Ed Pratt Mug _lowres

Ed Pratt

It has been quite a learning experience for me and the 11th-graders I have been meeting with once a week over the past several months. I wrote about them several weeks ago. We have since taken a seed of an idea that now looks like it might bear fruit.

These juniors at McKinley High School think they can help bring a grocery store, or something like it, near their campus in the heart of Old South Baton Rouge. Or, like we natives call it, “The Bottom.”

When the idea was offered, I told them that this would be something that they could start but would have to hand off to several succeeding classes before the goal would be reached. The students are aware that their goal to bring fresh vegetables, fruit, meat and a pharmacy to the community near the school could fail. But that doesn’t register on their faces or seem to dampen their enthusiasm.

Their instructors, Malcolm Reed and Anna West, didn’t blink and signed off on the idea immediately. Reed and my son were friends when both were students at McKinley. Reed and West are doing everything they can to help with the project.

Baton Rouge Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome has become aware of the students, too. Geno McLaughlin, with the East Baton Rouge Parish Redevelopment Authority, has come by to provide more ideas for the students.

Veneeth Iyengar, the mayor’s assistant chief administrative officer in charge of economic development, along with Matthew Johnson, who works with the city on researching adjudicated properties and clearing titles, also talked to the students.

They talked about the miles of groundwork that will need to be done before this project can take shape. 

They laughed at me when I suggested we get on Facebook to present what we were doing. “Who does Facebook?,” they asked. I told the smarty pants that the people who could help them — many of them older people — still use Facebook. They laughed but accepted the idea.

The students know that to advance the project, dilapidated houses will need to be razed, vacant lots should be repopulated, and crime has to drop. They know they will have to win over the community to convince it that a real grocery store, with fresh fruit and vegetables, and with a prescription counter, should be in the neighborhood.

But after talking with McLaughlin, the students are aware that the best way to move forward is to ask the residents what they want in their neighborhood. Maybe the store isn’t the thing. But the students believe it is a crying need.

A community-operated market is a consideration as well.

With an idea hatched by McLaughlin, the students have set their sights on a two-story public school building that may be empty in a year or two that sits in the middle of the Bottom. Putting a community day care center in part of the building was suggested, along with other ideas.

The students believe that whatever store comes in, there should be a conversation with some of the community’s longtime corner stores on how they can fit into the change. Maybe they could sell items that the larger store won’t have.

They want to talk to the East Baton Rouge Parish Housing Authority about the possibility of zeroing in on areas where it can build affordable family housing. They want many older houses renovated because they know blight contributes to the death of a community.

Maybe the stores could spawn other businesses and result in jobs in the community. “People with jobs will be the ones going to the store,” one student said.

There are more public officials they want to talk with. They want to find a way to canvass the neighborhood. McLaughlin said he will come up with a way to help them.

Listening to these students and watching them as they were schooled by the representatives from the mayor’s office, I reflected on conversations I’ve had in recent years about the negative direction of some of our children. These young people, though, encourage me each time I meet with them.

They are committed and have a long way to go. If they were on a football field, they would be on offense and at their own 5-yard line with 95 yards to make a touchdown. I like their chances.

But the reality is, and they know it, that sometimes the great teams don’t always score a touchdown to win the game. But they know that you have no hope of winning unless you try.

Their effort, though, brings me to a quote by, of all people, Lady Bird Johnson: “Children are likely to live up to what you believe of them.”

I believe in these students. You ought to also.

Email Edward Pratt, a former newspaperman who writes a weekly Advocate column, at epratt1972@yahoo.com.