Saturday, February 19, 2011

Can we do something like this in St. Louis?

D-Town: African American Farmers, Food Security and Detroit

Source: Black Agenda Report

The Black metropolis of Detroit is, in many respects, a “food desert” where “both economic and physical barriers stand between people and their access to healthy and affordable foods.” But D-Town activists believe the people can grow and organize themselves out of the desert, through urban agriculture. “In the process of controlling the food supply, the farmers see themselves as developing self-reliance.”

“Detroit is the future for urban agriculture.”
D-Town: African American Farmers, Food Security and Detroit

by Monica M. White, Ph.D.

The Detroit Black Community Food Security Network (DBCFSN), started in 2006, is a non-profit grassroots community organization spearheaded by Malik Yakini, a long-time Black liberation activist, bookstore owner, and school administrator. Mr. Yakini called together a group of people who were interested in engaging in urban agriculture to “grasp larger control over the food system and to build self-reliance in our community” (personal communication). Organizationally, they wanted to address Detroit’s food insecurity on four levels; to create a city-wide food policy, to develop a food buying co op, to engage in youth education and to establish an urban farm. Since its inception, DBCFSN was instrumental in engineering a comprehensive food-security policy that would provide citizens with an “adequate amount of nutritious, culturally appropriate food at all times, from sources that are environmentally sound and just” (p.1). Not only was the food policy unanimously adopted by the Detroit City Council, they also agreed to create the Detroit Food Policy Council. They operate the U-Ujamaa Food Buying Co-op where members are able to purchase healthy foods, supplements and household items at discount prices. In addition, D-Town farm, developed as a critical project and began in the planting season of 2006, is located on two acres of city-owned land in Rouge Park, with the expansion of an additional five acres yet to be approved. D-Town farm “utilizes sustainable, earth-friendly food production techniques to produce thousands of pounds of high quality, fresh produce each year.”
Read the entire article here

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Urban grocers in distressed urban areas: Are we ready in St. Louis?

“We’re here to make sure that in America, where a child grows up doesn’t determine whether they have access to a better—healthier—future. By introducing powerful incentives for private investors to take a chance on projects – like a new, healthier grocery store – we can make that difference for America’s children, while creating new jobs and services in their communities.” -- Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner
Last year, the Obama Administration announced its $400 million Healthy Food Financing Initiative designed to bring grocery stores and other healthy food retailers to underserved urban and rural communities. The Departments of Treasury, Agriculture, and Health and Human Services have all partnered on the initiative. Obama's 2012 budget proposal has $310 million slated for the Healthy Food Financing Initiative with, according to the Washington-based think tank PolicyLink, "more flexibility given to USDA to use additional resources as needed -- to bring grocery stores and other healthy food retailers to underserved communities."

Is St. Louis taking advantage of this initiative?

As stated by White House officials; "Lack of healthy, affordable food options can lead to higher levels of obesity and other diet-related diseases, such as diabetes, heart disease, and cancer." St. Louis, like other hard-pressed urban areas has its share of low-income neighborhoods that lack healthy, affordable food options. These areas are known as “food deserts” were residents are typically served by fast food restaurants and convenience stores.

Last year, I attended meetings hosted by the Human Development Corporation where the policy was discussed. I learned that the Healthy Youth Partnership (HYP) was actively seeking to formulate a St. Louis Food Policy Council (FPC). The mission of the St. Louis Food Policy Council, according to HYP "is to promote a just, equitable and sustainable local food system."

The national program was modeled after the Pennsylvania Fresh Food Financing Initiative, which helped finance 83 supermarket projects in 34 Pennsylvania counties.

Are we ready in St. Louis? If not, we should be. And we should be working on it collectively with grassroots agencies at the table. 

The Treasury Department announced that it will support private sector financing of healthy foods options in distressed areas. I'm not sure how much progress St. Louis has made in taking advantage of this initiative. I believe the possibilities are momentous. Imagine urban gardens developed in tandem with urban grocers. Imagine inner-city jobs created to address inner-city challenges and social needs. If aligned with educational and prison recidivism programs, this initiative could be used to help educate children, employ newly released inmates and support other endeavors.

The possibilities are profound ... when we dream together.

Join the movement: 

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

We can reach black teens, but it will take some imagination

by Sylvester Brown, Jr.
Courtesy of the St. Louis 
January 11, 2009

* I wrote this column for the Post-Dispatch a bit more than a week before the inauguration of President Elect Barack Obama. I'm sharing it now because it underscores the mission of my current endeavor.

We can reach black teens, but it will take some imagination

This column is an invitation to imagine a totally revamped, radical approach to reach black teens — those who are killing and being killed.

It will take money, across-the-board commitments, perhaps new laws and the reversal of resources from prisons to people. We must also support and build on examples of what's already working.

Come, let us dream.

What if there were schools, working in conjunction with the juvenile courts system, designed to turn perceived problems into positives?

Consider this scenario: Jamil, 12, is a rock-headed youth. He's horrible at school, disrespectful with teachers and fights with his classmates. Jamil's peers consider him quite fearless. His "rep" is partly due to his older brothers, who are known neighborhood drug dealers.

Jamil commits crimes; let's say he's a repeated shoplifter. But instead of locking him up, the juvenile judge sends him to Urbana Academy (a school we'll make up for the purposes of our dream).

The new government-subsidized school is staffed with a healthy dose of black, no-nonsense male educators trained to educate and inspire troubled black youths.

Successful black entrepreneurs serve as mentors at the school. Millionaire rap artists, like Nelly, play a part, showing talented kids how to succeed. There's much to learn. After all, young black artists created rap and hip-hop, but very few dominate the business side of the multibillion-dollar industry.

At Urbana Academy, the curriculum is designed to connect black kids with what some consider "real life." The drug trade, for example, is an example of supply and demand. But rather than dealing drugs, the kids are steered to recognize the other demands, and needs, of their communities and shown how to generate capital — legally.

Specialists are trained to transform negative, aggressive behavior into entrepreneurial leadership skills. Like the nation's Junior Achievement programs, kids create urban corporations that promote and sell consumer
products in their own communities.

In our vision, the school is linked to St. Louis Urbana Inc., a nonprofit group that employs adults and folks once considered "unemployable." Factory workers create "Urbana" label products to be sold by the school. A crop of website developers, direct-marketing technicians and salesmen use innovative methods to promote and sell products.

The community is on board, eagerly buying Urbana products, like they do Girl Scout cookies. They know they're investing in the future of Urbana students.

In a society based on "stuff," Urbana Inc. offers salary-generating alternatives to drugs, unemployment and welfare. Even kids with good grades have the opportunity to earn weekend and after-school money with parental permission.

Now, Jamil's peers look up to him for different reasons. He's a savvy young salesman with his own cash. He's done so well at Urbana, school administrators awarded him a government-backed college scholarship to continue business studies.

Sound far-fetched?

Consider a real-life example: Homeboy Industries, a Los Angeles-based economic development program that creates niche merchandise and provides job training and work experience for at-risk youths, gang members and ex-offenders.

Also in real life, Muhammad Yunus and his bank, Grameen, have provided more than $4 billion to 4.4 million impoverished people in rural Bangladesh. They have given small loans, mostly to women, to help them start or grow businesses.

Yunus and Grameen received the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize. Yunus' "micro-lending" concept has turned poor female villagers into entrepreneurs. In his book, "Creating a World Without Poverty," Yunus introduces the concept of profit-driven "social businesses" as a way to spark "economic engines" throughout the world.

His plan can definitely spark engines in urban areas.

Corporations that set up co-ops — say an Urbana-Starbucks or a Del Monte-Urbana food plant — could receive valuable tax incentives or credits. The profit-driven industries would be designed to create jobs based on consumer demands. For instance, an Urbana entrepreneur establishes a neighborhood co-op that supplies fresh fruits, vegetables and other products to Urbana schools.

With a little help, this urban entrepreneur could turn abandoned neighborhood properties into produce-yielding fields that serve the nutritional needs of school children.

Since the beginning of this month, I've discussed the research indicating a rise in the number of black boys (between the ages of 14 and 17) who were killed or killed someone from 2000 to 2007.

Among other recommendations, the researcher, criminal justice professor James Alan Fox, said the government should invest more money in the lives of these kids.

Some readers were insulted that I called for an investment in black kids and not all kids.

That's easy to address. Black boys are the demographic with rising homicide rates. Let's use the car analogy. The motor and transmission need maintenance, but if there's a faulty carburetor, it will sputter, waste fuel and eventually stall.

Let's fix the busted carburetor.

Other readers reject the idea of spending more tax dollars to fix a problem parents should address.

But I also heard from people who are already investing passion and energy into black boys. These people understand Fox's call for investment because they see results, albeit on a small scale.

In this debate, there's a basic question: Why are black kids killing?

My opinion: dysfunctional parents, a lack of self-worth and vision, too few examples of attainable success and too much soul-crushing poverty. There's also the perceived payoff from the drug trade.

I disagree with those who say kids are forever doomed without proper parental intervention.

Dysfunction is colorless and classless. Alcoholic, abusive or emotionally absent parents in any neighborhood can damage kids. What's missing in low-income communities are societal supplements.

I believe that an orchestrated movement can turn kids' lives around and reduce homicide rates.

Community and nonprofit organizations here and all over the country are already having some success saving black kids.
So imagine another, larger step — a school system designed to turn positives into negatives, that teaches kids to recognize and utilize the gold in the "ghetto."

Imagine a new publicly supported collective aimed at gathering successful programs under one federally funded mandate. Imagine engaged and motivated kids with the resources and help needed to repel dangerous temptations.

Why, that would be Nirvana. Or, better yet, Urbana.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Social Media to Spark a Social Regional Revolution!

Can We Use Social Media to Spark a Regional Social Revolution? Yes We Can!

Are you willing to:

• Help plant and maintain a community garden in an urban area?
• Buy products produced by low income people trying to reclaim their lives?
• Donate to a summer program aimed at keeping gang members off the streets?
• Take a weekend bus ride to shop at local urban gardens or grocers?
• Help build and support a Harlem’s Children’s Zone model in St. Louis
• Volunteer with alternative educational centers for disadvantaged youth?
• Support health and fitness programs aimed at battling childhood obesity and malnutrition?
• Join professors, activists, nonprofits and others working to revitalize long-ignored urban areas?
• Help St. Louis live up to its potential as a truly vibrant and richly diverse metropolis?

If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, you can be a part of a regional social revolution.

Most of you know me as the former publisher of Take Five Magazine or as the columnist who “used to write for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.” Some of you are aware that, upon my departure from the newspaper, I was researching ways to revitalize urban communities by combining federal initiatives with innovative national and international ideas and efforts designed to reduce poverty through empowering, self-sustaining methods.

The historic election of Barack Obama further convinced me that it was indeed “our time” to turn our attention to disenfranchised urban areas. This is our moment to use innovative, revolutionary ideas to empower ordinary people to enact extraordinary change in their lives. This is a mission that must not be blurred by divisive, distracting or destructive politics.

Join me.

The questions I ask above are based on incremental projects and embryonic ideas across the country and in our region. Community gardens are sprouting up in urban areas; state and federal subsidies and programs have helped bring urban grocers to neighborhoods starved of nutritious, green produce; micro-loan programs are supporting small business growth; former male and female felons are producing products sold in cafes, online and through mass distribution; fitness programs have been developed for inner-city youth and cities are working to build block-by-block protective zones where children can thrive at school and in their neighborhoods.

All these efforts are underway but they are disconnected, unknown or they do not receive the public/private funds, community support or media attention they deserve or need to survive.

In short, a people-up approach to inner-city development has yet to catch on, especially in our region.

Last month, I established “When We Dream Together,” an agency with a simple but powerful mission: Provide the inspiration, information, support and resources that will empower ordinary people to enact extraordinary change in their lives and communities.

Within the past 60 days, I have met with individuals and organizations whose efforts echo my passions. I’ve talked to local ministers and activists working vigilantly to convince young people to “put down their guns” and end street violence. I visited with the owners of a new North St. Louis grocer with plans to open an urban farm on the premises. I sat with professors and city administrators planning to build an urban garden that works in tandem with a brand new and historic public school. I had the privilege to spend an afternoon with grassroots visionaries recently awarded small stipends to develop projects that include growing fresh produce for seniors, teaching job skills to youth, helping fathers become entrepreneurs and creating inner-city learning and resource centers for disadvantaged families and children.

These projects and endeavors are promising but without resources and the consistent network of support, they are in jeopardy. More important, there needs to be a force that links these ideas and efforts together and expands their visions. Teens pulled away from drug-dealing and gang violence must be provided alternative, money-making opportunities. If we dream together and combine challenges with opportunities we can revitalize neighborhoods, address poverty, crime, prison recidivism and stop the waste of human potential.

I have written about these possibilities for too long. It is time for action. We cannot wait on government, national or local leaders to enact this change. Again, “this is our time!”

I’m calling for an experiment of sorts -- a social media experiment. We can jump start a social revolution in our region with FaceBook, Twitter, LinkedIn and other new media efforts.

By the first of May, I plan to launch an interactive website that will provide inspiring stories and videos of international, national and local efforts aimed at eradicating poverty, unemployment, crime and hopelessness through sustaining endeavors. Unlike traditional media outlets, the goal is to dissect the stories, present the strategies and provide links to the organizations and individuals engaged in transformative activities. There will also be an accompanying blog where ideas can be presented, discussed, modified and monitored. Hopefully, this component will inspire partnerships that bring these innovative ideas and projects to life.

This is a cause without a call for cash and there is a role for everyone. When the website is launched, I want a cadre of soldiers ready to make change in St. Louis. If you answered “yes” to any question above, you qualify. Send me your name and email address and the area of your interest. A data base will be developed that connects needs with those willing to fulfill those needs. You will be alerted and consistently updated on activities, projects and ideas that fit the criteria of your concern(s).

If we collaborate, I am convinced that this summer we can develop and/or support projects that can put troubled youth to work and address malnutrition and obesity in low-income areas. As a collaborative group, we can purchase more produce from burgeoning small and large community gardens; urge legislators to tap into federal funds aimed at implementing innovative sustainable ideas, stable communities, promising neighborhoods with urban grocers and other vibrant small businesses.

Our army will enhance and extend the hard work of nonprofits, grassroots agencies, social architects and visionaries diligently working to bring empowering opportunities, dignity and hope to the discarded and dismissed.

We can indeed change the culture of our region. We can reclaim our young people, revitalize our communities and re-imagine our world …

When we dream together!

Sincerely, Sylvester Brown, Jr.

* Sign up today. Send your name, concern and email address to: