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Gangstas to Growers: How This Atlanta-based Program Is Helping Formerly Incarcerated Youth

By Rachel George

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There has been heavy debate about whether or not prisons and jails truly offer rehabilitation or if they’re just being used as punishment, especially when it comes to youth. Although each program facility is different, this Atlanta-based program is actively working to reduce recidivism in a restorative way.

Gangstas to Growers provides work opportunities for at-risk and formerly incarcerated youth in underserving communities. The goal is to prevent former offenders from returning to incarceration, ensuring they do not become one of the over 50% of the youth that returns within three years of release. 

This three-month program also provides morning yoga classes, seminars, and teaches youth how to harvest crops on black-owned farmland. The program even allows the youngsters to make their very own all-natural, locally-sourced, hot sauce.

Sweet Sol hot sauce is made with lavender, turmeric, muscovado sugar, habanero, and cayenne peppers. It’s handcrafted, bottled, and marketed all from Marddy’s Shared Kitchen. The name was developed by trainees during a marketing workshop. 

Powered by the Come Up Project, this program is also open to gang members and other formerly incarcerated individuals ranging in age from 18-24 years old. Trainees of the Come Up Project earn $12.50/hr for their work and take part in group therapy sessions, vegan cooking classes, and gain an array of skills in personal development, agriculture, financial literacy, and entrepreneurial skills. 

Since launching in 2016, Gangstas to Growers has helped at least 15 young adults secure positions with local restaurants and food companies after graduation. Participants received mentoring and training from local farmers and farming organizations such as SWAG Co-op which is dedicated to sustainable food systems and West GA Farmers Cooperatives and a founder whose family is rooted within social activism. 

“We are trying to do real-life things that will change the trajectory of our neighborhoods,” Henderson said in an interview. “And we are doing it with love, knowledge, and money. It’s hard, but we’re not going to quit.”

By 2025, founder Abiodun Henderson hopes to train at least 500 formerly incarcerated youth in Atlanta to harvest their own crops and skills to run a business. Following in the footsteps of her social activist parents, her mission is to empower the youth through holistic education and by providing economic opportunities, helping to reduce black unemployment and the state’s 65% youth recidivism rate

According to the Atlanta Voice, her mother was a Liberian-born social worker who helped establish a school and employment center for immigrant women while she described her father as a “rank and file Black Panther member.” 

Henderson’s knowledge, skills, and resources around urban farming stemmed from her early work at a community garden in Atlanta’s Westside and partnerships with Occupy the Hood, an initiative focused on increasing access to healthy foods for low-income minority communities. 

Henderson and this program gives restored hope to individuals who often have a hard time securing employment after their release. In the future, Gangstas to Growers hopes to be fully sustainable and partner with corrections facilities to increase community involvement and encourage positive attitudes toward ex-offenders and at-risk youth. 

Sweet Sol hot sauce is currently sold at local farmers’ markets and events in Atlanta and nationwide online and through the Come Up Project. 

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