Monday, September 1, 2014

No More Fergusons: The SPP Approach

The Sweet Potato Project was created to tackle the root causes that tendered the explosion we’re witnessing in the City of Ferguson today.
Almost 50 years ago, with the passage of much-needed civil rights legislation, African Americans started leaving designated areas of St. Louis City where they had been legally contained since the early 1900s.  Working-class black families and entrepreneurs sought new opportunities in desegregated neighborhoods and companies. Of course, this “black flight” ignited “white flight” which in turn left black areas throughout the region void of opportunities and dominated by poverty, unemployment, crime and disproportionate incarceration.
Economic power, however, remained in the hands of whites, especially in St. Louis County. Other than what they witness on the nightly news or the Internet, many have no connection, no understanding or dealings with black people-particularly young black boys. Corporate, civic, education and government institutions, like police departments, remain quasi-segregated and controlled and dominated by whites. As the region grows with new developments, black neighborhoods still suffer from benign neglect. In a real sense, blacks are strangers in their own deprived neighborhoods. There is no respectful, racial collusion aimed at helping them create their own economically-vibrant communities.
For the past three years, I have served as the director of the Sweet Potato Project (SPP). The 60 or so youth we've recruited since 2012, have been told that they are “urban pioneers” who will show the region that we can save communities through a food-based movement. We recruit teens (ages 16-to-20) from some of the city’s poorest zip codes. They are paid during the summer to plant sweet potatoes on vacant lots. After nine weeks of training in marketing, product development, social media and more, they’re charged with turning their yield into products.

SPP partner garden in the 3300 block of Goodfellow
SPP plot at Missouri Botanical Garden
Summer sessions have ended. Right now, as usual, we’re focusing on raising funds to regroup so our students can tend our gardens, prepare for harvest, develop more food-based products, gain more sales training and get ready to sell their products.

Since the mid-August police shooting and ensuing protests, there have been dozens of “what’s next” public discussions. During these gatherings, they ask; “what can we do to avoid another Ferguson? What’s our first priority; policing the police, policy change, political overhaul or voter registration?"
These are indeed priorities but, I contend, that what we’re doing with our project on a micro-level, should be our very first collective, large-scale priority.
It’s a cliche but, “power only concedes to power.” Well, money is power. Sadly, politics and policy are shaped by the power of money. President Obama had to raise more than a billion dollars to be reelected; Mayor Francis Slay won another term largely due to his million dollar war chest. Since the slave era, our region has been in the control of a small, tight-knit group of rich and powerful white men who don’t necessarily see the value of investing in “people power.”
SPP’s goal is to flip that script. We secure vacant lots and teach young people how to grow food. We turn our produce into food-based products. After harvesting, we produce and sell our product-sweet potato cookies. Throughout the fall, winter and spring our students earn commissions on the products they sell.

SPP students studing economic dynamic of their neighborhoods
The Sweet Potato Project youth get it. They are invested in real, powerful community change. They understand that their neighborhoods, their peers and siblings will be trapped in poverty and wrapped in all its life-threatening tentacles unless they do something.

What if we dreamed bigger? What if we dreamed together?

According to a report by the Show Me Institute, there are 8,000 vacant lots in the city of St. Louis. What if “regular people” owned some of those lots? What if this collective grew and harvested food together? What if they were able to sell their yield to a community-owned food packaging and manufacturing plant in North St. Louis?
 What if major grocers, restaurants, schools and other city and state agencies committed to “buying locally-grown food” from the collective instead of depending on corporations for food that’s transported some 1,800 miles away? What if a national brand of food products out of North St. Louis was created and loyal consumers (locally, regionally and nationally) understood that their dollars were supplementing viable, self-sustainable neighborhoods? How many jobs and small businesses can we create in neglected conclaves based on this local food movement and the work of a diverse group of vested stakeholders?
This isn't pie-in-the-sky rhetoric either. Although most St. Louis leaders are stuck in the “one-powerful-idea” led by “one-powerful-developer” lane, food-based, community cooperatives are sweeping the country. Just look at Cleveland’s “Evergreen Cooperatives,” Brooklyn's Hattie Cartham Community Gardens, “Black Community Food Security Network” or Milwaukee’s “Growing Power, Inc.” These are just a few urban agricultural efforts aimed at creating sustainable, community food systems in disadvantaged neighborhoods.

St. Louis University's Fresh Gatherings Garden
The St. Louis region may not have the vision but has the resources. Community organizations like Better Family Life, the Greater Ville Collaborative, Beloved Streets, Beyond Housing, Sweet Sensations and others have tapped into the people power in our region. SPP has its sights on land along Martin Luther King Blvd and we've developed strategic partnerships with the likes of St. Louis University, the Creative Exchange Laboratory (CEL) and Lincoln University's Urban Impact Center. We have major sponsors like World Wide Technology and Aetna Insurance Company committed to helping us seed our vision in the Greater Ville area. I've even been contacted by a Ferguson official who has invited us to look at land in the city that may be suitable for urban farming.  With the help of SLU's Department of Nutrition and Dietetics under the leadership of Chef Steve Jenkins, we can now develop high-quality, nutritional food products  We're hoping to be adopted by a major food distributor in the region, to guide us through the food packaging and distribution processes.

Vision of a SPP community garden
We're fortunate to have designed a program that not only engages disadvantaged teens but cuts through stale, racial and economic barriers. We've been blessed with a diverse group of individuals, and leaders of political, educational and corporate institutions who've come aboard because our agenda is non-threatening and inclusive. It just makes good ole common sense and empowers anyone and everyone who can bring their unique skills to the table. Along the way, they have the opportunity to go beyond stereotypes. They meet with and engage urban youth, they learn about their experiences, challenges and dreams; they see black communities through new lenses and become vested stakeholders in powerful, regional change.

Our region simply has to break out of the segregated bubble we've endured for too long. I know it sounds strange, but the police shooting of a teen, the protests, the militarized police response and, yes, even the "looting," has ripped the scab off a centuries-old, festering sore in St. Louis. The eyes of the world are upon us and we have a valuable, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to really lead; to turn tragedy into triumph.  
Admittedly, I am a naive optimist. But I remain convinced that our program is on the right track to stemming other percolating explosions in our region. Maybe this time St. Louis can go beyond stereotyping, beyond indictments and beyond empty, emotional rhetoric. Maybe this time we can work our way toward developing a model that recognizes, nurtures and prepares youth to “be the change” we so desperately need. With your help, with your dedicated engagement and support, maybe this time we can create a template that empowers disadvantaged youth, adults and broken communities the world over.

Maybe, this time, St. Louis can confidently declare “No More Fergusons!” 

The Sweet Potato Project 
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 the sweet potato project

Mission video 
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