Wednesday, January 5, 2011

My recent commentary on visonary development in St. Louis

St. Louis needs to embrace the innovation in its midst
by Sylvester Brown
for The St. Louis American

Thursday, December 30, 2010

I am grateful to The St. Louis American for helping me stay in touch with readers I’ve earned since starting Take Five Magazine in 1987. For the past two years, I’ve been working with authors outside St. Louis and on issues of national significance. But I miss engaging with locals. Although some readers disagreed with me, most supported my efforts to confront powerbrokers and help our region evolve to a more racially inclusive place.

Termination from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 2009 was really liberation for me. My uncompromising belief that reporters should use their platforms to spark change – not just report the negatives – had been compromised. In the struggle to remain relevant among red-state readers, Post managers discouraged advocacy for the disenfranchised.

In truth, the newspaper is a reflection of our region. A glance at the Post-Dispatch’s roster of writers and editors indicates its disregard for diversity. The newspaper, like St. Louis, undervalues the potential of its minority populace. Therefore, it is an enabler of a sedate and polarized region’s continued social and economic devolution.

The Post recently published an insightful series on the region’s failure to compete with other metropolitan cities. Among many topics, it discussed our shrinking population, the exodus of innovative minds, our inability to grow small businesses and the region’s stubborn reliance on big development projects as panacea for job growth and city revenue.

According to the series, just 4 percent of the area’s residents are foreign-born, which is well below the national average of 12.5 percent. I take no issue with attracting more foreign-born immigrants or supporting their entrepreneurial efforts. Yet, I noticed there was no call to support or collaborate with the majority black populace in St. Louis – those who have survived centuries of denial and still struggle in long-deprived neighborhoods.

Lately, I’ve been researching efforts to establish vibrant, self-sustaining urban areas. The potential is there, but partisan politics, nasty, racial rhetoric, division and growing voter apathy make the “change” I imagined on the national scene seem like a na├»ve fantasy.

Surprisingly, I found inspiration on the local front. It was a story about a new collaborative effort, YOURS Market in Baden. Much more than a grocery store, founders want to operate an urban farm, an educational center and offer income-generating alternatives that battle malnutrition, obesity, drugs, crime and joblessness.

This embryonic project summarizes the possibilities of regional – if not national –reform. In Pennsylvania, a $30 million state investment resulted in the creation of 83 urban markets, some offering locally grown produce. The effort provided healthy food for more than 400,000 people and created about 5,000 jobs in underserved communities.

Imagine massive urban gardens all over St. Louis supplying healthy food to grocers, public schools and agencies within areas starved for nutrition and opportunity.

Think about educational centers aligned with the enterprises, where at-risk youth and newly released offenders earn while they learn. What if there were a manufacturing plant that mass-produced home-grown food products and other items? Imagine concerned individuals buying products that create jobs, reduce crime and rebuild communities.

Nobel Prize-winning author Muhammad Yunus introduced a concept called “social business” – the creation of money-making enterprises designed to address social needs. St. Louis is besieged with social needs. Why not unleash innovative minds from the region’s prestigious universities on the task of creating social businesses in urban St. Louis?

Reportedly, a corporate heavyweight provided the seed money for the YOUR Market venture. This corporate/community alliance provides a viable detour from “big box” developments that isolate, ignore or relocate residents and do little to generate jobs.

We are vying for the privilege to host the 2012 Democratic National Convention. If we get the nod – and even if we don’t – imagine President Obama, on national TV, congratulating St. Louis for developing a viable template for urban renewal.
Talk about an overnight image-changer.

This region needs to turn inward and utilize the innovation within its midst. Let’s step outside our comfort zones, back off the “big idea” and turn challenges into opportunities by investing in local efforts that spark economic engines in our urban core.

Early next year, I plan to start a web-based initiative with two simple but very powerful goals: to promote a collective vision of reform; and to provide the resources that will empower ordinary people to enact extraordinary change in troubled neighborhoods.

I know this city, and this city knows me. Why focus on a national agenda when the problems, partnerships and potential are right here? As the saying goes, “Home is where the heart is.” As it was with Take Five and the Post, I am eager to engage with locals and intent on helping our region evolve to a richly diverse and more inclusive place.

Sylvester Brown Jr. can be reached at sylvesterbj@gmail.com.

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