Walnut Way Conservation Corp. has been transforming vacant lots, crack dens and abandoned buildings into gardens and orchards since the late 1990s. These gardens serve as violence free zones in Milwaukee's Lindsay Heights neighborhood.
A lot has changed over the years, but there’s still much work to be done.
Last June, 21 year old Raymond Harris, also known as Lil’ Ray, was fatally shot near an orchard managed by Walnut Way.
When Lil’ Ray died, the neighborhood group wanted to show that homicide is not okay in their sacred space. The first step? Bring together all the young men from the neighborhood affected by this tragedy and talk about it.
That's how 21 year old Carlton Dewindt got involved in the Peace Project.
“The night he died, I was supposed to have been there," Dewindt says. "I can name at least three occasions (where) one of my guys ended up shot or killed. But I was never there because I was with my kids.”
Over the course of seven weeks men cried, talked about loss, grieving and their fears. Walnut Way's Peace Project invited guest facilitators - a psychologist, a boxing coach, an elder and an expert in Chinese Medicine - to talk with the men. And at the end of the project, they went on a camping trip designed for war vets with PTSD. Fourteen men completed the program.
"That was new for me - talking, period," Dewindt says. "A lot of the kids in this area don’t have anyone they can talk to... no one to go to for advice."
Terron Edwards of Walnut Way helped facilitate the Peace Project. He says the project made a difference, but not enough of one. Edwards wants men to mentor other men because they care about the community, not because they’re told to care. And, Edwards thinks Dewindt can start that trend.
"(Carlton Dewindt)’s not very old but the guys on the corner listen to him," Edwards says. "And some of them know him personally, so he’s able to build deeper intimate connection with some of the folks we feel we can help."
Walnut Way hired Dewindt as a peace ambassador and trained him to go porch to porch to help interrupt the violence in the neighborhood and steer men toward jobs.
Dewindt can’t wait to start. But first, he had to deal with his past.
Shortly after the Peace Project ended, a police drug raid snared a lot of men from the neighborhood, including Dewindt.
"It’s just kind of catching up with me now. I was done with that part of my life...," he says.
As Dewindt faced two felony counts and years in prison, Edwards and Maanan Sabir, a health programmer at Walnut Way and Peace Project facilitator, coach and dress the young man for his court date. And, Edwards vouches for the changes Dewindt has made to the judge.
Edwards’s show of solidarity does the trick, Dewindt only get a month in prison. Once Dewindt completes his sentence, he says he'll have another shot at working towards neighborhood peace.
If you live anywhere from 12th Street to 27th Street and Walnut Street to North Avenue in Milwaukee, Walnut Way Conservation Corp. has volunteer opportunities available. Visit PreciousLivesProject.org for more information.
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel - Walnut Way's Peace Project aiming to stop violence by changing lives