“And these are the kids, we might lock up!”
At least once a day this thought bounces around in my head. This year, we have 25 young people from some of St. Louis’ most challenged wards signed up for the Sweet Potato Project. Our goal is to teach them “do-for-self entrepreneurial skills that they can employ today, in their own communities, based on growing produce and creating marketable food-based products.
The good news; they get it. They understand the links between commitment, creativity and community change. What's missing is everyday examples of successful businesses in their communities and interactions with professional people who look like them and have overcome the seemingly insurmountable challenges and barriers of our young people face daily.
Statistically thinking, I can’t help but wonder how many of these brilliant young people will become statistics of the preschool-to-prison pipeline.
Each year, more than 300,000 school-age children, mostly black and brown, are introduced to the criminal justice system by way of mandatory “zero tolerance” policies. The sad truth is, we live in a society that’s willing to invest $300 billion more to incarcerate children and expand prisons. In fact, the building of new prisons is based on the birthrate of Black and Latino boys.
America is stubbornly insistent on locking up its future. What would happen if we could take the negative energy and learned habits of our youth and re-direct them into a powerful, self-sustaining direction? How many "statistics" can we reduce by creating young, urban entrepreneurs? How many jobs and businesses can we build with youth activated with an entrepreneur’s attitude?
Every day, our program begins with a discussion of current news events. I’m blown away at how these supposedly “at-risk” youth are aware of the nuances between poverty, race and prison and how most Americans view them suspiciously based on stereotypes and biases. We challenge them to think of solutions to some of the problems plaguing their communities, such as black-on-black crime, youth violence and unemployment. With little advance preparation, they’ve come up with brilliant political, social and product campaigns to generate money and jobs.
Please watch the video above and see what the Sweet Potato Project youth have been learning and doing these past few weeks. We have so much more to share with them and expose to them, such as lessons in marketing, branding, packaging, website design, visits to local businesses and more. If what you see on the video resonates, please take a moment and donate online.
The Sweet Potato Project pays these young people for nine weeks. In other words, they learn while they earn. It is an ambitious endeavor but, with your support and engagement, we can reduce the number of youth destined for perilous pathways. As a catalyst for progressive change, I maintain that these young people will serve as a seed of hope and opportunity in our region.
- Sincerely, Sylvester Brown, Jr. / Program Facilitator