Friday, May 3, 2013

Sweet Potato Project Update: Confessions of a Naïve Optimist

The past two years have been more than a challenge for me personally. I’m still rebuilding a life that came to an abrupt and costly end after my departure from the St. Louis Post Dispatch in 2009. Yet, I maintain that the struggle has made me stronger and brought me closer to what I believe I am destined to do.
If I was still at the newspaper, there would be no Sweet Potato Project. I would not have come in contact with an incredible nonprofit-the North Area Community Development Corporation or the benevolent individuals, who believe that we can indeed reduce violence, reinvigorate long-ignored communities and save young lives. Without the struggles, I would not have been blessed to spend last summer with 15 North St. Louis youth who I no longer consider “at-risk.”
Therefore, I am still the naive optimist. I don’t know if it’s a blessing or a curse but I stubbornly believe that we can bring jobs, businesses and economic vitality to low-income and high-crime areas in our region. I am glued to the idea that young people can inspire this progressive movement. Last year, the Sweet Potato Project youth planted produce (sweet potatoes) and created a product (sweet potato cookies). People bought the product and the youth now see that they have money-making options that do not include illegal activity.

For me, this is huge! It is a seed for sustainable change. If we can turn one vacant lot into productive land, why can’t we create entire blocks for farming?  If young people can create one product from produce grown on a vacant lot, why can’t we develop more? Why can’t we have large scale packaging, canning and distribution from a food factory in North St. Louis? Who’s to say that food-related jobs and spin-off businesses such as transportation and delivery services, bakeries, coffee shops and local markets can’t be created from this humble but powerful endeavor?

We are now about a month out from starting the 2013 summer Sweet Potato Project program. We’re still in the process of raising funds to run a more effective program and that pays more youth minimum wage stipends throughout the summer. Apparently, the struggle continues but, once again, I am joined by a small group of optimistic dreamers who are determined to do our dead-level best to raise the funds, start planting and begin classes on time.

Why? Because we have no choice. Our project is but a micro example of what must be done in a time where those impacted by generational poverty are even more endangered. The recession has changed the rules of engagement. With a virtually shattered middle-class, with a country still under siege from budgetary restraints; the less fortunate are expected to maintain with even less and without traditional government safety nets.

Along with the growing unemployment and poverty numbers, our nation’s prisons and juvenile detention centers continue to swell with those who feel they have no legal or viable options to sustain themselves. Unfortunately, they swell with disproportionate numbers of young, minority youth.

I maintain that a revolutionary, new template is in order. We will never reduce crime or the numbers of young people attracted to it until we offer a different, sustainable, do-for-self model of economic engagement and activity in the communities in which they live.

Today, we were granted permission to hold the summer program at St. Louis Catholic Academy on Shreve & Carter with the support of the progressive St, Elizabeth Baptist Catholic Church. This means we can now take our first step toward neighborhood engagement with more vacant lots and the active engagement of adult parishioners and residents. It also means we will have more than a program; we’ll have a sustainable movement in the 21st Ward, a neighborhood where our progressive seed can grow.

We will never reduce crime or the numbers of young people attracted to it until we offer a different, sustainable, do-for-self model of economic engagement and activity in the communities in which they live.
Why keep pushing forward even when the money needed is nowhere in sight? Mostly, it’s because of the youth involved. I have sent letters to influential individuals with means about the possibilities of this project. Most have gone unanswered. In a way, I get it. I’m talking about investing time, money and resources in people and communities that have been deemed “valueless.” The youth-perhaps because they, like me, are naive optimist, get it. Last year, after just two months, they were empowered; they talked of products that could be created and ways to reach and teach the next Sweet Potato Project class.

How can we waver in the face of such optimism? How can I not keep pushing forward when I’ve seen how easily a vision and one-on-one connections can transform a group mostly comprised of typical, rock-headed, back-talking, stubborn teens? How can I not use my energy to fuel a movement to create young, urban entrepreneurs in long-ignored communities?

It’s been extremely challenging trying to rebuild a life, earn a living while creating a community program for youth but no one promised life without struggle. Sometimes, in its midst, new observations and insights emerge. I consider it a blessing that the Incarnate Word Foundation, Lincoln University’s Urban Impact Center, World Wide Technology, the Missouri Foundation for Health considered our project worthy of support last year. We’re hoping they and others will help us again before our start date.

Time and money is short. We face the same challenges in 2013 that we tackled last year. Some of the youth who joined us last year are ready to start again, this time as mentors to the 2013 class. They know of the challenges yet they faithfully believe we can start anew.

This is encouragement enough for a naive optimist.



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