by Sylvester Brown, Jr.
One of the most rewarding gifts I received after helping to start the Sweet Potato Project last year was the affirmation that I can indeed impact the lives of young people. Don’t get me wrong; I’ve given numerous classroom presentations and was aware that I could speak to and perhaps inspire young people. But last year I realized that my 55 years of life and 25 years of “progressive” journalism can have a huge effect on the lives of kids who look like me or whose lives mirror the impoverished circumstances of my youth.
This year, the North Area Community Development Corporation would like to share this powerful experience. You may be degreed or not. You may be an entrepreneur, business owner, professor, cook, experienced mentor, long-time counselor…or not. We’re looking for anyone and everyone who understands the particular circumstances and challenges of so-called “at-risk” youth who’ve been raised in environments that sap their dreams and foster feelings of hopelessness and low self-esteem.
“I learned that there are a lot of ways you can get a product out there and get them sold.
This summer, we are looking for those who understand that our youth are brilliant but haven’t learned to put their God-given talents in motion. We seek educators, presenters, mentors, parents, residents and community stakeholders-no matter race, creed or gender-who have grown tired of seeing our future locked up, locked out or sent to early graves. We want partners who will help us plant seeds of independence and economic vitality in areas consumed by poverty and long-starved of resources and creative imagination.
Fund-raising is a big challenge but what I love most about the Sweet Potato Project is its grassroots genesis. We began last year with a call out to concerned individuals, asking that “each one, teach one.”
Allow me to share a few words about those who responded:
Anthony Neal, president of Educational Equity Consultants reached out to his colleagues and graciously helped arrange classroom lessons and presentations. Out of that group came Benjamin Gandhi-Shepard who shared his expertise in photography and website design. Muhammad K. Raqib’s transition from a dysfunctional student to the co-founder an organization that’s determined to provide guidance and success training for young people resonated with our youth.
“The presenters gave us positive activities and provided a different look at what’s out there and what’s possible.
-Marquita, age 19
The 2012 class learned lessons in business, leadership, history, economics, career development, conflict resolution, music production and more from gracious community volunteers.
Airline pilot, entrepreneur and visionary Dr. Gerald Higginbotham tediously connected the dots between history, culture and community economics. Jamaican-born motivational speaker, Richard Cross, Nicole Adewale and LaWanda Jones of ABNA Engineering stressed the importance of education with Ms. Adewale serving as our very own Donald Trump during the “Urban Apprentice” contest. Youth counselors, Charles Alphin and Bolanle Ambonisye patiently showed the kids alternatives to violence with conflict resolution techniques. Benita Arceneaux, Mimzy Hebron, Nato Caliph and Koran and wife LaPortcia Bolden with Street Dreamz Music studio used music, art and creative expression to help our youth tap into their own unique communication and artistic skills.
Karen Davis, the regional horticulture specialist with the Lincoln University Cooperative Extension Urban Impact Center St. Louis, provided the necessary knowledge about planting and harvesting nutritious sweet potatoes. And I can’t discount the value of those who just spent time with our youth such as city resident Barbara Cole who served as the trusted and ever-present den mother for our kids.
– Keon, age 18
This year, we have been blessed to host classes at St. Louis Catholic Academy with the support of St. Elizabeth Catholic Church near Shreve in North St. Louis. We will have access to the school’s classrooms, computers, gym and kitchen. We can now take the input from our students last year and offer more structured lessons, activities and exercises. We also plan to increase our yield by inviting city residents to the plant sweet potatoes that we will purchase to produce the products created by our kids.
“I learned to speak up more. Get more involved and connect with my fellow peers in the program.”
– Darryeon Bishop, 19
The Sweet Potato Project is only the first step in an effort to accelerate a food-based economy in low-income communities in our region. We’re reaching out to those who can reach and teach youth about the possibilities and potential outside our doors. In a very real sense, our youth serve as an inspiration to adults and as a catalyst to prove that food can be grown and products can be created within these areas.
It all starts with a group of dedicated, committed individuals willing to share their talents, expertise and time. Our list is long and our needs are great. Classes begin on June 10th and will end the first week of August. We still have openings for those who’d like to test educational ideas or implement specialized instruction. You can make one presentation, teach one class or have several classes throughout the summer.
We also need entrepreneurs and more established businesses that will allow us to bring our youth to their enterprises to hear their stories and see success up close and personal. We still have the challenge of arranging transportation for youth to workplaces, neighborhood gardens and other off-campus activities. A bus is desirable but we may also need a group of drivers on hand during the summer.
If you contact me, I will send you our curriculum criteria and areas of need. Again, vision and dedication overrules diplomas and degrees. We believe that everyone has something of value to offer the project and its youth.