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On a cold morning, Gangstas to Growers arrives riding in the back of a borrowed Ford Ranger. Frost shimmers on purple cabbages at the Collegetown Farm in Atlanta. After spending half the day in the fields, the group of formerly incarcerated teens assembles for classes on cooking, entrepreneurship, yoga, or boxing. The profit-making arm is making and bottling Sweet Sol hot sauce. “We are trying to do real-life things that will change the trajectory of our neighborhoods,” says Abbey Henderson, who founded the program. Derriontae Trent just got out of an 18-month prison term for drug and weapons charges. He says four of his friends have died in gang warfare since October. Gangstas to Growers has given him not just a practical boost – he gets paid $15 an hour – but a philosophical one. He jokes that his past drug dealing doesn’t count as sales experience “because there’s no selling involved when everybody wants what you got.” But his first sale of hot sauce “was the most incredible feeling that I’d ever had.” Nearby, Babatunde Jordan, a neighborhood elder, watches from a turnip bed. “Each plant is different just like each young person is different,” says Baba, as everyone knows him. “You have to put your hands on each one of them to help them achieve their potential.”
As soon as the backpack appeared, Abiodun “Abbey” Henderson knew she had a problem.
In a room of formerly incarcerated youth at the Shrine of the Black Madonna Cultural Center, the first day of a pioneering criminal justice reform program called Gangstas to Growers had been marked not with greetings but aggression.
As the tension rose, cellphones lit up. Suddenly other people, possibly gang members, arrived. A turf battle had come to the church basement. And Ms. Henderson – the 30-something former waitress responsible for bringing the group together – knew from experience that a backpack suddenly swinging from the back to the front suggested the potential presence of a firearm.
“It could have all started off very badly,” says Henderson, who founded the nonprofit for 18- to 24-year-olds in 2016.
Instead of panicking, Henderson addressed the largely teenage group directly and sternly. Shoulders relaxed at her tone. The uninvited visitors left.
Then the newly-anointed group of “gangsta growers” got down to some yoga.
“The thing is, nobody ever talks to these guys,” says Henderson. “Their life is getting yelled at. So when you do talk to them, it is disarming.”
In its second season, Gangstas to Growers is an offshoot of a summer farm camp that Henderson ran on Atlanta’s Westside – transformed into a small, struggling, but working nonprofit through an Innovation Lab fellowship aimed at solving America’s thorniest problems at the street level.
Even as Atlanta’s economy soars, black residents remain five times as likely as white residents to be jailed before they are in their 20s. In a city that pioneered affirmative-action policies that boosted black workers and entrepreneurs, the black unemployment rate remains more than twice that of the citywide average of 4 percent.
But the city is exploring the power of small-scale agriculture to shift such stubborn dynamics. Four years ago, the city of Atlanta hired its first agriculture director. The city now counts 11 urban farms, 49 orchards, and 189 communal gardens. It also created several “food forests,” where residents are free to gather nuts, berries, and mushrooms.
Pioneers include farms like Gilliam's Community Gardens where “Farmer P” Gilliam employs Gangstas to Growers every week to keep the operation running.
Roosters holler and goats nibble on grass as Gangstas to Growers dig a ditch to beats blaring from a muddy speaker. In just a few years, Mr. Gilliam, who counts Cherokee farmers and Mississippi sharecroppers among his ancestors, has taken a plot in a rough neighborhood and built it into a working farm. He is building an outdoor test kitchen for seminars and events.
He acknowledges that agriculture, given the slave legacy, has a negative connotation for many African-Americans. But he sees it differently: as a return to ancestral skills – a way to turn the history of a Southern plantation state into power for his people.
“Most of these guys aren’t going to be farmers, but entrepreneurs,” says Gilliam. “But what they are learning is that there is real money in ag.”
As the trainees independently figure out the correct depth and pitch of the drainage ditch, Gilliam shouts his appreciation. “You’re real farmers now!”
Like Gilliam, Henderson talks about the deep pull of agriculture on black culture and history. The daughter of a Black Panther dad and a Liberian mom, she has witnessed the institutional racism she and many say still infiltrates American life. Having gone through a foreclosure, she understands the power of gentrification to marginalize – and even dissolve – entire neighborhoods. Her own Westside neighborhood experienced a 50 percent foreclosure rate at the height of the Great Recession, which opened the door to house flippers, skyrocketing property values.
But her project intends to use aspects of gentrification – including the farm-to-table craze – as empowerment.
“We start with food and then it’s small steps from there,” she says.
Since the 1970s, she says, African-American families have been torn away from the daily rituals and recipes that provided a common sense of culture. Those were replaced by “the convenience store food that these kids all grew up on.”
After spending half the day in the fields, the group assembles for classes on vegan cooking, entrepreneurship strategies, yoga, and, occasionally, boxing. The profit-making arm is making and bottling Sweet Sol, a lavender-tinged hot sauce of Henderson’s creation that goes for $12 a bottle. Weekends are spent at farmers’ markets, hawking the sauce.
Henderson has plans to expand the program to 400 trainees by 2025. For now, the organization struggles to fund operations. A $10,000 emergency grant from a local charity was quickly used. The city of Atlanta has stepped in to pay the hourly wages through its WorkSource program.
Cicely Garrett, the city’s deputy chief resilience officer, has vowed to provide the program enough resources and funding to grow by 25 percent for at least the next three years: “If [trainees] don’t end up being growers, the skills they learn, you can’t take them away,” she told Politico Magazine.
“We are trying to do real-life things that will change the trajectory of our neighborhoods,” says Henderson. “And we are doing it with love, knowledge, and money. It’s hard, but we’re not going to quit.”
On a cold December morning, the collective arrives riding in the back of a borrowed and banged-up white Ford Ranger. Frost shimmers on purple cabbages in raised beds at the Collegetown Farm, in the shadow of Morehouse College.
Henderson, who has the time-worn patience of a den mother, leads the crew from spreading mulch to pouring bags of rotting vegetables onto a compost mound. There are howls of protest at the reek.
Derriontae Trent – a lanky dad of three – leads the way.
Mr. Trent says he was a chief antagonist of the first-day standoff at Black Madonna. He just got out of of an 18-month prison term for drug and weapons charges. He figures he attended about a third of middle school. He says his dad is serving a 99-year prison term. His grandfather – “my rock” – died when he was 8. “I turned inward from then,” he says. He says four of his friends have died in gang warfare since the program started in October.
Trent, who has been shot and stabbed, still returns to Mechanicsville, the Southside neighborhood known to police as the city’s gangster college. He says Gangstas to Growers has given him not just a practical boost – he gets paid $15 an hour – but a philosophical one.
He jokes that his past drug dealing doesn’t count as sales experience “because there’s no selling involved when everybody wants what you got.”
But his first sale of hot sauce “was the most incredible feeling that I’d ever had.” He is now a top sauce slinger.
“When I go back to my neighborhood, I go in circles,” says Trent, tracing circles with his finger. “Farming has put me on a straight line.”
After the shift at the Collegetown Farm is done, Amakiasu Howze, a local elder, walks over to thank the crew. She is met by smiles and handshakes.
According to trainee Erica Johnson, a teenage mom coming off a stint in jail, it isn’t just the work opportunity, but what happens out of the field – the organization testifying on their behalf in front of judges and, when needed, locating mental health providers. It all adds up to a single message, says Ms. Johnson: “They believe in us.”
“They need guidance and protection, that is our role as elders,” says Ms. Howze, a principal at Collegetown Farm. “Gangstas to Growers is still in a fledgling state and there’s another plateau that has to be reached. But you can see on their faces.... You can see them thinking, ‘This is good for me.’ ”
Another neighborhood elder, Babatunde Jordan, watches from a turnip bed. The rhythms of farming “have healing powers,” at least for him. And the metamorphosis of seed to plant is cause for anticipation each morning.
“Each plant is different just like each young person is different,” says Baba, as everyone knows him. “You have to put your hands on each one of them to help them achieve their potential.”