Last week, a 16-year-old boy, Peter Childs, was shot in the back and pronounced dead at the scene. The shooting happened in broad daylight in the 4800 block of Anderson Avenue which is part of the Penrose neighborhood in North St. Louis.
Tonight, May 14th, concerned citizens, the alderman of the 21st Ward, Antonio French, and others will host a “Stop the Violence” rally at St. Elizabeth’s Catholic Church just a block from the shooting. No doubt, there will be discussions about increased police presence and possibly more surveillance cameras in the ward. I suspect there will be a call for more jobs and opportunities for young people in the ward and a call for the mayor to “do more” to stem senseless violence in St. Louis.
Tonight, I will be amongst the crowd, talking about another alternative and laying out another strategy to reclaim our neighborhoods and save young lives. The sad truth is that we will never reduce crime or the fatalities in low income communities until we offer more opportunities that can compete with the deadly drug trade. Sadly, too many youth surrounded by negativity and few examples of successful entrepreneurism they can relate to, get involved with illegal activities mainly to generate income. They have no idea that opportunities and self-sufficiency is right outside their doors.
This summer, the 2013 Sweet Potato Project will begin again in the 21st Ward with the support of Alderman French and St. Elizabeth’s Church. Classes will be held at its affiliate school, St. Louis Catholic Academy. This means we have a foothold in a troubled community and a chance to work with parishioners, residents and stakeholders in the neighborhood to implement a sustainable education, job and small business plan.
Last summer, the North Area Community Development Corporation (NACDC) introduced this unique 9-week program. 15 “at-risk” youth (ages 15-to-19) were paid a bi-weekly stipend to grow sweet potatoes. The project’s goal is to turn produce into viable, marketable products. Entrepreneurs, professionals and experts in several fields teach leadership, conflict resolution and business classes. Our students are taught how to design their own website and are given marketing, advertising, product distribution and other lessons in entrepreneurism. Our goal is to create a generation of young, independent, inner-city entrepreneurs who will take ownership of their neighborhoods.
The Sweet Potato Project is just the 1st phase of a massive agenda to bring economic vitality back to long-neglected north side neighborhoods. Our long-term goals include massive community farming, food-based product development, packaging, canning and distribution of produce and products from low-income areas of our city. In short, we’re talking about jobs and small businesses in North St. Louis.
With this effort, we plant the seed of sustainable economic activity controlled by residents and supported by the larger community. Next year, we will seek larger plots of land for farming and explore creating other marketable food-based products. Within five years, we can establish a food processing center, spin-off businesses and perhaps a nonprofit restaurant that trains and employs at-risk youth.
We realize that this is a major, ambitious vision that has to be instituted strategically. To that end, we will host a fundraiser featuring celebrity Chef Jeff Henderson on May 19th (click here for more info) and hold a community meeting on May 23rd at St. Elizabeth’s Church to invite and engage the community in our efforts. As an extension of the program, residents will be invited to plant sweet potatoes in their own or in neighborhood gardens. During Harvest season, NACDC will buy their yields for cookie production. We will again turn to our body of supporters and consumers and ask that they support the project by purchasing cookies made by North St. Louis youth.
With this singular effort, we plant the seed of sustainable economic activity controlled by residents and supported by the larger community. Next year, we will seek larger plots of land for farming and explore creating other marketable food-based products. Within five years, I believe, we can establish a gardening and food processing center, spin-off businesses and perhaps a nonprofit restaurant that trains and employs at-risk youth. With full community engagement, the possibilities are endless. There’s no reason why another program can’t be created specifically for felons returning to society. We can impact recidivism dramatically if there are community-based educational money-making opportunities ready the day of their release. This is why I am so excited to work with Chef Jeff Henderson, America's leading authority on helping at-risk populations transform their lives personally and professionally.
Last week, a 16-year-old boy lost his life to senseless violence. This week, it is my prayer that we begin creating alternatives and opportunities that address the madness while providing a real pathway to holistic individual and community transformation.
As always, your support is desperately needed.
-Sylvester Brown, Jr.
1) Sat, May 18th (9am-noon): 1st Community Planting Day / Youth Recruitment / 21st Ward
2) Sat, May 19th (4pm-6pm): VIP Fundraiser with Chef Jeff Henderson / Portfolio Gallery
3) Thurs., May 23th (6:30pm-8:30pm) Community Engagement Meeting / St. Elizabeth Church
4) Sat, May 25th (9am-noon): 2nd Community Planting Day / Youth Recruitment / 21st Ward
5) Mon. June 10th / Sweet Potato Project Classes begin / St Louis Catholic Academy