Editor’s note: This is one of an occasional series of pieces about grassroots leaders in Milwaukee.
Andre Lee Ellis knows the challenges African-American boys and young men growing up in poverty face. Now in his late 50s, Ellis was raised in what is now called the Townhomes at Carver Park, a public housing development near downtown. He said he has spent most of his life in poverty. The father of six biological children and 13 grandchildren, he has become the self-appointed father figure for hundreds of boys and men in his community.
A charismatic man with theatrical training, Ellis founded a grassroots organization called We Got This in the summer of 2014. He says it started when the mother of 11-year-old Jermaine came to him for help with her son, who was getting into trouble with the police.
“I spoke with someone at the district police station and let them know of a program I was going to start (for boys and teens) … where we would clean the neighborhood for four hours, teach them how to grow food and I would pay them,” Ellis said.
The police released Jermaine to Ellis on the promise that Ellis would give him a job that would keep him off the streets. The boy agreed to meet Ellis in a garden he had established in an empty lot next to his rented flat. Jermaine showed up that first Saturday morning at the corner of 9th and Ring streets in the Borchert Field neighborhood and spent the morning working with Ellis in the garden. Ellis paid him $5 an hour for four hours’ work.
The next Saturday morning, Jermaine returned with five friends. Ellis told the boys that he didn’t have enough money to pay them all but he asked them to put their fists in the air and he took a photo. “I told them if we tell our story, black men who care will come by 12 o’clock with $20 to pay you,” Ellis said. He posted the photo on social media, and seven black men from the community showed up with money.
The following week, twice as many young men came to the garden. “That is when I knew we had a program,” Ellis said.
From that time on the number of young men has continued to grow and most of the money to pay them has been donated by individual community members and foundations.
In 2016, television talk show host Steve Harvey got wind of We Got This and invited Ellis to appear on his show. Harvey gave We Got This a check for $10,000 and declared Ellis one of “Harvey’s Heroes.” Ellis said that since then families traveling to Milwaukee on vacation often visit the garden on summer Saturday mornings.
Gregarious, creative and energetic, Ellis is always developing new ideas to build the program. Responding to the young men’s interest in dressing up and going out “on the town,” as they occasionally see Ellis and his wife Angela do, he established an annual formal dining event for the youth.
Now called “500 Tuxedos,” the program has adult men rent tuxedos for themselves and for the young men and begin mentoring relationships. Each year, before the dinner, they address a wide range of topics including grooming and etiquette, as well as what it means to be a successful man. Underwritten by a private donation from County Executive Chris Abele for the last two of its four years, the dinner took place last month at the Hilton Milwaukee City Center Crystal Ballroom.
For several years Ellis has worked with the city to acquire a foreclosed house across the street from the garden. Initially, he planned to use it to expand We Got This into the winter months. When it became apparent that zoning laws would not permit using the house for this purpose, he worked with the city to get it razed. He plans to plant an orchard there next summer.
A man of strong religious faith and vivid language, Ellis often asserts that he is “going with the God plan.” He says that he has found his calling in this work. He has not only drawn hundreds of boys and teens into We Got This, he has inspired hundreds of black men from all walks of life to get involved in supporting and mentoring black youth.
In addition, We Got This has inspired and supported others to do similar work in other neighborhoods. Leaders of Program the Parks, the Marcus Garvey Garden and Sistas Got This Too all credit Ellis for leading the way to build the health and strength of the African-American community from young people on up.