By Dylan Deprey
There is a well-known African proverb that says, “It takes a village to raise a child.”
Vaun Mayes and the Program the Parks initiative began by simply protecting a park that he had known his entire life. From putting his life on the line and breaking up mass fights in Sherman Park, to creating cultural recreational activities for the youth that call the neighborhood home, Mayes has taken the proverb and ran with it harder than ever before.
Whether it’s being a voice for the voiceless in police accountability cases, or a mentor and provider for the youth in Sherman Park, Mayes has worked with what he had along with building a network of advocates and providing maximum efforts with only community funding and donations.
As Program the Parks nears its second-year, Mayes has worked to find a spot outside of the park where the youth can expand their skills, learn about their own culture, air their grievances and simply enjoy life.
On Sept. 12, 2017, Mayes opened the doors to the community to visit the newest edition of Program the Parks and its It Takes a Village Community Empowerment and Solution Center at 606 W. Concordia Ave.
Following the Sherman Park uprising in Aug. 2016, and curfew set for the youth by former Sheriff Clarke that followed, Mayes said a lot of the youth stopped coming to the park. The gap in programming lead some youth to slip through the cracks back into what they were doing before.
“They need consistent and constant connection to us, so we can keep up with them in their personal life and keep them on the path that a lot of them unfortunately need a person to hold their hand per se until they figure it out themselves,” Mayes said.
As the previous location for Program the Parks winter programming had structural issues, Mayes had reached out to the community for a new space to create opportunities for the youth to flourish. He would later be contacted by someone from his past.
Mayes said that as a youth, he was kicked out of MPS and went to the Milwaukee Excel Program. Pastor Rodney Campbell of Crossing Jordan Ministries, was a security guard for the program and had known Mayes well having frequently butted heads with him.
After seeing the work Mayes had been doing in Sherman Park and the community, Campbell offered two vacant classrooms on the third floor above his church on 6th and Concordia.
Class is in Session
Over the past week, Mayes and Gab Taylor, Program the Parks co-founder, have gotten down to business constructing, painting and preparing to open the doors for their new youth programming center.
“We’ve been coming here almost every day doing stuff, in between meetings and everything just getting it ready,” Taylor said.
In the Cultural Community Library and media room, the fresh coat of green, red and black paint bordering the rooms represents the colors of the Pan-African flag. Along the wall were books ranging from Dr. Seuss to Sesame Street, but also an area where Black literature and research text was meant to be heavily used.
“For the youth who take advantage of this area will get incentives,” Mayes said. “Kids have to keep their grades up, show their progress reports, stay out of trouble and no fights, especially at the facilities.”
Across the room sat the incentives, as there was a closet converted into a recording studio, where youth will have free studio time and hands on lessons on creating, and marketing music.
Next to the booth sat three brand new printing presses ready to print t-shirts. Mayes said the green wall above the printing presses would be used as a storefront for the youth to print their own designs and sell them to the public. Sitting Kidde corner to the presses was a table riddled with hair products ready for local barbers and beauticians to do the youths hair, as well as teach those interested in the field.
“We’re helping them learn a different set of skills, but it’s also about them finding out what they’re interested in and going with that because a lot them don’t think about a job or turning anything into a career,” Mayes said. “The focus of this is to empower them, because once you teach a person how to fish, you don’t have to give them anymore fish and that should be the point of what you’re doing, so they can sustain themselves.”
Though education and self-reflection are the focuses in the main classroom, the sounds of basketballs and foosballs chimed from the game room right next door. From board games and video games, to air hockey and pop-a-shot basketball, the game room is an escape for the youth to enjoy themselves.
The windows to the game room showcased a flat open rooftop where Mayes plans to build raised garden beds, along with possibly installing solar panels to cut on costs.
Mayes opened the doors to other community advocates and activists to check it out, and Sherwin Hughes, WNOV radio host, stopped through to check it out. Hughes has been a huge financial supporter for Program the Parks.
“Vaun has demonstrated his commitment to the community and the youth, and it’s easy to prove to us,” Hughes said. “I believe in him and I believe in the work he does, and instead of looking for other sources, I think the community should be a source of revenue when it comes to our youth and our children.”
As Program the Parks has made a jump from its roots in Sherman Park and into a new neighborhood, Mayes said he hoped to unite youth from across Milwaukee through programing. He strives to rebuild the black community by giving youth hope and a space to
“We are doing what is known as communal housing, but in program form,” Mayes said. “So, we can have all these different programs in one space in that way we can funnel our youth into all these different services, that’s not just us but people that we think are dope.”