Harvest Season: Westside Collective Hosts Program That Transforms the Lives of Troubled Youth

Abiodun Henderson (above) founded Gangstas to Growers, an initiative for youth supported by the Come Up Project. (Reginald Duncan / The Atlanta Voice)
Abiodun Henderson (above) founded Gangstas to Growers, an initiative for youth supported by the Come Up Project.

By Anaré Holmes

The Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that two of every three offenders released from prison are rearrested within three years.

Further, the employment outlook in Metro Atlanta for the average Black person can be particularly sobering, especially for Black men.

According to U.S. Census Bureau data, African-American men aged 16 to 64 in the 30318 zip code experience a 26 percent unemployment rate. This figure compares to an overall unemployment rate of 5.9 percent for all of Atlanta.

To slow these rates, one Westside community group has resolved to do something about it. Abiodun Henderson is the founder of “Gangstas to Growers,” an initiative supported by the Come Up Project.

“We can’t deter crime and reduce incarceration rates among our young people without providing tangible economic opportunities they can benefit from,” says Henderson, who is affectionately known as Miss Abbey to program participants. “No one is going to save us, but us. That is why I’m focused on providing an economic model that will help us change lives.”

The Gangstas to Growers model is simple. The goal is to empower young men and women aged 18 to 24 with entrepreneurial skills and assets in the burgeoning organic agricultural industry to meet a need for consumers to purchase fresh produce in the West End and its surrounding neighborhoods.

The collective of Westside social entrepreneurs and community activists has also launched “SweetSol,” a locally produced brand of hot sauces featuring flavorful ingredients and the makings of good cooperative economics.

The participants in the program not only assist in growing the peppers used in the sauces, but they also help in manufacturing and bottling, as well as with selling the sauces in the marketplace.

“We designed this opportunity to employ those most at risk for cycling through a prison industrial pipeline that is undermining the safety and well-being of our families,” Henderson said.

In addition to working on several Black-owned local and rural farms in Georgia, participants receive life-skills training and instruction on a range of topics at the Shrine of the Black Madonna that includes political education, nutritional cooking, cooperative economics and commerce, financial literacy, environmental sustainability and sex education and family planning.

“We take a holistic approach in this work,” says Henderson. “We start in the morning with yoga and centering exercises, move into group therapy to facilitate the development of constructive coping strategies, critical thinking and problem-solving skills.”

The pilot program began with six participants. In this year’s program, which started on Monday, there are 10 confirmed registrants. Program facilitators are working to eventually operate three to four classes a year.

The group has formed strategic alliances with the Mayor’s Office of Resilience and WorkSource Atlanta, the city’s career education and training division, to help subsidize the $12.50 hourly wage participants receive.

Other collaborators include, but are not limited to the West Georgia Farmer’s Cooperative, the Center for Civic Innovation and Marddy’s — a shared kitchen and marketplace opened last December by Keitra Bates.

Zion Franklin and his friend Kader Sabara are two southwest Atlanta men who hope their involvement in the program can assist in efforts to reclaim their dreams.

Both admitted to making a few bad choices that landed them both on probation for improperly carrying a firearm, among other charges.

“I want to do work that will help me become a better man,” says Franklin. “Earning $12.50 an hour is a start.”

Franklin convinced Sabara to sign up while the two worked on completing their GED requirements.

“My dream job is to follow in my father’s footstep and work on cars. I want to be a master mechanic at a custom car shop,” Sabara said. “I gotta start somewhere, and working with Miss Abbey is my first step.”

The two men, both 18 years old, finished taking a round of career assessments this week at WorkSource Atlanta that now enables them to enroll in the program.

Gangstas to Growers’ other initiative guidelines include a commitment of three months, working 40 hours a week.

The daughter of Bruce Henderson, a former rank and file member of the Black Panther Party, along with Dessie Webster, a resourceful mother from Liberia’s Kru tribe, Abiodun learned early how to effectively mobilize resources and human capital to produce results.

SweetSol, is a locally produced brand of hot sauces featuring flavorful ingredients and the makings of what good cooperative economics is all about. Gangsters to Growers is set up to receive donations at: gofundme.com/gangstas-to-growers-youth-prorgram.In fact, the hot sauce recipe is Henderson’s own.

Looking ahead to the future, Henderson would like to use the lavender and turmeric herbs and seasonings used in the hot sauce to create an expanded line of bath and body products.

A manufacturing facility is another long-term objective in the group’s plan, as they grow to be more autonomous and in control of each product’s packaging and distribution.

“I definitely found my purpose. I know what I am supposed to do,” Henderson said. “I am focused on cutting down rates of incarceration and recidivism by providing an opportunity to our people.”

The product is sold online at comeupproject.org and at select locations that include:

The West End Farmer’s Market
Every Saturday through October
10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Gordon White Park
1354 Ralph David Abernathy Blvd. SW
Atlanta, GA 30310

Fresh MARTA Market
*Fresh produce sold at the following Marta Locations

West End Station
Tuesdays now through Nov. 27
From 3 p.m. to 7 p.m.

H.E. Holmes Station
Wednesdays now through Nov. 28

College Park Station
Thursdays now through Nov. 29

Five Points Station
Fridays now through Nov. 30

This article originally appeared in the Atlanta Voice.

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