Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Horror in the House of Ill Repute

It wasn't long after starting at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, that I noticed the insidious effects of corporate media control. Fear of being downsized or "let go" seized our newsroom after it became controlled by a corporation. The bottom line and appeasing Red State subscribers and advertisers seemed to take precedent over news that gave them discomfort. This trend dominated all domains of the Fourth Estate. No longer was it the "fourth branch of government" that ensured access to essential information and ensured the health of democracy. Radio, cable and social media competition has forced many newspapers (the New York Times remains an exception) to compromise their values and present news that is "balanced" even when it betrays their liberal platforms.

There is no greater example of this than FOX News, which, in my opinion, is nothing more than a media brothel specifically created to serve a hungry base and appease right-leaning Johns with the biggest wallets. With a variety of seedy call girls from Sean Hannity to Glenn Beck (whose no longer with the network) to more subtle elite escorts like Bill O'Reilly, FOX delivers faithfully regurgitated GOP talking points, seeks to besmirch the enemies of the far Right and delivers the joys and comfort that their paying customers need to maintain illusions of masculinity and dominance.

However, when the Johns are given too much power in the House of Ill-Repute the giddy arrangement can backfire. Take, for instance, the election night debacle when Karl Rove, a Fox News contributor took issue with the network's decision to cede Ohio to President Barack Obama. Keep in mind, Rove is the brain trust behind Crossroads GPS (Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies), a conservative super Pac that, along with Americans for Prosperity, launched in part by billionaire brothers David and Charles Koch, spent an estimated $60 million to influence this election.

It was an awkward moment when the John took hosts Bret Baier and Megyn Kelly to task for daring to report an obvious outcome. Watch the video below and witness "journalism" at its lowest.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Tomorrow's Tomorrows

Tomorrow, no matter who's elected President of the United States, many of us will breathe a sigh of relief. The negative, deceptive, vitriolic, contradictory campaigning will be over. Billions will have been spent in an effort to influence our decisions but Tuesday's vote boils down to one fundamental reality; each and every one of us will be responsible for future tomorrows. In this great country of ours-dictated as it may be by money, power and fear-we, the American people, still have the power to determine the country's future.

This has been a campaign of fear -- fear of a fractured economy, fear of massive unemployment; of wars in faraway lands, fear that the "47 percent" will be punished by the powerful "1 percent"; fear that the "American Dream" of past generations has been denied those of us one paycheck away from poverty.

Tomorrow we must decide if we will let our fears overrule good ole common sense and shared values. Tomorrow, we must decide if we will be a progressive country of fairness, benevolence, innovation and true grit or if we will give in to the dark side of our greatest trepidations and, once again, place the future of our country in the hands of those who manipulate our fears and concerns.

With great OZ-like power, the well-funded wizards behind the curtain have bamboozled millions of broke, unprivileged, uninsured and under-insured Americans that the biggest threat to our democracy is "Obamacare."

The GOP has done a magnificent job of convincing voters that the nation's deficit and the Great Recession was not fueled by the actions and in-actions of a Republican Administration. With the aid of billions from shadowy sources, they have effectively portrayed President Barack Obama as the architect of our nation's woes. They have managed to rewrite a script of a bull-headed Congress that was intent on holding Americans hostage in lieu of tax breaks for the wealthy. They have created the phony argument that a massive mess created in eight years was supposed to be magically cured in four.

With great OZ-like power, the well-funded wizards behind the curtain have bamboozled millions of broke, unprivileged, uninsured and underinsured Americans that the biggest threat to our democracy is "Obamacare." A miraculous marketing coup has been accomplished where economically oppressed voters believe their interests are intertwined with those of fat-cat investors, oil men, insurance companies and "big business." The Wall Street "bad guys" of 2008 are now repositioned as America's saviors in 2012.

We must separate fear from facts. Three irrefutable factors led this country down the deficit highway and into a crushing recession; two unfunded wars, Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthy and the mortgage crisis. Republican presidential candidate, Mitt Romney-already a saber-rattler in regards to Middle Eastern affairs, a staunch defender of continued tax breaks for the rich and a proponent of big business "trickle-down" economics is a rerun of a selfish agenda that tolerates expensive, life-snatching wars, that coddles the already rich and pampered and punishes America's most vulnerable citizens.

The GOP is convinced that fear will motivate us to vote while pinching our noses. They are confident that our concerns about social security, access to college for all, tending to the needs of the poor, homeless, elderly and the generational disenfranchised will be overshadowed by an illusion of a presidency that failed in four years to right the wrongs created in eight.

I totally get the frustration of those who expected a quick-fix. Obama has become a victim of his own rhetoric. Many Americans bought into the mantra of "hope and change" but ignored the president's message that he could not do it alone. If anything, Obama underestimated partisan pushback and the willingness of a pampered society to sacrifice and boldly fight for the "change" he represented. Flaws in delivery aside, his record and our common sense tells us that he has been and will be dedicated to America's recovery and strength domestically and abroad. The Romney/Ryan Administration, on the other hand, comes with an unspecified agenda and specified linkages to the policies, privileged power plays and wrong-headed thinking of the Bush Administration.

Whatever you do in the voter booth on Tuesday, I urge you to rise above your fears. Tomorrow is not about the woes of the moment; it is about the tomorrows of our children. Once again, society has thrown down the gauntlet before us. Shall we tell our children that we cowered and allowed our fears to dictate their future? Will we accept the nebulous guarantee of more jobs and a stronger economy, at the expense of the already poor and downtrodden? Will we fall for a revised script and turn the reigns of our destiny over to those who drove the country into the ditch in the first place? Or, shall stay the course and commit to four more years of imperfect but steady progress.

Tomorrow, the choice of our tomorrows is in your hands.

Sylvester Brown, Jr. is a St. Louis-based journalist, board member with the Peace Economy Project (PEP)and founder of When We Dream Together, a local nonprofit dedicated to urban revitalization.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

ABC debunks Romney's claim of Obama International "Apology Tour"

Fact Checking the Final Presidential Debate


click here for full article

ABC News' team of reporters and producers have fact checked the final presidential debate, which was held at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla., and focused on foreign policy. What follows is the team's report on Presidential candidate Mitt Romney's claim that President Obama conducted "apology tours" in the Middle East:
ROMNEY: "The president began what I've called an apology tour of going to various nations in the Middle East and criticizing America. I think they looked at that and saw weakness."

ABC News' Matthew Larotonda has the facts:

Independent fact check organizations have poured over the rhetoric of diplomatic apologies repeatedly during this election, and the results have been mostly in opposition. Most recently the governor has brought it into reference of the administration's response to the attack on the U.S. consulate in Libya.

Further back, the idea of an Obama "apology tour" has been a recurring attack for conservatives for a long time and has its roots in diplomatic travel the president undertook in 2009 shortly after taking office. Romney himself first took up the phrase in 2010 with his book, "No Apology: The Case for American Greatness," and has repeated the theme continuously on the campaign trail.

"In his first nine months in office, President Obama has issued apologies and criticisms of America in speeches in France, England, Turkey, and Cairo; at the CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., the National Archives in Washington, D.C., and the United Nations in New York City," the book reads in its first chapter.

President Obama never formally regrets American policy during these speeches, rather taking a tone of reciprocal blame at times for diplomatic ties that may have been strained. At other times the president is drawing a distinction between his policies and those of his predecessor, President George W. Bush.

During the 2009 Cairo speech for example, Obama comes close to regretting American actions in Iran during the overthrow of the Shah. But he immediately counters by pointing the finger at subsequent regimes for continued hostility.

"In the middle of the Cold War, the United States played a role in the overthrow of a democratically elected Iranian government," he said. "Since the Islamic Revolution, Iran has played a role in acts of hostage-taking and violence against U.S. troops and civilians. This history is well known."

On his first visit to France, Obama again seemed to take responsibility for declining attitudes toward Americans abroad, for policies that have shown "arrogance and been dismissive, even derisive." But on the flip side he immediately derided Europeans for "casual" and "insidious" anti-Americanism.

"On both sides of the Atlantic these attitudes have become all too common," he said. "They are not wise. They do not represent the truth. They threaten to widen the divide across the Atlantic and leave us more isolated."

All of these remarks fall short of formally apologizing for American diplomacy, but some of the president's most conciliatory remarks have come regarding the detainees of Guantanamo Bay. At the 2009 National Archives speech on terrorism, Obama said the military prison's use was "based on fear than foresight," and that "it likely created more terrorists around the world than it ever detained."

Click to read ABC News fact checking of entire final presidential bebate

Sunday, October 7, 2012

You, me, us, we and "things that matter"

With no significant discussion of "the poor" during the first televised presidential debate, justice-seekers must make the issue a national priority


by Sylvester Brown, Jr.

Is it just me or does it seem like President Barack Obama, his challenger Mitt Romney and other political candidates have taken a quiet vow not to discuss America's poor in any substantive manner? During this week's presidential debate the word "poor" was only used on five occasions; three times when Romney described how states can better care for the poor than the federal government; once again when he rambled on about "disabled kids or -- or -- or poor kids or -- or lower-income kids," who deserve "school choice"; and another time when moderator Jim Lehrer referenced his "poor performance" in keeping the debater's answers less than two minutes.

Let's put aside the fact that it was Romney, not Obama, who gave a smattering of attention to poor people. For decades, Democrats have been lauded (and scorned) as the party that stands up for the downtrodden and disenfranchised. Yet, during this campaign season, Obama and other Democrats avoid the issue of America's poor as if it were a taboo, toxic topic.

Obama, who is fond of quoting Dr. Martin Luther King, needs to be reminded of the martyr's warning that we Americans must never be satisfied until "Justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream."

We cannot be satisfied when millions are homeless or living in poverty. Righteousness is not rolling "like a mighty stream" when the elderly, the poor, the disabled and disenfranchised live their lives in jeopardy. Justice is not rolling like water when we continue to spend billions on wars in foreign lands but can't deliver jobs, food, comfort and rescue to suffering Americans on our own soil.

The economy was the first topic Lehrer asked the candidates to address. Both mentioned "high-income" and "middle-class" people but America's 50 million poor and the other 100 million "near poor," "low income," and one-paycheck-away-from-poverty poor were given short shrift. Even with Romney's goofy, elitist putdown of America's "47 percent" who feel "entitled" to government benefits still smoldering in the headlines, those who depend on so-called "entitlements" received no backup.

How can this not be a subject of intense discussion? In January 2013, $1.2 trillion in across-the-board domestic and defense spending cuts will kick in no matter who wins the November election. Unless Congress forestalls these cuts, known as "sequestration," they will automatically go into effect. With weapons manufacturers dumping billions into campaigns and political coffers to dissuade cuts in military spending, odds are the poor, the elderly and America's children (of which one out of every five--or 15.5 million--now live in poverty) will suffer the brunt of these cuts.

As Romney vows to increase military spending with an additional $2 trillion that the military--as Obama put it during the debate--"hasn't asked for," neither candidate had the audacity to say that America's most vulnerable citizens are also in need of additional aid.

According to the Washington DC-based Coalition on Human Needs, just one year of automatic-sequestration cuts, on the non-defense side, may result in " no WIC for 750,000 mothers and young children; no job training for 413,000 adults and youth; no education/training for more than 51,000 veterans; no breast and cervical cancer screenings for 34,000 women; no rental assistance vouchers for 185,000 households, and millions of working families pushed more deeply into poverty by losing some or all of their tax credits."

If neither Obama nor Romney, Democrats or Republicans will speak up for America's poor and voiceless, who will? Fortunately, agencies across the country that recognize this void have kicked off public-engagement campaigns aimed at raising the sequestration issue higher on the election year agenda.

The Cambridge MA-based New Priorities Network and its affiliates in Main, Michigan, North Carolina, Wisconsin, Minnesota and other states have established a one-stop online resource that offers up-to-date information on looming budget cuts, grassroots strategies and ways to use state resolutions, campaign events, political debates, town-hall meetings, public forums and mainstream and social media as ammunition in the war of public engagement.

The Coalition on Human Needs launched an aggressive collaborative campaign titled "SAVE" (Strengthening America's Values and Economy for All). With this national effort, people were asked to simply sign a letter endorsing four basic principles: Protect low-income and vulnerable people; promote job creation to strengthen the economy; increase revenues from fair sources; and seek responsible savings by targeting wasteful Pentagon spending.

In full disclosure, I serve on the board of the Peace Economy Project (PEP)--a local research organization committed to the reduction of military spending and more investments in a peace-based economy. Inspired by the work of national agencies such as the New Priorities Network, PEP decided to do its part to raise awareness regionally on the crisis's impacting the nation's disenfranchised citizens and children. We reached out to local activists in the labor, economic-justice, community, peace, and faith movements and asked that we collectively make "peace, poverty, people and our nation's priorities" a hot-button topic before and after the November elections.

PEP has created a new website (click here) that offers the latest news, links to national and local organizations and events and a blog where local partners can discuss, address and post events related to sequestration from diverse perspectives.

We're not asking our partners to choose sides or to make political endorsements. We're calling for a public means to hold candidates and elected officials accountable. We're demanding that the woes and concerns of half the American population be taken just as seriously as those in the middle and upper class. In a time of economic uncertainty, with the certainty of "more military spending" through campaigns sponsored by war-hawks and weapons manufacturers, we're resurrecting the clarion call of a civil rights icon who warned that "our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter."

It's a sad commentary, but we can't count on the presidential candidates to champion the causes of America's poor and neglected. In a world of spin, sound bites, and "gotcha" journalism, they fear a word for the poor will be transformed into an assault on the voters they obviously cherish more--the middle class.

If we truly want justice in America to roll like water or "righteousness like a mighty stream," we can't count on politicians. You, me, us, we-justice-seekers must champion the causes of America's voiceless and most vulnerable.

We must not allow the next few months to pass without demanding that the needs of poor and impoverished people become a high-priority topic. In short, it is up to the voters to set the pace, make candidates follow our lead and force them to end the silence "about things that (truly) matter."
Sylvester Brown, Jr., is a St. Louis-based journalist, board member with the Peace Economy Project (PEP), and founder of When We Dream Together, a local nonprofit dedicated to urban revitalization.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Rags to Riches/Riches-to-Rags: Confessions of a Humbled Doer

by Sylvester Brown, Jr.

photo by Suzy Gorman

People love a good rags-to-riches story. But it’s only appreciated in that order. Few want to hear the “riches” part from the well-to-do and it’s a “sob story” if someone only talks about the “rags” portion. Me, I had a great rags-to-riches story:

I was a black kid, born and raised in St. Louis’ ghetto neighborhoods; a high school dropout who became a construction worker who got caught up in fast times and fast living; a young adult who begrudgingly enrolled at a community college and, there in its library, became infatuated with the history of my people and the power of words; the real-life narrative became even more compelling in 1987, when I founded Take Five Magazine. It was created out of my desire to activate communities and educate those of my hue with similar disadvantaged backgrounds. After struggling with the award-winning but never profitable publication for 15 years, I was offered the job as a columnist with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

This was the “riches” part of my story that seemed to resonate with people. Gaining employment with the city’s only major daily newspaper had that much-anticipated Horatio Alger ending. It was an assurance that hard work, determination and sacrifice really can lift anyone from humble beginnings to middle-class comfort.  In the minds of many (and in mine, too) I had arrived. A steady paycheck, benefits, thousands of readers, prestige, respect and recognition -I lavishly lapped it up. Not rich by any means but my wife, daughters and I lived the quasi-middle class dream; a nice 4-bedroom home in a quiet, tony part of the city; two cars; a wallet full of credit cards and the ability to take occasional out-of-town vacations.

In the minds of many (and in mine, too) I had arrived. A steady paycheck, benefits, thousands of readers, prestige, respect and recognition -I lavishly lapped it up.

The traditional tale took an unconventional turn. I was fired from the Post in 2009. My marriage crumbled in 2010. In 2011, I joined the ranks of the 150 million post-recession Americans considered “poor” or “near poor.”  This year, 2012, I lost the house in the quiet, middle class, south St. Louis neighborhood and moved to North St. Louis in an area stigmatized by drive-by shootings and disproportionate rates of crime, poverty and unemployment.

Suddenly, at age 56, unwanted chapters have been inserted into my life chronicles. Yet, in the midst of a steep fall from grace, I have found new riches and new purpose in a familiar and oddly comforting place.


Despite the unsavory motives that led to my departure from the newspaper, I really welcomed the exit. I had become the go-to guy for all things black; the defender of the dismissed and downtrodden-those grappling with the extremities of my impoverished youth. Instead of ostracizing and incarcerating these people, I preached about investing in their untapped potential. Give them the sumptuous resources we bestow on the already rich, I wrote, let them rebuild their own communities, deal with their own troubled youth and create their own sustainable businesses and jobs.

In reality, I was a drive-by, literary proselytizer; a black man from a white neighborhood, championing change from his cozy cubicle inside a white-owned newspaper building.

Increasingly, I felt like a “talker” when I desperately wanted to be a “doer.”


In reality, I was a drive-by, literary proselytizer; a black man from a white neighborhood, championing change from his cozy cubicle inside a white-owned newspaper building.

The Bible says “Pride goeth before a fall.”  It was pride whispering in my ear when I refused the union’s offer to fight for the job. It was ego that urged me to disregard advice to sue the trousers off the newspaper. “Screw ‘em,” I retorted, the idea of wasting years and years and spending thousands and thousands to win back a job where I wasn’t wanted seemed stupid. Besides, I had received a lucrative offer from Tom Burrell, the black advertising pioneer, to work with him on his upcoming book, Brainwashed: Challenging the Myth of Black Inferiority. 

The manuscript was published by SmileyBooks, owned by public TV and radio commentator, Tavis Smiley. That assignment led to several opportunities to serve as a consultant or contributor on other books the company published. But I became frustrated with the lack of take-charge black leaders who weren’t articulating or delivering strategies or solutions that addressed the disproportionately-high rates of unemployment, poverty and incarceration impacting communities of color. I was also still burdened by the fact that I wasn’t a doer.

As blessed as I was to be in the company of some of black America’s top-thinkers, the creative jobs were too far apart and far too few. Pride fed the illusion that I could sustain the debt-heavy lifestyle of my Post-Dispatch years. I staunchly resisted my ex’s pleas to dramatically downsize. To do so, ego argued, would mean the bastards had won.

Recently, while doing research for a client, I listened to the sermons of T.D. Jakes, the popular pastor of the non-denominational mega-church, Potter's House.

“Sometimes God has to break you down to build you up,” Jakes lectured. He added that oftentimes, we have to be “humbled” in order to receive our intended grace.

  I reject the notion that poverty is an automatic penalty for misdeeds. There are too many Americans in states of economic despair due to corporate greed, unscrupulous bankers and investors, unfunded wars and misplaced national priorities. However, I did need some humbling.  I was comfortable at the newspaper and received ego-validation while in the company of high-profile blacks. I was distant and disconnected, trying to enact change from afar.

Universal factors have humbled me. I am no longer the far-off spokesperson for the downtrodden; I now live the life. Once again, I am in the chaotic, unstable and often dysfunctional environment of my youth. Like many of my neighbors, I struggle to maintain dignity, knowing that I’m not really meeting all my children’s needs. I dance the dance of day-to-day survival, compromising while dueling with the ebb and flow of hope and hopelessness. A gnawing fear that I will leave this earth, broken and penniless, pricks at my optimistic Alger-ist attitude.

Yet, there is familiar serenity in this rags-to-riches-to-rags-again saga. I live in the ward of an alderman diligently working to reform an area besieged with societal woes. His efforts have led to an 80 percent reduction in murders; the refurbishing of a once dangerous neighborhood park with a brand new recreation center, bike paths and basketball courts. Now elders and youth can enjoy outdoor concerts and activities without the constant fear of out-of-control hooligans.  I live on a block where old people, doors away, wave and seem genuinely happy to see me. Enticing smells of juicy burgers, fried chicken and fish emanate from a corner store that sells hot food and necessary stipends in an area where grocery stores and fast food joints are only accessible by car. Sometimes, on Friday nights, I hear an unusual cacophony of voices; laughter, bickering and a splendid mixture of “old school” and hip-hop music. It’s as if an entire neighborhood has come out to exhale after a workweek of toil and strife and a hard-pressed life.

Across the street from my flat, sweet potatoes grow on a vacant lot. In early June, I was joined by youth and volunteers with the Sweet Potato Project – a summer program that I kicked off with another nonprofit in my neighborhood. For the past 7 weeks, I have driven to a nearby library where volunteer instructors teach 15 inner-city youth do-for-self, entrepreneurial skills. They will turn the harvested produce into a product and learn that there are other (legal) ways to make money in their own communities.  In less than two months, 15, rock-headed, typical urban teens have made an amazing transformation.  The Sweet Potato youth now talk of being change agents in their communities and “giving back.” Because of this program, I have discovered that I can play a vital role in reaching and teaching so-called “at-risk” African American youth.

The neighborhood is no Shangri-La. There is crime and those more than willing to commit them. But they are outnumbered by people trying to raise their children, take care of their homes, scratch out a living and live peacefully – just like in any other neighborhood. 

I may be economically embarrassed but I am no longer disconnected. Now, when I talk about the inherent potential of black youth, I speak from a position of embedded authority. When I preach about investing in long-neglected urban areas and creating sustainable jobs and businesses, it’s not a wistful fantasy-it’s what we’re doing in MY neighborhood.

There have been intense moments of degradation and fear. Yet, they compete with feelings of vibrancy, meaning, true engagement and exhilarating possibilities.

There have been intense moments of degradation and fear. Yet, they compete with feelings of vibrancy, meaning, true engagement and exhilarating possibilities.

Friends have warned me about writing like this. They say it damages “my brand.” There’s some truth to that, I suppose. But, I’ve written this way for 25 years -- honestly and openly. It is my way. It helps me keep perspective. People who celebrated my ascension to the Post-Dispatch knew of my struggles with my magazine. We all love a good come-back story.

Still, in troubled economic times, few can tolerate “rags” without “riches” tales. Again, I have a great one. Broke but not broken, dinged but not dead, a humbled “doer” embraces the new found riches of his ever-evolving story.

Sylvester Brown, Jr. is a St. Louis, MO-based writer and founder of When We Dream Together Inc., a nonprofit dedicated to urban revitalization.

Not My America

As I watched segments of the GOP National Convention, a disturbing thought lingered: “This is not my America.” In fact, I wondered how anyone seeing the tsunami of whiteness that filled the Tampa Convention Center could have been comfortable with the absence of color among delegates and attendees. Oh, the occasional brown celebrities were strategically propped on stage, including former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, ex-Democratic congressman, Artur Davis, Sher Valenzuela, the Delaware GOP candidate for lieutenant governor and Lucé Vela Fortuño, the first lady of Puerto Rico. But the smattering of color didn’t erase the fact that, out of the GOP's reported 2,286 convention delegates, only 47 were African American.

Was this your America?

When groups gather by race, gender or ethnicity-be they black, white, brown or “other”-the intent is clear; they congregate to express and discuss true feelings, issues, passions and strategies relevant to the dominating assemblage. The overwhelming, homogenous horde at the GOP Convention added suspect undertones to party chants and slogans. There is a divisive civil war-era connotation when Americans use “USA, USA, USA…” to beat back the criticism of fellow Americans. When a segregated group screams “We’re taking back America,” it begs us to question who’s the “we” and “back to what?”

It was a scene where the growing poor and “near poor,” the unemployed and underemployed, the uninsured and those receiving so-called “entitlements,” felt on par with the country’s richest and most powerful politicians, profit-focused corporations and billionaire secret donors.

The convention, complete with red, white and blue fervor reminded me of my father’s America. Born in the 1930s in Little Rock, Arkansas,remnants of the segregated south were etched into my father’s soul. It was evident in the way he hesitated to look white people in the eyes and how he instinctively felt the need to step off the curb or step aside when we passed whites on the street. My father’s America, like his father’s, was seared with the blood-red desire to “take America back,” to keep blacks “in their place" and restore privilege and power to whites who felt disenfranchised by the evils of emancipation and court-ordered mandates for integration and equal rights.

The America represented at the 2012 GOP Convention was fortified with illusion, confusion and big money collusion. It was a scene where the growing poor and “near poor,” the unemployed and underemployed, the uninsured and those receiving so-called “entitlements,” felt on par with the country’s richest and most powerful politicians, profit-focused corporations and billionaire secret donors. A buffet of old ideas-less corporate regulations, less taxes for the rich, less benevolence for the poor and more reliance on trickle-down economics-was served as universal remedy for the nation’s economic woes. Few noticed the buffet was really the warmed-over recipe that led us into the Great Recession.

It didn't matter. With Kid Rock’s "Born Free" as its theme, conventioneers swallowed any lie as long as the wretched name “Obama” was attached. The party faithful clung to the sound bites of politicians who vowed to overturn “Obamacare” even though the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the legislation.

With Kid Rock’s "Born Free" as its theme, conventioneers swallowed any lie as long as the wretched name “Obama” was attached.

It was a zone where hard-line policy tea-drinkers convinced that undocumented immigrants are stealing their jobs and overrunning their country welcomed their nominee, Mitt Romney-the candidate who, days before, declared; "No one's ever asked to see my birth certificate." It was a subtle, codified nod to those who believe the White House is occupied by a foreigner.

Despite the facade of solidarity, Rice, 
Davis, Valenzuela and other dignitaries of color must have experienced that familiar but awkward “I’m the only minority in the room” feeling. Recollections of segregation had to have risen when they heard about conventioneers emboldened enough to chuck nuts at a black CNN camerawoman while taunting; "this is how we feed the animals." Surely, the high-profile minorities, along with the millions who watched the 4-day spectacle via television, laptop, cell phone or tablet screen, must have cringed.

2012 Democratic National Convention kicks off this week. David Bositis, senior political analyst for the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, predicted that at least 40 percent of the Democratic delegates will be from minority groups. Love or despise President Barack Obama, support or condemn his progress and policies, his party’s shindig will be representative of the America that I envision for my kids and grand kids.

As the Romney/Ryan yacht cruised along the convention’s calm waters of whiteness, the presidential nominee felt entirely comfortable telling the crowd: “Now is the moment when we can stand up and say, ‘I’m an American…!’

Well, Mr. Romney, I’m already a proud-standing American but the vision of our that you represent and promote simply isn’t my America.

Sylvester Brown, Jr. is a St. Louis-based journalist, board member with the Peace Economy Project (PEP) and founder of When We Dream Together, a local nonprofit dedicated to urban revitalization.

Friday, July 27, 2012

How 15 Kids will save North St. Louis

by Sylvester Brown, Jr.
Administrators and Youth with the Sweet Potato Project (left to right /front to back rows) Damonte Williams, Marquita Williams, Charles Hill, Charnell Hurn, Elesha Harris, Dashia Martin, Ella Stewart, Derron Neal, Keon Williams, Barbara Cole, Darryeon Bishop, Michael Watson, Barry Goins, Sylvester Brown, Jr., Mycheal King, Keith Young and Brittney Taylor / Photo by: Benjamin Gandhi-Shepard

It was an idea that people could wrap their heads around. In early 2012, a local nonprofit announced it was going to start an 8-week summer program that would teach inner-city youth do-for-self entrepreneurial skills. Because of generational poverty, lack of options, poor role models and what seems like a viable means of generating income, too many urban youth are lured into the deadly drug trade.

The nonprofit would have youth plant sweet potatoes and show them how to turn that produce into a marketable product or products. Administrators, with the help of the Incarnate Word Foundation and a few other generous souls, raised enough money to start the program. They reached out to educators, entrepreneurs, motivational speakers, and small and large business owners, asking that they volunteer time to teach classes on web design, recipe and product development, marketing and sales and help the youth create at least one tangible product that they created in their own neighborhood.

Then a miracle happened. Fifteen hard-headed, undisciplined teens started to dream. They were re-connected with their history and told of a time when black people had no choice but to be self-dependent. In just six short weeks, disconnected and disillusioned youth talked of “making a difference” in their communities. They came up with sweet potato-based products -- a pancake mix, ice cream, lotions and hair oils, jewelry, sauces and a sweet potato ka-bob are just a few notions they’d like to pursue.   

The program’s objective is to spark economic engines in communities where hopelessness is heavy and vibrant, successful black-owned businesses are rare commodities. It has exceeded its goal. When the youth learned that the program was in dire need of funds, their entrepreneurial genes took over. These future entrepreneurs suggested a car wash, a sweet potato bake sale and a variety show to save their program.  

Inherent in their success is the formula to save low-income, crime-ridden areas like so many in North St. Louis.

It’s time for all of us to dream. This program is not just salvation for 15 kids. It’s a model for community renewal and economic revitalization.

Consider this a call-out for aggressive community engagement. This local effort requires the help and participation of local government, local philanthropists, and local, caring individuals.

Sweet potatoes have been planted in the 21st Ward. It’s an area in transition thanks to its maverick Alderman, Antonio French. But it’s also one impacted with disproportionate rates of poverty, crime and unemployment.

Imagine the boost residents will receive when they see a product created by their kids in their communities on the shelves of a local grocer. Ordinary people in areas where access to fresh fruit and vegetables are limited will recognize extraordinary opportunities.  If their kids can produce a food-based product, why can’t adults and ex-offenders do the same thing? Why can’t they grow the food that’s supplied to local schools, businesses, restaurants and community agencies? Why can’t they create a self-sustaining economy from food grown, packaged, canned and distributed in their own community?

Ordinary people in areas where access to fresh fruit and vegetables are limited will recognize extraordinary opportunities.

With these 15 young people, we’ve planted a seed of possibilities that can produce an abundant, all-encompassing yield. It is a program that can…no, that must succeed. It is a do-able vision in vision-less, painful economic times.

This is much more than a quaint, feel-good program for a few inner city kids. The Sweet Potato Project can be St. Louis’ version of New York’s Harlem Children’s Zone, Milwaukee’s Growing Power, Inc., or Pittsburgh’s Bidwell Training Center. It can be our template for dramatic change and job creation in disadvantaged neighborhoods all over the country.

Consider this a call-out for aggressive community engagement. This local effort requires the help and participation of local government, local philanthropists, and local, caring individuals. The goals are ambitious and time is of the essence. Therefore, what follows is a specific “wish list” of needs and services necessary to continue and expand the Sweet Potato project:


Bake Sale:
Take-charge individuals, a business, group or church needed to organize and implement a sweet-potato bake sale within the next week. We imagine individuals bringing their best sweet potato dish to an early morning or afternoon event to raise money for the project.  

Car Wash:
The Sweet Potato youth have their t-shirts, rags and the desire to spend a morning washing cars. We need a car wash owner to donate the site and a few hours next Saturday so youth, administrators and volunteers can wash cars to raise funds.

Product Development:
We must have a tangible product(s) in production by summer’s end. We’re looking for an educational institution or a culinary school, food producers and distributors, and marketing agencies to help develop the product(s).

Corporate, Business, Philanthropic and Community Support:
SPP youth are paid a stipend to participate in the program. It is in need of at least $10,000 within the next two weeks. We need corporate, business and philanthropic partners who will not only donate money but take ownership and ensure that product(s) are developed, marketed, stored and available for distribution before the holidays. Partners should invite youth to their facilities and expose them to the manufacturing, distribution and marketing aspects of their businesses. In addition, we are looking for sororities, fraternities, church and secular groups to commit to purchase the product(s) the Sweet Potato Youth have created.


Friday, May 11, 2012

The Sweet Potato Project: An effort by “Our Own Hands”

“Cast down your bucket where you are…cast it down in agriculture, mechanics, in commerce, in domestic service, and in the professions." -Booker T. Washington - 1895

Next month, the North Area Community Development Corporation (NACDC), When We Dream Together, Inc (WWDT), and a host of community partners will officially launch a nine-week summer program for North St. Louis “at-risk” youth called “The Sweet Potato Project. Our ambitious but basic mission is to empower youth in disadvantaged communities by paying them a minimum wage salary to grow sweet potatoes, turn the yield into a product (cookies, pies, muffins, etc.) and then teach them how to create the brand, market and distribute the product they’ve created.
At this point, our resources are limited but potential for inner-city transformation is great. Our goal is to foster a do-for-self mentality for a challenged generation of urban youth. We want to empower them with the knowledge that they don’t have to become involved in the deadly illegal drug trade to make money. We want them to understand there are viable opportunities right outside their doors. Today, we start with youth but this seed could easily grow to empower adults and generate economic activity in long-neglected, poor communities throughout our region.
In a way, this effort is rooted in the message Booker T. Washington shared in 1895 when he urged former slaves to become self-sufficient through “productions of our hands.” The fact is, in this still ailing economy, we cannot expect the police alone to stem disproportionate crime and murder rates in our region or wait for the government to create programs aimed at teaching at-risk youth how to become self-sufficient entrepreneurs.
This is a community responsibility and we’re issuing an all-hands-on-deck appeal to pull this endeavor off this summer. NACDC has applied for several grants and the outlook is promising. However, if awarded, nonprofit funding for the pilot program will most likely be granted in the fall or later. The majority of those funds will probably be applied to packaging and production of the student’s products and next year’s expanded programming.  
Therefore, we’re turning to the community to raise enough funds to launch this summer’s pilot program so we can pay 10-to-15 teen participants over the slated nine-week period.
Consider this missive a community call-out. Of course, we need donations but we’re also looking for volunteer teachers, counselors and others willing to teach a related course for a few days. We need adults who can help us plant and harvest sweet potatoes; transport youth to area businesses and out-of-class activities and serve as role models and mentors. We want parishioners of churches and members of civic organizations involved and committed to purchasing bulk orders of the products the kids produce. In brief, we welcome anyone who wants to play a role in this worthwhile endeavor.
We’re also looking for those who head banks and lending institutions, grocery chains, food manufacturing and production companies, culinary institutes and area universities. We need you as sponsors and as partners. We’re hoping representatives will host money management or manufacturing classes, meet with the kids and explain what they do and how they do it.
In his Atlanta Compromise Speech, Booker T. Washington also said “…cast down your bucket where you are.” He advised people to make change with what they had at hand. This is the mantra of the Sweet Potato Project – a grassroots effort by every definition.
We’ve “cast down our buckets” and have a solid foundation of supporters. Program advisors include a horticulture specialist with Lincoln University’s Cooperative Extension program, a renowned professor from the George Warren Brown School of Social Work and a Washington University MA, MBA business professional. Alderman Antonio French of the 21st ward has offered NACDC a vacant lot in the 4500 block of Athlone Avenue where we’ll soon plant the sweet potatoes. The president of the Educational Equity group is on board to help coordinate classes and programming and we’re talking with the director of the Julia Davis Library about holding classes there. New York Times best-selling author and the Food Network’s celebrity chef, Jeff Henderson-who learned of the project while visiting St. Louis last month-has also offered to serve as keynote speaker at an upcoming fund-raising event.
We are seeking support from everybody but it’s important to us that our kids also be surrounded by volunteers, mentors, educators, professionals and neighbors who look like them and help them develop and distribute a product that brings a sense of pride and ownership back to their neighborhoods.
Margaret Mead, the cultural anthropologist once said “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.”  We have that small group of dedicated citizens but we need more. Please join us. Share this commentary with anyone you think may be interested in playing a role in this community effort. NACDC is a 501 (c3) tax exempt agency. You can go to its website and make a donation online. If possible, do it today, funds are needed and we welcome any amount.   
Each year, we ask at-risk teens to turn from drugs, put down their guns and stay in school without providing the resources, alternatives and loving mentorship that helps make these choices viable. This year, we can offer youth opportunities to earn while they learn valuable life-long lessons. If the pilot program is successful, we can reach many more and even expand the concept so ex-offenders and unemployed adults in disadvantaged communities can be empowered through this community-based economic development model.
The challenge is great, but I wholeheartedly believe we can do this. For now, let us cast down our buckets where we are. Together, a small group of committed citizens can indeed do our part to “change the world.”

Sincerely, Sylvester Brown, Jr.
Project Manager; The Sweet Potato Project   

To make a tax exempt donation to the Sweet Potato Project CLICK HERE

Monday, May 7, 2012

Celebrity Chef Fires up Youth in Juvenile Detention Center

by Sylvester Brown, Jr.

"Why you mugging me?"

"I ain't mugging you, man," the sullen youth dressed in red sweats mumbled.

For a moment it seemed as if Chef Jeff Henderson was about to deliver a bit of tough love on the insolent teen inside the St. Louis Juvenile Detention Center.

"I don't have to be here," Henderson said, stepping closer to the boy, "I'm here on my own dime and all I'm asking is 30 minutes to talk to you."

Matthew Murphy, courtesy St. Louis City Juvenile Detention Center
While visiting the city of St. Louis for a speaking engagement in late April, Henderson, author of the New York Times best-selling memoir, "Cooked: From the Streets to the Stove, from Cocaine to Foie Gras (William Morrow) offered to conduct a 4-hour cooking presentation with some of the youth at the juvenile center. Henderson, a former drug dealer who spent 10 years in jail for his crimes, makes it a point to visit juvenile detention centers to uplift and inspire youth with his turn-around story.

The encounter with the seemingly angry boy occurred about two hours after the cooking session started. Earlier, six young people-five boys and one girl-were chosen to help prepare the evening meal for all the juvenile detainees. The menu for the evening consisted of Henderson's famous fried chicken, mashed potatoes and corn on the cob. The small group dressed in color-specific sweat suits (red for boys ages 16-17), (green for boys ages 12-15) and (yellow for girls) were asked to circle around the chef.

"OK, who's the boss?" Henderson asked.

Matthew Murphy, courtesy St. Louis City Juvenile Detention Center
Although a couple of hands inched up, as the day progressed, it became clear that Flo (not her real name), a girl with a no-nonsense frown and attitude to match was the alpha dog of the group. Henderson seemed to pick up on this early and focused extra attention on the girl, putting her in charge of the kitchen crew.

"You let them know what you need," he said, placing his hand on the girl's shoulder: "You guys are a team, you need to communicate."

The exercise was a mini demonstration of the mantra Henderson shares with Fortune 500 companies, financial and learning institutions, culinary and technical schools, state and federal corrections and social service agencies around the country. The former convict turned celebrity chef believes that everyone, including people from troubled backgrounds, have the potential to be productive and successful. The skills that allowed him to run a million dollar illegal drug empire in the late 1980s, he says, are the same skills that helped him succeed in the culinary and corporate environments. The key, Henderson preaches, is "changing the product."

Within a half hour, the kids were humming along like a seasoned kitchen crew--cutting, boiling and mashing potatoes, shucking corn and dropping floured drum sticks into bubbling hot grease. As they worked, Henderson shared his story of finding his love for cooking in the federal penitentiary.

Courtesy of the St. Louis City Juvenile Detention Center
The chef wasn't hesitant to correct the youth as they performed their tasks:

"Stand up straight." "Quit talking." "You can't slouch and run your mouths on a real job." "Remember, smile. No one wants a frowning worker," Henderson said while adding heavy doses of compliments as well: "That'll work, thank you." "Good job crew," he repeats often.

"Who wants to be the taster?" the chef asked after the first batch of hot chicken was taken out of the fryer. All the kids shouted "me!" Henderson again placed his hand on Flo's shoulder. "My assistant manager here, she'll be the taster."

For the first time that day, I noticed the girl's brilliant smile.

Pugh Jaunell, the young, muscled counselor who oversees the boys, noticed something different about the kids. He hadn't had to check any of their behavior that day, "which is unusual."

"They're actually paying attention, which is again, unusual," Jaunell added.

Nikeisha Fortenbery, assistant program coordinator, was equally impressed with the performance of Henderson's six helpers. She commented on the smiles most of the kids displayed as they hustled around the kitchen:

"This was great for them," Fortenbery told me. "They're smiling because, today, they can see themselves differently. They were allowed to actually use their talents and create something they can share with their friends."

Two hours after the cooking session started, the food was ready and placed in huge metal trays. The six kids lined up behind the chow line to begin serving. The other youth, also dressed in red and green (Flo was the only girl that day), filed in. Each of the boys entered with their hands behind their backs as if handcuffed. Apparently, they've been told to walk this way in groups.

The young detainees were called to the chow line table by table and, along with the staff, consumed the food with obvious gusto.

Henderson stood before the entire group after dinner. He called his six workers to the front of the room and demanded that all in attendance thank them for their hard work. The young workers smile sheepishly among the modest applause.

"I'm so proud of my babies," Ms. Gerry, the center's cook, said. "They're really enjoying this. They're getting the attention they need. This will be a lasting experience for them."

After the acknowledgements, Henderson began to address the group. Earlier, he had noticed a tiny, skinny, 10-year-old boy among the detainees. He had the child sit close to him as he shared his story of crime, redemption and unprecedented success with the group.

The other hardened boys didn't seem particularly impressed with Henderson's story. This was the point where the chef confronted the boy he had accused of "mugging" him.

Instead of berating the teen further, Henderson asked Nathan Graves, the detention center's program coordinator, to play the DVD he'd brought along. It opened with Oprah Winfrey praising Chef Jeff for overcoming obstacles and turning his life around. Images on the DVD showed Henderson as a drug dealer, a convict and, later, as a chef with some the finest restaurants in the country, including the Marriot, Ritz Carlton, Hotel Bel-Air, L'Ermitage, Caesar's Palace and the Bellagio Hotel where he became the first African-American executive chef at the prestigious establishment.

Somehow the video made Henderson's story more real for the youth. All of a sudden, they paid rapt attention to every word. After the DVD ended, the chef segued into raw and real dialogue about prison as the destination for poor choices. He urged the kids to examine their weaknesses and mistakes, build on their unique gifts and abandon "homies" and activities that caused them to wind up in the facility.

"A smart man listens to wise advice. An ignorant fool doesn't," he lectured.

One could only marvel at the transformation of the six kitchen helpers and most of the boys in just four hours.

"These kids are looking for discipline and an adult who'll be straight with them," Henderson told me earlier. "They're just like you and me, they have dreams and ambitions. They want opportunities but, sadly, they come from neighborhoods were dreams are dashed and opportunities are few."

As the presentation ended and the boys were leaving the dining hall, Henderson pulled the smart-alecky teen aside for personal consul. Attitude gone, the boy asked the chef how he could contact him. Henderson gave him his card and promised he'd visit the juvenile center again.

It was obvious that a light bulb of possibilities had clicked on in the minds of the youthful attendees. Unfortunately, Chef Jeff can't stay with kids he motivates around the country. More than likely, that bulb will be quickly dimmed by the overwhelming negative influences in their lives, neighborhoods and environments. I couldn't help but wonder what would happen if, as Ms. Gerry mentioned, the youth constantly received "the attention they need?"

One of the counselors brought Flo to me after the presentation. Henderson had told a few staff members that I was working with a local group and we planned to start a summer program for at-risk youth in North St. Louis.

"This young lady has so much potential," the counselor told me.

Flo jotted down her mother's name and phone number on my yellow pad. This young lady, whom I first considered hard and tough, exhibited a shy smile as she plead for an opportunity:

"Call me. I really need to do something, please."

VIDEO: Renowned chef and author Jeff Henderson uses the kitchen to teach important life lessons at the St. Louis Juvenile Detention Center.