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:
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.
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.
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.
QUESTIONS, COMMENTS, ENGAGE?