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A reporter shares lessons from a Milwaukee garden trying to save at-risk boys

Topics in Health: Lessons From The Field

A reporter shares lessons from a Milwaukee garden trying to save at-risk boys

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(Photo by Angela Peterson/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)

My parents moved from Mississippi to the Midwest during the Great Migration north for a better life. Like many African-Americans, they were looking for employment and an opportunity to live the American Dream.

Their journey would lead them to an upper duplex in the heart of Milwaukee’s central city on North 9th Street and West Keefe Avenue. The area is Milwaukee’s 53206 ZIP code.

When my parents and I lived in 53206 during the early 1970s, Milwaukee was considered one of the best places in the nation for African-Americans. The city of Milwaukee was an economic power, attracting workers from the South. The nation was at its post-World War II industrial peak. More than 85 percent of black men between 25 and 54 in the Milwaukee metro area had jobs, with four in 10 black adults working in manufacturing — the highest percentage in the nation, according to a 2007 University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee study.

My father was a welder at Safeway Production & Steel, and he used that employment along with my mother’s work at Koss Corp. to purchase their first home in 1977, a duplex in the Lincoln Creek neighborhood.

The strong manufacturing base gave black and white families upward mobility to become homeowners, purchase new cars, and raise their families. African-American families were more intact because the black marriage rate was at its highest.

Just one year after my parents purchased their first home the manufacturing jobs disappeared, and other businesses suffered. Hospitality and retail outlets depend on factory workers for customers. When those workers lost their jobs, they bought less. Those employers, in turn, hired fewer people at lower wages — or went out of business.

When the economy faltered and thousands of jobs disappeared, the illegal drug trade and street gangs moved in. In 50 years, Milwaukee went from one of the best places for African-Americans to live to one of the worst.

In my 2018 National Fellowship project, “Cultivating a Community,” I took a look at what happened to my old neighborhood of 53206 by zeroing in on how young people are impacted by trauma.

Trauma is a hot issue right now. Politicians are talking about it and journalists are writing about it. I wanted to zero in on a small community garden on the corner of North 9th and West Ring streets — two blocks from where I grew up.

The 53206 ZIP code has one of the highest incarceration rates for black men in the nation — and one of the shortest life expectancy rates. Andre Lee Ellis, a 58-year-old black man who moved into a duplex in 53206 in 2011, is fighting to change the negative statistics in the ZIP code one block at a time.

He started a garden-mentoring program five years ago called “We Got This.” The program is aimed at boys, ages 12 to 17. The boys mostly come from 53206, but it is not restricted to them. They arrive each Saturday to work in the garden and pick up trash in the neighborhood. At the end, they collect a $20 bill for their efforts. Along the way, they receive support and guidance from adult mentors, many of who grew up in the neighborhood.

His goal every year is not to lose any of the 60 to 80 boys who attend the program every week to the streets. He solicits his funding for the program through social media.

Ellis has been called a godsend for the area. He is involved in more than just the garden. He checks in on kids all the time. He goes to their schools to see how they are doing. He attends graduations, and sometimes, funerals. And he assists the boys’ families when they are in need.

His program started out of a need. He was at home one day when a mother knocked on his door seeking help for her 11-year-old son, who had been arrested for stealing cars. The boy, Jermaine, had not seen his father in years. Ellis went to the police station and told the captain that he was starting a program for young people and Jermaine would be a participant.

Ellis told the captain off the top of his head that the program was called “We Got This.”

Jermaine was released from custody, and Ellis told the boy that he better not let him down. Ellis told Jermaine the program would start at 8 a.m. the following Saturday and that he better not be late. Jermaine showed up 45 minutes early and worked hard. He talked to Ellis, sharing his story.

Ellis paid Jermaine after four hours of work. The following week, Jermaine showed up with more boys, and Ellis put them to work.

Ellis started to learn about the boys and hear their stories. He also heard a constant theme: trauma.

Most of the boys had experienced violence or seen it. Most of the boys knew someone incarcerated; they all knew someone who sold or used drugs. Most had no relationship with their fathers and all came from a single parent household.

Poverty was also a common thread. Of the 29,000 residents who call the 53206 ZIP home, 45 percent live below the poverty line, which is $25,100 for a family of four. Only 36 percent of working age males are employed.

For 10 weeks every year, Ellis’ program attempts to address some of the issues that the boys face by connecting them with programs and supplying them with mentors.

While working on the garden project I learned about residents of the community. I talked with June Thomas, who was born and raised in 53206. At 48 years old, Thomas has been exposed to lots of trauma, from seeing people shot and stabbed, to losing one of his best friends to violence last summer. He volunteers in the garden to help kids and it’s also an opportunity for him to heal.

I kept a personal journal of what I learned and used that to tell the story of 53206 through my eyes. I told the story of “Lil Obama,” a young man who said the program saved him. Now he has political aspirations when he grows up. I also shared the story of a couple addressing youth and adult trauma through writing, poetry and exercises.

Lastly, I shared the story of incoming Sheriff Earnell Lucas, who came to the garden one day to support Ellis. He ended up sharing his story of overcoming trauma with the youth. He was shot in the face as a police officer after only being on the force for two years. He talked about how just seeing a gun on TV or hearing gunshots during a film would set off triggers. When he went back to work four months later, he received no treatment. He said that would not happen today.

I told my stories through photos, graphics, videos and of course stories. But when you work on a project that is this big and detailed, especially when you are writing about children and a vulnerable population, there are things that you should know:

  • Understand that you may not be trusted at first. Don’t get defensive. Listen to them and find out what their concerns are. Why do they feel that way? Did a reporter burn them in the past? If so, explain that you are not that person.
  • Don’t be afraid to read back sensitive parts of a story to your subject. This may not be popular with some journalists, but I think it goes a long way to being accurate and earning trust.
  • Don’t pull out your notebook right away. Observe. Try to understand and become educated.
  • Be visible. Don’t just show up two or three times and believe you got it. You must be seen by people in the community. The worst thing you can do is be a disappearing reporter. You miss too much by zooming in and out. I went to two funerals this summer connected to the garden.
  • A great way to get a person you are writing about to open up is to find common ground. Maybe you both like to cook? Read? Maybe you connect on sports? A movie? If you can get them to see you as more than a reporter, it helps.
  • Don’t be afraid to show your emotions. We are human and not recorders. They need to know that we care.
  • Even when you think you have a story complete, keep asking questions. For example, Ellis told me that the idea for the garden started when a young man was shot in the street a week after he moved into the neighborhood in 2011. June Thomas, who volunteers in the garden and is good friends with Ellis told me that his relative was gunned down in the neighborhood in 2012 or 2013. I checked clips and could not find anything for his relative’s name in 2012 or 2013, but I did find that name in 2011. Turns out the person Ellis saw gunned down was Thomas’ nephew, and it was in 2011.
  • When you tell stories about poverty and you go over the story with the family, it doesn’t guarantee that they still won’t be hurt after the story runs. That happened with me. When I told the story of Lil Obama, his mother called me upset because I mentioned that they had experienced bouts of “homelessness.” She felt that just because they were not technically living on the street the family was not homeless. I had to explain to her that when her landlord had her evicted and she was living in one place and her two children were living in two other places that it is considered homeless. She didn’t like it, but sometimes there is nothing you can do.
  • Sometimes you need to protect people from themselves. When a young man was sharing a story about how he saw his cousin shot and the shooters were still at large, I did not use his name in the paper. Why would I put him in danger?
  • Lastly, remember just because someone checks all the boxes for a narrative, it doesn’t mean that they are the best person to highlight for a story. Sometimes a person has so many issues that it makes it hard to tell their story. Keep looking and talking to people to help tell a complete story.



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