Bridging the Opportunity Divide

Former Juvenile Inmates Are Earning Double Minimum Wage to Grow Crops — and Business Skills

August 16, 2019
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Former Juvenile Inmates Are Earning Double Minimum Wage to Grow Crops — and Business Skills
Gangstas to Growers provides formerly incarcerated youth the chance to gain personal and business skills through hands-on learning at area farms. Photo by Jo Raedle/Getty Images
The Atlanta-based program Gangstas to Growers is breaking the cycle of youth incarceration by putting former offenders to work on farms, and paying them a living wage to do it.

To many residents of the historically black neighborhoods on Atlanta’s westside, Abiodun Henderson is both local savior and master storyteller. Better known as Miss Abbey, Atlantans drizzle her original hot sauce recipe — which she developed after watching YouTube videos — on their food, and they lean in close when she tells stories of her family’s roots in Liberia and Trinidad.

And when there’s a problem, they go to her. The 36-year-old mother heard about local farmers’ struggles to find enough farmhands to work their land. At the same time, Henderson watched as hordes of young people in her community came home from prison or jail, and went right back in after struggling to find a job with a stable, livable wage.

A lightbulb went off and Henderson, who previously oversaw a community garden in Atlanta’s Westview neighborhood, combined her knowledge of urban farming with a passion for increasing economic opportunities for disadvantaged youth. The result became Gangstas to Growers, an agribusiness training program for formerly incarcerated youth between the ages of 18 and 24. 

Launched in 2016, the three-month program equips participants not just with farming and gardening know-how, but also the ins and outs of running a business. There’s a heavy focus on personal development, too, and on any given day the young adults might hear from experts on topics such as financial literacy, environmental sustainability, nutritional cooking, and criminal justice. In between morning yoga sessions and evening seminars, the trainees spend their afternoons at black-owned farms, digging, planting and harvesting crops for which they’re paid $15 an hour — more than twice Georgia’s minimum wage.  

“We take care of the folks in these neighborhoods and change how these young people in these neighborhoods act,” Henderson told NationSwell, “and get them to be examples for the younger people coming up.”

Across the country, a black American is five times more likely to be jailed by the time they turn 21 compared to their white counterparts. And in Georgia, black residents make up nearly two-thirds of the prison population, compared to only 30% of the state’s population. Recidivism is a problem throughout Atlanta — where the youth recidivism rate is 65%. One of the main reasons people end up back in jail is a lack of employment

To date, Henderson and Gangstas to Growers have worked with 15 young adults. When they finish the program, she helps connect them to jobs and fellowships in the food and agriculture industries. While several graduates have indeed gone on to work in the food industry, others have applied their new skills to other fields, like construction. 

Henderson stressed that hers is a grassroots movement, not a nonprofit or a charity. All her work designing the Gangsta program and recruiting young people to apply for it starts from the ground up. 

But that attitude has also put her work at risk. “I never thought of funding first,” she said. “I thought of programming first.” She received a $10,000 emergency grant from a local nonprofit in 2016, but that was quickly spent. To help ease the financial burden, her team began making, bottling and marketing Henderson’s hot sauce recipe, which the trainees named Sweet Sol. A fiery concoction of habanero and cayenne peppers along with ingredients like lavender, turmeric and muscovado sugar, Sweet Sol is sold for $10 a bottle at Atlanta farmers markets and for $12 online

Though the city pays the $15 hourly wages through its workforce development program, there are still bills to pay. Last year Gangstas to Growers participants had to rely on Uber to get out to the farms, so a van is high on the wishlist. And with the lofty goal of training another 500 young Atlantans by 2025, Henderson needs all the support she can get.

Henderson has activism in her blood. Raised in Brooklyn by her immigrant mother and a father who, as she has described, was a “rank-and-file Black Panther member,” she started the long journey to Gangstas and Growers when she was connected to Occupy the Hood, an extension of the Occupy movement of 2011 that sought to expose the hold major banks and corporations have on the democratic process. 

Through Occupy the Hood, which in part focused on increasing access to nutritional food in low-income minority communities, Henderson was provided with the resources and connections to put those ideals in action in her own neighborhood. After getting approval from local leaders in 2012 to run operations at the newly hatched community garden in Westview, she started a summer camp for area kids and taught them how to grow produce. Then came the idea for Gangstas to Growers a few years later. “We see this work as really shifting neighborhoods.” Henderson said.

For Raekwon Smith, the program helped him shift his attitude and embrace a straighter path. After finishing his stint at Gangstas to Growers, he earned a fellowship with a youth development program. Now he’s working in construction. 

And for Derriontae Trent, the lessons he learned from farming went deeper than harvesting the fruits and vegetables he planted.

“I was so used to seeing death that I didn’t know how it’d feel to see something grow,” Trent told Politico. “To see plants grow full of life, from something I control, it’s probably the best feeling in the world.”

Trent also learned about political justice and systematic oppression. He’s now working with other organizations in Atlanta to raise Georgia’s minimum wage and fighting gentrification in his neighborhood. “He is young and ready,” Henderson said.

But as she also pointed out, “You never really leave. It’s a life program.” Trent can still be found cooking hot sauce in the industrial kitchen on the weekends, and Smith still sells bottles of Sweet Sol at local farmers markets. 

“They’ve become organizers and come up with solutions for their own neighborhoods,” Henderson said of Smith and Trent.

“We have to share our privilege and empower these young black folks,” Henderson said. “And saturate the local food movement — and every movement — with the hood.”

More: To Build a Healthier City, Atlanta Is Opening Its Schoolyards to Everyone 

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