The birds aren’t the only thing you’ll hear these days at the local organization We Got This' community garden.
There’s the sound of the jackhammer from construction across the street, as the group builds an expanded gathering center and fruit orchard.
One motto of We Got This is “Putting the Neighbor Back in the Hood.”
It's a non-profit focusing on community building in a predominantly African-American neighborhood. One of its initiatives invites youth to work on its community garden on 9th and Ring.
Now in its fifth summer, the garden has gotten so popular, the group had to put up a fence and establish hours of operation.
Andre Lee Ellis is a playwright and community gardener who started the project. "All of the food in the garden is free, for anybody that wants to come not just for these neighbors," he says. "Our objectives is to teach neighbors how to build gardens right at home where they live.”
"And if people are going to climb the fence to come get this food, then we’re really popular!" he laughs. "And it might happen once or twice."
His work and mentoring initiative for boys ages 12-16 starts the first Saturday after school lets out. This year, that's Saturday June 16, 2018.
He invites youth to clean up the streets and then work in the garden. They start at 8 AM sharp, not a minute later, and at the end of the day, the boys will get a twenty dollar stipend.
The money is supplied by community donations, and Ellis says there's never been a day that each boy didn't get his $20. “Believe you me, it makes a big difference," he says. "Some of our boys walk here. They walk from 76th Street, 68th and McKinley. They walk. And when they get their $20, they walk back home. The difference is they can buy themselves a soda, a water or an ice cream, with money that they worked for.”
What these opportunities bring to the community, says Ellis, is priceless. “Just a neighbor that came to me earlier today and said, ‘Mr. Andre, stop and listen. You hear that? That’s the sound of hammers and nails, not gunshots.’ And I said to her ‘wow, it’s nice to smell of cutting grass over gunpowder.’”
He says that the gardens are a space to escape gun violence and the stresses of city life, and provide another type of positive change. "The healing over here I think includes better eating habits. And I think that is what is contributing to the health disparities that we have. I myself deal with congestive heart failure, diabetes, high blood pressure, but things are better for me, and getting better since I started to garden.”
Teenager Nathaniel Collins’ story is a testament to the fact that We Got This can deliver. He is a regular volunteer in the garden and recent graduate of Washington High School. Gardening with the We Got This group has certainly had an impact on his palette.
He says of the tastiest thing he ever ate from the garden: "it was a jalapeno pepper, and the pickles, the cucumbers I should say, was good as well," he laughs.
He says the program taught him how to grow food, have a good work ethic, and earn money, and connected him with Andre Ellis, a mentor who helped him bring up his GPA. Before that, he says, he’d been skipping class and ditching school. “So I only had a 1.7 [GPA], I believe. After I told Mr. Andre, he had got on me, told me I needed to focus more in school, I need to do better, and then that’s exactly what I did. Next semester I had a 3.7.”
His younger brother Roshaun Collins says he’s learned lessons from the organization as well, which he has been with essentially since it opened four years ago. “It’s changed my thought process. It also helped me with skills like refusing friends who want you to do bad. Mr. Andre taught me that not everybody’s your friend. Sometimes you got to tell them no, no matter what the outcome is."
David Muhammad is with the City Office of Violence Prevention. He says that this type of engagement is what can heal communities. "I could go technical and talk about how the soil and urban gardening and all this is a proven violence prevention strategy, as well as a trauma-reduction strategy. But what I really want to say is that this is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever been able to participate in... because I see Andre’s commitment, and I see the love and the compassion that he treats these young men with.”
Life-long Milwaukee resident Vanessa Britton-Winston, who was visiting the garden, agrees. “I haven’t seen anything like this, where you feel at home, you’re welcome, and it’s like peaceful. It’s like being down at the lakefront, but you’re in the hood.”