I reject the notion that poverty is an automatic penalty for misdeeds. There are too many Americans in states of economic despair due to corporate greed, unscrupulous bankers and investors, unfunded wars and misplaced national priorities. However, I did need some humbling. I was comfortable at the newspaper and received ego-validation while in the company of high-profile blacks. I was still distant and disconnected, trying to enact change from afar.
Universal factors have humbled me. I am no longer the far-off spokesperson for the downtrodden; I now live the life. Once again, I am in the chaotic, unstable and often dysfunctional environment of my youth. Like many of my neighbors, I struggle to maintain dignity, knowing that I'm not really meeting all my children's needs. I dance the dance of day-to-day survival, compromising while dueling with the ebb and flow of hope and hopelessness. A gnawing fear that I will leave this earth, broken and penniless, pricks at my optimistic Alger-ist attitude.
Yet, there is familiar serenity in this rags-to-riches-to-rags-again saga. I live in the ward of an alderman diligently working to reform an area besieged with societal woes. His efforts have led to an 80 percent reduction in murders; the refurbishing of a once dangerous neighborhood park with a brand new recreation center, bike paths and basketball courts. Now elders and youth can enjoy outdoor concerts and activities without the constant fear of out-of-control hooligans. I live on a block where old people, doors away, wave and seem genuinely happy to see me. Enticing smells of juicy burgers, fried chicken and fish emanate from a corner store that sells hot food and necessary stipends in an area where grocery stores and fast food joints are only accessible by car. Sometimes, on Friday nights, I hear an unusual cacophony of voices; laughter, bickering and a splendid mixture of "old school" and hip-hop music. It's as if an entire neighborhood has come out to exhale after a workweek of toil and strife and a hard-pressed life.
Across the street from the two-family flat I now call home, sweet potatoes grow on a vacant lot. In early June, I was joined by youth and volunteers with the Sweet Potato Project -- a summer program that I kicked off with a local nonprofit agency. For the past 7 weeks, I have driven to a nearby library where our volunteer instructors teach 15 inner-city youth do-for-self, entrepreneurial skills. They will turn the harvested produce into a product and learn that there are other (legal) ways to make money in their own communities. In less than two months, 15, rock-headed, typical urban teens have made an amazing transformation. The Sweet Potato youth now talk of being change agents in their communities and "giving back." Because of this program, I have discovered that I can play a vital role in reaching and teaching so-called "at-risk" African American youth.
The neighborhood is no Shangri-La. There is crime and those more than willing to commit them. But they are outnumbered by people trying to raise their children, take care of their homes, scratch out a living and live peacefully -- just like in any other neighborhood.
I may be economically embarrassed but I am no longer disconnected. Now, when I talk about the inherent potential of black youth, I speak from a position of embedded authority. When I preach about investing in long-neglected urban areas and creating sustainable jobs and businesses, it's not a wistful fantasy-it's what we're doing in MY neighborhood.
There have been intense moments of degradation and fear. Yet, they compete with feelings of vibrancy, meaning, true engagement and exhilarating possibilities.
Friends have warned me about writing like this. They say it damages "my brand." There's some truth to that, I suppose. But, I've written this way for 25 years -- honestly and openly. It is my way. It helps me keep perspective. People who celebrated my ascension to the Post-Dispatch knew of my struggles with my magazine. People love a good come-back story.
Still, in troubled economic times, few have tolerance for a "rags" without "riches" tales. And, again, I have a great one. Broke but not broken, dinged but not dead, a humbled "doer" embraces the new found riches of his ever-evolving story.
Sylvester Brown, Jr. is a St. Louis, MO-based writer and founder of When We Dream Together Inc., a nonprofit dedicated to urban revitalization.
1 | 2