A Path To Success For Formerly Incarcerated Youth Grows In Atlanta

Abiodun Henderson's "Gangstas to Growers" program gives young people the opportunity to learn valuable skills through urban farming.

Abiodun Henderson is on a mission to love on Black people. Growing up in Brooklyn, New York, to a Liberian mother and a father who was a member of the Black Panthers, she was both taught to love herself and inspired to create change in her community.

As an adult, Henderson moved to Atlanta, which she describes as a mecca for Black culture. The idea came to her after being inspired by her participation with Malik Rahsaan and the “Occupy The Hood” movement, an organization geared toward creating programs in your own community. So she established her first community garden back in the summer of 2012.

Cleaning up after a day's work.
Cleaning up after a day's work.

But Henderson’s ambitions quickly grew. With about 30 urban farms located in Atlanta, she had the idea to train young people to become urban farmers — not only giving them useful skills but also helping local farmers grow their businesses thanks to the added help. 

“Farmers are some of the most underpaid and undervalued people here, in this country specifically. That’s why we decided to make that connection,” said Henderson.

Henderson calls the program, which started in 2016, “Gangstas to Growers.”

The program focuses on formerly incarcerated youth who are working to establish self-sufficiency.

“We decided that the program should focus on training formerly incarcerated youth, 18 to 24, because we know that those young people, from being in the community, doing programs in the community, those youths specifically, it’s hard for them to get jobs,” she said. “Because of your criminal background, you’re barred from so many different jobs, even housing.”

Formerly incarcerated teenagers and young adults are paid $15 an hour for their help on urban farms in Atlanta, Georgia, thro
Formerly incarcerated teenagers and young adults are paid $15 an hour for their help on urban farms in Atlanta, Georgia, through Abiodun Henderson's "Gangstas to Growers" program.

Participants in the three-month program work with local farms for a full work week earning a living wage, where they learn skills about logistics of the farm-to-market supply chain from planting and harvesting crops, to preparing and processing products and transacting sales and accounting.

Henderson is able to pay the teenagers and young adults in the program $15 an hour through the city of Atlanta’s Workforce Development Program. 

Making the hot sauce Sweet Sol.
Making the hot sauce Sweet Sol.

But Henderson wanted to take it a step further in order to empower participants to be autonomous and even create their own product — hot sauce. 

“The youth came up with the name Sweet Sol. You know, tastes like candy but hotter than the sun, it says on the bottle,” said Henderson. Using ingredients donated from the urban farms they worked on, Henderson knew that not only should they cultivate agriculture on the farms, but create a product to make a profit. The hot sauce is sold at different urban farm stands in the area like Truly Living Well, Fresh MARTA Market, and Oak Grove Market. The profits go back directly to the youth and the program.

“You can tell when they’re making the sauce, when they’re bottling the sauce, blending it, straining it, through every aspect of the sauce you can tell that they feel like businessmen,” she said. “Like, this is their cooperative, you know? It’s amazing to see the transformation.”

Working the urban farms teaches the youth skills that they will never forget.
Working the urban farms teaches the youth skills that they will never forget.

Henderson said she understands if the name of the program gives people pause.

“We’ve been told to change the name, that it just doesn’t sit well with folks having the young people seem like we’re calling them gangsters,” she said. “But y’all were OK calling them gangsters while y’all locking them up, you know?”

“We’re taking that and saying, ‘Hey, we’re growing them mentally, spiritually and economically, so yeah, we going from gangsters to growers,’” she added.

To Henderson, going green to her means not only the agricultural skills and knowledge she is passing down to future generations. It also means green like the healing heart chakra, and green like money. All are real necessities in life.

Gangstas to Growers shining bright.
Gangstas to Growers shining bright.