sylvester-brown-jrBy Sylvester Brown, Jr.

This column was originally published on the author’s blog.

Sylvester Brown, Jr. is a writer, community activist and the executive director of the Sweet Potato Project, a St. Louis-based program dedicated to teaching at-risk youth entrepreneurial skills through agriculture and product development. 

On Friday, September 9th, I was awarded the 2016 MLK Legacy Award for “Outstanding Service in the Community.” About four other individuals were also honored during Beloved Streets of America‘s first annual MLK Legacy Dinner. It’s always nice to be recognized for trying to do something positive, but for me, the true reward was the event itself and the realization that I am a part of a game-changing group with unrecognized potential.

I have to be honest: I’ve been besieged with doubt about the Sweet Potato Project (SPP). Our mission is basic but powerful. For the past five years, we’ve been working with at-risk teens to show them how to become self-sufficient and make money in their own neighborhoods. Students plant produce on vacant lots, and after harvesting they turn produce into products.

Simple, right?

Our bigger mission is to help low-income people gain access to vacant lots, grow food and develop ways to sell through farmer’s markets, direct delivery or by selling food-based products like our sweet potato cookies. If hundreds of poor folk are growing and thousands are buying from local urban farmers, we have a shot at creating a real economic engine in North St. Louis.

Powerful, right?

Well, not so much—at least not for SPP. Our funding has decreased significantly within the past two years. Our students made it through the summer, with the help of a few individuals who hosted fundraisers for us. However, it’s become painfully obvious that we can’t continue operating with a tiny staff and limited funds on a shoestring budget.

So that was the sort of funk I was in when I arrived at the MLK Legacy Dinner. The real reward that evening came in the form of inspiration through the activities of other awardees and some extraordinary ordinary people I know who are also striving to enact social and economic change in the black community.

My reward that night was the crystallization of a major multi-faceted approach to community development. After accepting my award, I asked the audience to dream with me. Imagine a vibrant and refurbished MLK (Beloved Streets of America), I said, where people own homes (Better Family Life); with dozens of black-owned storefronts (the Center for the Acceleration of African-American Business) in an area like the University City Loop where art and culture is part of the neighborhood’s fabric (Portfolio Gallery and Education Center); where economically empowered landowners grow food that supplies the entire region (the Sweet Potato Project).

I was also reminded of the five or so food-related entities already working in the Greater Ville area on or near MLK Boulevard. St. Louis University was recently awarded a USDA grant to help fund these agencies. SPP is a part of that collaborative. Project plans include a food market, industrial kitchen to develop “value-added” food products and more urban farms in the area. If more funds were directed to these entities and organizations recognized at the Beloved Streets event, we’d have a huge swath of MLK in North St. Louis dedicated to empowering low-income youth and adults, job creation, home and land ownership and small business growth—which can all lead to neighborhood safety and sustainability.

There are basically two obstacles that impede this grand vision. First, as Malik Ahmed noted after he and Deborah received their awards, black organizations must collaborate, strategize and go after funding as a collective. The second challenge is the lack of vision among politicians, city planners, nonprofit funders and corporations. St. Louis leaders seem to have one model for community development: “Let’s give these rich guys and powerful entities millions upon millions in state, local and federal tax breaks and public money and, hopefully, their success will trickle down to people in poor communities.”

Politicians have exuberantly signed off on developments such as the $16 million failed attempt to keep the Rams in St. Louis along with the billion dollars to build them a new football stadium. Then there’s Paul McKee’s Northside Regeneration project, which will receive up to $390 million in tax-increment financing. The estimated $2.1 billion Cortex District and the $1.75 billion National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency’s headquarters are all buoyed by tax incentives, deferred taxes and public money.

This is all well and good, I suppose, but if we’re leveraging the city’s tax base for the rich, implementing gentrification in North St. Louis and short-changing public schools dependent on tax dollars, shouldn’t a fraction of the public money go to sacrificing, struggling black organizations that are dedicated to empowering residents, educating young people and building businesses within the most disadvantaged and ignored areas of our city?

When it comes to sharing public money and investing in the black community, we’re up against a decades-old, stubborn, segregationist mindset in St. Louis. Still, I have hope. Can politicians—particularly black and progressive politicians—simply call for a time-out on doling out dollars to the rich and powerful? Can’t they insist on a little quid-pro-quo for their loyalty and demand that elitist city planners include black organizations in the mix? If those of us dedicated to enacting real, people-centered change worked together, perhaps we can help introduce a new template for development that actually empowers people to do-for-self economically.

These things and more are the fruits of an award that emphasized the potential rewards right here, today, within our midst.

Articles in “From the Field” represent the opinions of the author only and do not represent the views of the Community Builders Network of Metro St. Louis or the University of Missouri-St. Louis.