Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Practice what we Teach: SPP’s 2015 Challenge

You know you’ve created something special when teens vow to protect it.

This thought came to mind while talking with the Sweet Potato Project’s students-some who’ve been with the program since its inception in 2012. I’ve always made it a point to tell them the real deal. Very few programs pay students to learn life-long skills. I want them to understand they are receiving a gift thanks to people who care about them and believe in our mission.

For the past three years, we’ve paid inner-city youth summer wages to utilize entrepreneurial skills in their own neighborhoods. I maintain that until we empower youth and adults where they are, we will never effectively reduce poverty, crime or hopelessness in low-income communities. By training a generation of urban entrepreneurs, securing vacant properties, growing massive amounts of food and developing a quality product line of fresh and packaged foods for consumers, restaurants and institutions, we can create jobs and stimulate small business growth in North St. Louis.

Working under the banner of the North Area Community Development Corporation-a 501-c-3 nonprofit organization-the Sweet Potato Project (SPP) has gone from training 15 teens in 2012 to 35 in 2014. This means that at the very least, 75 young people have been shown how to make a huge difference and create opportunities for their parents, peers, siblings and neighborhoods.

We’ve been building momentum but this year has been particularly challenging. The ratio of corporate, individual and nonprofit funding has been way below par in 2015. Since national attention turned to Ferguson, many resources have been aimed at summer job creation for at-risk youth. This is a wonderful step toward reducing the black teen unemployment rate which is more than twice the rate for white teens. Summer jobs, however, are a temporary fix. We choose to remain focused on a long-term solution that will empower youth and residents in St. Louis’ hardest hit areas to create, control and maintain their economic destinies.

We’ve been building momentum but this year has been particularly challenging. 

The wonderful thing about our approach is that our students get it. They are intrigued by the idea that they will be the ones who will pave the way for jobs and opportunities for their parents, peers and siblings.

After planting recently, I told some of the teens about our fund-raising shortages this year. Right away, they launched into ideas: “Let’s do a car wash, Mr. Brown…” “Let’s have a dance and serve the sweet potato recipes we’ve created…” On and on they went.

It’s touching to know these kids are totally invested and have grasped the essence of our program. Each year, almost all bring a new recruit to the program. We’ve never been able to serve all the kids who apply but the thought of cutting back on the numbers we’ve served is quite stressful. We want to fuel the enthusiasm of youth who are excited about the idea of securing vacant properties in St. Louis. In fact, this year one of our senior students, Darryeon Bishop, will have his own plots at New Jerusalem COGIC Church on Emily Avenue in North St. Louis. While planting there two weeks ago, Antonio, a 19-year-old who joined us last summer, spied an empty lot across the street from the church:

“I’m gonna get that land, build me a house and plant sweet potatoes in the back,” he said.

SPP student, Darryeon Bishop, will have his own plots at New Jerusalem COGIC Church on Emily Avenue in North St. Louis.


Our students remind me that we have an excellent opportunity to practice what we teach. Entrepreneurism 101 dictates: “You must get tough when the going gets rough.” Another lesson from that playbook states: “Work with what you have.” 

What we have are young soldiers ready and willing to hustle to save their program. What we have are people, black, white and “other,” who have seen the value of what we are trying to do and have brought their skills, talents and resources to the table. What we have is the opportunity to do something daring, empowering and sustainable in North St. Louis.

Although SPP hasn’t purchased our own land yet, we’ve partnered with private landowners, churches and community organizations to grow sweet potatoes for us. In the fall, we will purchase their yields to create, make and sell new SPP products. In essence, we’re introducing a model for farm-based economics in North St. Louis. The mission is to boost the model; recruit more students, access more lots; involve more growers, build farmer’s markets and food-based spin-off businesses in low income areas.

2015 Partner Gardens


The Ville Family Gardens
Ville Orchid Garden
Tillie's Corner Garden

Bridges of Hope Church Garden

Penrose Garden
In the fall, SPP will purchase their yields to create, make and sell new products.  In essence, we’re introducing a model for farm-based economics in North St. Louis. 

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Missouri Botanical Garden
Annie Malone's  Emerson Academy Therapeutic School 

Sometimes I get so caught up in what we need, I forget what we have. St. Louis University, a major regional institution, has been a powerful partner in our efforts. We have a grassroots mission that has been supported by a community of compassionate, talented and diverse individuals. Like our students, they get the big picture and have invested in our collective dream.

I’ve been a dishwasher, ditch-digger, gasman, magazine publisher, columnist and contributor to high-profile, published authors but SPP is the most rewarding venture of my life. Still, no one asked me to do this or promised it would be easy. So, as director, I have to practice what we teach and do a better job at articulating our needs and gathering forces for the mission.

To accomplish everything we propose in our budget, we need to raise at least $40,000 in the next two months. This means I have to knock on more doors and solicit invitations to speak at churches, businesses and even in homes to tell our story. To serve the kids better, we have to build a bigger volunteer network. SPP is a community-based success story.  Surely I can find more people willing to give their time as instructors, drivers (for field trips) and mentors.

We teach our students that sacrifice, diligence and creativity are the lifelines to success as an entrepreneur or as a valued employee. SPP may be a nonprofit but it has a game-changing, entrepreneurial undertaking. I must always remember when life gets tough; the entrepreneur gets tougher-period!

The Ville Orchid
 That said, here’s our 2015 “get tougher plan”:

1)   Start the summer program on June 4th with senior students.
2)   Secure more corporate, individual and small business support
3)   Create student teams; cooking, accounting, sales and distribution
4)   Increase revenues by focusing on wholesale and retail products
5)   Bring on new recruits starting June 15th
6)   Increase production and distribution of our products
7)   Host several public fund raisers, with the first on June 21st (click here)
8)   Help students plan and pull off their own fund-raising events
9)   Work with our partner gardeners for maximum yields
10) Lease/purchase more vacant land and assign students their own

What I love most about the Sweet Potato Project is that anyone-from the Greater Ville to Chesterfield-can play a role. All are welcome and they don’t need fancy labels or highfalutin degrees to join us. We need to surround our youth with people willing to share their passions and experiences. I especially urge the 20 and 30-somethings to simply come hang out with our students during class times. We also need entrepreneurs of all stripes to share their ups & downs and encourage our kids to strive for economic independence. We need folk who realize that traditional academia doesn’t always cover the unique realities of urban life and are willing to help fill in the gaps.

We need to surround our youth with people willing to share their passions and experiences. I especially urge the 20 and 30-somethings to simply come hang out with our students during class times. 

If our mission resonates with you, I humbly ask that you share it within your networks. Please re-tweet, share, forward--do whatever it takes to reach as many people as possible. It’s going to take an all-hands-on-deck engaged community effort to help our young people reclaim and empower themselves, their families and their neighborhoods.  

Benefit Concert for the Sweet Potato Project (click here for more information)

Frederick Douglas once said, “There is no progress without struggle.” Yes, we have our struggles but we also have “community.” If we practice what we teach, expand our reach, get more donors and volunteers involved, I’m convinced that the promise of “progress” is at hand.


By Sylvester Brown, Jr.
Executive Director of the Sweet Potato Project

* Visit SPP's "List of needs" page (click here)
* Visit SPP's "Curriculum Schedule" page (click here)
* To donate to the Sweet Potato Project (click here)



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