Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Redemption Song

Won't you help to sing
These songs of freedom? -
'Cause all I ever have:
Redemption songs;
Redemption songs.

How do we redeem ourselves with this generation of youth? For most of their lives, they've been taught that they must be held accountable for their actions. We've told them that America stands for equality, human rights, democracy and freedom and justice the world over. Yet many of our youth believe “justice” has been denied in Ferguson and the nation’s other metropolitan areas.

Many adults have justified the deaths of Mike Brown, Eric Gardner, Tamir Rice and countless other unarmed black teens and men killed by police. This justification, however, runs counter to what we've taught our youth about the consequences of our actions. Believe me, they are not oblivious to rules and procedures engineered to exonerate policemen and solidify their roles as on-the-street judge, jury and executioner.

Based on what we've taught them, our youth valiantly stood strong in the face of slathering dogs, militarized police forces, flash-bang grenades, tear gas and rubber bullets. Still, they summoned the moxie to say “no more!”

Although their actions reverberated around the globe, they have been dehumanized, criminalized and portrayed as “looters” (even though looting was an insignificant fraction amongst the hundreds of national demonstrations). With the media’s help; they've been targeted, arrested and ludicrously portrayed as domestic terrorists with ties to Isis and an agenda to kill police.

The saddest tragedy of the Ferguson melee is that this generation of young people has to grapple with the racial injustices that their parents and grandparents endured. How do we help them make sense of a world that arrogantly decries; “black lives really don’t matter?” How do we save those who have lost faith or are on the brink of disengaging from society? How do we take their bold start and turn it into something powerful and long-lasting?

How long shall they kill our prophets,
While we stand aside and look? Ooh!

As I wrote in my commentary, “TheLong Fuse to Ferguson,” the region’s problems didn't start in St. Louis County. We have a 115-year-plus history of racial redlining, displacement and economic exclusion that has left most African Americans living in pockets of poverty throughout St. Louis. In many of these areas, the poor are regarded as stereotyped pawns to be used and misused to pump profits into city, county and municipal coffers.

Many demonstrators and activists have opted for systematic change through protests and politics. This is all well and good but we must face a few harsh realities. We are fighting against a stubbornly ingrained mindset. Recent polls show that whites and blacks are severely divided on all matters pertaining to race and police brutality. Most whites believe that “the system” works, that cops are fair and unbiased and that racism is dead. In fact, based on surveys, most whites believe that they are the real victims of racism today.

Those fighting to change the system must contend with the fact that it will be slow change...maybe. Remember, right after slavery, America used the prison system (arresting and detaining blacks for minor and/or nonexistent crimes) to continue using them as free labor. More than 150 years later, this “system”-with the addition of private prisons-still rounds up, charges, detains, oppresses, profits from and even allows the killing of black and brown men and teens at disproportionate rates.

Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery;
None but ourselves can free our minds.

The educational, economic and criminal justice systems are all broken. Many white adults are hesitant to disrupt systems that are not negatively impacting their lives. God bless those speaking out and standing up for justice but, again, as polls indicate, their numbers are far too few to enact immediate change.

Make no mistake about it; poverty is the root cause of much of the decay and dysfunction in many Black communities today. The African-American poverty rate (12.7%) is more than double the rate among whites and only 1.4 percent higher than it was in 1966. Nearly half of poor black children (compared to a 10th of poor white children) live in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty.  The black unemployment rate in 2012 (14.0 percent) was 2.1 times higher than the white unemployment rate (6.6 percent).

Passage of civil rights legislation in the late 1960s was regarded as a huge gain for black people. And perhaps it was; but it came at a huge cost when working class black adults and entrepreneurs abandoned their neighborhoods to seek the shining opportunities that “integration” promised.

We cannot deny that almost every other ethnicity-East Indians, Asians, Jews, etc., have developed their own systems within the American system. While they participate in society, they have built independent educational, political and economic mechanisms so that their children will understand, protect and propel their cultural values and to make sure they are never reliant on outsiders for their survival.

With the absence of engaged, working class black adults; underfunded, disconnected and inadequate “systems” have become stewards of poor black children for generations. Growing into adulthood, most became little more than statistics and stereotypes. It’s a lot easier to lock up, lock out or shoot a stereotype than it is to protect and nurture human beings.    

We forward in this generation…triumphantly.

African Americans don’t have the luxury to wait on systematic change. Yes, fight that fine fight but as you do, implement new, alternative systems-especially for the generational poor. We don’t have time to wait for those whose minds are still stuck in ‘60s to change. As far as I’m concerned, there's only one solution; Blacks must work with those who truly “get it” and go back to that post-integration period when we had no choice but depend on ourselves.

WE must adopt a "do-for-self" agenda. Neither the government nor whites can give us mental or economic freedom. In fact, in today’s political climate there’s a concerted effort to relieve government of its obligation to poor people of color. We step on the path of redemption by listening, responding and empowering our youth to be the aggressive, independent change we seek.

This is the mission of the Sweet Potato Project. We recruit urban youth; teach them how to plant produce on vacant lots; provide summer jobs where they learn marketing, branding, sales, product development and much more. They sell products made from their produce. Our goal is to raise a generation of urban entrepreneurs who will lead in transforming long-deprived neighborhoods into independent Mecca’s of food-based economic activity.

This year, we will launch a landownership initiative where young adults and city residents can secure land to grow food that will be turned into marketable products. We have a buyer willing to purchase all the sweet potatoes we and our partner gardeners can grow this year. This is only the first step toward building an environment where food grown in North St. Louis can be sold at farmers markets or packaged and distributed to restaurants, grocery stores, schools, hospitals and consumers in and outside the region.

For the past three years, I have been inspired by the ideas, hopes and dreams of the youth we serve, some of whom are involved with the Ferguson demonstrations. The region is exploring dozens of efforts to rectify the deficiencies that led to the eruption in Ferguson. My prayer is that these leaders not ignore the youthful energy that ignited this call for sustainable, positive change. It was their resilience, passions, voices, artistry and bravery that brought us to this valuable place in history.

Let us not blow it…again.

While we promote and pour money and resources into the ideas of those embedded and reliant on the current system; let us also use, employ, fund and follow the lead of young idealists intent on creating new, more inclusive systems. Let us challenge them to go beyond protests and into that glorious, mystifying realm of unexplored possibilities.

We’re living in that rare, magic moment and we need to thank the activists and youth of St. Louis for sparking an opportunity to redeem ourselves. To them, I say if you find yourselves dismissed, demeaned or disregarded, we at the Sweet Potato Project have a place for you.

Come; help us rebuild and create sustainable jobs and small businesses in our own neighborhoods. Come; bring your youthful creativity and audaciousness and let us work with activists, churches, organizations and those of like minds. Come; help us fulfill a mission designed to empower the powerless and once and for all create alternative systems where accountability and responsibility is revered and respected and where sustainability is in our ever-lasting control.

Yes, some say it's just a part of it:
We've got to fulfill the book.
Won't you help to sing?
These songs of freedom
'Cause all I ever had:
Redemption songs 

Sylvester Brown, Jr., journalist and executive director of the Sweet Potato Project, will speak on the topic:"Ferguson and Beyond; Building Communities Where 'Race' Matters" this Sunday, January 18th at 11:am at the Ethical Society of St. Louis, 9001 Clayton Rd, St Louis, MO 63117