People living in Milwaukee’s 53206 zip code face tough problems, but on Saturdays, things are different.
Thousands of the men from this zip code are in prison or have records. Jobs are scarce; poverty, almost universal. Some people sell drugs or their bodies to make money.
However, on Saturdays in the Borchert Field neighborhood, neighbors have started coming together to lift up the young people - thanks to Andre Ellis. He's a local playwright, a community gardener and the man behind the "We Got This" mentoring program.
At 7:30 last Saturday morning, 50 or so boys gathered at a community garden on 9th and Ring. They’re actually a half-hour early.
“Eight o’clock is late. At eight o’clock, I cut it off because I gotta make sure I pay the commitment number one,” Ellis says as he watches the clock.
For the past 10 Saturdays, Ellis has come to this spot. He offers $20 to any boy between the ages of 12 and 17, who will clean their neighborhood.
“About 10 weeks ago, the police had arrested an 11 year old boy here on the block at 9th and Ring and the mother came to me and said they got Jermaine and I said for what," Ellis says. "She said for breaking into garages and things. They done arrested Jermaine, he gone have a record and be a felon."
Ellis talked with police and got Jermaine released. Afterward, Ellis decided to give the 11-year-old $20, if he would spend a Saturday morning cleaning up where he messed up.
“He was working so hard, and when we finished working he looked at me and said Mr. Andre, can I tell you something? I said yeah," Ellis says. "He said I’m not bad, they made me this way. I said what do you mean Jermaine? He said all of the people telling me not to do bad only do bad things so I don’t know what to do. I said you need to be around people who do good stuff, like me."
The following week, Jermaine showed up with about five friends. Ellis put out a call on Facebook for money, and people donated enough to pay the friends $20 each for their Saturday morning work.
And the community continues responding, Ellis has collected enough to reward the 50 young workers who’ve showed up this weekend. No rich donors—just people who want to see young black men do better. People like Kwabena Nixon. He came not only to give a donation, but also, to inspire the boys.
“It’s a lot of people who talk about how bad you are but it’s not a lot of people who gone help you get out that bad situation. Am I right? Talk back to me. Am I right?” Nixon says.
Young Men: “Yeah.”
“It’s a lot of people gone tell you the hood is no good, you can’t make it over here," Nixon says. "It’s a lot of people gone tell you that if you didn’t have a father in your life, your mothers on drugs, you live in a rough neighborhood that you’re gone die young. How many of ya’ll know that’s not true? Clap your hands. Make some noise for me, should be so much louder."
Nixon tells the young men that where they start does not determine where they finish. It’s a message 14-year-old Samuel Johnson takes to heart. He says he knows what some people think when they see him.
“They see oh that’s a little boy, he out here running the streets smoking, selling drugs and stuff. Just making bad decisions and stuff and that’s not the case,” Johnson says.
Johnson says the boys who meet at the garden on Saturday mornings wants to make their neighborhoods nicer.
“It make(s) our community look better, it make us all look better as a whole because when you look at us, we’ll be clean but when you look at our community it’ll be all dirty. But then if it’s clean, then that makes us look better,” Johnson says.
And Johnson says he feels the cleanups are making a difference, especially for the people who live there.
“To me, I haven’t heard that many gun shots at night or I haven’t seen that many people getting robbed. I think everybody is starting to come together as a whole,” Johnson says.
Once summer ends, Andre Ellis says the men plan to head into classrooms to connect with boys. He says they won’t get paid for learning, but will get something much better, a chance to succeed in life. He hopes these Saturday mornings, are just the start of change.
“Now listen up, you tired of violence, say yeah. You tired of your people going to jail, say yeah. You tired of your friends dying in the street, say yeah," Ellis says. "Repeat after me. Say I am great. I am mighty. I am awesome. I am magnificent…”