Thursday, April 14, 2016

Remembering What I Forget

by Sylvester Brown, Jr. / Director, the Sweet Potato project

It’s time for a little honesty: I’m not doing a good job with the Sweet Potato Project. Worse yet, I talk the talk without walking the walk.

I’m a hypocrite.

There’s a Scripture that has stuck with me since the Jehovah’s Witness days of my youth; Psalms 46:10: “Be still and know that I am God.” My interpretation means that God, the Universe, divine intelligence-whatever suits you-has our backs. If we just slow down, clear our heads and take inventory of our blessings, we’ll gain the necessary oomph to do what we’re destined to do.

I’ve written and preached this for years. But lately I haven’t been “still.” I’ve gotten so worked up over the lacks and barriers and struggles that I’ve allowed them to slow my roll, frustrate me to no end and sap my faith.  

Here’s the promise and the problem; I’ve stumbled upon the best endeavor of my life. I am the director of a project that allows me to interact, challenge and inspire young people who share my hue and are grappling with some of the same stuff I did as an impoverished youth. Every year, we give them a summer job where they learn how to plant food on vacant lots, and learn the economics of their communities. They turn produce into products and gain valuable entrepreneurial skills by selling products made from their harvest.

I am the director of a project that allows me to interact, challenge and inspire young people who share my hue and are grappling with some of the same stuff I did as an impoverished youth. 

This project, multiplied exponentially, holds the recipe for community re-development in disadvantaged neighborhoods. We grow massive amounts of food on the plethora of vacant lots in the ‘hood. We create our own brand of food products. If grocers, institutions, schools, restaurants, coffee shops and consumers throughout the region purchased the food and products, we can have sustainable, viable food-based economic activity in North St. Louis.

Cool, right?

What distracts me from this grand vision is money. I’m always needing it, always chasing it and always falling short of having enough to run the program effectively. I’m knocking hard on the door to my sixties and the older I get, the harder it is to stay motivated when the wolves are frothing at the door.

In a way, this situation is a reminder of the problem we’re working to eradicate. Make no mistake about it; poverty is the main distraction. There are adults and so, so many brilliant, resilient young people whose dreams are derailed by poverty. What un-christian "Christians" and placating politicians can’t seem to wrap their stubborn skulls around is the fact that poverty kills aspiration, fuels desperation and robs many of their ability to dream.

If you’ve read my writings, you know lately I’ve been railing against the elitist machine of the powerful and political who happily dole out unused land, tax-payer money and resources to already rich developers and established entities while ignoring worthy people and projects, like mine, that are trying like hell to address poverty, crime and other dire social and economic conditions in poor areas.

Here’s the rub and my hypocrisy in all this. The problems I mentioned are not the real problemI am. I haven’t been STILL; I’ve been so caught up in the distracting, hurly-burly world of plain ole survival, I haven’t slowed down enough or taken inventory of all the universal blessings happening around me.

The problems I mentioned are not the real problemI am.

A couple weeks ago I was in Boston taking part in a conference sponsored by Harvard University exploring the history of racial exclusion in our region. There, I re-connected with local politicians, Ald. Antonio French and State Senator Jamilah Nasheed. I realized that their work and objectives to serve impoverished communities are similar to mine, especially French’s “North Campus” initiative. In Boston we shared our desired outcomes and both politicians encouraged me to reconnect and explore ways to work together.

Shortly after my return, I attended a dinner hosted by Bridget Flood of the Incarnate Word Foundation. In attendance were individuals involved with the local food movement such as Jeremy Goss with St. Louis MetroMarket, Gibron Jones, director of Hosco Foods, people from the Missouri Foundation for Health, Gateway Greening and other agencies. It's clear that Flood, in her wisdom, put us together for a reason. This was evidenced when Goss leaned over and said, “We have to see how the MetroMarket can purchase sweet potatoes from you guys.”

I write. And even though I’ve been in constant hustle-mode and haven’t consciously slowed down, writing has forced me to reflect. In reflection, I recognize blessings in the midst of adversity.  I am surrounded by people with the same passions, interests and belief that we can help the poor help themselves. Good people like Mo Costello of MokaBe’s Coffeehouse, has been a consistent supporter and dear friend. Last summer, Mo took the time out of her crazy schedule to talk to my students about entrepreneurism. Soon after, she said she’d be interested in carrying the kids products at her coffee shop. And Mo is not the only one who’s made that offer or allowed my students to visit their businesses and hear their stories of struggle and success.

My life illustrates the stigma of poverty and its impact on the psyche. Even if you reach levels of “success,” for many of us, there’s this lingering feeling of unworthiness and low self-esteem. Knowing this, I stress to our students that they’re here for a reason: that no matter how they or their neighborhoods are portrayed or how poor they are, they have “the right stuff” to make things better for themselves, their peers and siblings and their communities.

My life illustrates the stigma of poverty and its impact on the psyche. 

While chasing that “big” grant, that grand endowment or that major, problem-solving donation, I’ve failed to effectively respond to the gestures of non-monetary support that I receive almost daily. People write asking how they can volunteer or help out in other ways. But I have this inane idea that the project has to be better structured to utilize their talents. Perhaps it’s the other way around; I should enlist their talents now to build the better structure I desire.

Allowing myself to doubt myself, basically because of money or the lack thereof, is a dishonor to SLU’s Chef Steve Jenkins, horticulturalist Karen Davis, Herman Noah, Maureen Hughes, Robert Powell, Shirley Emerson and other members of SPP’s board and advisory board or those who have donated money, time or professional expertise to help “grow” this mission.

Being still dictates I take my own advice. No one asked me to start this project or promised it would be easy. Maybe, just maybe, it’s supposed to be this hard, this soul-sapping and this vulnerable. Maybe there’s divine wisdom in the fact that it’s a bottom-up endeavor that's destined to be shaped-not by the rich or powerful-but by plain ole, everyday people who simply give a damn.

Maybe, just maybe, it’s supposed to be this hard, this soul-sapping and this vulnerable. 

OK, I have publicly confessed the problems and the promises at hand. I’m an ordinary dude surrounded by benevolence who has an extraordinary opportunity to enact great change. I’m a flawed man born, raised and still trying to escape poverty. I'm a writer who has been placed in this awesome position to help at-risk kids and people distracted by the life-threatening condition of impoverishment.

Don’t get me wrong, I still need your help. Having the money to officially start our program next month will help me breathe, plan and operate better. But I can’t sit back whining and waiting for that luxury. Apparently, this has to be done the hard way. But that’s OK. In the blessed reflection of literary articulation, I’m reminded that the universe has my back-always has and, hopefully, always will.  

I remember that I have everything I need to succeed.

I just have to be still.


Please Donate to the Sweet Potato Project. CLICK HERE

To review SPP's 2016 list of needs CLICK HERE