Sylvester Brown, Jr.

St. Louis’ violent crime rate is 332 percent higher than the national average. Homicides in the city have seen a 36.4 percent increase in one year. According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 9 out of 10 homicides involve black youth. Of those killed, half are black males under the age of 30.

Every year, more than 300,000 school-age children across the nation, mostly black and brown, are introduced to the criminal justice system by way of “zero tolerance” policies. In Missouri, almost 50,000 youth are retained every year in some sort of correctional setting.

Since the 1970s, the state and federal prison inmate population has spiked some 700 percent with a total of more than 2 million incarcerated individuals-again, mostly blacks and Latinos. We are all familiar with the toxic connection between poverty and prisons. While the poverty rate for white and Asian children hovers around 21.6 percent, it’s almost 40 percent for black children and 32.3 percent for Hispanic youth.

We will never slow the violence or “stop the killing” until we create real, sustainable, money-generating options for disenfranchised young people. The Sweet Potato Project was designed to arrest the disproportionate number of minority youth destined for poverty, prison or funerals.

Our project is reliant on everybody and anybody who cares about children. But it is incumbent upon the black community to save its own. Unless we’re comfortable with the idea of fearing, incarcerating and burying our young, we have no choice but to step up our efforts to save them.

This summer, we are serving more than 20 kids from some of the poorest zip codes in the city. Most live in or near the O’Fallon Park, Penrose or Greater Ville areas. We’re planting sweet potatoes in some of those wards with the goal of growing more produce and creating more products in North St. Louis.

The Sweet Potato Project youth will earn while they learn with a bi-weekly minimum wage salary for nine weeks. We are reaching out to every source imaginable to ensure they are paid this summer. But that spark will flicker longer if our kids know that adults who share their hue made it a priority to fund and support their effort.

Brown is the director of The Sweet Potato Project, a program offered by the North Area Community Development Corporation, a 501 (c) (3) agency. Donate at

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