Thursday, April 2, 2015

Turning Affirmative Nods into Affirmative Reaction

Youth from the Class of 2014 harvesting sweet potatoes

You know you’re on to something good when people start nodding before you’re finished explaining what you do. I'm one of the founders and director of the Sweet Potato Project. When asked, I tell people we recruit inner-city kids; we have them plant sweet potatoes on vacant lots; we give them a summer job where they “earn while they learn” skills in marketing, sales, land acquisition, product development and more. After the summer ends, I continue, “Our students are charged with creating a product from their harvest that they sell year round.”

Keon (18): I have been with the Sweet Potato Project for three years. I have gotten speech and agriculture skills out of this program. It gives me a sign that my community still cares and makes me happy to make change.”

I've gotten pretty good at quickly describing the basics of our program in a way that seems to resonate with people. No matter their differences, most like the idea of training young people to “do-for-self.” They know far too many impoverished teens drop out of school, wind up unemployed, in poverty or in prisons. Now that “Ferguson” has become the international catchphrase for racial dysfunction, we all know that something drastic must be done to create opportunities for the generational poor. Many see the long-range benefits of helping teens become pioneers of a sustainable, food-based economic development movement in North St. Louis.    

What I’m not so good at is turning more of those affirmative nods into affirmative action. Don’t get me wrong, I've been somewhat successful. In three years we've come a long way with very little resources. We have a couple major repeat sponsors. We've gone from providing summer jobs and training to 15 kids in 2012 to 35 teens last year to, hopefully, 40 this summer. We've grown from planting on one vacant lot to five in 2014 with plans to plant on 20 lots this year.

All this has been done in a grassroots sort of way. Caring people gave of their time and resources. A library, a church and the St. Louis Community College system graciously allowed us to conduct classes in their spaces. Other benevolent professionals have been instructors, volunteers and mentors. We have qualified individuals working on our curriculum that includes culinary skills, financial literacy, business plan and product development, food distribution and much more. Because of their efforts we are getting better and better at showing our youth how to become self-sufficient entrepreneurs in their own neighborhoods.

Tytianna (18): I've been in a lot of programs but the Sweet Potato Project helps me become better at creating and distributing products and keeping me focused on positive things. I believe in the success of the program and the helpful things we learn as we enter the world as adults.

We’re expanding the program this year. We have an institutional buyer for all the sweet potatoes we can grow. So we’re reaching out to vacant land-owners, public schools, churches and organizations. We have a very simple proposal: “You grow and we’ll buy your harvest.” If they don’t have time to tend urban gardens, our youth will grow on their property and we’ll use the harvest to make more products.

We’re on a positive path with a team of qualified individuals who've undertaken grant writing for us. However, even if we successfully secure all the grants we’re seeking those funds won’t be rewarded for at least a couple months. The “now” is my biggest concern. We need to prepare all properties now and start planting next month. The summer program begins in June. There’s a need for immediate donations now.

Edie (19): Not only does the Sweet Potato Project give urban youth a way to make money and stay out of trouble, it teaches lifelong skills that we don’t learn in school. I’m glad to be a part of such a great project and can only imagine the things it will do for the community and our futures.”

Some experienced people have warned me about putting our needs out there. “Let the ‘positive’ dictate the response,” some say. Well, I respect that and all, but I want people to take pride in their individual roles in building a powerful grassroots organization. Corporate and institutional support is wonderful but I also want a foundation of dedicated, consistent citizen-givers. I think its empowering for them to know that their donation-be it $10 or $100-helped prepare young people to become self-reliant land-owners and urban farmers. I want their chests to puff up a bit on the day they see our products on the shelves of major grocers. I want them to know that they helped do that, too.  We even make sure our students understand that raising money is a 24/7 endeavor for their project, their summer jobs and we invite them to come up with ways to generate money for the program.

Ranesha (18): This project gives me hope, confidence and makes me believe that we can actually become something and be successful at what we do.”  

I think what mostly captures people’s attention about SPP is that it’s about real empowerment: giving the disadvantaged the tools to create and sustain their own opportunities in their own neighborhoods. We imagine a collective-not just growing on 5 or 20 lots-but on whole city blocks. Imagine a North St. Louis food system where extraordinary ordinary folk are growing enough food to supply major grocers, local restaurants, bakeries, coffee shop and other retail outlets. We think we have a cost-effective way to build a farmer’s market and, later, a food manufacturing plant-both in North St. Louis. This is how you empower people, communities; this is how you create real local jobs and bring economic stability to long-neglected neighborhoods.

One day maybe we can hire the talent whose job it is to deliver this vision in a more impacting, succinct and response-getting way.  For now, I have to rely on my down-to-earth way of simply writing, talking and working harder to turn those positive nods into affirmative reactions.


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