Editor’s note: This is one of an occasional series of pieces about grassroots leaders in Milwaukee.
Ajamou Butler recalls the story of the Chinese bamboo plant that would shape his life.
“You have to water it every single day for five years. If you miss a day, it will not properly germinate. But after that fifth year, the plant will shoot up 500 feet.”
Butler said that he sees the growing plant the same way he sees his organization, Heal the Hood.
What started out as a block party once a year back in 2012 has turned Butler into a well-known figure in Milwaukee’s neighborhoods. The organization Butler created tries to unite the impoverished residents of the city’s hoods and end violence by hosting block parties and creating a sense of community. The block parties, according to Butler, allow people of all races to come together and just enjoy being together. Heal the Hood hosted three parties this summer.
“My fight isn’t against someone, my fight is for someone. My fight is for inner-city youth, my fight is for inner-city families, my fight is for the ghettos, projects and hoods,” he said.
Heal the Hood aims to have community members lean on each other, just as Butler leans on others to help run the organization. He credits his long time best friend and Heal the Hood campaign manager, Jessica Butler, for being the organizational force behind its success.
“Heal the Hood does not breathe without Jessica…she is what allows Heal the Hood to continually reach that next level.”
According to Butler, systematic racism is the most serious issue facing the central city. The problem is way beyond what he can hope to fix with Heal the Hood, but he knows that he has to try to change the world around him, he said.
“I love the ghetto, but I know it has to change. The goal is not to abandon the hood, the goal is to buy the hood and make it a better place.”
Butler, 26, grew up in poverty and knows that everyday struggle firsthand. He slept in a two-bedroom house with six people and two cats for most of his life. This experience, Butler said, has allowed him to be more understanding of what many inner city youths are going through.
“If there is one thing I can say to any ghetto youth who is living in this situation…it’s that where you are at is not where you are designed to be. It’s ok that you’re from the ghettos, but you’re not going to stay there.”
Heal the Hood promotes inclusiveness, which differentiates it from other organizations trying to do similar things, Butler said.
“If you come to Heal the Hood, you cannot leave the same way. There’s just so much in the atmosphere. We’re a one-stop shop for those who have a goal to better themselves.”
Heal the Hood is in its fifth year and has been growing rapidly. Butler said he has been asked to bring it to a larger audience such as Summerfest, where hundreds of thousands of people gather. But Butler said he sees that as counter to the organization’s mission.
“Never would I ever (do that). I don’t care if we have 10,000 people at an event, we’re going to do this on the block, bring it straight to the hood. …We’re trying to show that we can gather and do our own thing. That’s what Heal the Hood is.”
Butler said that Heal the Hood may have fewer block parties in 2018, to be sure they are more effective in their message and outreach. He said the main goal is to connect to the youth.
“The block party campaign is great, but passing along the messages to the youth, that’s something else.”