Project Milwaukee
6:00 am
Fri May 16, 2014

Milwaukee Urban Farmer Hopes to Train Ex-Convicts Build Entrepreneurial Skills

Venice Williams hopes to set up urban farm on this city parcel.

The impact of Wisconsin’s high rate of incarcerated black men ripples through families and neighborhoods. We meet a woman determined to contribute to a solution through urban farms.

Venice Williams began puzzling out a plan a couple of years ago. The catalyst was a man, looking for work at the two acre community farm she manages in Milwaukee’s central city,

“It was two seasons ago when I was in Alice’s Garden gardening and a man came in and asked if he could do some work for me," Williams says. "And I said yes but I don’t have any money with me because I don’t carry money when I’m in the garden."

Instead, she offered the man payment in the form of freshly harvested vegetables. Williams says she’ll never forget the man’s response – or the expression on his face.

“'I mean no offense, but I can’t take tomatoes home. I just got out of jail, I’ve got a girl, we have two kids and I can’t walk through the door with some tomatoes.' I was crushed because I didn’t have anything tangible to offer him and he was crushed because again he felt a rejection,” Williams says.

Williams resolve to do something has deeper, more personal roots – relatives in her hometown Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

“I have cousins and uncles who are in and out of the prison industrial complex and who are held captive in many ways," Williams says. "And I think a lot of us feel overwhelmed and helpless in what we can do and so for me it’s very important that I just to start with what I am able to do and to begin with three to five men."

An initial infusion from a Lutheran food justice and education fund will help Williams. She'll model the new program off her successful initiative at Alice’s Garden, called the Farmers Training Project. It blends the basics of how to grow with the skills needed to succeed as an entrepreneur.

“It would be a paid training, so already we’re investing in their training and really hoping to spark and interest in specific herbs or vegetables," Williams says. "And if you could imagine your own food product or your own product on the market, what could that look like. And so what it means to not just plant seeds, but to plant hope and to plant an investment in your own future is key to this project."

Williams’ short-term plan is to work with the HOME GR/OWN Milwaukee initiative to purchase vacant city land at the corner of 27th and Brown.

The area is home to many black men who’ve served time.

Right now, the only thing growing in the lot is scrubby grass, along with a few dandelions amid a smattering of trash. Williams sees herbs and vegetables with a greenhouse tucked between.

“Our plan has been to start here on the southwest corner this growing season and then to add the southeast corner for the 2015 growing season,” Williams says.

Williams says Project RETURN will be a key partner. It is a local faith-based group that helps shepherd formerly incarcerated men back into the community.

“So we feel like the minute we can begin to turn over soil and literally get this project moving, once we get more official approval from our new alderperson,” Williams says.

Williams says she’s given newly elected Alderman Russell W. Stamper, II a little time to settle in. “But we won’t give him much time, he should be expecting a call very soon to set up a meeting,” Williams says.

She dreams of duplicating the model in every aldermanic district of the city.

“We have a lot of vacant lots and it’s a great marriage to be able to transform as many lots as we can into something more viable and hopeful within the City of Milwaukee,” Williams says.

Williams admits to the occasional temptation of just continuing to tend Alice’s Garden. “But then, how could I sleep at night, because I promise you, within the next few weeks another man will be at the gate, asking me for work. It is a weekly occurrence if not four or five times a week,” Williams says.