This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: A slightly more unconventional role for the sweet potato these days is keeping kids off the streets.
Running for its second consecutive year, the project attempts to stem the tide of African-American youth into the judicial system by promoting a self-sustainable economic program within local communities.
On a recent Saturday morning, participants planted a crop of sweet potatoes in the O'Fallon, Penrose and Greater Ville neighborhoods. They'll grow them, create ideas about how to transform them into a marketable product and sell them back to the community.
But the whole project encompasses far more than just selling spuds.
"The Sweet Potato Project shows kids that they have options outside their doors," said Brown, founder and director of the program. "Many of them see the illegal drug trade and criminal activities as the only methods for making money out there."
Brown suggests that kids, especially African-American youth, are incubated in an environment of negativity. For years they've witnessed relatives getting locked up; grandparents, mothers, fathers, cousins, brothers, aunts, all touched by the criminal justice system.
"There's a system already in place for wayward children, children we don't understand, children we don't take the time to nurture," said Brown. "We need to create new systems, new ideas, new mechanisms. And what better way to do this than turning the challenges of their communities into opportunities?"
Shifting from illegal options
According to PBS documentary Education Under Arrest, more than 300,000 youth pass through the U.S. criminal justice system every year, the highest figure in the world. It costs the taxpayer approximately $5 million annually; the emotional cost to our youth -- irreparable, according to people in that report.
"One-third of teens brought through the system are arrested in school," said Tavis Smiley, presenter of Education Under Arrest. "One-half of these kids never return to school; it's as if we're creating a gateway to prison instead of to learning."
Last year in St. Louis 564 spent time in the Juvenile detention center; 542 were African-American. That's 96 percent of detained youths being African-American in a city’s whose racial makeup is almost evenly split.
"I've seen dead bodies, drug dealers, the whole nine," said Myke King, a 17-year-old participant in this year's project. "If the kids aren't selling, they're on them."
Brown wants to turn this around by diverting the focus from illegal activity to legal revenue.
"You can take the same rules of supply and demand from the drug trade to become entrepreneurs," said Brown." The same skills of discipline, math and marketing can all be applied in a positive manner."
Educating beyond the garden
The project, which depends on outside donations to survive, starts with a community plant day. There kids who show up must undertake an hour's work for free. Brown uses this time to interview candidates to be selected for the roughly 20 spots available in the program.
The second stage sees candidates undertake a series of classes focused on the community, conflict resolution, connections with the past and commerce, held at the St. Louis Catholic Academy
"We need to empower these kids with the knowledge that nothing will change unless they take action," said Brown. "It's a powerful concept; they can grow a product on a lot in North St. Louis and sell it to bring money into the community."
One particular task aimed at uniting the youth with their communities is the ”Hoodwalk.” Participants walk through local neighborhoods, taking note of the types of businesses and stores, comparing them to areas such as the Central West End.
They quickly find a stark difference.
"I couldn't believe how negatively they market the black community," said King. "There were just posters advertising cigarettes, alcohol, quick cash schemes -- there was nothing positive."
The group will also be required to take the Enneagram Personality test, enabling them to pin-point their strengths and weaknesses and apply them to the overall business strategy.
Sharing success stories
Volunteer businesses and African-American success stories give their time to educate the kids on marketing, advertising, presenting; proving ethnicity need not be a barricade to attainment. Some of last year's volunteers include Jonny Little Jr., founder of the eLittle Media Group: Nicole Adewale of the ABNA engineering firm and Koran Bolden, owner of Street Dreamz recording studios.
On completion of the program last year, the group decided to focus on producing a sweet potato based cookie product. SweetArt Bakery owner Reine Bayoc came up with a recipe. Then the students, using the tools now at their disposal, marketed the product to several local businesses, with the kids making a commission off the proceeds.
Brown, the driving force behind the program, has been key in raising the bar for these kids.
"It's impossible not to follow him," said Barry Goins, a 19-year-old participant who also attended last year's program. "He is genuinely motivated and connected to us, something we don't always feel from older generations."
Goins and King noted they could see a big change between some of the group as they progressed through the program.
"One day, we had to give a presentation in front of local business Afroworld," said Goins. "Mr. Brown wasn't there, but some of the shyer kids really stepped up their game, came out of their shells and delivered."
Brown became caught up in the sustainable community movement after reading Creating A World Without Poverty by Bangladeshi banker and Nobel Peace Prize recipient Muhammad Yunus.
After working with Tavis Smiley and other big-name African-American thinkers such as Michael Eric Dyson, Brown was concerned they were not articulating any ideas for rebuilding communities with federal dollars and government help.
Instead of trying to focus on a national movement, Brown targeted local communities, in particular, the youth.
"In 2012, I partnered with the non-profit NACD (National Association for Child Development), that was already trying to work with churches in growing community gardens," said Brown. "We combined ideas, coming up with a model that would enable us to pay the kids a wage for their work."
Last year was a struggle, starting with just a $5,000 grant from the Incarnate Word Foundation.The group had to raise awareness and funds for the project as it progressed (indeed, fundraising is still going on for this year), leading it to be almost being called off by the end of the 6th week.
"I told the kids not to come the following week," said Brown. "However, every single one of them turned up with ideas on how to save the program. It blew me away."
Brown believes the prospects of the program are endless. Once adults realize what their kids are capable of, and start seeing their willingness to make a difference, it will change the dynamics of the relationship between youth and low-income neighborhoods.
"I come from poverty and was rescued by kind benevolence," said Brown. "It's my duty to empower these kids with that same feeling; it's incredible what the power of dreaming can lead to."