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Photography courtesy of Jorie Jacobi, stlcurator.com, and grainforall.com
A cluster of teens gathers in a corner of the sprawling kitchen at Saint Louis University’s Salus Center during a cold day in December. Darryeon Bishop cracks eggs into a large measuring cup, while Briana Taylor squeezes sweet-potato purée from a bag. Andivar Allen stands by the sink, presumably washing dishes, but mostly gossiping with Elesha Harris. Sous chef Bryan Rogers directs the teenagers, instructing them how to make sweet-potato cookies.
This is no typical batch of cookies, though. Months earlier, during the summer, the teens planted sweet potatoes on vacant lots in north St. Louis. When they weren’t tending the gardens’ raised beds, they took classes about marketing, money management, and sales. The classes continued in the fall, when the teens harvested the sweet potatoes. In November, they began baking cookies and selling them under the banner of the Sweet Potato Project.
The nonprofit got its start in 2012, when former St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Sylvester Brown Jr. launched a program geared toward teens in north St. Louis, especially those from areas plagued with gang violence. Though the program is in its infancy, Brown imagines Sweet Potato Project goods one day lining supermarket shelves. He envisions large-scale farming and a processing factory.
“Imagine the power of seeing the products and thinking, ‘Wow, that came out of north St. Louis,’” says Brown. “That’s the kind of boost that we really need.”
And if there’s one thing he’s wanted to do his whole life, it’s to improve north St. Louis, where he grew up with his 10 siblings and again lives today.
At age 14, Sylvester wrote a book. It was semiautobiographical, about a boy with an alcoholic father. Years later, while Sylvester was working at Angelo’s on The Hill, a lawyer asked for a copy, telling Sylvester he would try to get it published. Around the same time, at a server’s suggestion, Sylvester met with a dean at Washington University, who said he would help to get him admitted.
“Long story short, the dean never got me into Wash. U., and the lawyer never published my book,” says Brown. “But for a brief moment in my life, I dreamed that I was a young published author on the campus of Washington University, with the other crisp, young, scholarly students. It was the dream that got me through the poverty—just dreaming what I can be, dreaming what I can do.”
At age 17, Brown dropped out of high school and took a job with Laclede Gas Company, attending St. Louis Community College–Forest Park part-time. He also interned for a small publication, Tryst, where he learned every facet of publishing. During Brown’s final year at the community college, in 1987, he created a cardboard mock-up of a magazine. He asked whether the college would buy an ad if such a magazine actually existed. When a human-resources manager said yes, Brown launched Take 5, a free monthly magazine that covered politics, arts, and culture in the African-American community.
Jabari Asim learned the journalism trade at Take 5, eventually becoming editor-in-chief. “Sylvester was very can-do,” recalls Asim, who’s now an associate professor of creative writing at Emerson College and executive editor of the NAACP’s The Crisis magazine. “Sometimes, when you say you have an idea, people will tell you all the reasons why you cannot get it done. Sylvester would always tell me the reasons why I could.”
Brown spent so much time working on the magazine, he was eventually fired from Laclede. “I thought getting fired was the end of my world,” he recalls. “At the time, I was married, had two brand-new cars and a house in Jennings.” He soon lost the two cars, and he and his wife split up. Among his few remaining possessions was a 15-year-old van he used for Take 5. “I remember sitting out in my van, shedding crocodile tears, but it turned out that I had everything I needed,” he says. “I had the newspaper, and I had the dream.”
He threw himself into the publication, pursuing news stories and organizing community events. “Take 5 was an interactive type of magazine,” says Brown, who oversaw the publication for 15 years. “We’d rent buses on the weekend and take people to African-American–owned businesses for lunch and to shop. We had seminars on police brutality and workshops on starting a business.” Soon, the publication began winning awards.
While trying to sell ad space, he met his second wife. They eventually had two children together. Though his wife helped with the publication for years, she eventually gave Brown an ultimatum. “She said, ‘I love you, but we have two kids now, and we’re not making any money,’” he recalls. “‘You’ve got to make a choice.’” He folded Take 5 in 2002.
By the following year, Brown was a columnist for the Post-Dispatch. He became known for provocative columns. In July 2003, for instance, he penned a column titled “Party on, Patriots!” that suggested African-Americans had nothing to celebrate on July 4, 1776.
In 2009, Brown left the Post. The newspaper claimed supporters whom Brown had written about paid for a trip he took to D.C., though Brown says he funded the trip himself. He called a press conference to announce his resignation from the Post and said he planned to work for author and talk-show host Tavis Smiley.
“I wound up in the company of all the major black thinkers,” says Brown. He met Michael Eric Dyson, Louis Farrakhan, Cornel West. He was surprised when some people complained about newly elected President Barack Obama not establishing a black agenda for the country. “I was like, ‘Folks, you all set the agenda,’” he says.
Brown launched When We Dream Together, an effort to create vibrant communities through sustainability. The vision was too large, though, he says, so he narrowed the focus to teens in north St. Louis.
The Sweet Potato Project was born.
Ask nearly anyone involved in the Sweet Potato Project about Brown, and the response is enthusiastic. “He’s a go-getter,” says Herman Noah. “[Participants] trust and believe in him. He’s able to talk at a comfortable level with them.”
Noah is treasurer of the board, which comprises the North Area Community Development Corporation, an organization that has worked to foster growth in north St. Louis for years. In 2012, Alderman Antonio French let the Sweet Potato Project use an empty lot to plant a garden. Last year, Alderman Samuel Moore granted the group permission to use a second lot in The Ville. Saint Louis University also recently began allowing the teens involved in the project to use Salus Center’s kitchen to bake cookies. “It seemed like a natural fit,” says chef Steve Jenkins, who works in SLU’s Department of Nutrition and Dietetics and runs programs that freeze locally harvested produce for schools to use during winter.
Karen Davis, a regional horticulturist with Lincoln University’s St. Louis Urban Impact Center, has helped the students build and tend the garden. “Nowadays, kids don’t have any idea of how vegetables grow,” she says. “Most kids, when they start the project, don’t even realize sweet potatoes grow underground. The Sweet Potato Project has really given them an opportunity to learn about science, and how plants develop and grow.”
And as the project grows, Brown plans to concentrate on it full-time. His hope is to eventually create food-production jobs in impoverished neighborhoods. “We spend a lot of time trying to get our kids to realize there is value within their community,” he says. “Our kids are always told, ‘You need to get an education, so you can get out of the ghetto.’ You don’t hear people talking about Kirkwood or Webster like that.”
Already, he’s begun to see “the light bulb come on,” he says. “I see them start talking about their community in a different way.” For 19-year-old Bishop, a student at St. Louis Community College–Meramec, the emphasis is one of the program’s main draws. “I wanted to be a part of something that would help my community,” Bishop says.
Brown has witnessed other positive changes, too. After one project participant stole a cellphone while volunteering at a church, Brown told the teen that he’d have to leave the program unless he returned the phone and volunteered at the church two more times. The teenager, who’d been in a gang since he was 13, fulfilled the requirements.
Another student was under house arrest, sporting an ankle bracelet when she arrived; she often interrupted guest speakers and had trouble managing her anger. After Brown put her in charge of ensuring that students remain quiet during presentations, though, the girl became a leader in the class.
Such stories abound, but Brown still sometimes feels overwhelmed by the needs of a number of the teens in the program, who are dealing with family and legal trouble. He’s determined to recruit social workers and volunteers to help. “One of my biggest fears is that I get them inspired, get them motivated,” he says, “and then can’t keep them in that fold—I can’t keep them in that environment of inspiration.”
Still, there are encouraging signs. In late November, the participants sold cookies at the Schlafly Farmers Market, outside the Bottleworks. “At first, because we didn’t have a big sign like everybody else and our table wasn’t decorative, we thought nobody was going to come over,” recalls 19-year-old Harris, also a student at Meramec. “But a lot of people came over.” They ended up selling nearly 600 cookies, with the table selling out once and Brown rushing to pick up more cookies.
“You could see it in the kids’ faces,” says Althea Chappelle, a volunteer with the project. “They just lit up—they were so proud of themselves.”