Activist says ‘we got this’ when it comes to keeping black youth busy and safe

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Teens pick up garbage in their neighborhood, employed by community activist Andre Lee Ellis. (Photo by Karen Stokes)

Teens pick up garbage in their neighborhood, employed by community activist Andre Lee Ellis. (Photo by Karen Stokes)

Jermaine is a 12-year-old boy who had already gotten into trouble with the police for breaking into garages and stealing. His mother, concerned about her son, approached her Borchert Field neighbor Andre Lee Ellis a couple months ago to ask for his advice. Ellis offered to put the boy to work.

He paid Jermaine $20 to work in the community garden and clean up the neighborhood on Saturdays from 8 a.m. until noon.

“After the first week he brought five buddies with him,” Ellis said. “The following week 10, then 15, then 19, and last Saturday 40 kids came to work.”

To pay the young people, Ellis began a Facebook campaign. “We have adults stopping by on Saturdays to volunteer and donate money,” he said. “We always have the money to pay the kids. I love how God is using the situation to help the community. It’s working.”

Ellis, owner of a community-based theater company, said he was motivated by concern for neighborhood boys, who he said are surrounded by drugs and violence. He dubbed the effort “We Got This.”

“I’m telling the older guys, ‘Leave the boys alone,’” Ellis said. “Stop teaching the boys to sell weed and steal.”

Andre Lee Ellis (Photo by Karen Stokes)

Andre Lee Ellis (Photo by Karen Stokes)

Known in the community as “Old School,” Ellis insists that the young men be on time for work. If they are not at 9th and Ring streets by 8 a.m., they are not allowed to participate.

Ellis wrote in a recent Facebook post, “The young brothers they come with so much fire in their eyes. Each week I watch them relax more and more into their own lives. They get here early to work. They believe in what they are doing. They work with men that look like them.”

Ellis moved to the Borchert Field neighborhood in 2011. Within a week, he heard shots fired and came out to see a young man lying dead on the sidewalk.

Soon after, there was another shooting incident and Ellis rallied the neighbors to find solutions. “We have to invest in ourselves,” said Ellis. “We have to take back our ‘hood.”

Ellis realizes the problems faced by the young men are complex. They often don’t have positive role models. In addition, he said, “When you talk about solutions to crime and poverty, you have to discuss all the issues surrounding it like mental illness, incarceration and homelessness.” Ellis is well aware of studies that show that black men in Milwaukee face alarmingly high incarceration rates, and that black women with children are disproportionately evicted from their homes.

Nevertheless, he is heartened by what he’s seen in the eight weeks since Jermaine showed up at his doorstep.

“One of the kids took his $20, got a cooler from his mother went to the store and purchased bottled water and ice, sold them on the street and earned $60 that day,” Ellis said. “Another teen always wanted a snapping turtle, so he is saving his money to buy a turtle and all the materials needed to care for it.”

Jamal, 18, just graduated from Bradley Technology and Trade School and is headed to Western Illinois University in the fall. He found out about the “We Got This” campaign from a friend. “I wanted to help clean the neighborhood. The neighborhood portrays how we are as a black community.”

Jamal said he is using his money for college expenses.

This is not the first time Ellis has taken steps to better his community. In 2012, seeing an overgrown vacant lot on the corner of 9th and Ring streets, Ellis applied for a Community Improvement Project  (CIP) grant and worked with Growing Power to transform the lot into a garden where community members can meet and grow their own food.

“Andre has a good heart,” said Latonya Lucas, marketing and promotions director at Saga Communications and a friend of Ellis. “He has always been someone who loves the community and goes over and beyond to help the community he lives in.”

“Don’t complain, help. Don’t criticize, help,” said Ellis. “Together we can bring peace to the neighborhood.”

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  1. Andre Lee Ellis says

    Karen Stokes, Thank you so much for a well written article. We appreciate this attention. It will help us in our mission. I also want to say Thank You for your son’s generous contribution. It’s Brothers that we need to come out into these streets and help change these conditions. It was good to see him. thank you Karen, I really appreciate you.

    • Teresa Rae Butler says

      Dear beloved brother Andre, you always amaze. I am teary eyed writing this because to me, this is greater than anything Ive written about you in my novel and now I must write a new. The way you care for these kids makes grown folk look past blame n shame n just step up n help. I am known to support people or causes, and also donate when n where I can every year. This year I add your vision to the board. Once again, I am honored to contribute to a cause you believe in, and if we all continue to donate, this will save so many of our youth. $5, $10, $20 or whatever any one person can afford helps where it hurts. Because it’s also men showing boys to stand up straight for health, legal tender, a sound mind, love and peace instead of walking crooked and lying down flat to violence, death, poverty and crime. Thank you for doing the same thing Janetta Robinson did for me when I started working at the age of 13, because to this day I am a hard worker. Self employed, true, and every gift of day is a business day, an opportunity, but legal!!! Love & light .

    • Carrie says

      Very good article, Karen! And, thank you Mr. Ellis for the wonderful work you do for these beautiful kids. I don’t have much money but I will definitely be praying.

  2. Pastor Felicia Hamilton says

    Hello Andre this is Felicia Hamilton ease check out my website and see how I can help. God bless you. I pray that you are raptured ready, ready to meet Jesus in the air. My website is

  3. says

    I am not sure but I think you graduated from Riverside High school in Milwaukee and in ‘your younger days’ you played the drums for the schools drill team of which I was the advisor. If this is you, please contact me. I am retired from teaching there but I am the president of the Riverside Foundation and am interested in your gardening project. Thanks

  4. says

    I have been trying for years, to get a metor, for my Grandson. I called, I wrote several times, to the 100 black men, for help, to no avail. My Grandson is 14 year’s old. His dad NEVER helps him at all. His uncle who used to look out for him, is in prison! He wants a job, and can’t one. He is lost! And no one is helping him. I was reading your article, maybe you can help him. He knows to see the positve of life. You can call me anytime! He is living in Waukesha now. His mom didn’t have a Job, so she had to live with a relative.his address is 1855 s. West Apt. 3. Waukesha, Wisc. 53184

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