What happens to a child who grows up in neighborhoods where selling drugs is considered a viable option to generate income?
Can they really see themselves as entrepreneurs or future contributors to neighborhoods when there are very few successful examples where they live?
These are just two of the questions the North Area Community Development Corporation (NACDC) and When We Dream Together, Inc. set out to address with the “Sweet Potato Project,” a pilot program for at-risk youth that began in the summer of 2012. Our mission is to empower youth in disadvantaged communities by having them plant produce (sweet potatoes) and have then turn the yield into a viable, marketable product.
The produce was planted on a vacant lot in North St. Louis. Throughout the summer we offered classes and presentations on leadership, teamwork, website design, product development, branding and more. Out of these exercises came the Sweet Potato Cookie which the youth and administrators are selling now.
One of our first assignments however, was to make them aware of the stores, products, billboards and services offered in their neighborhoods and others. To that end, the 15 kids enrolled in the program participated in “hood walks,” strolling blocks and blocks in low-income and more affluent neighborhoods while noting what they saw for discussions later.
What follows is an interview with a few of the kids on their insights about the walks and their answer to the question: “why do so many minority youth drop out of high school?”
“Hood Walk” on Natural Bridge Avenue in North St. Louis
What did what you saw on the hood walks say to you about black people or your community?
Elesha Harris (18): The purpose of the hood walks were to see different billboards advertising liquor, cigarettes, teen pregnancy and drugs. On that walk I learned that teens see these billboards and it makes them want to try or buy illegal drugs. These billboards are not advertising things that teens should be focused on like education or having a brighter future. This walk open my eyes and made me realize our generation is out control.
Darryeon Bishop (18): There were a lot more businesses in University City than what we have around here. It just made me see how there are not a lot of black-owned businesses in our neighborhoods. This program showed us that maybe we can do something in our communities.
Marquita Williams (18): It says a lot. All they really see are signs and stuff about liquor and tobacco products. That’s not doing anything but influencing and encouraging people to keep buying it instead of doing something different. They (store owners) are doing it to get money for themselves. Actually, it’s tearing the community apart even more.
Darryeon: There are so many check-cashing places because people think it’s the quickest way to cash their checks. They buy lottery tickets and liquor because they probably think those are important things. Business owners think about what they think people want instead of focusing on the kids and making our communities better. These businesses are not good for our kids to be around.
The Sweet Potato youth preparing for a walk in the U-City Loop
Barry Goins (19): Also, you have to look at the fact that if that’s all you’re brought up around, that’s all you know. You also learn it’s a quick way to get money and immediate gratification. Like tobacco and stuff, because people are always looking for ways to love themselves up.
Immediate gratification is a good point, Barry. So what is it about the black community that makes alcohol, cigarettes and lottery tickets so important or valuable?
Mychael King (18): I’ve noticed over the years that African Americans degrade themselves more and more as time goes on. You’ll notice that at parties or gatherings. As a people we’ve degraded ourselves to a point where we don’t even want to hear “you can do it.” We don’t want to believe we can. They expect to be walked by the hand, so when you see these signs that say “pleasure,” they’re telling us subconsciously and that’s what we believe.
Barry: So if you’re poor and think you have no options, a sign promoting the lottery means hope.
Marquita: It puts you in the mindset that it’s a dream that you can have but, of course, everybody knows that it probably won’t be them (who wins the lottery). But they do it in hopes that it will be them.
Mychael: The TV and music makes it seem like money is everything but in reality money doesn’t do anything but magnify the problems you already have. So subconsciously through TV and music, they feel like it’s a one-way ticket to what they need. It’s like “if I get money, it’s going to be all I need.”
It goes back to what I said earlier about black people degrading ourselves. It was like if those people have what we have now, they would appreciate it more and treat it like it actually means something. Now that we have it, it’s like we lose appreciation for it.
Barry: There’s also a generational difference. Back when we didn’t have it, all we could do was try to get it. During the civil rights movement that’s what they were pushing for. Now that we have it, we don’t appreciate it like we should.
Mychael: With older generations, it’s like “this is what happened back in my day,” like it was the golden age or something. But parents always want their child to be more than what they ever was. So I think it would be better to hear more about how things are now. It’s not fair to hear how good things were back then and then think “wow, we’re actually falling apart.”
Barry: The older generation, their day is gone. They assume that just because they were able to do something, we should be able to do it, too. That’s good in a sense that we have more conveniences than older generation. It’s bad because it can make you lazy. Everything is pretty much at your fingertips, literally, they even have robotic vacuums now. The older generation actually had to work for what they have but they baby the younger generation. The old school ways, that our grandparents put into our parents…a lot of the parents aren’t putting them back into their kids, which is why we have so many disobedient kids talking back to their mothers and things like that. It’s like we lost where we came from.
Why do so many black kids drop out of school?
Dashia: Probably because they’re having problems at home or having problems learning at school. They probably have challenges like me. I have trouble reading and I’m afraid to read in front of people at school and stuff. Adults don’t know how to talk to you and some kids don’t know how to talk to you. So it might make you angry and stuff or set you off.
Marquita: To be honest, I think most African American kids drop out because they feel like school is overwhelming or they just can’t do it. It’s probably because they don’t put their minds to it as much as they should or as much as they’re able to. Most black kids, they’ve been around violence all their life so that creates problems for them, too.
Is it a matter of connecting what they’re learning with what they’re going through in life?
Mychael: It’s the normal struggles we all go through in high school-be it black, white, Asian or whatever on top of knowing our history and always getting the short end of the stick.
Barry: I do think that all the pressures of school, tests and then you have peer pressure. It’s like all the stuff counts. But you have to look at the situation at home. Some African Americans don’t even have a home. That has a major impact. If you have to hear all this yapping and what not, then you have to go to school and hear that…even if you’re trying to do good, it’s going to make you not want to go.
What is it about careers in basketball or football or rapping that makes it seem more real than striving to be a computer engineer, doctor or a lawyer?
Marquita: Well, I think they look at those careers as the quickest way for them to come up on some money. Like the computer engineer, they figure “oh, I have to go to college for some years for that.” Whereas sports, they look at it like, “Oh well, I can get a scholarship for that and be playing. But they don’t realize that along with the scholarship, you have to have the grades, too.
Mychael: It’s like what you see first. Black kids when they go to the barbershop, they hear about basketball and football and the guys who are idolized. You listen to the radio and what do you hear? Rappers and dudes with money and the way they talk about it makes it seem like it’s an easy come-up.
Barry: They mainly glorify these people. And these people look like them-a lot of the sports figures and rappers are black. African Americans have taken over most sports except hockey (laughs)
Is it because these careers rely on their own skills and not book smarts?
Mycheal: I feel like, black fathers and uncles push their kids to do those types of things. They take them the park and will train for hours on basketball but don’t really push them academically. They put effort into that with their kids because they think “oh yeah, he can rap or throw a ball.” It’s the parents who are more comfortable with music and sports.
This interview is one of many conducted for the soon-to-be-released E-Book, “Sweet Potatoes & Cookies: What 15 Youth Taught Us about Reclaiming the Hood.” The book will be used to raise funds for the 2013 Sweet Potato Project summer program. Please click the link below to donate to the program and this fundraising effort.