Thursday, April 26, 2012

A Call-Out for Community Change: The Sweet Potato Project

by Sylvester Brown, Jr.

What happens to a child who grows up in a neighborhood were selling drugs is considered the only viable option to generate income? Can children see themselves as entrepreneurs when there are very few successful examples in their neighborhoods? Can young people in neighborhoods defined daily as “bad, violent or deadly, take pride in themselves or their communities?

The answers to those questions are reflected in the numbers of minority youth who drop out of high school, live in poverty or are headed for juvenile detention, prisons and perpetual unemployment. We can’t stem the negative numbers without drastic change within the communities where children are reared and influenced.

This summer, the North Area Community Development Corporation (NACDC), a 501(c-3) agency in partnership with the nonprofit, When We Dream Together, Inc. and other engaged individuals will launch the Sweet Potato Project in North St. Louis.

This pilot program is designed to teach a group of high school-aged children that there are indeed opportunities within their reach.  Young people will be paid a minimum wage salary during the summer to plant and harvest sweet potatoes, create a product and learn how to market and distribute what they’ve created. We will nurture the spirit of entrepreneurism in kids who will go out and sell their product and receive commissions after the school year begins. The idea is to show them that there are viable (and legal) means within their communities in which to make money.

A network that includes horticulturists, educational professionals, advisors and business people have volunteered their services to implement the program. Antonio French, the Alderman of the 21st Ward has offered space in his ward to hold classes and grow the produce. We are excited to partner with Ald. French who has launched several laudable efforts to revitalize an area that has been besieged with crime, poverty and other long-term socio-economic problems. Additionally, we take great pride in working in a neighborhood in desperate need of innovative ideas aimed at fostering community pride and economic independence.

Sweet Potato Project administrators will work to build a core group of consumers derived from churches, secular groups, corporations and people within disadvantaged communities who will commit to purchasing the products. We envision a marketing program, somewhat like Girl Scout Cookies, where consumers instinctively understand that their purchases serve a holistic cause.

With this project, we hope to a plant a seed of possibilities that can grow to serve many more youth and eventually adult populations in disadvantaged areas. Imagine the positive economic and psychological impact of a large scale food distribution system in communities where small business opportunities and hope are rare commodities.

The forecast for disadvantaged youth in our region is dire. In this post-recession era, youth unemployment is still disproportionally high, especially in low income areas. As Washington struggles to reduce the nation’s deficit, safety nets for the poor have been significantly reduced or eliminated. This is the time of year when criminal activity and death rates among young people start to rise. We have little choice but create community-based efforts that stem these negatives in low-income areas.  

Consider this commentary as a community call-out. It’s an invitation extended to caring individuals and companies in our region to bring their passions, skills and resources to a worthwhile community-based endeavor that will employ and empower young people today. An all-hands-on-deck approach is imperative if we are to convince these young people that they’ve not been abandoned and help is at the ready.

There are roles for everyone in this project. We need individuals and professionals in the areas of horticulture, food processing, recipe development, packaging and marketing. We’re looking for people who’ll volunteer a week or more for consulting, etiquette training, youth development, money management classes and transportation. We’d these youth to go on excursions to local established businesses such as Sweetie Pie’s, World Wide Technology, Andy’s Seasoning and other entities so they can see people who look like them operating successful business enterprises.

New York Times best-selling
author, Chef Jeff Henderson
Of course, fund-raising is crucial and we are actively engaged in the process of gaining sponsors and donors. Nationally known TV personality and New York Times best-selling author Chef Jeff Henderson has committed to serve as keynote speaker for a fund-raising event on May 23rd (more info to come).

In a few days, NACDC will launch its website which will have more information about volunteering, donating and providing in-kind services. For now, please contact me at for more information or to let me know what role you’d like to serve. You will be alerted about upcoming meetings and events.   

Time is of the essence but we are in steady motion on all fronts. I am confident that everything will be in place to start the pilot project this summer. We have no unrealistic expectations. Massive change will not happen overnight. Crime and the socio-economic factors that fuel it will likely increase this summer, this year. However, we can move in a new direction. Today we can start reclaiming a few of our youth and embed an empowering message of hope and change in long-neglected communities.

I invite you to join me, the NACDC and its partners as we launch the Sweet Potato Project in North St. Louis this summer. This is an invitation to empower children and neighborhoods. It’s a community call-out to plant a powerful seed.