Thursday, September 12, 2013

The Deal

Sept. 12, 2013


There I was, working in the food pantry of St. Elizabeth Mother of John the Baptist Catholic Church. At my side, preparing boxes for the needy was an 18-year-old one day and a 19-year-year old on the next. Both teens are part of the Sweet Potato Project. We were making amends for a transgression; paying a penance, trying to regain trust.

 It was, after all, part of our deal.

 It all started on the last day of our summer session. Excitement was in the air. It was payday and, in just two days, the youth would host an end-of-session event that would feature performances, testimonials and the sweet potato recipes they had discovered this year. The good times came to a crashing halt when I learned that three of my boys who had been asked to help out in the food pantry were accused of stealing a volunteer’s cell phone.

 I was livid.

The church had allowed us to conduct classes this summer at its affiliate school, St. Louis Catholic Academy. The supportive staff had become loving mentors and had nothing but compliments about our youth-until that fateful day.

“How dare you jeopardize this program,” I yelled at the three boys. “After all we've learned about dignity, responsibility and self respect, how dare you damage the reputation of this program and your fellow students?”

The rock-headed teens formed an alliance. No one would indict the other or admit they had stolen the phone or return it -not at first anyway.

 The other kids were paid and dismissed. The three teens had to stay behind to face the wrath of myself, Herman Noah, board member with the North Area Community Development Corporation and Tallis Piaget, a local author and dedicated volunteer this summer. Those boys weren't leaving that room until the phone was returned.

 Eventually, after a good dressing down, one of the boys fessed up. The phone was retrieved and returned to the elderly volunteer. 

“How dare you jeopardize this program. After all we've learned about dignity, responsibility and self respect, how dare you damage the reputation of this program and your fellow students?” 

“Why did you steal the phone,” I asked the culprit who will remain anonymous. “Because it was red,” he stupidly answered. This kid was a member of the “Bloods.” He’d been in the gang since elementary school. In some twisted way, he’s still captivated by the gang’s color.

 The boys were sent home without pay. I told them that I needed to talk with Mr. Noah and Tallis about their punishment. I also needed to reflect on the advice some my students who started with the program last year had given me. Barry and Myke in particular had accused me of being too lax with some of the more rowdy students this year. I should “fire them,” they repeatedly insisted.

 Their point was well taken but I challenged them: “Listen guys, we have a group of students this year from some of the poorest, most crime-filled neighborhoods in the city. They’re used to being suspended, shut out, kicked out or fired from something. I want this program to be different. I want us to find a way to turn the worse kids around and I need your help doing it.”

It’s a huge mandate for young people but the Sweet Potato Project is unlike traditional public or charter schools. We want the knuckleheads and the hard-to-reach. We’re dedicated to creating a generation of urban entrepreneurs. And, if we are serious about creating jobs and businesses in the North St. Louis, we’re going to have to find ways to empower the dismissed and discarded. Some are beyond rescue but we have to create avenues of redemption for those willing to step up to the challenge.

After reflections and discussions, I contacted the three boys:

“Since you all took part in this theft, you all must pay restitution,” I said. I offered them a deal. If they went back to the food pantry, humbled themselves and faced their accusers and worked two days for free; I’d give them their last paycheck and allow them back into the program.

Two of the boys showed up on different days. When I accompanied the first to the pantry, a senior volunteer said she didn't trust him and didn't want him there. It was understandable. However, the elderly volunteer who actually had her phone stolen disagreed with that decision. She allowed the boy to work under her supervision. I marveled at her gently but stern grandmotherly advice as she put the boy to work. “He’s a good kid and a hard worker,” she assured me at the end of the day. “I just hope you've learned something today,” she told my student.

She allowed the boy to work under her supervision. I marveled at her gently but stern grandmotherly advice as she put the boy to work.

She wasn't there when I returned with the other student-the one who actually stole the phone but he told me she had called him. She had forgiven him for his deed and gave him the same advice she’d given his partner. As we walked home after working that day, I continued the lecture. “You have leadership ability young man. After all, you convinced a group of gullible young men to cover for your crime. Unfortunately, you have a gift that you’re using for evil,” I said.

“If you let me, I’ll show how to turn your weaknesses into your strengths.”

He said he’d try. Parting, I could only hope he and his wayward cohorts will learn something from the incident. There’s a way to reclaim dignity and the trust of others if you man-up after you mess up.

He is but one of the kids I’ve written about that give me great concern. They’re not in school, have no jobs and they are prone to dangerous distractions. I’m frustrated that we still haven’t raised enough money to resume classes and get them working a couple days a week maintaining the sweet potato lots. It’s not a lot of money but at least I can give them something while keeping my eyes on them and, hopefully, inspiring them. We reached out to these kids and welcomed the chaos that comes with their environments.

We’ve sparked their imaginations. I’ve told them that they will be the urban pioneers who will show the city that we can indeed plant produce and create products from North St. Louis.

A promise is a promise. I’m not giving up on them. I can’t.

 After all, we made a deal.

Sylvester Brown, Jr. is a St. Louis-based writer and founder and director of the Sweet Potato Project, a nonprofit program in St. Louis that teaches at-risk youth "do-for-self" entrepreneurial skills. For more information visit:

Monday, September 9, 2013

The Education of Mr. Brown

Photo by Benjamin Gandhi-Shepard
“Mr. Brown, what are you doing on here?”

I don’t know if Briana, one of my Sweet Potato Project teens, was really all that surprised to see me step on Metro Bus #74. We both live near O’Fallon Park and, on many a day this summer, I drove her or her classmates to or from class. All 25 youth enrolled this year knows Mr. Brown drives an unpredictable “hoopty.” They also know I live right across the street from the vacant lot in the 21st ward where we’re growing our sweet potatoes. I’ve been very honest with them about our struggles to raise funds for the program and their salaries.

“If the money’s not there,” I tell them, “we have to get creative to make it work!”

In other words, the youth know I’m an ordinary guy who’s trying to empower them to do something extraordinary in their neighborhoods. Personally, I think it’s important they know that someone who looks like them, lives where they live and faces the challenges they face still has the power to make a difference.

“So,” you might ask, “what can a guy who drives a crappy car and rides the bus teach kids about “entrepreneurism?”

My answer is three-fold. First, I’ve lived long enough to know that my current situation doesn’t define me. I’ve been to the top of my professional career here in St. Louis; I’ve had the limelight and stature but still felt a huge void. Today, I live a more challenging but much richer life.

Photo by Benjamin Gandhi-Shepard

Secondly, I’m not the only influence in their lives. We've brought all sorts of successful entrepreneurs and professionals to class to share their stories, advice and expertise. And lastly, I maintain that part of being an entrepreneur, is having the determination and grit to outlast the hardships and creatively use whatever talent, skill or gift you have to beat back obstacles and make your own way.

The Sweet Potato Project is an entrepreneurial endeavor. And I’ve told the SPP teens that they’re just as responsible as the adults in ensuring its success-not just for them but for their siblings and the next generation. I tell them with all sincerity that they are “urban pioneers” charged with creating future opportunities and jobs for others in North St. Louis by planting produce and proving that we can turn our yields into marketable products.

The students have shown me that they get it and actually appreciate that I think they can make such change. For instance, last year, 2012, we actually ran out of money before the summer session ended. I will never forget; it was a Friday and I explained to the 15 kids we had at the time that we could no longer pay them their bi-weekly stipend and we’d have no hard feelings if they chose not to show up the next week. On Monday, I was the first to arrive. Not a single student was there. I was heartbroken. Then at 9am on the dot, one student walked around the corner, then two, then another and another. By 9:15am, all 15 showed up. The beautiful thing was they showed up with ideas:

“Mr. Brown, let’s have a carwash to raise some money; Mr. Brown let’s do a dance or a skate party or …”on and on they went. Priceless!

This, I believe, is part of what makes our program so unique. It’s geared to motivate and inspire those young people-most from the poorest zip codes in our city. They have been stereotyped, dismissed. They or their neighborhoods have been written off, considered loss causes. I know that-even if they’re not involved in the illegal drug trade -our kids are sadly aware of its existence in their neighborhoods. They know that it’s a sure way to make money. We challenge the media’s glorification of the “gangsta lifestyle” by stressing there’s opportunity right outside their doors. But they must tap into the hidden and unexplored potential they have inside and outside in “the hood.”

Photo by Benjamin Gandhi-Shepard
We have to stop underestimating these kids. They can quickly assess who’s “for real” and who’s talking down to them. We may be well-intentioned as hell but when we solely focus on the negativities of their peers or poor neighborhoods; we’re putting down their parents, siblings, friends and places they live, laugh, play and struggle and find comfort. A few of my kids have a hard edge and I know why. At young ages, some have lived lives that make my childhood look like recess in Ladue. Let me give you a couple examples:

Once, I had given Darryeon, 19, a ride home. As I approached his duplex off Grand near the big white, water tower, I noticed a detached bumper, broken glass and car parts all over the street in front of a dented light post. “Oh man, someone had an accident in front of your house, huh?” I said.

“Ah, no, Mr. Brown,” Darryeon answered-disturbingly nonchalant, “They were shooting last night and somebody got shot and hit that pole.”

One of my students, Frederick, lost his brother to violence during our summer session this year as did Charnell, who told us her brother was brutally assassinated gangland style two years ago.  Another student, Nadia, said she saw folks shot near her front lawn in North St. Louis.

We work to get the youth to see the economic opportunity within the chaos and realize that they are best-suited to capitalize on these opportunities. Our first mandate is to have them read the news and start the day with a conversation about local or world events and activities. It’s interesting how most want to talk about ghastly crimes, shootings, murders or what’s going on with rappers, sports figures or celebrities. I push them to go deeper-tell me what disciplines it took to make that rapper or sports figure successful. I ask that they read about new social media, gaming or electronic technologies and how they can make their lives better. If they want to talk about shootings, I urge them to explore the socio-economic factors in particular neighborhoods that breed crime, hopelessness and violence and come up with solutions.

Click image to read student's bios

Unless you point it out, our youth have no idea how they already influence the world. Their music, gestures, slang and clothing styles have been greedily co-opted by mainstream society.  You can’t even go to a football or baseball game without hearing hip-hop music. Our kids, no matter how poor, manage to find the deals to stay sharp with coordinating tennis shoes, shirts, skirts, hair-dos and more. We had a class assignment this summer where they were asked to develop their own media campaigns. Within two hours, the teens came up with product ideas that could make billionaires like Russell Simmons or Jay-Z even more billions. We happened to have a chemist in class when one of the teams detailed their idea for eye and hair color-changing candy. The chemist was blown away. His colleague is currently working on a variation of such a product, he told the class.

This, my friends, is the sort of genius, that’s walking our streets, filling our classrooms that’s being mostly ignored or unnoticed.

Again, I know why. Our kids have a lot of “stuff” that they bring to over-crowded and underfunded classrooms. These distractions keep them from making real world connections between what’s being taught in class and what they can apply in their own worlds, neighborhoods or blocks. Unfortunately, many who see no urban application; tune out at early ages.

The 25 kids I had this summer sent me home sometimes with no voice from yelling, no energy from dealing with their issues and no idea how to inspire or keep them engaged and motivated. But then, the next day or the next week, they’d arouse my hopes. Each kid had a journal and as I read their reflections, I was uplifted by the little things-a speaker, an entrepreneur’s visit, a group discussion, a business visit or something else that really made them think.

There was that first day of class when I heard one of my young men-a former gang banger-say he’d quit the gang after his little girl was born. This youth turned in a passionate essay about senseless deaths in his community and how he wanted to play a role in ending it.

Among their other talents; Charnel is a gifted poet, Mirramoni is an illustrator, Frederick is a wannabe comedian, Keyundra is a tenacious cook; Barry and Myke are my strong, dependable leaders who can produce music; Zavier is a mischievous kid who happens to speak German. Micheal is an all-around scholar and athlete. Jason, Jonetta and Darryeon have amazing work ethics. Charles, Andivar and Nadia are smooth (too smooth actually) but they have that unique and magnetic gift of gab. Elesha, Briana and Jenea were just three of the headstrong young women in class who demonstrated the ability and discipline to plan and execute events. Keon, Raheim, Martez, Paul, Darion and Keith are all jocks, who were quickly distracted but, with direction, showed me that they can indeed step up as valuable team players or go-to workers.

Photo by Benjamin Gandhi-Shepard
What I love about this grassroots effort is that the youth are designing the program. I interviewed the 2012 Class and they helped me tweak what we were doing. Some of our kids walk from one part of town to the Penrose Neighborhood where we held classes. The last thing they wanted to do was sit through long lectures when they arrived. So we worked to build in self-esteem-boosting, get-out-of-your-shell, conflict resolution exercises and activities and took them on as many on-site business visits as possible. We walked blocks in the Central West End and in North St. Louis neighborhood to write down and reflect on the different types of businesses, services and billboards in each area. The idea was to get the teens thinking about commerce, advertising supply & demand and ways that they could implement what they admired in high-income neighborhoods in low-income communities.

The point is, for nine weeks, these young people had their worth validated. Don’t get me wrong, we didn't change the trajectory of their lives in less than three months. We just planted a seed. We allowed them to dream from where they are, not from where we hope they will be four or eight years from now.

Early this year, I told the North Area Community Development Corporation's board that I had serious doubts about starting the program again this year. With no start-up funds, I just didn’t think I could rebuild my career while raising money to operate the program. Then last year’s kids started calling, wanting to start up again and bring their friends. I committed.

Photo by Benjamin Gandhi-Shepard
With the help of the Incarnate Word Foundation and World Wide Technology, Inc., and a few more donations, I raised almost $30k and we were able to run the summer program and pay stipends. That was the wonderful part. The challenge now is raising the money for the rest of the year.  A few of our students have enrolled in community college or four year universities. Others are back in high school but there are about six who are on the cusp (no college/no job) that have me extremely worried. I’d like to get them back to working two or three days a week just to keep them engaged and out of trouble.

We've had some very positive media coverage this year and I've been contacted by some promising funding sources for 2014. I've also made contact with some wonderful organizations such as Gateway Greening, the Catholic Campaign for Human Development and several corporations. Collaboration with these agencies and funding sources promises an even more structured and rewarding program next year.

This year, we had “friends of friends” – young people who came to class, listened to speakers and participated in our exercises without pay. The Sweet Potato Project youth and their friends are actually showing me what they need to succeed. We are indeed onto something powerful.

It’s kinda scary but I've made the commitment to stay focused mainly on raising the funds to finish out the year, start weekend classes, harvest the produce, get products into distribution, build the coalitions and partnerships that will help us create a programming structure that can motivate and educate the youth while addressing their many, many needs.

The means of transportation is not important. The kids know Mr. Brown is out to change young lives and save communities. More important, they know we’re riding together.

Photo by Benjamin Gandhi-Shepard

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