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



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