Thursday, June 25, 2015

When God Laughs…

“Wait, what? I’m dancing.”
I have been sweating bullets these past few months. We are going into the fourth year of operating the Sweet Potato Project and it’s been the worst by far for fundraising.  There are many contributing factors out of my control but, as executive director, I take it personally. Somehow, I messed up.
It is what it is and we’ve been pushing forward…by faith. We’ve started the program this summer. We have seven partner gardens; a church, a school, one community farming group, the Botanical Garden and three residents growing sweet potatoes on their land in North St. Louis.
This is all well and good but our business plan called for us to serve more kids than we did last year, grow more food, build a farmer’s market in North St. Louis; purchase our own lots and start building our “teaching farm.”   
So, suffice to say, our plans didn’t unfold as I expected and I’ve been freaking out lately. To top it off, tickets for the benefit concert we hosted on June 21st weren’t moving as fast as we hoped and I worried if anyone but our volunteers, students and I would show up.
Yet, in the midst of my ongoing panic, there I was Sunday afternoon dancing, laughing and having a ball with everyone who came out to enjoy the concert featuring 24-year-old blues prodigy, Marquise Knox.
I owe Marquis a big one. Every now and again, I stop in at Beale on Broadway, the legendary blues club on South Broadway.  I have been absolutely astounded by this kid who plays the blues like an old Mississippi master. One night, months ago, Marquis gave me a shout out from the stage. He’d read about the Sweet Potato Project. He owns land out in the Missouri boonies and told me he loved the idea of teaching youth how to farm and develop skills where they can do-for-self legally and honorably.
“Let me know what I can do for you,” he said that night.
Marquis jumped at the idea of doing a benefit concert for the project. He let me know what dates he had available and contacted John May, the owner of BB’s Jazz, Blues and Soups another iconic blues club on Broadway. Mays said “sure” and the concert was on. Unfortunately, the only date we had was Father’s Day and we only had a few weeks to promote the event.
My nerves were wracked as the date approached. Sure, about 60 people said they were coming but ticket sales didn’t match the verbal or online commitments. Turns out, enough people came out to fill the downstairs room. Turns out, it was the perfect crowd, perfect music and perfect atmosphere to meet our students and spread our message.
There’s something about the blues that causes people to just relax, groove and give it up. Marquise set the stage before he played by soliciting the crowd’s monetary support. John and one of our staffers handled the door, explaining to people off the street, who had no idea what was going on, that they could come in, have a drink, some good food and enjoy the concert.
Many did.
It turned into an old fashioned house party where good ole, down-home blues bridged our age, race and economic gaps. It was so good to mingle with longtime supporters and people I’ve only known through my social media networks. It was refreshingly cool to see our hard-working volunteers and key volunteer staffers dressed up, laughing and kicking it with one another.
The widely diverse crowd was just as engaged with the music as they were with our youth who took the stage to talk about the program or show off their musical and spoken word skills. After reading his recent commentary, I invited Mike Brown Sr. to the concert. To me, the epitome of “Father’s Day” was exemplified when the audience gave this man-who tragically lost his son last year-a hearty and supportive round of applause.

Everything that happened on and off the stage that day was completely off-script, unplanned and real. I found myself talking to the audience as if they were a bunch of longtime friends gathered in my living room for good music and good conversation.
The event left me pondering that old Yiddish proverb: "Man plans, God laughs." Yeah, our plans didn’t pan out like I expected. We face a severe money shortfall we’ll be grappling to raise funds yearlong as we run the program.
Yet, in the stillness of retrospection; another plan unfolds. After the event, another musician offered to host a concert for us. John May said we have an open invitation to host events at BB’s. So far, two individuals have offered to host fundraisers in their homes. A grandpa, who introduced me to his family on the parking lot after the show, sent me an email the next day. His three-year-old granddaughter, he wrote, couldn’t stop talking about the concert and her new “best friend, Sylvester Brown.”
How cool is that?

The lessons I’ve learned from this experience is that we’re doing something special with the Sweet Potato Project. There are people who are jazzed by this novel idea of training youth to grow and sell food and create their own opportunities within their own neighborhoods. On Sunday, I talked about our ultimate goal of massive growing on city lots; large-scale product development and creating a North St. Louis agricultural food movement. This wasn’t lost on the crowd. And I wonder how many more will “get it” once they are exposed to it and the young faces who fuel our mission?
I’ve been reminded that we must push past the obstacles. There are other venues and other good people and small business folk out there who will host fundraisers. We have to tighten our belts, make adjustments, professionalize and sell our products. We have to push forward not overly relying on nonprofit or government funding. We have to take our message to the streets, to the people and expose them to the totality of what we do and plan to do in this city and for our young people.
We’re four days past the concert. We’re two weeks into the summer program. I have a waiting list of new kids that I’m afraid to bring into the program. Promised funds have not arrived. The fear is creeping in again. Although our “plan” isn’t going as planned, I force myself to surrender to the unknown; to do the best we can do and leave the rest to the master planner.
After all, on Sunday, I danced.