Milwaukee Neighborhood Rallies To Put Young Boys On The Right Path

fromWUWM

Activists are trying to teach boys the value of hard work and respect through neighborhood cleanups and mentoring sessions. The community pays the boys $20 for four hours of work.

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In Milwaukee, there's an experiment underway to set at-risk boys on the right path. They're offered pay for doing neighborhood chores and they receive guidance from older men in the community. LaToya Dennis of member station WUWM explains.

LATOYA DENNIS, BYLINE: It is 7:30 on a Saturday morning and 50 or so boys are already here at a community garden in Milwaukee's north side. They're actually a half hour early, and that's a good thing because on Andre Ellis is keeping an eye on the clock.

ANDRE ELLIS: Eight o'clock is late. Eight o'clock, I cut it off.

DENNIS: For each of the past 12 Saturdays, Ellis has come to this exact spot with an offer. He will give $20 to any boy between the ages of 12 and 17 who is willing to walk his neighborhood and pick up litter. Ellis says it all started with one boy.

ELLIS: The police had arrested an 11-year-old boy here on the block. The mother came to me and said they got Jermaine. And I said for what? And she said breaking into garages and things.

DENNIS: Andre Ellis talked with police and got Jermaine released, and then he had an idea - give the boy $20 if he would spend a Saturday morning cleaning up where he messed up. The following week Jermaine showed up with five friends.

ELLIS: I got on Facebook and put a post that said I need black men to show up and pay little black boys for working in the hood.

DENNIS: Ellis says seven up that morning with donations in hand, and he says the community continues to respond. Today he collected $1,000 to pay all 50 boys here. Kwabena Nixon is one of the donors. He came not only to give money, but also to help inspire.

KWABENA NIXON: There's a lot of people going to tell you if you don't have a father in your life, your mother's on drugs, you live in a rough neighborhood, and that you're going to die young. How many of you all know that's not true? Clap your hands and make some noise for me - it should be so much louder.

DENNIS: Nixon tells the young men that where they start does not determine where they finish, and that's a message 14-year-old Samuel Johnson is taking to heart. He says he knows what think when they see him on the street.

SAMUEL JOHNSON: I think they see a - oh that's a little boy out here running the streets, smoking, selling drugs and stuff - just making bad decisions and stuff, and that's not the case.

DENNIS: Johnson says the boys who meet at this garden on Saturday mornings want to help make their neighborhood a nicer place to live.

JOHNSON: It would make our community look better. It makes us all look better as a whole, because when you look at us we'll be clean, but then you look at our community, it would be all dirty but if it's clean, then that makes us look better.

DENNIS: Trabian Shorters is CEO of a nonprofit group based in Miami that seeks to connect black men across the country who run youth mentoring programs. It is called being BMe Community. BMe has also helped fund projects in Baltimore, Detroit and Philadelphia

TRABIAN SHORTERS: Asians are positively stereotyped as being smart in math or science. You know, Latinos are positively stereotyped as being hard-working, or black women are the backbone of the community - all those things. The black males don't have positive stereotypes except that they can dunk or rap, I guess.

DENNIS: Shorters says with mentoring programs like this one in Milwaukee, some boys now have access to other role models.

SHORTERS: There's definitely a sense that we need our elders, and our elders certainly have a sense that we need to look after the next generation.

DENNIS: Back in Milwaukee, Andrew Ellis plans to continue the program through the end of August, so long as donations keep coming in. There are no rich donors, no grants - just local residents who drop off donations every Saturday morning, trying to create a better life for the children growing up in this neighborhood. For NPR News, I'm LaToya Dennis in Milwaukee.

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