One hundred men and boys, ranging from six to 79 years old, milled around a large upstairs room at Redemption Fellowship Church on the North Side. In one corner, a barber was cutting a teen’s hair. Along a wall, racks of tuxedos hung in brown garment bags. A line of boys waited for a volunteer to pin blue boutonnieres onto their lapels. Boys and men sat at tables writing letters and sealing them in envelopes to present to each other at the end of the day.
This scene marked the final preparations for the latest event in Andre Lee Ellis’ "We Got This" grassroots program to support and mentor young black men in his neighborhood, around 9th and Ring streets. On Saturday afternoon, Ellis gathered the 50 young men and 50 mentors together, encouraged them to continue supporting each other and their community, and led them onto two buses that took them downtown.
At Juneau Avenue east of the river, they disembarked and paraded across the bridge, amid cheers and chants of "black lives matter" to Carson’s Prime Steak & Famous Barbecue, 301 W. Juneau. There, the tuxedo-clad "boys from the hood" became "gentlemen on the town." Each young man was to sit with his mentor and enjoy a formal dinner, conversation and a bit of an etiquette lesson. An unnamed sponsor paid for the dinners, and each mentor covered the cost of his own and his mentee’s tuxedo rental.
Roshaun Collins, 13, a sixth-grader at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School and a member of Ellis’ "We Got This" group since last summer, summed up the program.
"People where we come from don’t make it far, and Mr. Andre is showing us that we can," Collins said.
Isaiah Lavender, 13, a seventh-grader at Robert M. LaFollette School, 3239 N. 9th St., met Ellis while walking to a corner store last spring. Ellis asked him to join the group. Lavender said he enjoyed helping out in the neighborhood.
"All the trash that’s on the ground," Lavender said, "it didn’t look right."
Dwight Willis, 14, another Lafollette student, met Ellis at school. Willis called Ellis "a good man," adding, "[He] meets with us and talks about stuff like being respectful." Willis said he "joined up early" with "We Got This," working in the garden.
The dinner at Carson’s was the latest in a series of activities designed and carried out by Ellis since he started employing young men to maintain a neighborhood garden and clean up the community last summer.
Like the Pied Piper of Hamlin, the charismatic Ellis drew more and more young followers throughout the summer. He created a structured program, paying the young men $20 if they showed up before 8 a.m. and worked the whole morning. As his numbers grew, people began to notice.
Ellis dubbed the program "We Got This" on his Facebook page and emphasized the need for the black community to support its own children. Ellis began to draw adult supporters who contributed money to pay the young men and to talk with them about their own experiences growing up in similar communities. Momentum grew throughout the summer, and by the end of August, more than 100 young men had joined in.
The program is less active with school in session, but the young men keep in touch with Ellis and each other. Since summer ended, Ellis has taken them to a Brewers baseball game, to UWM to accept an award and to see President Obama when he visited North Division High School in October.
The Rev. Anthony Caples, one of the mentors, found "We Got This" through Ellis’ Facebook page and started visiting the garden on Saturday mornings when there were just eight or nine participants. Caples noted that one-on-one mentoring relationships are necessary for young people to grow and flourish.
"I think this is the beginning of building community," Caples said.
Andrea Waxman is a staff reporter at the Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service. A professional writer, she is completing a graduate certificate in Digital Storytelling at Marquette University's Diederich College of Communication. Previously, she worked as a reporter and editor for a community newspaper and taught English and Japanese in several area middle and high schools.
Waxman has lived in Milwaukee since 1981, but spent most of her early years living in Tokyo, where her father was stationed at the American embassy. She returned to Japan in 1986 and again in 1993 when her husband was there as a Fulbright scholar.
In her free time, Waxman enjoys theater, movies, music, ethnic food, cities, travel, reading - especially the news of the day - and all kinds of people. She is interested in working for social justice and contributing to the vitality of the city.