Thursday, October 8, 2015

Truth Be Told: City Leaders Just Don't Get It

The more I read about happenings and developments in the St. Louis region, the more I’m convinced that the region’s civic and political leaders have learned absolutely nothing from the explosion in Ferguson last year. The death of 18-year-old Mike Brown pulled the scab off a region with serious economic, health and social disparities and criminal “justice” injustices. Our entire region received a black eye once the racial and social inequities affecting its African American populace was laid bare on the international stage.
Tolerated greed in small municipalities, police malfeasance and racial inequality has been well documented in post-Mike Brown editorials and reports issued by the U.S Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Ferguson Commission appointed by Gov. Jay Nixon. But do they really matter? 
Days before the one year anniversary of Brown’s death, a St. Louis Post-Dispatch editorial clearly summed up the cause and effect of the region’s greatest problems:To be black in the St. Louis region means that you are more than three times as likely as your white neighbors to live in poverty, to be unemployed, to have less education, to die earlier and to see your child die in infancy…It is the product of a calculated effort over generations by St. Louis’ white majority to cut off access to opportunity for African-Americans.”
To make its case, the editorial used data from a study by the East-West Gateway Council of Governments that showed St. Louis has one of the highest racial-economic disparities of any major urban area in the country.  
If we have high race-related economic disparity rates and there’s been a generational “effort” to cut off opportunity for black people, wouldn’t common sense dictate that aggressively addressing these disparities and creating opportunity for black people, be the first order of business?

It is the product of a calculated effort over generations by St. Louis’ white majority to cut off access to opportunity for African-Americans.”

Well, not according to a recent news story:

St. Louis hopes to use billion-dollar construction projects to reshape city,” read the headline of an October7th Post-Dispatch article.  According to the piece, city leaders are planning to invest millions with Paul McKee-an already rich St. Peters developer-a government mapping agency on the old Pruitt-Igoe site and a new football stadium. These efforts, the article reiterates, will end “social and economic malaise” in the region.  According to Mayor Francis Slay and other city officials, this top-down theory of investment, tied to projects like the $380 million restoration of the Gateway Arch grounds and the new $695 million Stan Musial Veterans Memorial Bridge will result in “redevelopment that jolts downtown and spills outward to downtrodden areas.”

Rendering of proposed riverfront NFL stadium.
The mantra of city leaders for at least the past 60 years has been: “Invest in rich white men with the hope that trickle down economics will benefit everyone else.”  The sad reality is; it’s never worked. New stadiums do not build strong, safe communities. Investing in communities builds communities. The sort of development this region stubbornly clings to have resulted in high crime in poor neighborhoods, massive population loss in the city, blacks forced out of their neighborhoods and locked out of opportunity in new neighborhoods.

Courtesy of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch
I run a nonprofit, the Sweet Potato Project, and, at this time, our survival is dependent on institutional sources. As broke as I am, as much as I struggle to maintain operations, I’m also aware that there’s a risk in criticizing the powers-that-be. But first and foremost, I am a journalist. “Truth” still matters to me. And the truth is, we live in a region with a staunch segregated mindset. It’s one that opted not to invest in city schools but bus kids to county schools back in the day. It under-funds public schools today and wants to invest more in charter schools tomorrow. It’s a region where “leaders” let North St. Louis rot for 60 years and now wants to feverishly dole out millions to millionaires who will probably upgrade but gentrify historically black neighborhoods.

I was born and raised in St. Louis. My “success” if you will, came as a result of kind, benevolent individuals-black and white-who invested in my untapped potential. Working with inner city youth today reminds me that I was not unique. Kids today have the talent, determination, resilience and creativity to save our region but we aren’t serious about investing in their futures. The mostly young people who exposed the disparities and injustices in our region are now being targeted and maligned for their brave and bold efforts. The only remedy politicians have to offer these kids is more police and harsher policing.
My words reflect frustration because the Sweet Potato Project offers a solid, sustainable plan for development in North St. Louis. Right now, our youth plant sweet potatoes on vacant lots and turn their produce into products. Through our partnership with St. Louis University, we will buy sweet potatoes from five St. Louis community gardeners this year.

Dream with me: There are more than 8,000 vacant lots in North St. Louis. What if we found a way to get some of those lots into the hands of low-income residents and the region invested money to help them grow, fresh, organic produce? What can happen if there were whole city blocks of people growing food? What dreams may come if schools, hospitals, restaurants and grocers committed to buying produce and products out of North St. Louis? How many jobs and small spin-off businesses can we create in the neighborhoods? How high will the self-esteem and dignity rise in a community that created, produced and maintained a national food brand? How many kids can we save?
Why not try what’s never been tried? It’s obvious we can’t stop civic and political leaders who are insistent on investing in the lofty whims of the rich and connected. However, we don’t need to wait on them to save ourselves. Like other cities, extraordinary, ordinary St. Louis folk can get the land, grow the food, make and distribute produce and food-based products…today. The good news: this is not an exclusive, top-down endeavor. Everyone-politicians, universities, grocers, food manufacturers and distributors, philanthropists and consumers can play a part in creating a bottom-up, North St. Louis effort.

There are more than 8,000 vacant lots in North St. Louis. What if we found a way to get some of those lots into the hands of low-income residents and the region invested money to help them grow, fresh, organic produce? 

I am not alone. There are dozens of grassroots organizations and individuals busting their butts, using their own money, struggling to work within disadvantaged communities. I can’t speak for all but I know if I had just one of the millions gifted to the rich, I can guarantee robust economic activity in poor neighborhoods that will impact and empower people where they live.
Is our plan ambitious? Maybe. Is it risky? Perhaps. But no more ambitious or riskier than doing the same ole thing with the same ole type of people and getting the same ole outcomes.

Will our plan save North St. Louis? No, not alone. But it’s a start in the right direction. It’s a way to put community development in the hands of the community. It’s a way to give regular people, community organizations and youth a vested interest in rebuilding historically, economically depressed areas. It’s a way to prove that investing in community insiders is just as viable and valuable as subsidizing rich and powerful outsiders.