There it was-a brief, flash of hope, optimism and a sense of personal empowerment. The spark ignited during my welcoming spiel to the new crop of youth enrolled in the Sweet Potato Project, a summer program that aims to teach “at-risk” youth entrepreneurial skills.
I told the group that they weren’t just kids in a summer program; they were pioneers; the catalyst for change and the inspiration of a movement that will bring sustainable jobs and businesses to our communities.
“Today, we’re growing sweet potatoes on vacant lots. Today we’ll turn produce into a product, sweet potato cookies. Tomorrow, I envision entire city blocks of farming, packaging, canning and food-based products coming out of your communities,” I said.
A spark of pride flickered in their eyes when I told them that they can lead an effort that will influence adults, revitalize neighborhoods and inspire younger kids. But I’ve seen that spark before and I know how quickly it can be dosed by the circumstances our kids face every day.
St. Louis’ violent crime rate is 332 percent higher than the national average. Homicides in the city have seen a 36.4 percent increase in one year. According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 9 out of 10 homicides involve black youth. Of those killed, half are black males under the age of thirty.
Every year, more than 300,000 school-age children across the nation, mostly black and brown, are introduced to the criminal justice system by way of “zero tolerance” policies. In Missouri, almost 50,000 youth are retained every year in some sort of correctional setting for short or long-term periods.
Since the 1970s, the state and federal prison inmate population has spiked some 700 percent with a total of more than 2 million incarcerated individuals-again, mostly Black and Latino inmates. We are all familiar with the toxic connection between poverty and prisons. While the poverty rate for White and Asian children hovers around 21.6 percent, it’s almost 40 percent for Black children and 32.3 percent for Hispanic youth.
The building of new federal, state and private prisons is based on the birthrate of Black and Hispanic boys. Sadly, this country plans to stay in the business of incarcerating people, more specifically poor, black and brown people.
We will never slow the violence or “stop the killing” until we create real, sustainable, money-generating options for disenfranchised young people. The Sweet Potato Project was designed to arrest the disproportionate number of minority youth destined for poverty, prison or funerals.
Make no mistake about it; all poor children, black, white, brown and “other” are at risk. But the most historically endangered demographic is black youth. Our project is reliant on everybody and anybody who cares about children. But it is incumbent upon the black community to save its own. Unless we’re comfortable with the idea of fearing, incarcerating and burying our young, we have no choice but to step up our efforts to save them.
The spark has been lit. This summer, we are serving more than 20 kids from some of the poorest zip codes in the city. Most live in or near the O’Fallon Park, Penrose or Greater Ville areas. We’re planting sweet potatoes in some of those wards with the goal of growing more produce and creating more products in North St. Louis. Imagine the boost kids and adults will receive when they visit a local restaurant or store and see produce and products from their communities on the menu or on the grocery shelf.
We’ve come this far because we’ve been blessed by a bevy of benevolent people who believe we can create a generation of young, urban entrepreneurs who will avoid the pathways to prison and violence. They will spark the movement to create jobs and businesses in long-abandoned communities.
However, our children need to interact with more people who look like them. We need more African American parents, city residents, professionals and entrepreneurs to help turn the spark into a powerful inner-city blaze.
|Bolanle Ambonisye led an African Dance class on Tuesday June 11th|
The Sweet Potato Project youth will earn while they learn with a bi-weekly minimum wage salary for nine weeks. We are reaching out to every source imaginable to ensure they are paid this summer. But that spark will flicker longer if our kids know that adults who share their hue made it a priority to fund and support their effort.
Times are hard and money is tight for everybody. There are numerous summer youth programs that need and deserve your support. Hopefully, the Sweet Potato Project-a program established with the specific goal of creating young, inner-city entrepreneurs-will be added to your “must-support” list.
Consider this a plea to my people. This effort will have a larger, more sustainable impact if we are personally invested. We welcome all. But if we are to instill a “do-for-self” attitude amongst our young; if we are to change the trajectory of a society determined to disproportionately lock up and lock down OUR children, then we must act to turn that flicker into an eternal flame.
Sylvester Brown, Jr. is the director of The Sweet Potato Project, a program offered by the North Area Community Development Corporation, a 501 (c) (3) agency. Donations are needed. Please visit NACDC’s website to contribute today.
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