Those who have followed me and my nonprofit, the Sweet Potato Project (SPP), know that I’ve written a lot about the challenges of running a grassroots program on a shoestring budget. Today, I’m not going there. Today, I feel like one of the luckiest guys on the planet. Today, I’d like to talk about this incredible gift that’s been given to me and my wish to have you share it with me.
Every summer for the past six years, I have been privileged to be in the company of urban youth, many who come from some of the most depressed areas in our region. I have this rare opportunity to peek behind historical and social media stereotypes that label black youth as violent, out-of-control, lazy or doomed. Every year, I am reminded that our proud history of creative survival, resilience, and faith in the unknown still percolates in our youth. Generational poverty, senseless violence, disproportionate health-related deaths, and environments devastated by decades of neglect, drugs, and prison impact their lives but they still dare to dream.
I feel like one of the luckiest guys on the planet
SPP was birthed from frustration. For 30 years or more, I have been writing about the problems in the black community. A sad sense of voyeurism grew as I realized that I was just writing about problems and not doing anything to address them. The Sweet Potato Project is my “give-back.” In a way, I’m like a griot, an old dude who’s lived an impoverished but rich life because so many people believed in me, helped me. I am a walking, talking testament to what dreams may come if you work at it and never, ever let anyone or anything define or destroy your version of “success.”
Every week, I have this captive group of young people who, through their words and deeds, validate the need to reach them in ways that resonates with their unique culture, challenges, and desires.
Oftentimes, many of us act as if young people created our chaotic communities. Rarely do we acknowledge that they’re valiantly navigating a world that we created and/or abandoned. We, the adults, left traditional black neighborhoods and closed our businesses to chase the illusive dream of integration. We turned our youth over to broken systems (economic, educational, and criminal justice) and now scratch our heads in bewilderment as prisons swell and black lives become more and more irrelevant.
Many of us act as if young people created our chaotic communities. Rarely do we acknowledge that they’re valiantly navigating a world that we created and/or abandoned.
To be clear, poverty has a detrimental impact on any race. However, to be poor and black in a country that’s still institutionally racist is a unique burden that suffocates the dreams and aspirations of too many children of color. You can imagine how humbled I am to walk these kids through the chaos in their lives, while trying to show them a way, a path to find success and self-sufficiency by their own hands, in their own neighborhoods.
One of my senior students, Edie Adams (21), talks animatedly about her love for her “people” and her desire to own land and create jobs and opportunities for others. This year, through a partnership with St. Louis University and a small cadre of local nonprofits, we’ll hold classes on buying, leasing, and securing vacant lots in the city. This group, operating under the banner of the “North City Food Hub (NCFH),” will also offer horticulture, culinary and entrepreneurial classes for our youth and other city residents. I am absolutely giddy with the idea that soon my students and other low-income residents can own land, grow food, and make money from food packaging and distribution.
What’s most gratifying, yet intimidating is that the youth we serve get it. Poverty, in a sense, has prepared them for the improbable. They are inherent survivors in need of direction, validation, and opportunities to work with what they have at hand. Life has not beaten them down quite yet. They respond affirmatively when we talk about reclaiming communities and providing opportunities for their peers and siblings. The great challenge is giving them the guidance and resources in a society intent on crippling their ambitions.
I am absolutely giddy with the idea that soon my students and other low-income residents can own land, grow food, and make money from food packaging and distribution.
I have many, many talented friends, followers and associates. I’ve reached out to entrepreneurs, professionals, politicians, artists, and activists, inviting them to share this gift with me. Having a degree or fitting the typical definition of “success” is not important to me or the youth we serve. “Success” doesn’t always mean you’ve made a lot of money. If you’ve survived poverty, if you’ve managed to create something, if you have a knack for words or the ability to motivate; if you possess the passion and heart to listen and learn from young people…please, share my gift.
SPP encourages students to become innovative, self-sufficient players in today’s ever-expanding global economy. We want to help young people develop entrepreneurial and personal skills to become engaged community citizens.
The videos on this page will give you a sample of what we do but there’s so much more to accomplish in the weeks ahead. There will be lessons in financial literacy, land-ownership, entrepreneurism, the logistics and legalities of starting businesses, developing a business plan along with training in sales, marketing, branding, and food distribution. I have a curriculum brief that details these areas of study. If you, your business, or your company wish to help us, message me and I’ll send you the information.
The Sweet Potato Project encourages students to become innovative, self-sufficient players in today’s ever-expanding global economy.
SPP is as grassroots as it gets. We’ve come this far through the grace of our supporters and volunteers. most importantly, the kids need to be connected to caring individuals, people who listen and can provide an attentive ear or needed advice. We try to get them out to different businesses, neighborhoods, and institutions. I can use a few volunteer drivers to help transport them.
In the words of Frederick Douglas, “there is no progress without struggle.” It’s been a rough road for SPP but, for me, this year feels like progress. My “give-back” is the most satisfying, gratifying and fulfilling thing I’ve done in my long career. But don’t just take my word for it. Join me and share this gift.