The Interesting Story Behind We Got This’ Community Garden Program for African American Boys

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Andre Lee Ellis’ We Got This – an expanding community gardening program for central city African American boys – got started with a lie.

In 2011, when Ellis and his wife, Angela, moved to 9th and Ring on Milwaukee’s north side, they immediately immersed themselves in the neighborhood by cleaning up an abandoned garden and hosting community events there.

One day, a neighbor knocked on the Ellis’ door, saying her 11-year-old son had been arrested for breaking into cars and houses. She was terrified. “Don’t worry about it,” Ellis said, “We got this.” He went immediately to the District 5 station and told the liaison officer that if the police would release the boy, Ellis would pay him $5 an hour to be part of his gardening program.

“I’m sitting there making this up — there was no program!” Ellis recalls. “But I’m an actor and can think on my feet.”

The boy showed up that Saturday morning and worked hard; Ellis paid him $20. The following Saturday, the boy brought five friends, who were also hard workers. Ellis quickly called several of his friends to bring enough cash to pay the boys.

Young men continued to show up, and by last summer over 100 boys, typically between 12 and 16, were working at two different plots over 10 weeks. Ellis raises the funds to pay them through Facebook. The boys must show up by 8 a.m. or they are turned away that day. We Got This is formally incorporating so it can seek grants, and it now uses hoop houses to grow food all year long.

“When the media portrays young black men as negative, it scares the rest of the population,” Ellis says. “Come see them in the garden. You’ll be surprised.”

Earth Dad

Andre Lee Ellis says nearly 95% of the boys in We Got This either do not know their dads or have a minimal relationship with them. “I call myself their “Earth Dad” as opposed to their birth dad,” he says. “It’s important for young African American boys to have a man in their lives to help them navigate through it.”

This Story is part of the December issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

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