From Gangstas to Growers: This Atlanta Program is Turning Ex-Cons into Urban Farmers
An ambitious young activist is using the local food movement to help break the cycle of incarceration.
On a 4-acre farm a few miles south of the Fulton County Jail, Abiodun Henderson swung a pickax into the soil at her feet. She kept at it until she was winded and sweating on this brisk October morning. Around her, 10 young men and women tentatively swung their own tools at the ground, loosening the soil for a set of raised beds where turmeric and ginger plants would grow inside a hoop house through the mild Georgia winter.
“This is how deep we’re going!” Henderson shouted over to Derriontae Trent, one of her trainees, as she pointed to a rusted spike hammered nearly a foot down in the soil. “Teamwork makes the dream work!”
Trent, a smart and wiry father in his early 20s, had recently completed a 2-year prison sentence for multiple weapon and drug charges. He figured that with a rap sheet longer than his résumé his only choice might be a return to the streets. Over the summer, a friend suggested he call Henderson, who had just started a program that would train previously incarcerated youth how to harvest crops. Best of all, it promised to pay $15 an hour. Even though Trent had never worked on a farm before, by early August he was enrolled as the newest member of Gangstas to Growers. Two months after that, he was gripping a hoe, shoulder to shoulder with Henderson, while trying to keep the mud off his fresh white sneakers.
Henderson believes Gangstas to Growers has the power to reverse some powerful and negative trends. Nationwide, black people are five times more likely than white people to be incarcerated before their 21st birthday. And Atlanta, despite its robust growth since the 1996 Summer Olympics, has the unfortunate distinction of having the nation’s widest gap between rich and poor. That inequality has hit black people hardest; in a cluster of historic black neighborhoods just west of the new $1.6 billion Mercedes-Benz stadium, the unemployment rate was dramatically higher than the citywide average of nearly 4 percent. The city and various philanthropic funders, including Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank, have poured tens of millions of dollars into nonprofits serving Atlanta’s lower-income communities. But Henderson felt there wasn’t enough being done to help young Atlantans, who had spent time in jail or experienced homelessness, learn skills that could feed their families and someday free them from generational poverty.
Gangstas to Growers: Teaching life lessons through agriculture
“The solution was always food first,” Henderson, a 36-year-old mother of one, said. A veteran restaurant employee who waited tables at fine-dining eateries throughout the South, Henderson had grown interested in urban farming’s potential to help heal communities. “I knew farmers who needed labor. I knew folks in the community who needed money. I couldn’t preach to folks without providing opportunities.”
Henderson’s vision brings together two important facets of the modern urban revival—the locavore food movement that has become a fixture of gentrifying cities across the country, and an awakening recognition that gentrification was leaving behind, or even displacing, a significant portion of the population. Simultaneously, Gangstas to Growers also teaches young people the importance of building wealth in historically disinvested communities in Atlanta. Despite Atlanta’s reputation as a Black Mecca, the city’s low-income children have less of a shot to move up the income ladder compared with other major American cities.
“Urban ag is a tool that can restore and revitalize communities,” said Frank Fernandez, vice president of community development for the family foundation for Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank, who is investing over $30 million in philanthropy to the city’s west side, including a fellowship program in which Henderson participated. “The program lifts up people with potential.”
Between the revenue raised from hot sauce and the help of private funders, including Spanx founder Sara Blakely, Henderson wants to train at least 500 formerly incarcerated young Atlantans by 2025. Eventually, Henderson foresees her program expanding to other major American cities that struggle with gang violence, introducing young black people nationwide to the many possibilities offered by food and farming.
“[Henderson’s] talent lies in providing youth with confidence and motivation—and she has the ambition to do that with whoever she’s working with,” said Mario Cambardella, the city of Atlanta’s urban agriculture director. “That’s because she recognizes that food—and plants—have the power to transform a person.
In 2016, the same year Gangstas to Growers launched, Derriontae Trent was inside a jail cell, trying to redraw his life’s plans. A teenager with an entrepreneurial spirit, he had a talent for making money, devising ingenious-albeit-illegal hustles such as stealing tires off parked cars and snatching iPhones out of train riders’ hands. On the streets, he tried to conduct business nonviolently—as he put it “Martin with a Malcolm X mindset.” But he couldn’t stay out of trouble; he was stabbed with a knife during a fight, suffering a punctured lung. He started carrying a gun. He was 17 when a judge sentenced him to two years for felony gun and drug charges.
After his release in late 2017, Trent obtained his GED, but couldn’t find a job that paid well enough to provide for his three daughters. He collected on old debts from friends. Then he briefly returned to selling drugs. One day, he was sitting in the house of his business partner, who had heard about Gangstas to Growers. Call this number, his friend said, talk to this lady real quick. He dialed. On the other end was Henderson, who offered a brief overview, stressing the hourly wage. The closest Trent had ever gotten to working in food was helping his aunt cook and clean dishes. Now, he had a chance to make more than twice Georgia’s minimum wage despite his lack of experience, an offer too good to pass up.
Henderson instructed Trent to visit WorkSource Atlanta, the city’s workforce development agency, which covered the stipends. Trent had to prove he lived in Atlanta, take an adult education test, and map out his professional goals with an adviser. While Trent got approved quickly, the process lasted months for others. In some cases, potential trainees couldn’t track down residency documents or lacked reliable transportation to get to WorkSource building. The more time that passed, Henderson knew, the more likely some would return to the streets.
By the end of September, though, Henderson had recruited 10 young adults for her full-time program. The days started at 8 a.m. with yoga—one of several ways she got trainees to focus on their health—and ended with seminars from food industry experts, environmental activists, nutritionists and criminal justice advocates. In between, the trainees learned from black growers who owned and operated their own gardens and farms located in southwest Atlanta.
One day before work started, 18-year-old trainee Zion Franklin listened to a grower describe his experiences with crops and was reminded of the importance of farming to black Americans. He thought about his great-grandfather who, despite having a sixth-grade education, owned a farm that raised livestock including cows, sheep and chickens on a farm several hours south of Atlanta. If his great-grandfather could prosper through farming, he wondered if he could someday, too. Similarly, Gangstas to Growers’ entrepreneurial lessons have opened up trainees to worlds beyond agriculture. Another trainee, Kader Sabara, 19, currently on probation for improperly carrying a firearm, had wanted to become a mechanic. Now, though, he thought about opening up a custom body shop.
“Without [Gangstas to Growers], people in this program would be out there robbing, stealing, killing,” said trainee Ronnesha Dawsey, who had experienced homelessness after running away from Jacksonville. “Now it’s teaching us to lead the way, and show the next generation how to stay out of trouble.”
When Henderson was in seventh grade in New York, the food in her refrigerator started to change. Soy milk replaced skim. And soy patties became a dinner staple. Throughout elementary school, her mother, Dessie, had typically brought home take-out meals because of long days working as both a social worker and psychology teacher. Henderson was puzzled at first about the sudden dietary shift. Eventually, she learned that her mother had AIDS and was trying to eat vegan to improve her health.
By the time Dessie died in 1997, Henderson, still in middle school, had moved in with relatives on her father’s side of the family. Soon, Henderson started cutting class, heading for the library to read books from black fiction writers like Pearl Cleage, Toni Morrison and Alice Walker. Henderson was sent to Piney Woods, a historic boarding school in Mississippi. After graduation, she enrolled at Dillard University in New Orleans. To pay her bills, she picked up shifts at Mr. B’s Bistro, a well-known Creole restaurant located in the French Quarter.
In the mid-2000s, Henderson moved to Georgia, finding work at a string of fine-dining restaurants. She cobbled together enough money to buy a three-bedroom house on Atlanta’s west side. Three years later, in 2011, the bank foreclosed on her house. Around that time, her father died unexpectedly. With a modest inheritance from her father, a former rank-and-file Black Panther member, she traveled the country taking photos of the Occupy movement, which had started on Wall Street and expanded its protests about corporate financial misdeeds across the country. During a visit to Washington, D.C., she discovered an offshoot of the movement, Occupy the Hood, that sought to increase access to healthy foods in low-income minority communities. By the time Henderson returned to Atlanta, she delved further into activism, researching ways to reduce food insecurity while creating opportunities for young community members.
In 2012, Henderson persuaded a property owner in Atlanta’s Westview neighborhood, where she now rented, to let her plant collards and kale. From there, she persuaded the neighborhood association to let her oversee a community garden that operated on an empty half-acre lot that had been leased. A self-described “auntie-big-sister-mama type,” she recruited kids living around Westview to help her grow vegetables, a skill she would hone as a trainee with the urban farming nonprofit, Truly Living Well. Her efforts grew into an annual summer camp for kids and teens, which in total raised more than $7,000 in public and private grants.
But as Henderson’s camp flourished, neighborhoods like Westview experienced rapid gentrification. Investors that had bought up foreclosed homes during the Great Recession now sold them to wealthier—and often white—residents. The construction of the Atlanta Beltline, a 22-mile ring of trails and parks (and someday, perhaps, transit), sparked a development boom on the city’s west side that drove up rents and displaced black residents. According to Henderson, a bank foreclosed on the community garden’s lot—and then the bank itself closed. In 2015, she watched in horror as the community garden was bulldozed. (A group of Westview residents later bought back the property, but the garden never rebounded.)
Undeterred, Henderson set her sights on an even more ambitious program. In 2016, she won a $10,000 fellowship with the Center for Civic Innovation, a nonprofit that trains people in how to build more effective social enterprises addressing inequity in Atlanta. She designed a one-month pilot for six formerly incarcerated young adults. Not only did she teach farming and gardening skills, she introduced them to the basics of entrepreneurship. The trainees could also earn extra money by helping Henderson cook, bottle and sell Sweet Sol, a spicy habanero hot sauce that has helped fund Gangstas to Growers’ operations. In the near future, Henderson plans to launch a worker cooperative with Gangstas to Growers alumni as its members. She also opened their eyes to the system that profits from mass incarceration.
“These young people are looking for love, understanding and empowerment,” Henderson told a local television reporter. “As soon as we concentrate on giving them those three things, the sooner crime will decrease, and we’ll see these people soar.”