Sylvester Brown Jr. had big dreams growing up. Dreams that didn’t end even though he grew up poor and eventually had to drop out of high school to work.
He educated himself by reading everything he could get his hands on, including the autobiography of Malcolm X. He then built a career around the written word, working as an award-winning journalist, columnist and publisher of his own publications.
But then he decided that, rather than just write about the problems in African American communities, it was time to fix them.
So he turned a vacant urban lot into a garden plot. He encouraged a group of 15 high school students to dedicate their summer to working in the community garden for a small amount of money. That grew into the Sweet Potato Project, an educational and employment program for urban youth.
“I chose sweet potatoes as the crop because they are interesting, culturally relevant and easy to grow,” he said.
The Sweet Potato Project now teaches about 25 teens each year how to become successful entrepreneurs. They spend the summer growing and caring for the potatoes. Then, after the harvest, make cookies and other products in the kitchen at Saint Louis University alongside chef Steve Jenkins and his crew.
Brown’s story is now gaining national attention after it was included in the 2014 Aetna African American History Calendar. Now in its 33rd year, the Aetna calendar celebrates African American men and women whose life work has guided them to transform their communities from the ground up — in many cases, quite literally.
Students working on the Sweet Potato Project also learn how to brand and market their sweet potato cookies, including some with chocolate chips, which are neatly packaged and sold online through a website they developed and manage.
“They learn how to dream big and become well equipped to make money,” said Brown, whose goal is to make this a 12-month project so he can stay connected to teens all year long.
“I have been able to show them unique ways to use their scars from poverty in a positive way,” he said. “When you grow up poor, you are well positioned for success. We come from a long history of survivors.”
To learn more, visit sweetpotatoprojectstl.org.