By Karen Stokes
On the corner of 9th and Ring Streets, residents are adjusting to some positive changes in their neighborhood.
Instead of looking at a vacant lot, they can see fresh, green vegetables growing in the community garden where neighbors meet and can grow their own produce.
Instead of trash in the streets, groups of young men are hard at work, keeping the area’s streets clean on Saturday mornings.
The Borchert Field neighborhood is cleaner and the neighbors are getting more involved.
Community activist, Andre Lee Ellis started the grassroots initiative “We Got This” last summer on that same corner.
Ellis moved to the neighborhood in 2011 and rallied the neighbors to find solutions to crime.
When Jermaine, a 12- year-old boy who was in trouble with the law for breaking into garages and stealing, his mother turned to her neighbor, Ellis, for help. Ellis put Jermaine to work.
The first week it was just Jermaine, but soon after there were 10 boys, then 40, then nearly 100 boys came to the corner of 9th and Ring each Saturday morning to clean the neighborhood from 8 a.m. until noon, each receiving $20 for their efforts. Supporters who discovered the program through Facebook or word of mouth paid the boys with their own money.
“This is a new time. We’re almost coming up to our one-year anniversary of “We Got This,” Ellis said. “Many of the boys who worked with us last year have jobs, some are in college. A lot of them changed the way they were living. These boys are dreaming again, their conversations are different.”
To Ellis, it’s not only the children he works with who stand to gain something from his initiative.
“I would like for people to see the importance of cleaning up, eating healthier and the importance of taking care of one another, believing in yourself and believing you are part of the world,” Ellis said.
“We have to stop letting statistics take over our future.”
In addition, he’d like to see Milwaukee become a place where families want to bring up their children.
“We are no longer accepting that this is a poor place or the worst place to raise a black child,” Ellis said. “This will be the best place to live in the city.”
Ellis was referring to the 2014 Annie E. Casey Foundation report ranking Wisconsin as the worst place to raise Black children. The report measured children’s opportunities in 12 areas including education, home life and financial security.
Wisconsin ranked 50th out of the 50 states for Black children, 37th for Asian children, 17th for Latino children and 10th for white children.
“This year there’s going to be some changes to the curriculum of “We Got This”. The time with the boys will be constructive time. We had some down time waiting around last year,” Ellis stated. “We are also adding financial literacy to the program. We are working with a local bank, and the boys will be able to open bank accounts.”
“We Got This” will be partnering with the UWM basketball team.
Together, they will be doing community service every Saturday.
Also involved this summer are Public Allies, a service network that supports community projects, Elmbrook Church, Pastor Rodney Campbell from Crossing Jordan Ministries and Pastor Claude Grant of Perfecting Holiness Evangelistic Ministries International.
“A lot of people are coming forward to help,” said Ellis.
The “We Got This” initiative got a lift with a billboard, sponsored by the efforts of Senator Lena Taylor. “From boys in the hood to gentlemen on the town” is the message on the board.
On the top is a photo of the boys in their t-shirts and jeans; on the bottom, another of them dressed up in tuxedos for dinner at Carson’s Prime Steak and Famous Barbeque.
“The billboard was a positive opportunity to put a message in the air,” Ellis said. “Our blessings are from above.
We have to reach out and get them. The billboard gave the young men a reason to look up.”
The boys featured on the billboard were thrilled to see their picture around the city.
“I feel great that a lot of people can see us on the billboard and all that we did,” said Dinarious Reed 12.
Javonta Rowster 13, said, “It feels great. People can see we have made it, that we care about our community. My mom is proud of me.”
‘We Got This’ has built a bond between Ellis, the boys and neighbors.
Ellis talks to the boys about honesty, speech, and subjects to help them grow as men.
Jaylen White, 15, Donte Edwards, 13, and Carell Taylor, 13 are just a few of the boys that Ellis mentors.
One example of their bond took place this past winter, Ellis had a medical issue and couldn’t shovel his walkway after a snowstorm.
When he looked out of his window, a group of the boys had already shoveled the snow for him.
The boys told him, ”You need to take it easy, Mr. Andre, We got you.”
“Dre has been like a community pops to me,” said Khalil Coleman 28, founder of Changing Lives Through Literature and a mentor and friend of Ellis. “I was showing up as a mentor for these young boys but it was healing for me too.”
Ellis’ “brothers” are community leaders, clergy, business owners and friends from all over Milwaukee.
They mentor the boys and participate in morning prayer.
When facilitating the outing to Carson’s restaurant it only took Ellis a few days to recruit 50 men to volunteer to mentor, to teach the boys dining etiquette, and to acquire tuxedos for the boys.
A component of ‘We Got This’ is exposing the boys to experiences outside their everyday lives.
They attended a Brewers game, went to see President Obama speaking at North Division last fall and accompanied Ellis to receive an award at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
The boys had never been to a college before.
“The program is about little Black boys knowing they are going to grow up to be great Black men. Black men mainly supported this program,” said Ellis.
“We can do a lot of justice with just us.”