I returned to the 53206 neighborhood — and saw some boys turn into men

Editor's note: Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter James E. Causey kept a weekly journal during the summer of 2018, while he was reporting about the "We Got This" summer garden program in one of the city's most troubled neighborhoods. Here are some excerpts from the journal.

June 16, 2018

My first Saturday at the community garden felt familiar. I grew up in the 53206 ZIP code, two blocks from where the garden is located on North. 9th and West Ring streets. 

The garden sits across the street from LaFollette School. It was the first school I attended. I left by second grade, after I got into a fight when a kid tried to take my briefcase. (Yeah, my mother sent me to second grade with a briefcase).

My old duplex on North 9th Street and West Keefe Avenue is gone, replaced by a vacant lot.

Although we moved from the area in 1977, my memories are still clear. I remember a man nicknamed “Crazy Jim.” He taught me how to play checkers and chess in the alley, as my father worked on neighbors' cars for extra income. 

Many of my relatives lived just blocks away from us. They were products of the Great Migration, arriving in Milwaukee from Mississippi.

My Aunt Doreatha Gilmore and my Uncle Barney Gilmore lived two houses down from us. My other cousins lived up the hill on 10th and Keefe. At the time, the neighborhood was about family. We all knew one another and looked out for each other.

When I arrived at the garden, I saw Andre Lee Ellis hurriedly moving about, getting things ready. He got down on his knees and prayed. He also sang a few spirituals.

Ellis said he knows I’m there to do a story, but he told me he really wants me to be involved with the kids, because they need to see what success looks like.

When we get back from a neighborhood cleanup, Ellis tells the boys to find a spot with their adult mentors and talk about the violence that exists in their neighborhood.

The word trauma is not mentioned, but I know that it will be a big part of today’s session.

The 10 boys in my group talked about being robbed. Having guns pulled on them. Witnessing shootings and stabbings. All 10 knew of someone who was close to them who had either been beaten, stabbed, shot or killed.

Every group had similar responses.


June 23, 2018

More parents dropped their children off to the garden this week because Ellis stressed to the boys that he wanted to meet their parents or guardians.

Travis Green, 53, dropped off his sons, Tyshawn and Anthony, both 15. They were both quiet. 

Green told Ellis that his boys were good kids, but needed to hear positive words from other black men. He said he dropped his boys off because they told him about the program and when he researched it, he got excited.

Green was on his way to his second job.

When Green was growing up, there were more things for kids to do and there were more summer jobs, so young people could keep change in their pockets.

Ellis assured Green that the boys were going to work hard. 

Green, who works in maintenance at Mitchell International Airport, said although he’s not Tyshawn’s biological father, he’s raised him since he was 3.

“I raised them to be good men to the best of my ability, but our boys need to hear it from other members of the community, too,” he said. “I’m glad that they’re here.”

In a group session with volunteer June Thomas, 48, who lives in the neighborhood, discussion turned to how the boys should interact with police if they are ever stopped — better known in black families as “The Talk.”

I know "The Talk" well. My father gave it to me when I was in 7th grade.

He told me that if I were ever stopped by the police, to keep my hands visible and not make any sudden movements. He also warned me about my tone.

I didn’t know how important that talk was until years later, when I was stopped by the police for the first time at the age of 19. The officer pulled me over for a faulty taillight.

That lead to 30 minutes of questions as he ran my license and my name.

“Is this your car?”

“Do you have a job?”

“Where do you work?”

“Where are you coming from?”

I didn’t get a ticket or a warning that night, because I had received The Talk.

However, I would go on to get stopped by police at least a dozen other times.

It was good to hear Thomas giving the boys the same talk my father gave me, although many of the boys have already had multiple interactions with the police.

Jahiem Greer, 13, (center) signs in at the garden. If the boys arrive one minute pass 8 a.m., they are considered late. Many start lining up as early at 7:30 a.m.

Jahiem Greer, 13, (center) signs in at the garden. If the boys arrive one minute pass 8 a.m., they are considered late. Many start lining up as early at 7:30 a.m. (Photo: Angela Peterson/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)

June 30, 2018

The Rev. Walter Lanier, son of former Milwaukee Bucks center Bob Lanier, was selected by Ellis to deliver the prayer in the garden to kick off the day. 

Lanier’s reading came from the book of Ecclesiastes. 

“There is a time for everything and a season for every activity under the sun:
A time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot, 
a time to kill and a time to heal, 
a time to tear down and a time to build, 
a time to weep and a time to laugh, 
a time to mourn and a time to dance, 
a time to scatter and a time to gather,
a time to embrace and a time to stop embracing,
a time to search and a time to give up,
a time to keep and a time to throw away,
a time to tear and a time to mend,
a time to be silent and a time to speak, 
a time to love and a time to hate,
a time for war and a time for peace.”

After the reading, Lanier told the boys that they are “made in God’s likeness.”

Derrick “Baba” Rodgers, former leader of Transition High School, an alternative school that worked with students who were returning to Milwaukee Public Schools after being away for incarceration, expulsion or other issues, was next.

He talked to the boys about manhood and coming of age.

He asked the boys what it meant for them to be a man?

One boy said you become a man once you turn 18.

Another said when you move out on your own.

One said when you have a child and raise a family.

When you make a lot of money, another boy said.

Rodgers told them that in African culture, manhood training begins when boys turn 12- and 13-years-old. It’s called a “Rite of Passage.”

In Africa, they are not considered a man until they undergo the training, he said.

“You could be 60 years old in Africa, but if you didn’t undergo the training that was necessary, then you were still considered a boy.”

The main reason so many things remain messed up in our community is because Milwaukee has a lot of 30, 40 and 50-year-old boys running around, who never received adult training, Rodgers said.

“You are getting that training from Mr. Andre. He’s teaching you how to become great men,” he said. 

The messages by Lanier and Rodgers laid the groundwork for the group discussions on how the boys can be a positive influence in their neighborhoods.

My group talked about being leaders and not followers.

Each boy had an example of how society has let them down.

One boy complained about being followed by security whenever he goes into a store.

“It’s like they always expect us to do something. I used to get mad about it but I’m just proving them wrong now,” the boy said.

When I told them that I was going to miss next Saturday because I was driving my parents to Mississippi to visit relatives, some questioned if I was going to come back. 

I told them that I would be back the following week.

Jahiem Greer, 13, a kid who likes to have the last word, folded his arms and said he didn’t believe me.

“Grown-ups like to make promises that they don’t keep,” he said.

I couldn’t let him down. 


July 14, 2018

When I arrived at the garden, several boys “dapped me up” and told me that they were glad I came back.

Jahiem Greer was the first to embrace me.

“I’m glad we didn’t scare you off,” he said.

I was happy to be back. When I was in Mississippi, I wondered how the boys were doing. If they were following directions. If they were following the rules. I also wondered about their safety.

I started to understand Andre’s mantra: “I may not be your birth dad, but I am your Earth dad.” The boys grow on you. 

One of the strongest forms of mentorship is listening and some of the boys have a lot of stuff to get off their chest.

When I took my group out to clean up the neighborhood, I walked with Sidney Jackson, an adult mentor who has worked with Andre for years.

Jackson, 21, has lived in the house across the street from the garden all his life. 

He said his father has 28 children and has never been to any of his graduations or birthdays. 

While his father has not been there, Jackson said Ellis has been. While Jackson was serving time for an armed robbery, it was Ellis who helped to facilitate his release. He did some of his community service in the garden.

"He talked to me every day and helped me work through a lot of my problems I was having," he said.

Special projects reporter James E. Causey talks with Marshawn Dixon, 19, who has been in the urban gardening program for years. Dixon said cleaning up his neighborhood gives him a sense of pride.

Special projects reporter James E. Causey talks with Marshawn Dixon, 19, who has been in the urban gardening program for years. Dixon said cleaning up his neighborhood gives him a sense of pride. (Photo: Angela Peterson/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)

July 28, 2018

Andre Lee Ellis got the mentors to take groups of boys to talk about the question: “How do you think society views you, and what can you do about it?”

The boys in my group were engaged.

Ronald, who had been working in the garden for two weeks said: “Most people just look at us and think we just steal cars or that we are up to no good. But I’m not like they think. I’m honest and willing to work.”

Stereotypes play a role, but he said changing old attitudes about black youth is hard to do because most of the news often shows black boys in a negative light.

“They show us committing crimes. Stealing cars. Fighting. And they like to show us as victims,” he said. “They never show us in the same light as they show white kids. You rarely see us doing positive things.”


Aug. 11, 2018

Ellis told me a joke that one boy told him in the garden last week. The youth said: “Some men may not come to the garden because they are afraid they will meet their sons.”

These are the thoughts of a lot of black boys growing up in the 'hood. They don’t have their fathers around, and they grow up angry and when that anger comes out they can hurt people. Those that are hurt tend to look just like them.

Too many men are not involved in their children's lives and it has an impact on these kids.

The garden would not work if it were not for the adult volunteers who work with the children or just make donations.

Darryl Whitley, 35, who volunteered in the garden every Saturday, said he wanted to give his time because it’s an easy way to make a difference and to find out what is on the minds of youth today.

Whitley, who has a newborn baby girl, said too many men in Milwaukee like to talk about being a part of the solution, but they are not rolling up their sleeves to truly get involved.

“Some of our kids get a bad rap because people think they are just bad,” he said. “But after talking to them, you quickly see that they are dealing with a lot of issues.” 

One thing that I liked about Darryl was his no-nonsense approach to dealing with the boys.

Just based on his clean-shaven, preppy look, I knew that some of the boys in the garden were going to try him. And they did.

But they quickly saw that he wasn’t a pushover.

“I figured they were going to try me,” Darryl said. “But I’m not here for all of that. I’m here to help them to reach their fullest potential.”


Aug. 12, 2018

When I arrived shortly after 1 p.m., the Salad Festival was up and going. My wife, Damia, who helped Ellis put the event together was working the gate. My daughter, Taylor, was there as well.

The day was a kickoff to Ellis’ 58th birthday and it was a success. Bags of raspberries, salads, potatoes, pineapples, apples, green beans and blueberries were donated. Other food was harvested from the garden.

The first Salad Festival was Ellis’ attempt to showcase what goes on in the garden to the the public — neighbors and friends. It was a warm Sunday afternoon.

It was meant to be a fundraiser for the boys in the garden, but Ellis gave out dozens of tickets to people for free because that’s the way he does things.

When I got ready to leave at 7 p.m., Ellis gave me a hug and thanked me for coming. He said he was going to shut everything down in about an hour and rest up for his birthday Monday.

Aug. 13, 2018

At 5:13 a.m., Ellis sent me a Facebook message:

“James words cannot express my gratitude for you and Damia and your daughter. I pray you both are alright. Sorry to report that right as I was locking the gate, (at 8:30 p.m.) gunshots rang out. Another one of my sons shot dead, so not the best birthday for me right now.”

The triple shooting took the life of Erik Williams, 28, who used to volunteer in the garden. Williams’ son, Erik “Doobie” Williams Jr., 5, was shot four times, twice in the chest and once in each arm. A 15-year-old boy who comes to the garden every Saturday was grazed in the shooting.

I am at a loss for words. I hurt for Andre. I hurt for the two boys who would grow up without their father. I also hurt for the neighborhood, which lost another black man to gun violence by the hands of another black man.


Aug. 18, 2018 

It is the first day back at the garden for the boys after the shooting death of Erik Williams. 

Witnesses say Williams used his body as a human shield to protect Doobie and his son who was in a stroller.

He was shot six times in the back and died at the scene. A 14-year-old boy, who suffered a graze wound during the shooting, which took place at 8:30 p.m. Sunday, attends the garden regularly. Nigel was in my group for cleanup duty Saturday morning.

He seemed distracted most of the morning. When Andre told us that we would be cleaning up the area from 9th and Ring to 11th and Ring, up to 11th and Burleigh St and back to 9th and Burleigh and back, we would be walking right past where he witnessed his cousin take his last breath.

Before we started walking I asked him if he would be OK walking in my group.

“Yeah, I’m cool,” he said.

Nigel, who said he is 15, and not 14 like the police reports state, didn’t want to go into details about the shooting.

“Just don’t ask me about it,” he said. “I’m trying to forget, but people keep bringing it up."

During the walk, we came across another memorial on 10th and Ring. A tree was wrapped with a taped sign that read: “In the Loving Memory of My Brother Kevin Williams”. 

There were also several blue, white and yellow carnations taped to the tree and deflated balloons. The base of the tree was surrounded by liquor bottles. 

A woman two houses down from the memorial was raking broken glass and leaves in front of her house.  

Nigel reached down and picked up a bottle that was in front of her house and placed it in a black, plastic bag. He walked past the memorial to his cousin and shook his head, before running to catch up with other members in our group.

I found out later that Kevin Williams and Erik Williams were brothers, killed eight months apart on the same block on the same side of the street. 

This was on the streets of Milwaukee — not some dangerous road in Afghanistan, but it didn’t seem like enough people were talking about this. 

Emmanuel Johnson, 12, prepares the roots of a vegetable for planting.

Emmanuel Johnson, 12, prepares the roots of a vegetable for planting. (Photo: Angela Peterson/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)

Aug. 22, 2018 

The Williams family had voiced concern about publicizing the time of the funeral in the media because the suspect or suspects responsible for the shooting were not in custody. 

I felt a bit uneasy standing outside Pitts Funeral Home, on North 20th street and W. Capitol Drive, so I went inside and sat near the back. Some of the boys who regularly attend the garden shook my hand.

"Doobie” could not attend his father’s funeral; he was still being treated for his injuries.

Ellis did little things to take the stress off the family. He helped get people seated. He handed out tissues to some of the people grieving. He even changed the batteries in the microphone when it went out.

Mainly he gave out hugs to those in need.

When he talked about the Erik he knew, he talked about a man who loved his children and a man who showed him respect.

He also talked about the violence that exists in our community with blacks settling disputes with guns. He questioned if men really knew how to fight anymore. 

The visitation was packed with mostly young people. Most of the adults warned against seeking any kind of retaliation and they all called for an end to gun violence.

Ellis promised Doobie’s mother he will look after Williams' sons for the rest of his life.


Aug. 25, 2018 

It was the last day at the garden and kids were happy and sad at the same time. Many of the 60 who showed up had already started school or would be starting school Sept. 4.

Ellis started the day off by making all the youth stand up for a prayer. 

“We thank you for the day, God. God, we ask you for a chance to come in your presence. We want to say thank you. This is our final day of the summer and We Got This.

"God let these words touch each and every one of these young men today.

"Success. Success. Success is what you make of it. God has already given you the tools to be successful. God, I want you to take care of these families and this neighborhood.

"God, we are not poor, we are just working on our money. Give us strength, but most of all give us love, because that is what’s missing in most of our lives. Teach these young brothers to love one another even when they see the grownups messing up.

"We need the young people to turn it around. Thank God for everybody and thank God for this neighborhood. In Jesus name is how I pray. Amen.”

A lot of elected officials showed up on the last day.

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett called Ellis’ “We Got This” program “The most positive program in the state for young people your age.”

Ald. Milele Coggs, told the boys and mentors that they should be proud of what they accomplished, but they should live what they learned beyond Saturdays. 

Community activist Khalil Coleman left the boys with a question: “What is your life worth?”

“A million dollars is nothing for your life," he said. "Your life is priceless. The moment you begin to value things that’s greater than your life, you are putting a value to your life. The moment you say, 'I can’t wait to get this car' and you go out and steal a car, you are putting a value on your life.

"You are putting an expiration date on your life."

He told them they must want things in life that are greater than material things.

“As brothers we can’t walk around and only think about ourselves,” Coleman said. “I got to love my life just as I love you and want you to love your life. That’s the only way we are going to work.”

The day ended with all the boys marching into the garden as a disc jockey played the song “U Will Know” by Black Men United.

Some of the boys sang along:

“When I was a young boy
I had visions of fame
They were wild and they were free
They were blessed with my name

"And then I grew older
And I saw what’s to see
That the world is full of pain

And my dreams they left me

"And then I got stronger 
Inside of the pain
That’s when I picked up the pieces 
And I regained my name…”

The boys were cheered on by community leaders and volunteers.

The 10 weeks went by in a flash, but during that time I saw some boys turn into men.

They were not running around the garden. They were attentive and proud. 

Ellis told them to never forget this moment. I know I never will.

[This story was originally published by Journal Sentinel.]