Tuesday, August 22, 2017


“Revolution is based on land. Land is the basis of all independence. Land is the basis of freedom, justice, and equality.” - Malcolm X-1963.

Imagine young people, along with low-income residents owning some of the 3,500 + vacant lots in the City of St. Louis. Let us also imagine them growing food together and selling it at local farmer’s markets. What possibilities may come if there were an industrial kitchen and food manufacturing plant in North St. Louis? Visualize a brand, like Del Monte or Glory Foods comprised of youth and local residents growing food and making their own food products? Think of the economic benefits of stores, schools, hospitals, restaurants, bakeries, and other entities, here and across the country, buying food and/or food products from land-owners in North St. Louis.

This is the juncture where imagination meets reality. This year, SPP has collaborated with a new North St. Louis collective of food-related nonprofits working primarily in the Greater Ville area. This cooperative, the North City Food Hub (NCFH), is working to build community resources that include a community café, fresh food market, an industrial kitchen to develop food products, a small business incubator, a farmer's market and classes in horticulture, small business, land procurement and product development and distribution -- all in the Greater Ville area of North St. Louis.

This is a game-changer. It's a practical vision of a large collective of nonprofits and North St. Louis land-owners empowered through food. The Sweet Potato Project's role is to bring as many low-income (age-appropriate) students and adults into the process as possible. Land ownership, we believe, is the key to community ownership. Not only will this collective educate young people in horticulture and entrepreneurism, it offers a practical approach to addressing unemployment, neighborhood decay, food deserts, nutritional needs and neighborhood revitalization. 


 Some of the members of the North City Food Hub
This initiative has the potential of creating a new, all-inclusive model of community development. Because everyone eats, there’s opportunity to grow other spin-off businesses. For example, Tower Grove Farmer’s Market generates about $2 million dollars annually in one neighborhood. People visit to buy fresh food but they stay to enjoy the coffee shops, restaurants and bars that have seen increased patronage from foodies. Food-related opportunities (trucking, security, restaurants, and bars) can see similar benefits from a North St. Louis food system.

Simply put, people who own the land have a personal stake in protecting and utilizing the land. This summer, students received lessons from St. Louis University professors in small business development, land-ownership, marketing, branding and more. Some are ready to become land-owners. With your support, we help neighborhood youth and adults build gardens and participate in a North St. Louis food-based economic engine early next year.

Good Life Growing, a member of the North City Food Hub, will open a grocery store in the Old North Neighborhood soon. Click here to read story

There's much work to do to bring this vision into fruition. We're inviting politicians, city officials, churches, community organizations and anyone with the expertise, desire to participate and passion to help us rebuild communities and empower people through food. 

If you're interested, email our executive director, Sylvester Brown at sylvesterbj@gmail.com and we'll make sure you're contacted about upcoming meetings and events. 

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Nurturing the Seeds: Reflections on the 2017 Sweet Potato Project

It was a big day for one of my students, Darryeon Bishop (21).   This summer, he bought his first automobile, a tan, 4-door, Chevy Impala, mid-2000 model. He used his savings to buy the car for under $3,000. That morning, we greeted each other on the front steps of Annie Malone’s Children’s Home where the Sweet Potato Project (SPP) has been fortunate enough to hold classes this year.

Darryeon Bishop
The car was another significant milestone in Darryeon’s life. He’s been with our project since its inception in 2012. Darryeon’s a tall, lanky, shy kid who squints his eyes when he smiles. He comes from one of the roughest neighborhoods in our city. I remember dropping him off after class one day in 2012. There was a discarded car bumper, broken glass and bits and pieces of parts scattered in the street not far from the front of the 4-family building his family occupied near the Grand water tower.

“Wow, looks like someone had a pretty bad accident,” I commented.

“That was no accident, Mr. Brown,” Darryeon responded, far too nonchalantly considering his follow-up words: “That was a drive-by.”

This wasn’t the only act of violence Darryeon has witnessed. One day a few years back, he called to tell me that he’d seen a man shot in broad daylight. He watched the man breathe his last breadth, bleeding on the side his car. It was the non-pulsed way Darryeon shared the story that stayed with me.

In the past six years, I’ve heard many stories from the youth we serve. As a writer by trade, who’s spent the past 30+years, writing about the plights, challenges, and potential of black people, I feel blessed to have a program and young people in my life who remind me that we don’t have to be passive observers of the chaos and dysfunction that’s part of growing up black and poor. We can do something.

Darryeon’s encounters with death and violence isn’t an isolated case. Often, I’ve read about a shooting or murder only to find out that the degrees of separation aren’t that far apart. I will never forget an incident a couple of years ago. Three brothers who were fine at the start of the summer program, started acting strange around week three. Turns out, they were at a family party were an uncle was killed by his girlfriend. I had read about the incident but had no idea that one of the brothers, my student, held the tourniquet to his uncle’s slit throat. It wasn’t until one of our volunteer instructors encouraged the boys to share the incident with the class that their strange behavior subsided.

I’ve seen the results of similar incidents: youth who’ve been quietly traumatized and stigmatized by the loss of a friend, a relative or a neighbor. Yet, they move on with a disturbing sense of acceptance. It’s an indication that we, as a nation, have fallen way short in recognizing and addressing the perils that poverty has on our young people.

“Bam!” That was Darryeon, whipping out his spankin’, new driver’s license and insurance card that summer morning. Indeed, he’s come a long way from the shy, quiet kid who lived in dangerous surroundings. Now, he's a confident, independent, informed and engaged young man (he’s a fervent news hawk now). He’ll be graduating from Southeast Missouri State University with a bachelor’s degree in communications next year.

I owe David Steward, founder of World Wide Technology, a huge debt of gratitude. The donation from World-Wide Technology and the Steward Family Foundation, allowed me to focus on the students and not scurry around all summer trying to raise money while running the program. This summer, I had the rare opportunity to double-down on our curriculum which has been designed to address the unique circumstances of at-risk youth. Our goal is to meet them where they are and show them how to use what’s at hand to craft their own versions of success.

After every summer session ends, I’m heartened by the fact that our students are open-minded, eager to change their communities and create opportunities for their siblings and peers. But, I’m equally intimidated because we’ve planted a seed and exposed them to possibilities that may not be possible without more help and resources.

Still, they give me hope.  This year, I was blessed to have some of my senior students, like Darryeon, return to the program. They conducted classes in my absence. Along with an intern, Modanna Woods, the experienced students served as my voice, eyes, ears, and confidantes. They kept me tuned into the group’s dynamics. 

Edie Adams
Edie Adams (21), who’s been with us for about three years now, unabashedly spoke of her desire to own property and “make a difference.” I can write a chapter about Marquitta Williams (22), my unofficial nemesis from the beginning of the program. My, how we battled over the years. At one point, I fired her, only to bring her back after she wrote me a letter declaring that I hadn’t “been listening” to her and some other students. That letter serves as motivation for a book I’ve been working on tentatively titled “When We Listen.”

Marquitta’s grown now. Oh, she’s still as opinionated and sometimes confrontational as ever but her natural leadership and communication skills-traits that made her stand out for me from the start-are percolating and maturing nicely. I have no doubt that Marquita will someday supervise people or run or own a business. 

I’ve gained huge respect for three female students who’ve been with us for the past three years. One of them, the seeming leader, has become my hero. At an early age, she tended to a mother who was struck by a terminal illness. After her mother passed away and her father had a stroke, this young lady still attended and graduated high school while living in an abandoned building. She has inherited treatable but expensive illnesses and frequently finds herself in an emergency room. But she hasn’t given up. She’s the mother hen of two life-long friends, one with a new baby. After attending SPP classes, the girls took a two-hour bus trip to Chesterfield for cleaning service work. Together, they look out for and encourage one another. The mother hen attends college in Georgia and is pursuing her dream of becoming a doctor. 


The 2017 young recruits were a mixed bag of personalities and heart-wrenching yet inspiring stories.  Aaliyah, 16, has written a book of fiction already. After our small business lessons, she now understands how easy it is to publish-on-demand and market the book online and through promotional appearances. Her “boyfriend,” Camron (16), has Steve Jobs or Bill Gates potential. I challenged the class to come up with a marketable product. I don’t know if Camron’s idea for a phone case with a built-in booster speaker has been created or not but it seems like a multi-million-dollar notion.  His, was just one of several ideas the group presented and tinkered with this summer. They remind me that creativity, resiliency, and the art of survival is encoded in their DNA and should not be so easily dismissed, denied, locked up or locked out in this country. 

They remind me that creativity, resiliency, and the art of survival is encoded in their DNA and should not be so easily dismissed, denied, locked up or locked out in this country. 

I won’t mention the names of another three young ladies (ages 17 to 19) who joined us this year. Two have babies already. The girls live together (off and on) and had trouble making classes on time. Yet, two of them have a strong knack for writing and the youngest shyly articulated ideas for a business she wants to start before the year ends.

These young women gave me a glimpse into the world of navigating lives tempered by poverty and sometimes bad choices. They remind me that there’s love and true compassion in the neighborhoods from which they hail. A story they shared with the class about seeing a man passed out on a bench in the Baden Neighborhood emphasized another element rarely attributed to ghetto life. They pulled over, got out of their car, and tried to assist the man only to find out he was strung out on some sort of hallucinogenic drug.  They stayed with this stranger until an ambulance arrived. They didn’t have to, but they cared.

They pulled over, got out of their car, and tried to assist the man only to find out he was strung out on some sort of hallucinogenic drug.  

This is the attitude that we seek to foster at SPP. There are young people among us who have a passion and commitment to the neighborhoods from which they were born-no matter how dysfunctional they may appear to outsiders. We need to nurture and provide resources for a generation of youth willing to be held accountable for the future of North St. Louis. One of the three ladies I mentioned will now attend Forest Park Community College thanks to a visit we arranged with the High School to College Center in U City. I would like to see her compadres become owners of vacant property where they can grow food and earn money while pursuing their ambitions. In fact, I envision dozens of young people owning land and making money off fresh food and food-based products. If we can help these young people do this, others will follow  and very soon we can have a community of young people economically and spiritually-vested in their neighborhoods.

I could go on about the students I learned from this summer. But I prefer to talk about what’s next for them. Because I can’t do it without you.

This year, I’m really able to put words, lessons, and exposure into action. SPP is part of a new collective called the North City Food Hub (NCFH). It’s a group of nonprofits committed to using food as an economic engine starting in the Greater Ville area of North St. Louis.  There will be more details to come but in brief, the collective will have culinary, small business, horticulture, restaurant management, land-ownership classes and business incubator opportunities before the spring. Very soon, we’ll be able to help our students and adults gain access to land, grow food, and bring fresh produce and food-based products (packaged goods) to market.

Very soon, we’ll be able to help our students and adults gain access to land, grow food, and bring fresh produce and food-based products (packaged goods) to market.

We’ve planted a fertile seed this summer. We’ve shown our students how they can participate in urban renewal, we introduced them to entrepreneurs and business people who talked about the benefits (and pitfalls) of revitalizing and/or re-gentrifying neighborhoods. They’ve met professors and experts who’ve helped take some of the mystery out of buying/leasing vacant properties, the principles of supply & demand,” growing food and starting businesses.  They are ready! But, I fear we won’t be able to follow up on our promises without more immediate support. 

Here’s where I take off the instructor hat and transition to my role as fund-raiser and recruiter of volunteers. Let me start by laying out our specific needs for the rest of the year.

First, I need to raise enough money to keep the students in the fold. It is imperative that they see tangible results of what we’ve preached over the summer. Our sweet potatoes will be ready for harvest by mid-October. There will be a “shared-use” kitchen in the Ville early next year but I want my students baking, meeting people, and selling our program and products (sweet potato cookies) before the holiday season. I’m working with SLU but I’d like other options for consistent baking, professional packaging, and the distribution of our cookies. Ideas and connections are welcome.

I’m reaching out to lenders and politicians to make this land-ownership thing more do-able for our age-appropriate youth and low-income adult residents. Land ownership, I maintain, is key to true community accountability and transformation. Simply put, people who own land have a personal stake in protecting it. Imagine young people, alongside adults growing food and selling food together. What possibilities may come from the creation of a North St. Louis food brand like Del Monte or Glory Foods? Think of the economic benefits of local grocery stores, schools, hospitals, restaurants, bakeries, and other entities buying food and products from hard-working, young, and older North St. Louis land-owners.

As you can see, SPP has a big mission that’s in need of big support. I need people who see the total picture and instantly recognize their roles in bringing it to fruition. Yes, I need money…lots and lots of money, but I also need connections and people with influence willing to go-to-bat for our youth and real, sustainable economic progression in long-ignored areas of our region.

Growing up poor has left me with this crippling inability to "beg" or ask for money. I’m great at articulating the vision, pretty good with the kids but I suck at closing the deal and bringing in the necessary resources to consistently operate SPP. Thankfully, people like Steward and other faithful donors get the big picture and have helped us get to this point. Still, the onus is on me to do better. My job, however, is made easier by Darryeon, Marquita, Edie, Aaliyah, Camron and other youth mentioned or not mentioned in this commentary.

You see, it’s not about me or my poor money-making capabilities. It’s about collectively investing in young and poor people and experimenting with the idea that they will be the spark for self-sufficient, money-generating communities. It’s about following up on promises made this summer and making “success” a real, tangible, palatable thing for urban youth who rarely recognize do-able opportunities.  In a way, it’s about nurturing the seeds and bringing the bounty to harvest. With your help, all this and more is possible. 

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