Tuesday, December 17, 2013

“We can do this!”: Reflections on my Recent Bill Cosby Interview in DC

Me in Washington DC, Dec. 15 & 16, 2013

“Mr. Brown, we can do this!” 

I remember those words most from the phone conversation I had with comedian/actor/philanthropist Dr. William Cosby in 2005. At the time, I was a Post-Dispatch columnist who’d written about Cosby’s 2004 controversial comments during a 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education even. There, Cosby lit into "the lower economic people"-criticizing the way they dressed, cursed, loitered, committed crimes and their parents who, apparently, failed to raise them correctly.

Long story abbreviated; I wrote that Cosby-as America’s “favorite dad” legitimized the opinions of racists and bigots and validated their stereotypes of poor, black people. As a result of what I wrote, Cosby called me. We discussed the matter, his passions and perspective. I brought him to St. Louis that year. We had a packed house and, thankfully, were able to expand the dialogue.

The "2005 Call Out" with Bill Cosby

This past weekend I was flown to Washington DC to be interviewed about my experience with Cosby for a feature-length documentary to be released sometime next year. It was my first time back in DC since 2009 when my visit led to my termination at the Post-Dispatch. At the time, I had no idea that accepting an invitation to a conference (at my own expense, mind you) with international leaders working to build sustainable communities worldwide would be deemed a “violation of ethics.” But, that’s all water under the bridge. I can honestly say, that my ill-timed departure put me on the path to the Sweet Potato Project-a fulfilling effort to empower young, urban entrepreneurs who will lead a movement to establish sustainable, economically-vibrant North St. Louis neighborhoods.

Much-needed perspective was my gift after spending about four hours interviewing with the documentary’s production crew. Renowned comedian, St. Louisan and health guru, Dick Gregory was wrapping up his interview before I started my session. I had interviewed Gregory around the same time I wrote about Cosby’s comments. Gregory had, in fact, introduced Cosby the night he made remarks that set off a national firestorm. He and Cosby have been friends for decades. It was Gregory who, during our May 2004 PD interview, told me I had every right to disagree with his friend, Dr. Cosby:

Dick Gregory and me in Washington DC

"There's 10,000 compassionate ways he could have said what he said,” Gregory told me. “Of course there's a problem facing black youth, but there's a problem facing America. There are problems with education, there are problems with drugs, there's problems with television violence. If blacks are on the lowest rung of the social and economic ladder, of course we're going to suffer more."

My disagreements aside, reflecting on my time with Cosby resurrected his unspoken challenge for me to write more, do more, and be more actively involved in the battle to save young people from poverty, prison and early deaths. For more than 25 years, I had been writing about the challenges black people face. But I was just a “talker” when I needed to be more of a “doer.”

When the creator of Fat Albert and Little Bill, “I Spy’s” debonair detective Alexander “Scotty” Scott and the beloved Dr. Heathcliff Huxtable said “we can do this” it was like encouragement from a Grio; a challenge from a respected grandparent, a gauntlet passed from an esteemed elder. It planted a seed of pro-action in me that-eight years later-bloomed into something.

Hours before boarding my flight to Washington, I spent the day at a local holiday event with some of the Sweet Potato Project youth as they sold cookies made from this year’s yield. Away from the daily hustle and bustle and fundraising efforts, I had a chance to reflect and appreciate the progress the North Area Community Development Corporation and I have had in less than two years.
More than 35 teens have been impacted by our program. Even those who have left, gone on to college or have been swallowed up by the distractions of dysfunctional low-income communities now know they have viable, legal options to make money in their own communities. Next year, we’ll recruit 35 more kids. We will secure at least 10 more vacant lots to grow produce. And, through strategic institutional partnerships we will actually be able to create more food-based products and buy produce from residents. Unbelievably, we will begin the empowering process of engaging in economic activity in targeted disadvantaged neighborhoods.

2005 Cosby event at Harris Stowe State College
Dick Gregory seemed ecstatic about our program's possibilities. Cosby wasn’t there for the interviews. That’s too bad. I would have loved to have thanked him for the inspiration he gave me back in 2005. I would have shook his hand and said, “Mr. Cosby, you were absolutely right. We can do this.”


Donations for 2014 program are desperately needed. Please donate today (click below):

Thursday, October 17, 2013

The Pioneers are Back

I can’t express how good it felt to have harvested our sweet potato crop last Saturday with 16 of the 25 kids of this summer’s Sweet Potato Project. I knew they face many challenges with some struggling to get loans for college, find jobs or just deal with the plethora of pressures and challenges young people grapple with, especially those living in our disadvantaged neighborhoods.


We delivered our yield to Salus Processing Center inside St. Louis University’s College for Public Health and Social Justice. The youth met Chef Steve Jenkins, assistant professor and director of SLU’s Food Innovation and Entrepreneurship program. Thorough a wonderful partnership with the University, Jenkins will help our youth produce, bake and their distribute sweet potato cookies and perhaps another product this year.

Saint Louis University

Sweet Potato Project youth chat with Chef Steve Jenkins, assistant professor and director of SLU’s Food Innovation and Entrepreneurship program. Chef Steve will help students bake cookies.
What’s so cool is that We've gotten the kids back together. I know some of “the stuff” they’re dealing with. The ones with no job, no way to attend college and are susceptible to peer pressure are my major concern. I quietly worried about the gap between the time summer classes ended and the lack of funds to resume classes in the fall. But thanks to a few kind donors and another wonderful $15,000 matching grant challenge (see details below), the board and I decided to officially start classes and cookie production.

What’s more significant about our gathering again is that we’re following up on a promise. I've told the Sweet Potato Project youth that they are urban pioneers. By example, we will prove that produce grown in North St. Louis can be made in viable marketable products. Our relationship with St. Louis University puts us ahead of our goals. Our program is in line with the department’s desire to grow more fresh food in the city and introduce healthy, food-based product lines to consumers. More important, they are just as anxious as we are to create a food-based economy in North St. Louis that will eventually lead to job and small business creation.

The teens aren't the only pioneers in this effort. The Sweet Potato Project is a grassroots effort that has been sustained by so many kind and helpful individuals, donors and corporations.  

The youth are back in the fold and we’re ready to get cooking. Our path is promising but we still have challenges ahead. Please read the attached “What We Have/What We Need” mailer below. If you can help, please do.

To help us reach our matching grant please click button below:

Thursday, September 12, 2013

The Deal

Sept. 12, 2013


There I was, working in the food pantry of St. Elizabeth Mother of John the Baptist Catholic Church. At my side, preparing boxes for the needy was an 18-year-old one day and a 19-year-year old on the next. Both teens are part of the Sweet Potato Project. We were making amends for a transgression; paying a penance, trying to regain trust.

 It was, after all, part of our deal.

 It all started on the last day of our summer session. Excitement was in the air. It was payday and, in just two days, the youth would host an end-of-session event that would feature performances, testimonials and the sweet potato recipes they had discovered this year. The good times came to a crashing halt when I learned that three of my boys who had been asked to help out in the food pantry were accused of stealing a volunteer’s cell phone.

 I was livid.

The church had allowed us to conduct classes this summer at its affiliate school, St. Louis Catholic Academy. The supportive staff had become loving mentors and had nothing but compliments about our youth-until that fateful day.

“How dare you jeopardize this program,” I yelled at the three boys. “After all we've learned about dignity, responsibility and self respect, how dare you damage the reputation of this program and your fellow students?”

The rock-headed teens formed an alliance. No one would indict the other or admit they had stolen the phone or return it -not at first anyway.

 The other kids were paid and dismissed. The three teens had to stay behind to face the wrath of myself, Herman Noah, board member with the North Area Community Development Corporation and Tallis Piaget, a local author and dedicated volunteer this summer. Those boys weren't leaving that room until the phone was returned.

 Eventually, after a good dressing down, one of the boys fessed up. The phone was retrieved and returned to the elderly volunteer. 

“How dare you jeopardize this program. After all we've learned about dignity, responsibility and self respect, how dare you damage the reputation of this program and your fellow students?” 

“Why did you steal the phone,” I asked the culprit who will remain anonymous. “Because it was red,” he stupidly answered. This kid was a member of the “Bloods.” He’d been in the gang since elementary school. In some twisted way, he’s still captivated by the gang’s color.

 The boys were sent home without pay. I told them that I needed to talk with Mr. Noah and Tallis about their punishment. I also needed to reflect on the advice some my students who started with the program last year had given me. Barry and Myke in particular had accused me of being too lax with some of the more rowdy students this year. I should “fire them,” they repeatedly insisted.

 Their point was well taken but I challenged them: “Listen guys, we have a group of students this year from some of the poorest, most crime-filled neighborhoods in the city. They’re used to being suspended, shut out, kicked out or fired from something. I want this program to be different. I want us to find a way to turn the worse kids around and I need your help doing it.”

It’s a huge mandate for young people but the Sweet Potato Project is unlike traditional public or charter schools. We want the knuckleheads and the hard-to-reach. We’re dedicated to creating a generation of urban entrepreneurs. And, if we are serious about creating jobs and businesses in the North St. Louis, we’re going to have to find ways to empower the dismissed and discarded. Some are beyond rescue but we have to create avenues of redemption for those willing to step up to the challenge.

After reflections and discussions, I contacted the three boys:

“Since you all took part in this theft, you all must pay restitution,” I said. I offered them a deal. If they went back to the food pantry, humbled themselves and faced their accusers and worked two days for free; I’d give them their last paycheck and allow them back into the program.

Two of the boys showed up on different days. When I accompanied the first to the pantry, a senior volunteer said she didn't trust him and didn't want him there. It was understandable. However, the elderly volunteer who actually had her phone stolen disagreed with that decision. She allowed the boy to work under her supervision. I marveled at her gently but stern grandmotherly advice as she put the boy to work. “He’s a good kid and a hard worker,” she assured me at the end of the day. “I just hope you've learned something today,” she told my student.

She allowed the boy to work under her supervision. I marveled at her gently but stern grandmotherly advice as she put the boy to work.

She wasn't there when I returned with the other student-the one who actually stole the phone but he told me she had called him. She had forgiven him for his deed and gave him the same advice she’d given his partner. As we walked home after working that day, I continued the lecture. “You have leadership ability young man. After all, you convinced a group of gullible young men to cover for your crime. Unfortunately, you have a gift that you’re using for evil,” I said.

“If you let me, I’ll show how to turn your weaknesses into your strengths.”

He said he’d try. Parting, I could only hope he and his wayward cohorts will learn something from the incident. There’s a way to reclaim dignity and the trust of others if you man-up after you mess up.

He is but one of the kids I’ve written about that give me great concern. They’re not in school, have no jobs and they are prone to dangerous distractions. I’m frustrated that we still haven’t raised enough money to resume classes and get them working a couple days a week maintaining the sweet potato lots. It’s not a lot of money but at least I can give them something while keeping my eyes on them and, hopefully, inspiring them. We reached out to these kids and welcomed the chaos that comes with their environments.

We’ve sparked their imaginations. I’ve told them that they will be the urban pioneers who will show the city that we can indeed plant produce and create products from North St. Louis.

A promise is a promise. I’m not giving up on them. I can’t.

 After all, we made a deal.

Sylvester Brown, Jr. is a St. Louis-based writer and founder and director of the Sweet Potato Project, a nonprofit program in St. Louis that teaches at-risk youth "do-for-self" entrepreneurial skills. For more information visit: sweetpotatoprojectstl.org

Monday, September 9, 2013

The Education of Mr. Brown

Photo by Benjamin Gandhi-Shepard
“Mr. Brown, what are you doing on here?”

I don’t know if Briana, one of my Sweet Potato Project teens, was really all that surprised to see me step on Metro Bus #74. We both live near O’Fallon Park and, on many a day this summer, I drove her or her classmates to or from class. All 25 youth enrolled this year knows Mr. Brown drives an unpredictable “hoopty.” They also know I live right across the street from the vacant lot in the 21st ward where we’re growing our sweet potatoes. I’ve been very honest with them about our struggles to raise funds for the program and their salaries.

“If the money’s not there,” I tell them, “we have to get creative to make it work!”

In other words, the youth know I’m an ordinary guy who’s trying to empower them to do something extraordinary in their neighborhoods. Personally, I think it’s important they know that someone who looks like them, lives where they live and faces the challenges they face still has the power to make a difference.

“So,” you might ask, “what can a guy who drives a crappy car and rides the bus teach kids about “entrepreneurism?”

My answer is three-fold. First, I’ve lived long enough to know that my current situation doesn’t define me. I’ve been to the top of my professional career here in St. Louis; I’ve had the limelight and stature but still felt a huge void. Today, I live a more challenging but much richer life.

Photo by Benjamin Gandhi-Shepard

Secondly, I’m not the only influence in their lives. We've brought all sorts of successful entrepreneurs and professionals to class to share their stories, advice and expertise. And lastly, I maintain that part of being an entrepreneur, is having the determination and grit to outlast the hardships and creatively use whatever talent, skill or gift you have to beat back obstacles and make your own way.

The Sweet Potato Project is an entrepreneurial endeavor. And I’ve told the SPP teens that they’re just as responsible as the adults in ensuring its success-not just for them but for their siblings and the next generation. I tell them with all sincerity that they are “urban pioneers” charged with creating future opportunities and jobs for others in North St. Louis by planting produce and proving that we can turn our yields into marketable products.

The students have shown me that they get it and actually appreciate that I think they can make such change. For instance, last year, 2012, we actually ran out of money before the summer session ended. I will never forget; it was a Friday and I explained to the 15 kids we had at the time that we could no longer pay them their bi-weekly stipend and we’d have no hard feelings if they chose not to show up the next week. On Monday, I was the first to arrive. Not a single student was there. I was heartbroken. Then at 9am on the dot, one student walked around the corner, then two, then another and another. By 9:15am, all 15 showed up. The beautiful thing was they showed up with ideas:

“Mr. Brown, let’s have a carwash to raise some money; Mr. Brown let’s do a dance or a skate party or …”on and on they went. Priceless!

This, I believe, is part of what makes our program so unique. It’s geared to motivate and inspire those young people-most from the poorest zip codes in our city. They have been stereotyped, dismissed. They or their neighborhoods have been written off, considered loss causes. I know that-even if they’re not involved in the illegal drug trade -our kids are sadly aware of its existence in their neighborhoods. They know that it’s a sure way to make money. We challenge the media’s glorification of the “gangsta lifestyle” by stressing there’s opportunity right outside their doors. But they must tap into the hidden and unexplored potential they have inside and outside in “the hood.”

Photo by Benjamin Gandhi-Shepard
We have to stop underestimating these kids. They can quickly assess who’s “for real” and who’s talking down to them. We may be well-intentioned as hell but when we solely focus on the negativities of their peers or poor neighborhoods; we’re putting down their parents, siblings, friends and places they live, laugh, play and struggle and find comfort. A few of my kids have a hard edge and I know why. At young ages, some have lived lives that make my childhood look like recess in Ladue. Let me give you a couple examples:

Once, I had given Darryeon, 19, a ride home. As I approached his duplex off Grand near the big white, water tower, I noticed a detached bumper, broken glass and car parts all over the street in front of a dented light post. “Oh man, someone had an accident in front of your house, huh?” I said.

“Ah, no, Mr. Brown,” Darryeon answered-disturbingly nonchalant, “They were shooting last night and somebody got shot and hit that pole.”

One of my students, Frederick, lost his brother to violence during our summer session this year as did Charnell, who told us her brother was brutally assassinated gangland style two years ago.  Another student, Nadia, said she saw folks shot near her front lawn in North St. Louis.

We work to get the youth to see the economic opportunity within the chaos and realize that they are best-suited to capitalize on these opportunities. Our first mandate is to have them read the news and start the day with a conversation about local or world events and activities. It’s interesting how most want to talk about ghastly crimes, shootings, murders or what’s going on with rappers, sports figures or celebrities. I push them to go deeper-tell me what disciplines it took to make that rapper or sports figure successful. I ask that they read about new social media, gaming or electronic technologies and how they can make their lives better. If they want to talk about shootings, I urge them to explore the socio-economic factors in particular neighborhoods that breed crime, hopelessness and violence and come up with solutions.

Click image to read student's bios

Unless you point it out, our youth have no idea how they already influence the world. Their music, gestures, slang and clothing styles have been greedily co-opted by mainstream society.  You can’t even go to a football or baseball game without hearing hip-hop music. Our kids, no matter how poor, manage to find the deals to stay sharp with coordinating tennis shoes, shirts, skirts, hair-dos and more. We had a class assignment this summer where they were asked to develop their own media campaigns. Within two hours, the teens came up with product ideas that could make billionaires like Russell Simmons or Jay-Z even more billions. We happened to have a chemist in class when one of the teams detailed their idea for eye and hair color-changing candy. The chemist was blown away. His colleague is currently working on a variation of such a product, he told the class.

This, my friends, is the sort of genius, that’s walking our streets, filling our classrooms that’s being mostly ignored or unnoticed.

Again, I know why. Our kids have a lot of “stuff” that they bring to over-crowded and underfunded classrooms. These distractions keep them from making real world connections between what’s being taught in class and what they can apply in their own worlds, neighborhoods or blocks. Unfortunately, many who see no urban application; tune out at early ages.

The 25 kids I had this summer sent me home sometimes with no voice from yelling, no energy from dealing with their issues and no idea how to inspire or keep them engaged and motivated. But then, the next day or the next week, they’d arouse my hopes. Each kid had a journal and as I read their reflections, I was uplifted by the little things-a speaker, an entrepreneur’s visit, a group discussion, a business visit or something else that really made them think.

There was that first day of class when I heard one of my young men-a former gang banger-say he’d quit the gang after his little girl was born. This youth turned in a passionate essay about senseless deaths in his community and how he wanted to play a role in ending it.

Among their other talents; Charnel is a gifted poet, Mirramoni is an illustrator, Frederick is a wannabe comedian, Keyundra is a tenacious cook; Barry and Myke are my strong, dependable leaders who can produce music; Zavier is a mischievous kid who happens to speak German. Micheal is an all-around scholar and athlete. Jason, Jonetta and Darryeon have amazing work ethics. Charles, Andivar and Nadia are smooth (too smooth actually) but they have that unique and magnetic gift of gab. Elesha, Briana and Jenea were just three of the headstrong young women in class who demonstrated the ability and discipline to plan and execute events. Keon, Raheim, Martez, Paul, Darion and Keith are all jocks, who were quickly distracted but, with direction, showed me that they can indeed step up as valuable team players or go-to workers.

Photo by Benjamin Gandhi-Shepard
What I love about this grassroots effort is that the youth are designing the program. I interviewed the 2012 Class and they helped me tweak what we were doing. Some of our kids walk from one part of town to the Penrose Neighborhood where we held classes. The last thing they wanted to do was sit through long lectures when they arrived. So we worked to build in self-esteem-boosting, get-out-of-your-shell, conflict resolution exercises and activities and took them on as many on-site business visits as possible. We walked blocks in the Central West End and in North St. Louis neighborhood to write down and reflect on the different types of businesses, services and billboards in each area. The idea was to get the teens thinking about commerce, advertising supply & demand and ways that they could implement what they admired in high-income neighborhoods in low-income communities.

The point is, for nine weeks, these young people had their worth validated. Don’t get me wrong, we didn't change the trajectory of their lives in less than three months. We just planted a seed. We allowed them to dream from where they are, not from where we hope they will be four or eight years from now.

Early this year, I told the North Area Community Development Corporation's board that I had serious doubts about starting the program again this year. With no start-up funds, I just didn’t think I could rebuild my career while raising money to operate the program. Then last year’s kids started calling, wanting to start up again and bring their friends. I committed.

Photo by Benjamin Gandhi-Shepard
With the help of the Incarnate Word Foundation and World Wide Technology, Inc., and a few more donations, I raised almost $30k and we were able to run the summer program and pay stipends. That was the wonderful part. The challenge now is raising the money for the rest of the year.  A few of our students have enrolled in community college or four year universities. Others are back in high school but there are about six who are on the cusp (no college/no job) that have me extremely worried. I’d like to get them back to working two or three days a week just to keep them engaged and out of trouble.

We've had some very positive media coverage this year and I've been contacted by some promising funding sources for 2014. I've also made contact with some wonderful organizations such as Gateway Greening, the Catholic Campaign for Human Development and several corporations. Collaboration with these agencies and funding sources promises an even more structured and rewarding program next year.

This year, we had “friends of friends” – young people who came to class, listened to speakers and participated in our exercises without pay. The Sweet Potato Project youth and their friends are actually showing me what they need to succeed. We are indeed onto something powerful.

It’s kinda scary but I've made the commitment to stay focused mainly on raising the funds to finish out the year, start weekend classes, harvest the produce, get products into distribution, build the coalitions and partnerships that will help us create a programming structure that can motivate and educate the youth while addressing their many, many needs.

The means of transportation is not important. The kids know Mr. Brown is out to change young lives and save communities. More important, they know we’re riding together.

Photo by Benjamin Gandhi-Shepard

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Thursday, September 5, 2013

Symbolism over Substance: Reflections on the 21st Century March on Washington

by Sylvester Brown, Jr.
Originally published in Op-Ed News / 09-05-13

The 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington, August 24, 2013
photo courtesy of the Atlanta Journal Constitution

It's taken me a couple weeks to put the recent commemoration of the 1963 "March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom" into some perspective. It was a moving, honorable event that paid homage to the sacrifices of many brave and courageous souls who put their lives and careers on the line to change the trajectory of a nation embedded in race-based oppression. There were stirring, eloquent speeches from President Barack Obama, the National Urban League's, Marc Morial, Rev. Al Sharpton, the NAACP's Ben Jealous and others. But beyond the symbolic celebration of a bygone occasion, I found myself questioning the leadership and still hungry for much-needed direction.

Where was the outlined plan for Congress and the Obama Administration that would push them to immediately address the disproportionate woes black people endure today? After all the speeches, what were black people supposed to do to reclaim their communities and their children's lives? Why was their no clear agenda in this time of social, educational and economic crisis?

Some will say that the speakers did in fact refer to a "21st century agenda" and that Obama-speaking at the Lincoln Memorial-where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke 50 years ago-did mention the " growing inequality" in America and the need for "a fair shot for the many." But what was really said? More important, was not said.
Symbolism is a wonderful thing but it's time for a do-for-self plan with substance that's aimed at creating alternative systems to stop the hemorrhaging and begin healing societal wounds inflicted centuries ago.
To me, the event was more of a reflection on the past without a definitive diagram for our ominous future. Civil rights leaders called for economic parity, equity in education, assured voting rights, an elimination of racial health care disparities and serious criminal justice reform. But what does that mean? Who were they calling on? Washington? With the drums of war once again beating, with deep partisan stagnation and one side stubbornly stuck on hamstringing the president; who really gives a hoot about the needs of Obama's most loyal voter base? Do they really believe that a Democratic Party so afraid to even utter the "R" word will actually do anything about America's "race problem?"
These are serious times, especially for black people. We are the most acute victims of failing educational, economic and criminal justice systems. Symbolism is a wonderful thing but it's time for a do-for-self plan with substance that's aimed at creating alternative systems to stop the hemorrhaging and begin healing societal wounds inflicted centuries ago.
Obama, aware of the potential conservative backlash, cautiously sandwiched his call for "equality" within the context of his second term agenda. The continuing civil rights struggle was woven into his efforts to convince Congress to raise taxes on the wealthiest Americans, pass immigration reform, fund his infrastructure and jobs bill and lower the cost of college.
It's now apparent that electing the first black president and having high profile African Americans sit in the White House came with a quiet directive to tone down anything "black" or, if necessary, keep it within the broader context of all marginalized Americans. But we can't treat cancer by calling it acne. Hundreds of years of race-based oppression and economic exclusion have resulted in metastasized disparities for past and future generations of black people. These disparities are not moreimportant than what gays and lesbians, immigrants or poor whites grapple with today-they are just drastically different.
We can't treat cancer by calling it acne. Hundreds of years of race-based oppression and economic exclusion have resulted in metastasized disparities for past and future generations of black people.
There is a time and place for the "equalization" of our collective woes but the 50 th anniversary commemoration event was not apropos for politically correct niceties. Consider these lopsided statistics: Between 2005 and 2010, the net worth of blacks fell by more than 55 percent as opposed to a 15 percent drop for whites. In 2010, 38.2 percent of black children lived in poverty. For the children of Whites and Asians that number is 21.6 percent. As of 2012, 13 percent of blacks were unemployed compared to seven percent for whites. Each year, according to a recent PBS documentary, 300,000 kids-mostly black-are introduced to the juvenile justice system through the educational system. More than 1 million black men are in prison-the norm for the past 20 years. All combined, these stats indicate that another generation of blacks will be locked in poverty and destined for unemployment, prison and early graves.
The March on Washington for civil rights on Aug. 28, 1963 courtesy www.nyust.org
When Dr. King spoke of "the mountaintop" most black folk knew exactly what he meant. The 1963 march came at a time when "government" was the most viable option to beat back vicious, murderous attacks on black people and address the blatant and racist denial of basic human rights. Today, our options for change are unlimited. African Americans make up 13.7 of the U.S. population. There are 43 million of us in the United States. According to a new study by the Nielsen Company entitled "African-American Consumers: Still Vital, Still Growing," by 2015, our projected buying power will exceed $1Trillion. Unlike yesteryear when blacks were locked out or confined to the bottom tiers of society, African Americans today occupy the highest ranks imaginable in business, politics, sports, entertainment and more.
In 1963, black celebrities such as Jackie Robinson, James Baldwin, Josephine Baker, Marion Anderson, Sammy Davis, Jr., Harry Belafonte and Ruby Dee attended the march. They had no idea what Dr. King and other speakers would say or who they'd offend with their remarks on race. Yet, those icons put their careers at risk for a greater and nobler cause. High-profile blacks at the recent march, such as Oprah Winfrey, Jamie Foxx, Forest Whitaker, Soledad O'Brien and Hill Harper had no fears of risking their celebrity-hood. Other than Atty. General Eric Holder's bold announcement that the federal government would no longer pursue mandatory minimum sentences for certain low-level, nonviolent drug offenders, our "talented 10 th" today had no worries of being linked to a bold agenda for progressive change; because nothing controversial was really put forth.
photo courtesy of wikipedia

There were indeed protests back in 1963 from the White House, religious organizations and more moderate civil rights groups who wanted speakers to delete any inflammatory or indicting remarks about government or religious institutions. Organizers and activists such as Stokely Carmichael and members of SNCC, CORE and the SCLC defiantly opposed such censorship. Under pressure and threats of public denouncement from powerful groups, some of the of the rhetoric was softened and author James Baldwin was striken from the prgram in fear of what he might say. Still, the thunder still roared. For example, in his speech, Congressman John Lewis-one of the youngest speakers at the 1963 event-urged blacks to "get in and stay in the streets of every city, every village and hamlet of this nation until true freedom comes."

Lest we forget, that after the 2oth Century march, extraordinary, ordinary black folk went home and went to work. Gathering in churches, homes and neighborhoods, they unapologetically set out to change the course of a nation. They pooled their personal and collective resources and held voter registration drives and kicked off nation-wide sit-ins and protests throughout the segregated south and the not-yet-integrated north. The Kennedy Administration and the Democratic Party were put on notice that they had to earn black votes. These actions led to the passage of landmark civil rights legislation and President Johnson's "War on Poverty."
High-profile blacks at the recent march, such as Oprah Winfrey, Jamie Foxx, Forest Whitaker, Soledad O'Brien and Hill Harper had no fears of risking their celebrity-hood.
It's sad to see today's black leadership rendered impotent. They still operate with 1960's rhetoric and 20 th century expectations. The time of "white guilt" stirred by never-before-seen television images of animalistic racism are long gone. In today's ever-evolving multi-media world, bloody coups and genocidal violations around the globe are just a touch screen away. Against this backdrop, the plight of blacks is seen as outdated and passé to many.
National polls show that the majority of African Americans are very dissatisfied with race relations in America. While most felt the exoneration of George Zimmerman for the shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was proof positive that institutionalized racism still exists, most whites don't share that opinion. The majority, 54 percent, according to a NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, believe that minorities "receive equal treatment under the law." A Pew Center study showed that 49 percent of whites were actually satisfied with the verdict and another Washington Post/ABC poll found that 50% of white Americans think race relations are "very good" or "fairly good."
The reality is that this country, burdened with economic woes that affect everybody has moved on. In a very real sense; blacks have to make their own change. Back in 2010 when the Rev. Al Sharpton and commentator Tavis Smiley almost came to blows over the issue of Obama committing to a "black agenda""or not. Sharpton, as president of the National Action Network (NAN), vowed to hold the Administration accountable and develop a real agenda for Black America. Ironically, links to those statements have been taken down from the site but here's a quote I saved from a 2010 NAN press release: "The collective will discuss the real problems and how we will not only hold the President and Administration of the United States accountable, but how we will hold ourselves accountable and tangibly measure our movement over a 12-month period to enact change."
It's been almost four years since that public release and Sharpton and other members of the civil rights "collective" are still talking about coming together to draft such an agenda.
This leads me to question the criteria of "leadership." Should it be old style civil rights leaders who are still solely entrenched in government guidance and assistance or others like Van Jones, Majora Carter, Angela Glover-Blackwell and Michelle Alexander? These are just a few of the forward-thinking individuals who've dedicated their careers to drafting solutions that will lead to sustainable, environmental and economic "new" revitalized systems where minorities can are major players in their own reclamation.
The 50 th anniversary commemoration was the right time and the right place to unveil a budgeted, self-sustaining agenda that would finally tackle issues that have plagued blacks for centuries. What we witnessed instead was a 21 st Century symbolic event with homogenized 20 th Century messages. Sadly, it was a commemoration with no specific agenda, no plan and no spark that will truly lift black people to the long-awaited proverbial mountaintop.
Sylvester Brown, Jr. is a St. Louis-based writer and founder and director of the Sweet Potato Project, a nonprofit program in St. Louis that teaches at-risk youth "do-for-self" entrepreneurial skills.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Keepin’ it Real: Phase II of the 2013 Sweet Potato Project

At my age, getting into a fist fight isn’t exactly at the top of my bucket list. Yet, there I was this summer, face-to-face with an angry, posturing 16-year-old, mixed martial arts student who challenged my directive to leave the class. It was no biggie really; the kid wound up apologizing the next day. But I can't help but worry about this kid and where his inability to control his emotions might lead.

This year, thanks to a grant from the Incarnate Word Foundation, the Sweet Potato Project focused its recruiting efforts on three disproportionately disadvantaged wards in the city. And we got what we asked for. We worked with 25 young people, some who brought all the drama in their lives and neighborhoods to class.

In 2012, we had 15 kids and a volunteer instructor with me almost every day. This year, we had 25 kids from some pretty rough neighborhoods. Thankfully, I had a host of professionals who came in and shared their time and expertise; two loyal counselors (thank you Tallis and Alexis), one active board member, a couple volunteer drivers and the good folks at St. Elizabeth’s Catholic Church and St. Louis Catholic Academy who provided resources, classrooms, transportation, computers and other back-up support. This year, it was just me serving as everyday instructor, advisor, disciplinarian and motivator.

Funny thing is, it feels right. This summer I was once again in the privileged position of being around 25 young people who dreamed with me. They showed me what it will take to intervene in the chaos and help them tap into their individual strengths in spite of the insurmountable odds some of them face.  

I could not believe the number of deaths we had in just nine short weeks. One student lost a brother to gun violence; another said she saw people shot on her front lawn. In this small sliver of time, I heard about a sister, an aunt, and a grandparent who died from untreated, treatable illnesses. In the midst of the George Zimmerman trial, students who walked miles to class complained of being stopped, harassed and taunted by plainclothes policemen patrolling “hot-spot” areas of North St. Louis.


How do you inspire 25 kids walking sometimes unfamiliar terrain; who eat consume Skittles and Arizona Iced Tea to dream bigger when they see their lives just as small and value-less as Trayvon Martin’s?

Please don’t get me wrong, I welcome this demographic. Some of these youth are the ones who’ve been “kicked out” of classrooms and locked out of opportunity by a society that casually considers them nothing more than human collateral. Thanks to the glorification of the “gangsta” lifestyle and grandparents, parents, uncles, aunts and siblings who’ve been “caught up in the system” our youth are well aware that the illegal drug game is a real alternative for those without employment options, inspiration or hope.

The Sweet Potato Project was designed to reach discarded young people and show them that there is a way-no matter what the naysayers say-to tap into opportunity and generate income within their own neighborhoods.

Hood Walk in the Central West End
This year helped me realize how very important it is that this program have real meaning with these youth. I was blessed to show them that there's more to their lives and communities than what's featured on the evening news. Whether they go back to school, work or the hood, they will reflect on the nine weeks we spent together discussing ways that they can change communities and save lives.

In spite of the challenges from a few, I was encouraged by the fact that most got it! The upside of being raised in disadvantaged neighborhoods is that we have kids who rely on awareness, adaptability, creativity and good old-fashioned “hustle” to survive. Their ability to adapt on a moment’s notice is simply amazing. For example, I gave them two hours to come up with a social, political or product-driven marketing campaign. In that short time span the teams came up with a very interesting political campaign and three product-driven ideas that someone (say Russell Simmons) with the right connections and resources, could very well turn into a multi-million dollar concept.

This is the creativity that we’re packing into our nation’s prisons and allowing to fill morgues at early ages. This is the potential that gets blurred behind the image of droopy pants, loud, self-destructive language, crude and offensive music and seemingly insolent attitudes. This is what decades of disregard and community abandonment looks like.

Alex Fennoy and executive with Midwest Bank gives Pagedale tour
It’s been a challenging three months but we got through it and even managed to pay the kids their summer salaries. With the help of so many benevolent folks we’ve shown them that there’s a way to create businesses and sell products in their own communities. They have been to places like Chronicle Coffee, Schlafly’s Garden, Carrie’s Corner Market in the 21st Ward and the Sav-A-Lot store in Pagedale. They have made the supply & demand connections between growing food and selling food-based products. They’ve had visiting bankers, business-owners and marketing people who stressed the value of education, discipline, tenacity and niche marketing.

Students visit Chronicle Coffee in midtown
As street-wise, tough, contrary and unruly as they sometimes tried to appear, I know they were quietly humbled be the fact that so many professionals took time to reinforce their self-worth, value and creativity. An example was when Jasmin Aber, head of Creative Exchange Laboratory visited the classroom. This renowned expert in architecture, design and innovation probably has no idea of the impact she had when she invited our students to think through an architectural vision of a Sweet Potato Project space. How empowered they will be down the line when their ideas have been incorporated in a for-real location in North St. Louis?

Jasmin Aber with CEL
Our program can’t end with summer classes. Right now I'm seeking the funding to make everything come full circle. We have to keep our arms wrapped around them; help them navigate the inevitable, make sure their efforts are validated and their imaginations remain stoked.

A seed has been planted in fertile grown-the imaginations of 25 kids. But the magic starts when we keep it real-when “Sweet Potato Project” signs pop up on vacant lots; when they can tell their relatives and friends; "I did that! I did the planting and tending and when our potatoes are ready, we're going to make a product to sell."

Major Ronnie Robinson visits to talk about police interactions
The possibilities will become clearer when they’re back meeting for weekend classes next month and they're gearing up product sales. The summer will make more sense to them after they've harvested the sweet potatoes and people start ordering the products they've created.

This summer has been another learning experience that has strengthened my resolve to build a generation of urban entrepreneurs in St. Louis. We’ve been blessed with support from the Incarnate Word Foundation, Slow Food St. Louis and the Deaconess Foundation; corporations such as World Wide Technology and many, many individual donors have generously given what they could.

The Sweet Potato Project is a big vision in need of big visionaries. To really make it real for these young people, their peers, parents and neighbors-we’re going to need academic, political and economic institutions and the resources to share in the work and build the vision.  

All summer long, I reminded the Sweet Potato Project youth that they have to get serious and real about becoming urban pioneers who will tap into the available opportunities within their own communities.

I share similar advice with those who follow this project. To really make this real-for the 25 youth and those coming behind them-we have to not only preach "opportunities within the community," we have to create communities of opportunity.  

Student Charnel Hurn responds to applause after reading her poem "For Us" at the Sweet Potato Project Banquet
Click here to view all nine weeks of summer session

Sylvester Brown, Jr. is a St. Louis-based freelance writer, community development advocate and founder of the Sweet Potato Project operated by the North Area Community Development Corporation.  He can be reached at sylvesterbj@gmail.com