I’m not the in-the-church-every-Sunday type but I have profound respect for the concept of a higher power. I cling to the belief that we’re all here for a reason and that our circumstances-good, bad or indifferent-are all designed to help us discover our true purpose and place on this planet.
Since my “departure” from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 2009, life has been a roller coaster ride with some “ups” and lots of low, “why me” moments. Yet, in quiet reflection, I acknowledge the universal wisdom of the ride. The highs and the lows weren’t at all what they appeared to be in the moment.
Recently, I ran across a column I wrote just two months before I was “let go” by P.D. management. The column titled, “We can reach black teens, but it will take some imagination,” described a grassroots program that taught at-risk youth how to flip the negative script; turn destructive habits-such as drug-dealing-into legal, do-for-self opportunities and enterprises.
After re-reading the column, two realities hit: First; even though I was writing about a project someone else should do, unbeknownst to me, I alerted the universe of what I was supposed to do. It therefore acquiesced to my wishes. Second: I was in line for a humbling.
Four years ago, I unknowingly planted the seed for the Sweet Potato Project, the program I run in collaboration with the North Area Community Development Corporation (NACDC). Of course, being me, I took the long, jagged route to actualization. But, again, in retrospect, I now understand the rational.
In order to address generational poverty with all its nasty tentacles, apparently I had to come from on-high and revisit the poverty of my youth. This would have been a near impossible task with all the stature and security I had in the belly of the region’s largest daily newspaper. I found myself back in the familiar zone of my parents, grandparents and ancestors who had no choice but “make a way” out of “no way.” Yes, financial challenges had left me wallowing in that dreaded place of self-doubt and self-loathing. But I must have needed the one-on-one refresher course in soul-crushing, dream-stifling poverty because, in the process, I rediscovered my calling, my passions, true grit and my real gifts.
Life, for me, has been an amazing storybook saga: A high school dropout fell in love with literature at a community college where he started a small, monthly magazine. All of a sudden, a “nobody” was rescued by an equally-talented “ride-‘til we die” partner and was surrounded by brilliant writers and artists. He was blessed with loyal readers who supported the struggling venture for 15 years. The award-winning perspective he had honed, the journalism awards he won and his deep connections within the black community earned him a place at the Post-Dispatch. A word warrior and fierce believer in the power of the printed word, has found himself in the company of notables such as of Danny Glover, Bill O’Reilly, Bill Cosby, Harry Belafonte, Tavis Smiley, Cornel West, Michael Eric Dyson, Tom Burrell, Chef Jeff Henderson and Michelle and Barack Obama.
Immediately after leaving the Post, I went to work as a researcher, contributor or consultant to authors such as Burrell, Smiley, West and Henderson. Their books which underscore the drastic effect of media conditioning, the failing educational system, disproportionate poverty and its relationship to overcrowded prisons and the dire need to do something drastic to save "at-risk" youth urged me to aggressively pursue the Sweet Potato Project.
In the words of the great bard, Langston Hughes; “life for me, ain't been no crystal stair” but the banister ride has been fascinating. Four days of the week this summer I am with 25 kids whose lives mirror my upbringing. Because of the ride, I can authentically and confidently tell them; “No matter what has happened or may happen in your life, YOU control your destiny!”
I’m not writing this for pity. I share these reflections because I know a whole lot of folks out there struggling to make a difference, following their gut instincts with no reward. To them, I say "hold on," look for the magic in your misery.
I write today because I’ve been blessed. I get the rare opportunity to see undiscovered genius in the eyes and actions of a young, misunderstood, dismissed and discarded demographic. Today, I am engaged with a bevy of benevolent people who, like me, believe we can halt the disgusting numbers of mostly poor, mostly black kids funneled into the preschool-to-prison pipeline. Today, we emphasize their worth, invest in their individual talents and empower them with the powerful notion that they will be the generation that reclaims and revitalizes long-ignored communities.
I am in awe of a higher power that has brought me (at times, kicking and screaming) back home. I live a life that reminds me that the blessings and benevolence that has brought me “success” can indeed be paid forward.
I don’t put on any pretenses with the Sweet Potato Project youth. They see my 1999 hoopty pulling up for classes. They know I live in a high-crime, low-income neighborhood like theirs. And just so they don’t take this summer job opportunity for granted, I’ve told them about our struggles to raise money so they can “earn while they learn.” They know a whole bunch of people- instructors, donors, business people, a priest and a principal who have allowed us to hold classes at the church’s school-all give a damn about their futures.
Today, they see a dream unfolding with vacant lots being turned into sweet potato-producing gardens. They see the flip side, the progressive side of “supply & demand” and they’re creating food-based products that will put money in their pockets and keep aspirations in their hearts. Most important, they see themselves as urban pioneers who will prove that we can indeed bring opportunity, jobs and small businesses back to areas of the city that have been maligned, misunderstood and abandoned.
I am in a place where the young and the powerless are empowered, where a small group of caring people help them discover their gifts, their purpose and their individual worth. With the splintered stairwell, the fall from grace and all “the stuff” in between, universal wisdom is revealed: We can choose the path (sometimes by accident) but we can’t dictate the journey. What is supposed to be…simply is!
This, in all its organic simplicity, is my humble awakening.
Sylvester Brown, Jr. is a St. Louis-based writer and founder of the Sweet Potato Project, an entrepreneurial program for youth offered by the North Area Community Development Corporation.
THE SWEET POTATO PROJECT
Week Three & Four of the Summer Program:
Week One & Two of the Summer Program:
Week Three & Four of the Summer Program: