborative, Beloved Streets, Beyond Housing, Sweet Sensations and others have tapped into the people power in our region. SPP has its sights on land along Martin Luther King Blvd and we've developed strategic partnerships with the likes of St. Louis University, the Creative Exchange Laboratory (CEL) and Lincoln University's Urban Impact Center. We have major sponsors like World Wide Technology and Aetna Insurance Company committed to helping us seed our vision in the Greater Ville area. I've even been contacted by a Ferguson official who has invited us to look at land in the city that may be suitable for urban farming.  With the help of SLU's Department of Nutrition and Dietetics under the leadership of Chef Steve Jenkins, we can now develop high-quality, nutritional food products  We're hoping to be adopted by a major food distributor in the region, to guide us through the food packaging and distribution processes.

Vision of a SPP community garden
We're fortunate to have designed a program that not only engages disadvantaged teens but cuts through stale, racial and economic barriers. We've been blessed with a diverse group of individuals, and leaders of political, educational and corporate institutions who've come aboard because our agenda is non-threatening and inclusive. It just makes good ole common sense and empowers anyone and everyone who can bring their unique skills to the table. Along the way, they have the opportunity to go beyond stereotypes. They meet with and engage urban youth, they learn about their experiences, challenges and dreams; they see black communities through new lenses and become vested stakeholders in powerful, regional change.

Our region simply has to break out of the segregated bubble we've endured for too long. I know it sounds strange, but the police shooting of a teen, the protests, the militarized police response and, yes, even the "looting," has ripped the scab off a centuries-old, festering sore in St. Louis. The eyes of the world are upon us and we have a valuable, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to really lead; to turn tragedy into triumph.  
Admittedly, I am a naive optimist. But I remain convinced that our program is on the right track to stemming other percolating explosions in our region. Maybe this time St. Louis can go beyond stereotyping, beyond indictments and beyond empty, emotional rhetoric. Maybe this time we can work our way toward developing a model that recognizes, nurtures and prepares youth to “be the change” we so desperately need. With your help, with your dedicated engagement and support, maybe this time we can create a template that empowers disadvantaged youth, adults and broken communities the world over.

Maybe, this time, St. Louis can confidently declare “No More Fergusons!” 

The Sweet Potato Project 
(click image below):
 the sweet potato project

Mission video 
(click image below)

(click image below)

Saturday, August 23, 2014

To Whom it May Concern...

To whom it may concern,

There is something weighing on my soul that’s been hard to put into words...until now.

You see, I've been stuck, paralyzed, disheartened, transported back to a time when “We shall Overcome”…"No Justice, No peace…” and “I am a Man…” were the pleas of “non-humans.”

A suppressed memory came back the other day. My father and I were walking on a downtown sidewalk. A white man came toward us and Sonny, my dad, stepped off the curb. No words were exchanged…but the look of shame in his eyes connected a son to the gut-wrenching story of a father born and broken in the Deep South.  

I’m angry at you for bringing that back. I’m hurt that you've reminded me that skin color is the equation of life or death. I’m saddened that my children and grandchildren will be burdened by the scars of our ancestors. You see, you may not realize it, but your ignorant, stupid, callous, inhumane, fucked up actions and reactions have set US ALL back decades.

How could you not feel? While gun smoke blended with afternoon air; while the echo of bullets rang through apartment hallways; while a mother screamed and dark, red blood slithered down the street like a newborn snake; while credits rolled on a life yet lived…

How could you not see that it was not the time for slathering dogs, M-16’s and red-faced orders to “BEHAVE?”

I write “to whom it may concern” because there’s no one person to blame. Honestly, I can’t say why an officer named Wilson decided to empty his gun into the body of an unarmed teen. And we will probably never know. A thick blue line of arrogance and brotherhood and superiority and hatred and FEAR blur and blunt the truth.

I do know that you had ONE, small, precious, irretrievable moment to make this almost right; to make the sting less agonizing; to leave dignity intact. You had an opening, an opportunity to say; “You are a mother; you are my neighbors, my friends…MY KIDS.”

But, no, Chief Jackson, you let it blow away like dandelions in a gusty, August wind. 

You and your comrades answered anger with armor; mourning with mounted weapons; tears with tear gas; swagger with SWAT teams; and fury with flash-bang grenades.  You seized the occasion to show off your new government-issued toys and brandish your old government-endorsed biases. You showed this smart-ass, uppity, young generation that they will never bring new meaning to the word…“NIGGA!”


You have betrayed our kids. You may see them as specters of your stereotypes; as pants-saggin’, hot-headed hoodlums; as pathetic piranhas devouring everything you deem “wholesome and dear”… but we made and molded them. We gave them poverty and Prada, Ghettos and Gucci; Hopelessness and HBO; We made the Walking Dead Expendable and told them to “Get Rich or Die Tryin’.”

We have sold them a big, hot, steaming bag of Americanized, homogenized horseshit and now…THEY KNOW IT!

We told them they can be whatever they want to be in this Great Land of ours; We told them they have the Constitutional right to peaceful protest; to vent out loud; to speak against wrong; to stand against injustice. We told them to “Trust Officer Friendly.”

We did not tell them that the boys we bred on the hot, dusty fields of Iraq and Afghanistan have returned with WAR seared into their psyches. We did not tell them that a bag of Skittles, a can of Arizona iced tea, a stolen pack of Cigarillos or simply walking on the sidewalk is the equivalent of bombs strapped to the bellies of the “ENEMY.”  We did not warn them that “BLACK” is the new code word for “TERRORIST” on American soil.

And don’t you dare be so smug; don’t let the darkness sooth you. For YOUR kids see YOU, too. Your kids have braved those lines. They've tasted your venom; witnessed your hypocrisy; been tased by your indifference and choked by your ambivalence. 

They've awakened from their social media haze to see monsters from history books smiling, sitting, rationalizing in their very own living rooms. With finger to lip, they are shushed, dismissed, told: “Hush…we’re listening to Rush.”

“To whom it may concern” is apropos…’cause, really, I don’t know. I speak not to one but many. I curse the addicted, the forgivers and enablers. I spit at an old evil…my father’s evil. I write to a mindset, an institution, a SYSTEM that should be long dead.  

I speak to RACISM, good ole “Uncle Ray.” I see his diseased, gnarly fingers, covering a wicked, defiant, smile of broken, yellow, razor-rat teeth.  A Southern pot belly stuffed with racial strife expands proudly, pushing red, white and blue suspenders beyond its elastic limit.

“Bring it!” “I will fucking kill you!"


“Write through it,” Maya would say…

...but the feelings are too strong; the list is too long: It’s the ugly and unkind, the Post and the posters and those who've lost their goddamn minds; it’s the One-Percenters, the perpetrators, the Po-Po, the President and the press with its shitty lies; it's the apologists, the procrastinators and people who've taken their eyes off the PRIZE.

“Write through it,” ghostly scribes say… there is still so much to learn…

So this is for you...

To whom it may concern....

Monday, August 18, 2014

My Apology to Black Leaders: It’s Not You; It’s Me

Photo from protest scene / August 14, 2014-SBJ
I owe an apology to local black leaders involved with the ongoing activities since the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown by a Ferguson Policeman.  When this tragedy jumped off, I responded with a bit of prose called “Now, you see me (see below).” The piece spoke to older generations and black leaders in general who are either drive-by motivators or those who have left black neighborhoods, like Ferguson, behind:

“Like absentee parents, you revisit the nightmare you abandoned to chase “the Dream.”  Where were you while poverty and unemployment mounted…while they packed the children of your parent’s parents in prisons, herded your kin into Gateway ghettos and stereotyped us all into irrelevance? Your impotent call for calm is too late, even though my blaze validates your worth.”

When asked about the essay during a KMOX Radio interview, I added that I’m waiting for “the best and the brightest” to return and commence with the hard work of saving youth, creating jobs and reclaiming and rebuilding communities.
Unbeknownst to me at the time, the comment didn't go over very well.
“You sounded like a white man,” a long-time acquaintance and member of the Nation of Islam told me when I visited the protest site on Thursday.
I’m not sure if legendary comedian/activist/health guru, Dick Gregory’s comments were related to my essay or not but during our brief discussion that day, he bluntly asked: “What are you doing?” I tried to hand him my card and explain that I had started a program, the Sweet Potato Project, aimed at teaching black youth to be entrepreneurs in their own neighborhoods, but Gregory just waved me off:
“Never heard of it!” he said before curtly walking away.

“You sounded like a white man...”

My good friend, entrepreneur Sterling Moody, who is well-connected with the well-connected, called to warn me: “Man, they’re pissed at you.”
I get it. Who am I to criticize well-meaning local and national black folk who are simply doing what they do best-which is to bring attention to crisesThe symbolic hands-up response to police brutality that’s been adopted internationally is simply brilliant. Although my frustrations weren't necessarily aimed at any specific individual, I can see how my comments could be deemed rude and dismissive.

Who am I to criticize well-meaning local and national black folk who are simply doing what they do best-which is to bring attention to crises?

Here’s the deal; it’s not you, black leaders; it’s me. I’m a journalistic dinosaur who’s been covering police brutality cases and the region’s reaction to them for more than 25 years. Metaphorically speaking; I've seen this movie too many times. As the publisher of a monthly magazine, my wife and I covered the 1997 adaptation where a gang of St. Louis Police officers severely beat Gregory Bell, a mentally retarded teen in his own home.  We explored the 1999 case of Julius Thurman, a young man who died from massive head injuries inflicted by police after they caught him burglarizing a pawnshop. Then there was the 2001 case where undercover drug officers fired 21 shots into the bodies of low-level drug dealers on a Jack-in-the-Box parking lot. In 2012 two St. Louis police officers shot a fleeing felon, Cary Ball, 21 times. Ball, who had led police on a car chase, did indeed have a gun but witnesses say he threw it aside and had surrendered before officers opened fire.
I guess I've become a curmudgeon who’s grown tired of writing about our collective negative condition and decided to do something about it. I believe that our salvation is in the hands of the young people we’re allowing to drop out of school and drop into nefarious lifestyles. We've watched our kids mercilessly herded into our nation’s prisons for decades. If we don't provide sustenance, employment and opportunities for disenfranchised youth, who will?
Don’t get me wrong, I recognize the power of celebrities and their ability to eloquently speak to our pain, draw crowds and amplify our frustrations. I’m particularly impressed with Missouri State Highway Patrol Capt. Ron Johnson. His actions and words have brought much-needed respect and humanity to atmospheres of disrespect and inhumanity. Yet, days after taking control, we still see armored trucks, canisters of tear gas hurled at crowds and aggressive police in military gear.
Johnson’s a good man but he’s a part of a system that limits his power. He can't oppose the governor’s curfew. He cannot repair the damage of city and county police forces that have failed to hire and/or promote officers of color, who are charged with maintaining order in majority black communities. He cannot undo the psychological damage of National Guard, Highway Patrol or militarized police personnel who have allowed “race” to blur their distinction between US citizens and foreign terrorists.

Don’t get me wrong, I recognize the power of celebrities and their ability to eloquently speak to our pain, draw crowds and amplify our frustrations.

So, forgive me dear leaders, I’m just looking for a different kind of leadership. I’m looking for a do-for-self, sustainable economic and social plan that will finally get us past generational, race-based poverty and immune to stubborn racial prejudice.
Since the protesters made national news, national leaders such as the Rev. Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson and Martin Luther King III have come to town. They've waxed poetically about “injustice” and demilitarizing the nation’s police forces but those issues were made glaringly important before they arrived by Brown's shooting, outraged protesters and organizations created to abolish harsh police tactics. 
Are they spokesmen or leaders? If the latter, where are they leading us?
Remember back in 2010 when Sharpton and PBS commentator Tavis Smiley almost came to blows over the issue of Obama mentioning a "black agenda"…or not? It was Sharpton who promised that he and his National Action Network (NAN) would hold the Administration accountable. He vowed to develop a real agenda for Black America. Well, that's been almost five years ago. Where is the agenda, Reverend? This is what I was looking for when you spoke at Greater Grace Church on Sunday.
We need leaders who can go beyond the simplistic demand that white people act right and black people vote more. For decades, we've had black aldermen, local, state and national legislators and now, we have a black president. But what good is all this if Obama can’t even speak to the disproportionate predicament of black people without being tagged a “racist?” With the poverty and unemployment rates among African Americans basically unchanged in 45 years, where is the incentive to invest more time, more energy or more hope into politics or politicians?

We need leaders who can go beyond the simplistic demand that white people act right and black people vote more. 

I've learned from the young people I work with these past three years. We can capture their imaginations with programs that address their immediate needs. Talk to them about your “Rebuild Ferguson” plan created to employ youth who'll restore damaged businesses and neighborhoods. Excite potential young entrepreneurs with a County-sponsored plan that will allow them to join the businesses along the ever-bustling Florissant strip in Ferguson and adjoining municipalities. How about designating land in the area where they can grow food that consumers, restaurants and grocers can purchase? These are immediate ways to reduce the tension, empower the disenfranchised and include them in the regional economic mainstream.
So again, I apologize. I’m a guy who’s grown tired of waiting for racism to die. I’m an old dude who’s come to the conclusion that it’s up to those of us who've lived long enough to create new, sustainable, alternative systems that will finally address the inadequacies of our institutionalized current systems.
Perhaps I’m just a killjoy or a black guy "who sounds like a white guy" (whatever that means). The death of Michael Brown and the ensuing protests have given us a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for real, significant long-lasting change. Tweeting, posting, posturing and pontificating black politicians and speakers is all well and good but we need more. We need a solution, we need final economic resolution...
We need a plan.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014