Tuesday, December 15, 2015


These are the times in which a genius would wish to live. It is not in the still calm of life, or the repose of a pacific station, that great characters are formed. The habits of a vigorous mind are formed in contending with difficulties. Great necessities call out great virtues. When a mind is raised, and animated by scenes that engage the heart, then those qualities which would otherwise lay dormant, wake into life and form the character of the hero and the statesman. -- Abigail Adams 


I saved the quote above from Abigail Adams, wife of President John Adams, years ago. Today, however, it strikes a powerful chord. We are indeed living in tumultuous times; times of fear and apathy; of slick villains and burgeoning heroes…a time when the gauntlet of hatred, reinforced by 21st Century propaganda, woos the fearful but ignites courageous opposition. 

Mrs. Adams’ words resonate because bizarre, “animated scenes” engage the heart, elevate the minds and form the character of true statesmen. While a frightening number of sheep respond positively to a front-running, megalomaniac’s call to build walls based on racial and religious biases, a long-dormant giant rises to shout: “Hell No!” 

It’s reassuring that, once again, the call for conscious and compassion is emanating from the minds, voices and actions of untarnished young people. We live in a time where politicians and police have manufactured narratives that justify the inexcusable shootings of mostly unarmed black boys and men. Apathy swells despite the litany of videos depicting lives snuffed out within seconds without fear of retribution. With Nazi-like disinformation "pro-police" forces rely on stereotypes and the woes of the meek-minded to blunt a basic demand for accountability. Still, from the hallowed halls of academia to gritty, ghetto streets of urbana, a chorus of young voices insist “Black Lives Matter”…too! 

We live in a time where, once again, millions have retreated to that ugly place where acts of terrorism urges them to shred the tenants of our Constitution. Today 1.5 billion Muslims worldwide are ostracized by the acts of a few. This while believers of “Christianity” and the Confederate flag escape typecasting. Melanin-deficient malcontents, armed with government-sanctioned automatic weapons, can shoot up movie theaters, schools and clinics yet the media is still hesitant to apply the “terrorist” label upon them. 

Thankfully, the laureates, singers, rappers and spoken word aficionados offer voices of reason and resistance in the midst of heated hysteria. They relentlessly remind us we've traveled this dangerous, divisive path before. It was the state of race-based madness that sparked riots in the early 1900s when thousands of blacks migrating from the south lost their lives. It was an environment of unfettered fear that led to the deportation of immigrant and naturalized American Mexican citizens in the 1930s and the internment of Japanese Americans in the 1940s. It was the primitive quest for revenge, emboldened by presidential cowboy swagger in 2003 that instigated the bombing of an entire country-which had nothing to do with the downing of New York’s Twin Towers. 

We live in a time when pandering politicians suckling at the teat of the almighty One-Percent have the power to dictate priorities and manipulate the media’s agenda. Ours is a rich country that's able to ignore the poor and the disproportionate mass incarceration of impoverished people of color. We are a society fueled by corporate greed and warmongering politicos. They arrogantly pontificate under the simplistic notion that God loves America more than any other country and sanctions our atrocities at home and abroad. 

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a real life martyr, urged us to live lives that matter. Shortly before his assassination, in a soul-stirring 1967 sermon at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, King said we aren’t fit to live, if we haven’t found something “so dear and so precious” to die for. 

“You died when you refused to stand up for right, you died when you refused to stand up for truth, you died when you refused to stand up for justice,” King preached. 

Let us not die a metaphoric, unrighteous death. Yes, there is a measure of comfort in Abigail Adams words but we cannot rest on the laurels that people of “great character” with “great virtues” will rise up and counter the fermenting insanity in our country. 

As the year ends on another racial and religious divisive note, let us answer that clarion call to stand up. In these times of great necessity, let us stand up for our children; let us stand for truth and justice but most of all, let us stand for what Dr. King declared “so dear and so precious...”  Let us stand up for what’s right.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Ben Carson (Gulp) Spoke the Truth…

I have a feeling I’m going to regret writing this but, I actually agree with a statement retired neurosurgeon and current GOP candidate for president, Ben Carson, made in late September.  While speaking to a small group of black leaders and activists, Carson said blacks can leverage more power through their bank accounts than by putting their “fist in the air.”

Let’s be clear, I’m no Carson supporter. As Goldie Taylor with the Daily Beast noted, I’m among that group of blacks who find the Republican “brand” and many of its platforms “toxic” and “antagonistic.” Besides, the brilliant surgeon has said quite a few not-so-brilliant things like comparing Obamacare to slavery; saying Jews with guns could have prevented the Holocaust and Muslims should be disqualified from seeking the presidency. Pretty wacky stuff, however, when it comes to the empowerment of black people, Carson’s on point.  No matter what happens in politics, through legislation or the courageous acts of diverse, engaged and benevolent people, its incumbent upon black folk to adopt and pursue a “do-for-self” agenda for the survival and positive advancement of our young, our neighborhoods and our futures.
Carson was right when he told black leaders; “Jewish America understands it. Korean America understands it. Black America, if they could understand it, they could blow everybody else out of the water.”
The “IT” is economic empowerment and no one can gift that to black people. We have to understand-like every other hyphenated American group-Jewish-Americans, Italian-Americans, Asian-Americans, Arab-Americans, etc., that we must build our own systems within established systems for our collective survival. Other ethnicities, hesitant to solely rely on government structures, build and support their own educational, business and political “systems.” They make sure that their culture, history and unique interests are intertwined with their businesses, politics and children’s education. They work to ensure self-reliance and economic, social and religious independence.
From the days of slavery, throughout the Jim Crow era and into early 1970s, blacks had no choice but challenge a system that purposely excluded them. Integration and equality was the rallying cry for “freedom.” Prior to the passage of landmark civil rights legislation, however, blacks had no choice but do-for-self. As a result, they established their own educational systems, political self-interest groups and businesses within the communities where they were legally or forcefully restricted. Unfortunately, when “opportunity” was defined by the privilege to live in white neighborhoods, attend white schools or work for white-owned businesses, many blacks abandoned their neighborhoods and the businesses that sustained and protected them for decades.
Back in August, in preparation for a public library discussion on “Racial Justice in a Post-Ferguson World,” I wrote an essay titled Economic Justice: The Missing Piece in Achieving RacialJustice.” The gist of the piece was to show how so-called remedies for blacks oftentimes served systems created to benefit whites; School districts profited from busing poor, black city kids to white suburban schools; Affirmative Action benefits mostly white women; entitlements and food stamps created new revenue streams for major white-owned grocers and retailers and on and on.
We cannot blame ourselves for having to fight systems established on the artificial premise of white superiority but, at some point, we have to realize the damage in solely relying on them to propel our collective interests. One of the biggest tragedies of Obama’s legacy is that black leaders failed to dissect his initiatives, develop and articulate an agenda of self-sufficiency backed by federal assistance. I know it may sound hypocritical but the operative words are “backed” or supported; efforts that lead to self-sufficient black communities that are not solely reliant on government support.
For example, the program I co-founded in 2012, the Sweet Potato Project, was inspired in part by a federal proposal. In 2010, the Obama Administration announced the $400million Healthy Food Financing Initiative, aimed at eliminating “food deserts” and enticing food retailers into business partnerships with under-served urban and rural communities. Back then, as today, I see the “locally-grown food” movement as a viable way to empower low-income communities for the long term. We provide “at-risk” teens with a summer job to grow food on vacant lots. We teach them how to package, market and sell produce and food products. 
Why not expand the concept? We all eat, right? Why not get vacant land into the hands of the impoverished and have them grow healthy food that can be purchased by major grocers? Why not have North St. Louis landowners grow food that can be sold at farmers markets and turned into a product line of quality food products that any and everyone can purchase? It’s basic, sustainable; good for troubled neighborhoods and can spin off into dozens of other housing and business ventures.

 Carson insists that he’s not trying to get rid of “safety net programs” but create environments where entitlement programs won’t be needed. Creating mechanisms that help people rise out of states of “dependency” is the goal, the good doctor maintains. It's not that I doubt his motives; it’s that I don’t trust his affiliation with a Party known for its stubborn reliance on negative stereotypes to dismantle such programs.  
Maybe we have traveled a path outside our control to get to this point, but the fact remains that we have turned our neighborhoods and our children over to broken systems-educational, political and economic-that were not designed for our collective uplift. Challenge injustice-yes; Raise your fists; raise your voices-yes! But we must also raise our awareness to match modern day realities. Most whites believe that we’ve overcome racism and as a recent poll indicated, the majority believes they are the victims of discrimination.   
There will be no political knight in shining armor; there will be no groundswell of liberal “saviors” who will carve out a path of self-sufficiency for black people. In a way, we have to go back to go forward. We have to re-adopt the mindset of “do-for-self” with as much help as possible. It’s not radical or revolutionary. As Carson reminded us; it’s what every other ethnicity deems necessary. 

Sylvester Brown, Jr. is a former columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and current director of the Sweet Potato Project, a St. Louis initiative that teaches entrepreneurial skills to urban youth.    

Economic Justice: The Missing Piece in Achieving Racial Justice

by Sylvester Brown, Jr.
Originally published in "Check it Out" by the St. Louis Public Library's Blog

On September 9th, the Central Library hosted a panel discussion on “Racial Justice in a Post-Ferguson World.” This essay was written in an anticipation of that event

Aug. 31, 2015 

I’m looking forward to what my fellow panelists will say, but I welcome the opportunity to discuss a topic that’s been heavy on my mind. You see, my biggest fear is that remedies to racial injustice in 2015 won’t be much different than those offered more than 50 years ago. We will probably discuss ideas already out there, such as municipalities that target poor blacks for monetary gain, police training and accountability, jobs for adults and black youth, and creating more charter schools. However, I feel that very few of these reform efforts by, no doubt, well-meaning people will address what I deem the real remedy to injustice: economic empowerment.
Centuries of societal and institutionalized racism were the targets of change back in the day. However, the onus for “justice” was placed on the shoulders of white people, some who actually benefited economically. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 allowed blacks access to restaurants, theaters, sports arenas, and hotels. But that also meant whites had new, untapped revenue streams. Public housing programs were a huge boon for white construction workers. Government entitlement programs, by sheer numbers alone, helped more poor whites than poor blacks. Additionally, it provided more customers every month for white-owned grocers.
Due to the inane belief that black kids would learn better if they only attended schools with white kids, forced busing was enacted across the country. Underfunded public schools suffered as taxpayer dollars were diverted to white, mostly suburban schools. Lastly, according to the United States Labor Department, white women (ergo white families) have been the primary beneficiaries of affirmative action programs.
Let’s be clear, as I’m not talking about reparations for past racial atrocities. That idea was declared dead-on-arrival decades ago. Many liberals and conservatives alike have a particular section of Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech memorized. Reaching a form of racial utopia together is more palatable than actually giving black people money to help themselves. King spoke to this attitude in 1963: “Whenever the issue of compensatory treatment for the Negro is raised, some of our friends recoil in horror. The Negro should be granted equality, they agree; but he should ask nothing more.”
How do we bring about “racial justice in a post-Ferguson world?” I’m looking forward to the upcoming panel discussion. Personally, I want to elaborate on my staunch belief that there will be no “racial justice” in the region until we first discuss unique and collaborative ways to empower black folk-young and older-to rise above historic economic injustice.
I contend that asking more, demanding “economic justice,” is the major force to empower black people. This too is based on the words of Dr. King. In a 1965 Playboy magazine interview with legendary writer, Alex Haley, King talked about a $50 billion government employment program that would help some “20,000,000 Negroes” and other poor Americans. Since most blacks live in metropolitan areas, King theorized that a massive, dignified effort to help black people rebuild disadvantaged areas of the country would lead to “a spectacular decline in school dropouts, family breakups, crime rates, illegitimacy, swollen relief rolls, rioting, and other social evils.”
It’s important to note that King said his idea would ensure “Negroes” would stay and rebuild their own neighborhoods. In 50-year retrospective, we now understand that passage of landmark Civil Rights legislation actually led to blacks abandoning their neighborhoods. Whether they were shoved out due to redevelopment or left willingly seeking opportunities in virgin territories, “white flight” of residents and business-owners guaranteed that unwelcomed blacks would be locked in pockets of poverty throughout the St. Louis region.
As political and civic leaders talk of reform in a post-Ferguson world, they are also seeking billions in taxpayer money to build a new football stadium, help an already rich developer renovate North St. Louis, and entice more big businesses into the region. These aren’t necessarily bad ideas, but it’s a pretty sure bet that whites will once again gain economically, and the trickle down effects of their booty won’t empower poor blacks in the region.
Sylvester Brown, Jr. is a former columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and current director of the Sweet Potato Project, a St. Louis initiative that teaches entrepreneurial skills to urban youth.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

We Are Not Alone

           Many thanks to the Incarnate Word Foundation and PolicyLink, the national research and action institute dedicated to advancing economic and social equity throughout the country. Thanks to these two agencies, about 20 of us St. Louis nonprofit heads attended PolicyLink’s “Equity Summit” in Los Angeles, CA last week. 
For me, a life-long St. Louisan fed up with the seeming disconcert between powerful city leaders and the overwhelming health and economic disparities among the city’s poor and minorities, it was empowering. Like me, I’m certain other delegation members suffer from fund-raising fatigue and the sense that our missions are not at the top of regional leader’s priority lists. “Equity Summit 2015: All In for Inclusion, Justice & Prosperity” was a reminder that we are not alone.
          PolicyLink, founded in 1999 by Angela Glover Blackwell, focuses on policies affecting low-income communities and communities of color. Its guiding principle, EQUITY, is defined as “just and fair inclusion into a society in which all can participate, prosper, and reach their full potential.” It was really cool spending a few days in sunny California surrounded by 3,000 leaders, advocates and “equity stakeholders” working to enact this powerful principle. Through a series of mobile workshops, plenary sessions and presentations we were given cutting-edge strategies to help us organize, communicate, advocate and, yes, demand real and lasting change.

click video

         I needed the boost the summit provided as it stressed our individual roles in America’s “transformational change.” There are literally thousands of us nudging the country toward racial and economic justice, ending police brutality, demanding workers’ rights and addressing widening income inequality.  In a real sense, we’re prepping the nation for its future. By 2044, people of color will be the majority population in the United States. This nation will never live up to its full potential until leaders start thinking about  prosperity, education, the broken justice system, and just and fair inclusion for minorities in transportation, health and jobs. 
           The Obama administration chose the Equity Summit to announce “Performance Partnership Pilots for Disconnected Youth (P3). It’s a new program aimed at helping leaders on local levels better leverage Federal funds to help “disconnected” youth in educational, employment, and other key outcomes. The pilot program was announced in conjunction with PolicyLink's new “All-In Cities” initiative, designed to empower city officials, community advocates, and other civic leaders with policy ideas, data, and hands-on assistance to advance racial economic inclusion and economic growth. 
       “The initiative aims to fundamentally change the economy in ways that expand participation, opportunity, and power for communities of color, and to accelerate economic growth in cities, regions and the nation,” PolicyLink founder, Angela Glover Blackwell, wrote recently. “To accomplish this, we must disrupt the structures, systems and policies that have perpetuated racial inequities and uneven growth in cities.”
        I thought of the Ferguson Commission’s report calling for “equity” as Glover Blackwell gave examples of “equity-driven development.” It’s the construction of a $2.4 billion light rail line in Los Angeles that requires 40 percent (of the estimated 23,000 construction jobs) go to low- to moderate-income neighborhood residents, with 10 percent of those jobs targeted at “disadvantaged” workers such as veterans, the long-term unemployed, and formerly incarcerated people. It’s the “Inclusive Startup Fund” enacted in Portland, which will provides capital, mentoring, and business advising to startups founded by underrepresented groups. These are just two examples of efforts aimed at dismantling barriers to employment; linking the unemployed to good-paying jobs with dignity by building vital infrastructure in low-income neighborhoods.
        I don’t know if it was the Incarnate Word Foundation’s intent but the “we are not alone” message was reinforced for me as part of the St. Louis delegation. Rarely have I had the chance to be in one place at the same time with folks like Judge Jimmy Edwards founder of Innovative Concept Academy, Molly Rockamann head of EarthDance Farms, Jeremy Goss, of MetroMarket, Gibron Jones Burchett, founder of HOSCO Foods LLC and Aldermen Antonio French and Megan-Ellyia Green.
        Each of us in our own way are “equity stakeholders.” Perhaps, together we can pursue funding, challenge stagnant policies and use data and best practices to further our missions and get the higher on regional leader’s priority lists.
          This and more is what I gleaned from the three days I spent at PolicyLink’s Equity Summit 2015. The thought that I am among legions engaged in the fight for true equity is an empowering feeling. For this and more, I am truly grateful to those who made the experience possible. 
                                                                                                                        – Sincerely, Sylvester

Friday, October 23, 2015

The Fires This Time: What's the Message?

     Until yesterday, six predominantly African-American churches in and around St. Louis have been set on fire. The doors of the seventh church, the 172-year-old Shrine of St. Joseph Catholic Church near downtown was set ablaze early Thursday. At this point, police and fire officials have no idea who’s behind the acts of arson. But this much we do know:
Somebody’s burning churches.
Somebody’s working hard to keep the city racially divided.
Somebody’s trying to send a message.

       The latter is the point of serious reflection. What is the message? Are they burning black churches to counter the protests of those dissatisfied with police misconduct? Is someone still so upset with the election of Barack Obama and obsessed with the loony idea of “losing our country” that they’ve reverted to tactics of old? Is somebody trying to scare black people into a state of complacency? Or, is someone angry at black churches for not being loud enough; aggressive enough, engaged enough in the struggles of black people?

Is somebody trying to scare black people into a state of complacency?

We know there’s a long, ugly history of church burnings in America. The black church has long been regarded as the bastion of the civil rights struggle. Setting them ablaze was a mostly southern strategy aimed at striking fear in the hearts of resilient black people intent on gaining equal rights. Strike fear, they did but the burnings also heartened the resolve of the movement. In 1963, members of the Ku Klux Klan planted dynamite at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. The explosion, which Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. described as “one of the most vicious and tragic crimes ever perpetrated against humanity" killed four young black girls and injured 22 others. It’s safe to say that whatever message the Klansmen tried to send, backfired absolutely.

Sadly and perhaps not so sadly, here we are again, some 52 years after that Birmingham church bombing, still grappling with issues of race and the retaliatory reactions to the region’s widely recognized racial divisions. It’s sad because racism is a demon that’s desperately clinging to life in our modern day metropolis. It’s not so sad because we’re still in need of reminders that all is not well in the region.

Sadly and perhaps not so sadly, here we are again, some 52 years after that Birmingham church bombing, still grappling with issues of race and the retaliatory reactions to the region’s widely recognized racial divisions.

Last year, the mostly young protesters who are being demeaned and maligned as “terrorists and antagonists” today, tried to tell us something.  They took to the streets to say “black lives matter”; that unarmed black boys and men should not be gunned down by overly aggressive police. Their actions uncovered a sordid history of municipalities that tolerates and encourages police to target, intimidate and regulate poor black people for profit. These injustices were outlined in the Department of Justice report on Ferguson. The good folks of the Ferguson Commission went further with a report detailing racial inequities and injustices that blacks have endured for decades. It was a good report, written by good people. But the report will only nudge the consciousness of “good people”…those enlightened enough, compassionate enough and engaged enough to respond accordingly.
Photo courtesy of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Photo courtesy of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch 
      Despite public talk and lofty commitments to enact social and economic change post-Ferguson, most city leaders are satisfied with the status quo. As a St. Louis Post-Dispatch editorial noted in August, “St. Louis has one of the highest racial-economic disparities of any major urban area in the United States.” Addressing the facts that our city ranks fifth in the nation for the ratio of black-to-white poverty, eighth in black-to-white unemployment and fourth in the ratio of black-to-white infant mortality is not a priority among the region’s elite. Building a billion dollar football stadium and putting more police downtown to protect tourists and sports fans seems to rank higher on the city’s to-do list.

     In the face of naked injustices and inequities, the status quo arrogantly insists that “all lives matter” and if we don’t agree with this, well, we’re simply the racists. I love President Obama’s recent retort to this claim: I think everybody understands all lives matter. I think the reason that the organizers used the phrase ‘Black Lives Matter’ was not because they were suggesting nobody else’s lives matter. Rather, what they were suggesting was there is a specific problem that’s happening in the African-American community that’s not happening in other communities. And that is a legitimate issue that we’ve got to address.” 

In the face of naked injustices and inequities, the status quo arrogantly insists that “all lives matter” and if we don’t agree with this, well, we’re the racists.

Whatever the intended message of the arsonist, it underscores Obama’s thoughts that a legitimate issue” must be addressed. From my perspective, the onus for real, sustainable change rest on the shoulders of the “caring and connected.” These are enlightened whites who care and compassionate, caring blacks who are also connected by DNA to black communities and those suffering within them.
     Folks, we are up against historically broken systems-economic; educational and criminal justice systems that are not designed for the betterment of people of color. We live in a country that would rather herd children of color into prisons than into college. For the past 115 years in St. Louis, African Americans have been involuntarily or voluntarily excised from areas they traditionally called “home.” Most times, in the name of “opportunity” or “development” they moved or where steered into municipalities where they weren’t welcomed; where white home and business owners immediately fled and blacks were purposely locked out of the economic mainstream. As the editorial I cited above also mentioned; today’s racial problems in the region are the product of a calculated effort over generations by St. Louis’ white majority to cut off access to opportunity for African-Americans.”
This, to be blunt, is our wake up call and should dictate our responses to the latest incidences of inflammation. We will never effectively cede poverty or crime until we empower people within poverty and crime-infested neighborhoods to make needed holistic change. A good starting point would be creating strong economic bases in these neighborhoods where poor people live.
This is, perhaps, the unwanted message that the black church needs to heed. This institution is and has always been a powerhouse of social, spiritual and political trajectory in this country.  Even though Blacks make up only 13 percent of the U.S. population, a new Nielsen study estimates that by 2019, we’re on track to represent $1.4 trillion in buying power. Now I’m not sure how much of this trickles through the wallets and purses of St. Louis’ blacks but it’s fair to say that we represent a respectable percentage and a lot of that money will wind up in the coffers of black churches on Sunday mornings.

The black church has always been a powerhouse of social, spiritual and political motivation in this country.
We can’t wait on regional leaders who have are loathed to invest in black neighborhoods. St. Louis is a city with a majority black population with a proud history and legacy but with no positive, visible representation in the media, in its tourist locales or in its neighborhoods. I love this city of my birth; therefore I can speak to its flaws. It’s a region where conservative talk dominates the airwaves and a segregationist mindset dominates corporate and civic boardrooms. The modus operandi of decision-makers is to give millions to millionaires to start projects that might provide trickle down benefits to the poor. This hasn’t worked in the past 60 years and it won’t work today.
What we need is a revolution of new, inclusive thinking and the “caring and connected” must lead this charge. This is the message I’ve been sharing a lot lately. While speaking at the Conference for Catholic Bishops in January, I answered the question of “what can whites do” to better the conditions of African Americans? My suggestion was/is: “Invest in Black. Look for ways to socially and economically empower black people where they live.”

What we need is a revolution of new, inclusive thinking and the “caring and connected” must lead this charge. 

Thus is the mission of the Sweet Potato Project. For the past four years, we’ve trained youth to grow, market and sell fresh food and food-based products. This year, we are attempting to expand the vision by inviting people to lease or purchase some of the more than 8,000 vacant lots in St. Louis to grow and sell food also. If people own money-generating land in the city, they’ll have a vested interest in maintaining and protecting that land. If we grow massive amounts of food in North St. Louis, all sorts of individuals and companies (consumers, grocers, schools, bakeries, restaurants etc.) will have a vested interest in supporting the efforts of extraordinary ordinary people growing the food.
It’s no overall panacea but the food movement that’s exploded across the country gives us a real shot at addressing issues that the powers-that-be deem irrelevant. It gives us the opportunity to craft our own narrative in response to the inflammatory messages raised by church burnings. In the face of fear, we will not be deterred. In the shadow of ignorance, we will not be intimidated. We refuse to play your game, whatever it may be. No, we will unite; we will become stronger and committed to doing the work of the truly caring and committed. 


Sylvester Brown, Jr., is a long-time St. Louis journalist and co-founder and Director of the Sweet Potato Project.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Truth Be Told: City Leaders Just Don't Get It

The more I read about happenings and developments in the St. Louis region, the more I’m convinced that the region’s civic and political leaders have learned absolutely nothing from the explosion in Ferguson last year. The death of 18-year-old Mike Brown pulled the scab off a region with serious economic, health and social disparities and criminal “justice” injustices. Our entire region received a black eye once the racial and social inequities affecting its African American populace was laid bare on the international stage.
Tolerated greed in small municipalities, police malfeasance and racial inequality has been well documented in post-Mike Brown editorials and reports issued by the U.S Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Ferguson Commission appointed by Gov. Jay Nixon. But do they really matter? 
Days before the one year anniversary of Brown’s death, a St. Louis Post-Dispatch editorial clearly summed up the cause and effect of the region’s greatest problems:To be black in the St. Louis region means that you are more than three times as likely as your white neighbors to live in poverty, to be unemployed, to have less education, to die earlier and to see your child die in infancy…It is the product of a calculated effort over generations by St. Louis’ white majority to cut off access to opportunity for African-Americans.”
To make its case, the editorial used data from a study by the East-West Gateway Council of Governments that showed St. Louis has one of the highest racial-economic disparities of any major urban area in the country.  
If we have high race-related economic disparity rates and there’s been a generational “effort” to cut off opportunity for black people, wouldn’t common sense dictate that aggressively addressing these disparities and creating opportunity for black people, be the first order of business?

It is the product of a calculated effort over generations by St. Louis’ white majority to cut off access to opportunity for African-Americans.”

Well, not according to a recent news story:

St. Louis hopes to use billion-dollar construction projects to reshape city,” read the headline of an October7th Post-Dispatch article.  According to the piece, city leaders are planning to invest millions with Paul McKee-an already rich St. Peters developer-a government mapping agency on the old Pruitt-Igoe site and a new football stadium. These efforts, the article reiterates, will end “social and economic malaise” in the region.  According to Mayor Francis Slay and other city officials, this top-down theory of investment, tied to projects like the $380 million restoration of the Gateway Arch grounds and the new $695 million Stan Musial Veterans Memorial Bridge will result in “redevelopment that jolts downtown and spills outward to downtrodden areas.”

Rendering of proposed riverfront NFL stadium.
The mantra of city leaders for at least the past 60 years has been: “Invest in rich white men with the hope that trickle down economics will benefit everyone else.”  The sad reality is; it’s never worked. New stadiums do not build strong, safe communities. Investing in communities builds communities. The sort of development this region stubbornly clings to have resulted in high crime in poor neighborhoods, massive population loss in the city, blacks forced out of their neighborhoods and locked out of opportunity in new neighborhoods.

Courtesy of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch
I run a nonprofit, the Sweet Potato Project, and, at this time, our survival is dependent on institutional sources. As broke as I am, as much as I struggle to maintain operations, I’m also aware that there’s a risk in criticizing the powers-that-be. But first and foremost, I am a journalist. “Truth” still matters to me. And the truth is, we live in a region with a staunch segregated mindset. It’s one that opted not to invest in city schools but bus kids to county schools back in the day. It under-funds public schools today and wants to invest more in charter schools tomorrow. It’s a region where “leaders” let North St. Louis rot for 60 years and now wants to feverishly dole out millions to millionaires who will probably upgrade but gentrify historically black neighborhoods.

I was born and raised in St. Louis. My “success” if you will, came as a result of kind, benevolent individuals-black and white-who invested in my untapped potential. Working with inner city youth today reminds me that I was not unique. Kids today have the talent, determination, resilience and creativity to save our region but we aren’t serious about investing in their futures. The mostly young people who exposed the disparities and injustices in our region are now being targeted and maligned for their brave and bold efforts. The only remedy politicians have to offer these kids is more police and harsher policing.
My words reflect frustration because the Sweet Potato Project offers a solid, sustainable plan for development in North St. Louis. Right now, our youth plant sweet potatoes on vacant lots and turn their produce into products. Through our partnership with St. Louis University, we will buy sweet potatoes from five St. Louis community gardeners this year.

Dream with me: There are more than 8,000 vacant lots in North St. Louis. What if we found a way to get some of those lots into the hands of low-income residents and the region invested money to help them grow, fresh, organic produce? What can happen if there were whole city blocks of people growing food? What dreams may come if schools, hospitals, restaurants and grocers committed to buying produce and products out of North St. Louis? How many jobs and small spin-off businesses can we create in the neighborhoods? How high will the self-esteem and dignity rise in a community that created, produced and maintained a national food brand? How many kids can we save?
Why not try what’s never been tried? It’s obvious we can’t stop civic and political leaders who are insistent on investing in the lofty whims of the rich and connected. However, we don’t need to wait on them to save ourselves. Like other cities, extraordinary, ordinary St. Louis folk can get the land, grow the food, make and distribute produce and food-based products…today. The good news: this is not an exclusive, top-down endeavor. Everyone-politicians, universities, grocers, food manufacturers and distributors, philanthropists and consumers can play a part in creating a bottom-up, North St. Louis effort.

There are more than 8,000 vacant lots in North St. Louis. What if we found a way to get some of those lots into the hands of low-income residents and the region invested money to help them grow, fresh, organic produce? 

I am not alone. There are dozens of grassroots organizations and individuals busting their butts, using their own money, struggling to work within disadvantaged communities. I can’t speak for all but I know if I had just one of the millions gifted to the rich, I can guarantee robust economic activity in poor neighborhoods that will impact and empower people where they live.
Is our plan ambitious? Maybe. Is it risky? Perhaps. But no more ambitious or riskier than doing the same ole thing with the same ole type of people and getting the same ole outcomes.

Will our plan save North St. Louis? No, not alone. But it’s a start in the right direction. It’s a way to put community development in the hands of the community. It’s a way to give regular people, community organizations and youth a vested interest in rebuilding historically, economically depressed areas. It’s a way to prove that investing in community insiders is just as viable and valuable as subsidizing rich and powerful outsiders. 

Monday, September 7, 2015

Sonny Boy’s Gift

I owe a great debt to my little brother, Sonny Boy. He's the fifth child of my parents, Evelyna and Sylvester Brown's brood of eleven kids.Times have been tough lately but as I sit here this holiday weekend mulling things over, Sonny Boy's gift came to mind. It's a stark reminder that anyone, of any age or station in life can bring positive direction to a wayward soul.

Maybe it’s this way with all big families but we had this hierarchical system were the Brown siblings paired off by age. I worshiped my older sister Sharon. Most times she had her own room in the house and when she wasn’t home, I’d hang out in her room, reading her books or listening to her vinyl records on her portable turntable. Sharon tolerated me but I was in no way her “buddy,” she had an assortment of girlfriends (many of whom I loved madly). Sharon was “the first” in our family-first to graduate high school, first to get her own car and first to move out on her own. I admired her greatly.

Daniel, my older brother by two years, was my running buddy and hero. As the oldest boys in the family, Mama assigned Danny and me certain duties. Whenever my father, a chronic alcoholic, was gone for days, weeks or months or locked up due to his drunken adventures, we had to be the “men of the house” watching out for our siblings, working odd jobs or doing whatever she told us to do.

Danny and I were scrappers. We fought for fun. Oftentimes you’d find us practicing the moves we saw on TV shows like Batman, the Green Hornet, Bonanza, the Wild, Wild West or Star Trek. One time, a thuggish teenager climbed a tree and broke into Sharon’s room late at night. I heard a scream, thunderous footsteps and our front door slam open. By the time I got to the door, Danny had the thug in a choke hold on our front lawn. No matter what poor neighborhood we moved into, our peers quickly learned not to mess with the “Brown Boys.” I give Danny credit for our street rep.

Anyway, back to my little brother. His birth name is "Reginald." It’s funny how life sorts things out. I got my father’s first name, "Sylvester" but Sonny Boy inherited his nickname, “Sonny.” He looks exactly like my father; has his rail-thin body, loud, raucous laughter and Sonny’s devil-may-care demeanor.

As a kid, Sonny Boy idolized me like I did Danny. He wanted my attention and accepted my weird idiosyncrasies. At an early age I started drawing and became a decent, little artist-nothing like my other little brother-Mike-but decent. My mother recognized this and nurtured my burgeoning talent. We were Jehovah’s Witnesses and she had pegged a career for me as an illustrator for the religious organization’s publications such as the “Watchtower” and “Awake” magazines.

It was probably an offshoot from the plethora of comic books I read or created but I also started writing. By the age of 16, I completed a full-fledged novel. We were poor-I mean a spoon-full-of-peanut butter-for-dinner poor. So my book was about this impoverished kid who lived in the projects with a drunken father. The teen was accused of a crime his father actually committed. He was vindicated but only after a multi-state, adventurous police chase. I guess the book was my attempt to purge myself of things I didn’t like about my life.

Mama wasn’t thrilled with the idea of me stepping outside the career she’d chosen for me. She scolded me for staying up so late at night typing on Sharon’s typewriter. Sonny Boy, on the other hand, kept me motivated. Most likely, he just wanted my attention, but because of his enthusiasm; because he let me read him unfolding chapters and kept asking for more and more of the story, I was inspired to finally finish my “novel.”

I proudly presented it to Mama. She read it and bluntly tossed it aside, saying it reminded her of the TV shows Good Times and The Fugitive combined. “Stick to drawing!” she said dismissively.

Needless to say, I didn’t, although I tried. Getting a job seemed more important to me at 17 than going to high school. So I dropped out and got myself a full time gig, my own apartment and a raggedy car. By the age of 20, I dropped out of the religion and was working for Laclede Gas Company. At 21, I was married with a baby on the way. Impacted by the poverty of my youth, I was never content with “one job,” so I ran a sign painting and mural-making business on the side.

This was the time I almost became a statistic. I had no real guidance from my father. I had to figure out sex and fatherly responsibilities on my own. Raised as a Jehovah’s Witness, I was naive and had no real knowledge of race or turbulent race relations. I didn’t react well to the blatant racism I confronted as one of the last groups of affirmative action hires at the gas company.

Like my father, I took refuge in wine (alcohol and drugs), women (yes, I was a slut) and song (all night disco). I had no desire to become a writer but I chronicled every step of the journey. Then, as now, writing was/is my release.

I was wild and headed for disaster. But other “Sonny Boy’s” entered my life and helped validate my worthiness. Friends from my religion ordered the first murals and business signs I made. A lawyer at a restaurant on The Hill where I worked as a dishwasher and busboy heard about my book and vowed he’d get it published. At that same restaurant, Suzy, a waitress and Washington University student tried to get me enrolled at the university.

Of course, these things didn’t happen. The lawyer didn’t publish my manuscript and there was no way in hell I could afford to go to Wash U. But their generous efforts helped ferment my dreams. The fact that so many people throughout my life believed in me and actually told me “you have something special,” helped pull me off the far too common track to prison or drug addiction.

Me and another co-worker, Mike Smith, at Laclede Gas
It is something I’ve never forgotten.

Life-changing direction can come from strange places. My best buddy at Laclede Gas-the guy who introduced me to pot-also convinced me to enroll at Forest Park Community College. My plan was to become a professional artist. All that changed after I stumbled into the college’s library one day. I checked out a book, The Autobiography of Malcolm X and, oh my God…it literally changed my life. It’s shameful to recount, but there I was, in my mid-20's, reading the first book somewhat mirrored my life with a black protagonist. With wide-eyed zeal I read about this red-headed, poor kid whose father was assassinated, whose mother was sent to an insane asylum, who became a drug addict, thief, pimp and an eventual inmate. I found inspiration in Malcolm’s story of finding God (Allah) and how he impacted the civil rights movement.

That one book lit a fire in me…a fire for knowledge. I became entrenched in American history-but more important-black history. I fell in love with the story of our collective trials and tribulations, oppression, resilience and freedom. Swearing that no kid of my hue would be as ignorant about his/her history as me, I started my own publication in 1987, Take Five Magazine, while still attending Community College and working for Laclede Gas.

Through that publication, I met my second wife and a whole host of talented writers (some who’ve gone on to journalism fame). They taught me how to write and tell stories better. Take Five never really made money but we earned the respect and support of a community wanting their authentic voices, sentiments and pain in print.

It’s been a wild, twisty, crazy ride since then; I got fired from Laclede Gas in 1990 for running a business on their time; my ex-wife and I ran the newspaper for 15 years until 2002; we won a bunch of journalism awards; I got hired at the Post-Dispatch in 2003 and was fired in 2009; Soon after, I worked with Tavis Smiley and other writers on several award-winning books; In 2011, I started an ambitious but unrealistic nonprofit, “When We Dream Together.” Then, a year later, I co-founded the Sweet Potato Project, which is what I do today.

“OK, Sylvester,” you might ask, “what does all this have to do with your little brother’s gift?”

As I said earlier, writing is my release. It helps me sort through challenges and keep perspective. I was born and raised in poverty and revisited hard economic times after I lost jobs at the gas company, the Post-Dispatch and even now. The first time, I thought my world had come to an end. In retrospect, I realized that the universe was just kicking my butt through new doors of opportunity.

I am a humbled high school dropout, a statistic who happened to fall in love with writing. Because of this love, I’ve had interviews with notables such as Danny Glover, Harry Belafonte, Bill Cosby and Barack & Michelle Obama. I've worked with authors like Tavis Smiley, Tom Burrell and Cornel West. Because of this life and the benevolent strangers who intervened back in the day and today-strangers who validated my worth by simply saying “you have something special”-I have a basic but powerful template for walking youth to opportunity.

I’ve come to appreciate the rewards of working with teens who not only share my hue but, some, who are experiencing the poverty and hopelessness of my childhood. I am that poor, rich man who has been blessed to be a part of the Sweet Potato Project-the most rewarding endeavor of my life.

Still, this has also been one of the most challenging years for the program and for me personally. To be honest; within the harsh realm of difficulties, I sometimes wonder if I’m the right guy to lead this empowering venture.

Late Friday night, I received a call from local blues musician, Jeremiah Johnson. He wanted to move forward on a benefit concert for our program. Back in June, another young, local blues-man, Marquise Knox, hosted a concert for us at BB’s Jazz, Blues & Soups. In the midst of indecision and challenge, I remind myself that people of all races and backgrounds are always reaching out to help out-maybe not so much monetarily-but to volunteer, host fundraisers or tackle the other myriad of things necessary to operate a successful nonprofit.

Reginald "Sonny Boy" Brown
No matter the barriers or obstacles we face, I write to remind myself that I have never dictated the journey. My unique, difficult and wonderful life experiences have always been determined by unknown forces. I write to remember that the universe has always had my back and that hard times are really sometimes the precursor to promise.

Unfortunately, life has not been as kind to my little brother. Sonny Boy moved to Long Beach, California in the mid-1980s, just as the crack cocaine epidemic was exploding across the country. He served time in prison-not for dealing drugs but for being addicted to them. He’s been out of jail for long time now, but finding steady work due to his record, disabilities or illnesses has been difficult. 

So this piece is homage to Sonny Boy-who probably has no idea of the gift he gave his big brother. His trials remind me that I’ve been blessed and have no reason to complain.

To this day, no matter what he’s going through, Sonny Boy remains fascinated with my life and the things I’m doing with young people.

He called me Saturday morning.  Sonny Boy’s been homeless since his breakup with his wife a month or so ago. Still, his laughter was raucous, his outlook-eternally optimistic. He just got news that his disability checks are on the way and he’s looking forward to getting a new apartment soon.

“Hey man, how’s that project of yours coming along,” Sonny Boy asked.

“Just fine, ‘Lil Bro,” I answered, “just fine.”