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

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