Thursday, April 12, 2012

Reverse Integration: It's Time to Come Back Home

by Sylvester Brown, Jr
Orignially published in Op/Ed News
April 12, 2012
As the warm weather approaches, certain things are inevitable; there will be lots of flowers, travel, outdoor activities and murder.
In metropolitan areas across the nation, the numbers of young people-particularly black and Latino youth-who will be gunned down, locked up and permanently locked out of any possibility of living long, safe and productive lives will rise. With an economy still suffering from the recession, with minority youth already experiencing disproportionate poverty and unemployment rates, crime will rise. With illegal drugs considered the viable option to get paid, the death of young people in urban areas is sadly predictable.

This nationwide pandemic won't be solved by politicians pursuing a deficit-reduction plan that will eliminate or further shred safety net programs for the poor and disadvantaged. To date, the response to illegal drug activity and youth violence has been incarceration. With almost two million people (the majority of which are Black and Latino)caught up in the criminal justice system, a cash-strapped nation must face the fact that this problem cannot be locked away.

Therefore, it is imperative that every day, compassionate people grapple with the issue of youth-related murder and death and come up with innovative, in-the-community remedies to stem the problem.

Why in-the-community? Ask yourself these questions:

What happens to children who grow up in a neighborhoods where selling drugs is considered the only viable option to generate income?
Can young people ever see themselves as entrepreneurs when there are very few successful examples of entrepreneurism in their neighborhoods?

How can children in communities, defined daily as "bad, violent or deadly," ever take pride in their neighborhoods or in those who look like them?

I was born and raised in St. Louis, a town that has topped the "most dangerous" list of cities because of its homicides for at least the past 10 years. I lived in poor neighborhoods and was educated in public schools. Times were hard back then but at least there was this sense of community. Elders and neighbors could scold kids publicly because they knew their parents. Preachers and teachers lived in the same neighborhoods. The kids hung out at neighborhood rec centers where adults served as coaches and mentors. There were a number of small black-owned businesses where we could at least see how adults made money. Sometimes we made a little summer-time change doing various odd jobs for the business owners. Those things seem to be missing in low-income black neighborhoods today. Kids today are on their own.

Back in 2004, when I worked for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, I wrote a column in response to numerous articles about fighting and violence at Vashon, a black high school in downtown St. Louis.

Curious about community influences, I decided to see what the students saw on their morning trek to school. I parked my car about 10 blocks away and walked to the high school. On the way, I passed package liquor stores, a rent-by-the-hour motel connected to a nightclub, billboards promoting menthol cigarettes like Kool and Newport and signs hawking alcoholic beverages like Colt 45 and a strange cognac-based drink called "HPNOTIQ." Unleashed dogs, some quite mean-looking, eyed me as I passed a block-long junk yard, slum properties and trash-filled, heavily-weeded lots with littered with abandoned buildings where any child could be easily abducted and molested.

My heart beat rapidly after that mere 25 minute walk. I couldn't wait to get to my car and drive to safety. It's a luxury Vashon's students don't have.

Psychologically-scarring images that kids see in their neighborhoods every day were evident during that walk. For me, it spoke to the generational realities that keep minorities unemployed, impoverished, imprisoned and among those disproportionately sent to morgues. What I saw was a mokery of the s ocietal pro gress the civil rights movement was supposed to accelerate.

There was a socioeconomic aftereffect in the era of integration that has had a long-term negative impact on minority neighborhoods. Blacks en masse abandoned their neighborhoods, businesses and schools in search of nicer homes, equal employment and better education promised if they were allowed access to privileges afforded whites.

The sad epilogue of integration is a tale of "white flight" to mostly all-white suburbs; segregated, under-funded public schools and unbalanced minority high school dropout rates and poverty and crime in neighborhoods that resemble Third World war zones.

Integration was and is a laudable goal but the application was flawed and devastating. Gone were teachers who lived in the same area as their students. Mom & pop stores, black owned restaurants, hotels, grocers and other businesses that catered to a demographic denied access to white-owned establishments all but disappeared. Gone, too, were examples of legal, in-the-hood commerce, middle class black families and the sanctity of "community."

Wholesale abandonment of black communities nationwide was too big a price to pay for the long-denied rewards of living and working amongst white people. It seems to me that the only redress is a collective return to these areas. I'm not just talking about bodies moving back into these communities nor am I talking about black folk exclusively. I'm speaking of a return of hearts, minds, passions and collective efforts to reestablish independent schools, businesses and organizations aimed at bringing stability back to deserted urban areas.

This summer, I'm working with a local nonprofit to kick off a summer youth program called the "Sweet Potato Project." To be brief, youth will be paid a minimum wage salary over the summer to plant, harvest, process, package and market a product they've developed that was grown in their own community. Think Girl Scout Cookies with an urban, do-for-self twist. The effort includes a cadre of supporters including professors, counselors and horticulturalists. Churches, secular organizations, individuals and parents will be asked to commit to buying the products the youth have created. We're also reaching out to neighborhood stores and, hopefully, a chain store that will agree to sell the sweet potato pies, cookies or whatever related product the kids come up with.

This is just one small effort but the hope is to plant the seed in the minds of at-risk youth that they do have ways to generate money other than illegal drug sales. We're also hoping to spur community engagement around the idea that vibrant economic activity can once again return to minority communities.

Today, a small group of St. Louis students will create and market their own product. Tomorrow, who knows, food may be grown right out of long-ignored disadvantaged neighborhoods, packaged, canned and distributed regionally and all over the country. Jobs and small businesses, like grocery stores, bakeries and coffee shops can be the spin-off results of these community-based endeavors.

It's a hope, a start. It's an invitation for diverse hearts and minds to come back home. It's a chance to build communities of opportunity where children can engage with caring adults. It can be the dawn of a the day when kids can walk to school with pride in tact and imaginations ignited.
Sylvester Brown, Jr. is a St. Louis, MO-based writer and founder of When We Dream Together, a nonprofit dedicated to urban revitalization.