Pistils Not Pistols: Milwaukee Youth Choose Gardens Over Guns

September 29, 2018 by

Gideon Verdin-Williams, one of the founders of Guns Down Miltown, had just attended the vigil for Jakari Wright whose father had shot and killed him following a disagreement about cleaning his room.

“I’ve been affected by gun violence directly and indirectly and I’ve lost a lot of friends,” explains Verdin-Williams. “So, Guns Down Miltown has been on my mind since 2001, but I just didn’t know what to do with it.”

“We want to show that putting the guns down is cool, and to stop spreading the negative images to young people,” Verdin-Williams said. “Kids of color don’t have a chance to make mistakes in our community because it could be their lives.”

Sowing Vegetables Not Violence
Milwaukee activists and politicians, local rappers and former gang members fed up with gun violence in their community are working with Guns Down Miltown, pledging to live a gun-violence free life and calling for a city-wide cease-fire. Using urban agriculture, the group’s goal is to shift the way they handle conflict in their community by empowering kids to put down guns and pick up shovels.

Agriculture to Replace Gun Culture
What began as a social media movement in early 2018 has in a short time developed into a hands-on, fingers in the dirt, community initiative. The group maintains two urban gardens in collaboration with We Got This, a grassroots community initiative led by Andre Lee Ellis that empowers and employs young black males to become self-reliant and active in the cleanup of their community.

“The reoccurring theme is that the pain never goes away,” explains Verdin-Williams, “and a lot of these families want justice, so this became a lot bigger than an awareness campaign.”

Rising summer temperatures in Milwaukee often result in rising tempers and violent spikes in crime. In the summer of 2018 there were 16 shooting deaths over the course of 20 days. Simple arguments often escalate into senseless violence with fatal repercussions.

Green Shoots
“What we do on the weekends is bring youth out to the gardens to show them community responsibilities, urban agriculture, composting and how to plant and grow their own sustainable foods,” said Verdin-Williams.

One 2007 study the journal Neuroscience linked a bacteria found in soil with increased serotonin production in the brain. Serotonin, an important chemical and neurotransmitter, is believed to help regulate mood and social behavior and low levels have been linked to depression. The study suggests that gardening could increase hormone levels to improve depression.

The program bases its success on the horticultural therapy model, an outcome of research in neuropsychology and behavioral epigenetics indicating a biological healing response in the autonomic nervous system can be shaped by relational experiences and direct contact with the natural environment.

Soil and the Soul
Studies show that as humans, we have an inherent need to be close to others, to connect and establish relationships with emotional bonds and shared experiences. The relationships we form with others are vital, not only to our mental and emotional wellbeing, but to our survival.

Being in a committed relationship–romantic, friendship, and familial–is linked to less production of the stress hormone cortisol. Researchers at Brigham Young University in Utah found that people who have good social relationships are fifty percent less likely to die early than are more isolated people. Julianne Holt-Lunstad, the psychologist who led the study, told Reuters: “A lack of social relationships was equivalent to smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day.”

Laura Hillier, a horticultural therapist at Thrives Birmingham in the UK, says that “horticultural therapy is much more than gardening – it offers people a chance to take part in something meaningful and build their skills and confidence.”

One young man shared how Andre Lee Ellis, Founder of We Got This and the We Got This Garden program has changed his life for the better:

Pistils Over Pistols
Just as many studies show that married or paired people with mutual social and emotional support are less responsive to psychological stress and premature death, it appears that Guns Down Miltown, in collaboration with We Got This Gardens, offers participants a similar benefit through their commitment to each other and to choosing pistils over pistols, gardens over guns.

For more information, or to support the programs, check out Guns Down Miltown and We Got This.

Photos and video via Guns Down Miltown and We Got This.


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