Farm to Able

Abiodun Henderson is turning gangstas into growers in ATL.

Abiodun "Abby" Henderson is the founder of Gangstas to Growers, a project aimed at reducing recidivism amongst formerly incarcerated youth in Atlanta. A pilot of the program achieved great success upon its debut last year, and the organization is now expanding.

She takes a unique holistic approach to treating the wounds that cause and are caused by incarceration, one that combines the seemingly disparate fields of nutrition, history and agriculture. Put another way, she provides a basis for growth by making her ex-inmates literally and figuratively intimate with the earth beneath their feet. Rather than checking boxes, Abby heals and pushes forth in a maternal way, which is ultimately perhaps the most practical method of all.

Here's Abby connecting the dots:

Abby teaches formerly incarcerated young people how to farm.

Abby teaches formerly incarcerated young people how to farm.

So, Abby, what problem is Gangstas to Growers aiming to solve?

It's recidivism. Recidivism and lack of jobs.

How did that problem develop in your community?

I'm saying this a lot these days. A lot of black people in the 60's and before the 60's from the 1920's to the 60's, 70's, we worked in factories. We moved from the South to find a lot of jobs in all different types of industries. And that's when our households were over 80% two-parent households, we were very stable at that time. Then with the massive loss of factory jobs, our communities really lost their stability. Fathers were leaving the households because they couldn't afford it, along with all the other stress they were experiencing in their day-to-day lives living in a white supremacist system. All the microaggressions or the outward aggressions, all the things where you couldn't really fight back against. Along with all of that they were experiencing, then not being able to take care of their families, I know for sure that's when we start to see more single parent households. Then crack cocaine, large amounts of cocaine that were turned into crack were pushed into our communities and, of course, being a people that have never had a chance to heal from anything we've been through, we jumped on that like it wasn't nothing and started self medicating.

Then that also provided a job system for us. Those young people that would have been working in factories under their uncles, grandfathers and fathers, they started selling crack, and we had thousandaires and millionaires in the neighborhood during that time. But that also destroyed our community because it was the first time we were masters of our own, having people do outrageous and disgusting things just to get this crack or to sell the crack, just really doing some terrible things. Then of course, now, the factories that we were employed at before are now overseas and in the prison system. So, nothing has really replaced that massive loss of jobs. Literally nothing has.

How does Gangstas to Growers solve that problem?

The program takes a cohort of young people and we put them through a six month training program where for half of the day they work and are instructed by farmers from SWAG, South West Atlanta Growers Cooperative, and by the West Georgia Farmers Cooperative, which is a 40 year old black farmers cooperative. Then the other half of the day they are involved in what I call self care practices. They do group therapy once a week, they have a yoga class. They start out with yoga every day.

Yoga before farming?

Yeah, 8:00 in the morning they start with yoga. Then they go out into the field. We also do political education. I teach that through documentaries centered around incarceration and gang culture and black history, black American history.

Scene from the Gangstas to Growers pilot program last year

Scene from the Gangstas to Growers pilot program last year

What sort of documentaries?

The first one we watched was Crips and Bloods: Made in America, then Black Power Mix Tape.  I showed them one on Black Wall Street, so they could see some of the history of us after slavery, and how quickly we rose up. They don't even know all the contributions that we've made to this society, the inventions, they don't know the half of it, at all. I think that's by design.

When they're out in the garden, what are they learning?

They're learning the basics. How to plant, harvest, the different plant varieties, their technical names. Maurice Small from Truly Living Well, he's very specific on that. They're learning how to compost. They're learning how to take care of farm animals; goats, chickens, turkeys. They dealt with ducks. 

How will those farming skills help prevent recidivism?

The purpose isn't to have a bunch of farmers, it's just to create a whole job system to replace those factory jobs that we're missing. If we can create like 1000 jobs, that would be dope.

Well, what kind of jobs would they do, though?

Well, for example at Peach Dish there's warehouse jobs where they're making the packages that are going out. They're prepping the meals that are going out. But it's working with local food. Working at Empire State South dish washing, prep cooking, bussing. Entry level jobs at Atlanta Harvest pay $10 an hour to work their hydroponics. And then eventually they can move themselves up.

Scene from the Gangstas to Growers pilot program

Scene from the Gangstas to Growers pilot program

Do you ever get push back from people who don't want to start so small?

At the very beginning of the program we find out what their true passion is. In our cohort, there was folks that wanted to do film. They want to be writers. A couple of them wanted to be rappers, producers, and all these things. We know of other programs that can help them do that. I'm connected to the nonprofit world. I get emails on the daily of new programs that are out there for young people. This is not to make people work in this field. It's really just to provide an opportunity to become stable, so that they can pursue what they really want to do.

They don't push back, though? They get that?

No. They want a job. They out here walking door to door to cut lawns. They out here asking beauty shop owners, "Can I sweep your floors?" Trying to do anything. They're out here trying not to end up in jail.