Saturday, January 31, 2015

Step Outside Yourself to be Your Best Self

“Remember, Sylvester; you’re writing for an audience for whom the majority of which do not share your life experiences.  You have to anticipate their responses and back your words with facts.”

This sage advice was shared with me back in 2003 by the then managing editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. I had just written a particularly controversial column that didn't bode well with most readers. I know, big surprise right? But for those not familiar with my writing, it was a huge deal at the time. I had just started my columnist gig at the Post and was a bit shaken when I received real-life death threats over the column and nervous when the newspaper was inundated with calls and letters calling for my immediate dismissal.

Instead of firing me, my editor chose to educate me. She encouraged me to see myself as a reader. In essence; step outside myself to be my best self.

Ethical Society of St. Louis
 Fast forward 12 years and I find myself reflecting on those words. On January 18th, I spoke at the Ethical Society of St. Louis. The Title of my speech was “Ferguson & Beyond; Building Communities where ‘race’ matters.” I discussed the 100-year+history of racial exclusion and disinvestment in North St. Louis city and county. The saddest part of post-integrated America, I said, was that working class black folk and business-owners abandoned historically-black neighborhoods. I suggested that the only real solution is for African Americans to lead the charge in coming back, reinvesting and rebuilding the “pockets of poverty” we live in throughout the region. The goal is for black, white and others (the “concerned and connected”) to do the hard work of saving disenfranchised youth and empowering the poor to effect real, long-term change.

I was a bit shaken when I received real-life death threats and nervous when the newspaper was inundated with calls and letters calling for my immediate dismissal.

After my presentation, 15 to 20 people met with me for a discussion. An older woman-whom I was later told spent a lifetime in the civil rights and integration movements-took exception to some of my words. That editor’s advice came back as I listened to this woman explain that, based on her experiences, I came off like a segregationist demanding separate societies.

I was surprised. I told the woman that I was not a segregationist but a staunch advocate of “self-preservation.” I mentioned that, in almost 50 years-even with a black president-African Americans are still the most impoverished and endangered demographic in America. I used national polls and surveys to underscore just how far apart whites and blacks are on matters of “race” and said that blacks no longer have the luxury of depending on government or the benevolence of whites to “save us.” Anybody can help but, like so many other immigrants to America, WE must be the cultivators and stewards of our own culture, opportunities and economic destinies.

I am not a segregationist but I am a staunch advocate of self-preservation.

It’s hard for me to ignore that during the period of segregation, blacks had no choice but to do-for-self. They were legally excluded from the social and economic mainstreams, so they created their own alternative, educational, economic and social opportunities. Where would we be today, if our own “systems” were still in place? Would 50 percent of black children still be dropping out of high school? Would blacks still dominate the numbers locked up in our nation’s prisons? Would the unemployment and poverty rates remain basically unchanged since the 1960s if we had chosen not to desert our communities and held on to our own neighborhood businesses?

It’s hard for me to ignore that during the period of segregation, blacks had no choice but to do-for-self. 

I’m thankful that the woman in our discussion group challenged me. It reminds me that this message of creating new alternative “systems” and “doing for self” might be a hard pill to swallow; especially for those dedicated to Martin Luther King’s dream of an integrated, totally equal society. Anticipating one-on-one push-back and remembering that we all come from different spaces and places, demands that I articulate and educate better. Just because I think “self-preservation” is the responsible and necessary course for black people doesn't erase the negative, violent interpretation of that term in people’s minds. Just because I fear that a truly color-free America is decades away; I must remember to encourage those protesting, challenging the system and fighting the fine fight to make it a reality.  

Lastly, I must clearly state that there is not one, sure-fire way to address racial inequity or to create a more just, colorblind and economically inclusive society. I operate the Sweet Potato Project. All I can do is invite others to consider our way: We recruit at-risk youth who plant sweet potatoes on vacant city lots. We provide them with summer jobs while teaching them how to make products, offer services and become entrepreneurs in their own communities…today!

This year, we want to expand our mission by inviting low-income residents, churches, organizations and some of the youth behind the police brutality demonstrations to grow food and make products with us. We see this as a real, sustainable way to create inner-city jobs and small businesses. It’s a tested model that introduces real economic activity in long-neglected, low-income areas through a food-based, revolutionary movement.

What if poor and working class people grew massive amounts of produce and produced a quality, marketable line of food-based products that can be purchased by local restaurants, major retailers, schools, institutions and consumers? I believe this is a viable way to institute an alternative, sustainable system with the potential to blossom within the current, broken systems.

What if poor and working class people grew massive amounts of produce and produced a quality, marketable line of food-based products that can be purchased by local restaurants, major retailers, schools, institutions and consumers?

This is a big vision that requires big visionaries. In my mind, nothing I described is threatening or unsettling to those pursuing various other paths to equality and justice. In fact, I foresee a scenario where anybody and everybody can put their resources, passions and skills to work. We’re talking about growing, packaging and distributing food locally, regionally and even nationally. It’s about helping urban kids and generational downtrodden adults capitalize off opportunities right outside their doors. Most important, it's a cost effective way to get disenfranchised people to become landowners who-along with the concerned and connected-can collectively create jobs and small businesses in their own neighborhoods. Call me a naive optimist but I believe we’re talking about stepping on the brink of systematic change that could very well serve as a template for revitalizing distressed communities all over the country.


I’m doing a lot of talking this month. On Wednesday, I’ll speak at a Saint Louis University College conference designed to address the complex issues of race, class, and inequity in our community. Thursday, I’ll be among the speakers at Better Family Life’s forum on “The Business of Healthy Eating.” Then next Sunday, I’ll be in Washington DC addressing the audience at the annual United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

No doubt, all members of these diverse gatherings won’t share my life experiences or perspective. But I’ll talk about our mission and present the facts as I know them. I’ll work to meet the challenge of building connections, stressing common goals and convincing folk that we have an endeavor here in St. Louis that’s worthy of their attention, time, resources and talents.

In short, I’ll be mindful of the wise words of a former editor.

       




Sunday, January 25, 2015

Ferguson & Beyond...Ethical Society of St. Louis Podcast

The Ethical Society of St. Louis has graciously posted a podcast of my speech last week. Even though watching the film "Selma" the night before caused me to go completely off script, I think I managed to get my main points across. Please take a listen if you have time. It speaks to the challenges the Sweet Potato Project plans to address with your help and involvement. Click photo below to start podcast: