Guns, Gangs and Gardens

After a career of studying violent teens, Deanna Wilkinson needed to find a new way to help troubled youth — and heal herself.

By Jeff Grabmeier

Deanna Wilkinson, surrounded by students in the Urban GEMS summer camp. Photo: Jo McCulty

By the fall of 2015, Deanna Wilkinson could no longer take researching gun violence among urban youth. For more than two decades, she had interviewed violent offenders to learn their motivations, worked to end violence in the community, and attended the funerals of more murder victims than she cared to count. After suffering from secondary trauma and compassion fatigue, she needed to turn her research in a new direction.

But Wilkinson, an associate professor of human sciences at The Ohio State University, had one more obligation related to her violence work: a presentation she was scheduled to give at a prestigious conference in February 2016. The title of her presentation neatly summed up what she wanted to get away from: “Settling the score: Decision-making in retaliatory violence among urban youth.”

It was going to be the final chapter of her violence research. But even that final chapter was too difficult to write. “Every time I tried to finish that retaliatory violence paper, I just shut down and couldn’t do it,” Wilkinson said. “When I went back into the data, all I had in my mind were the people who I had tried to help who had been killed. I just couldn’t write about or seriously think about the decision-making of killers anymore. I decided that after more than 25 years, I needed to give myself permission to do something that isn’t so hard on me personally.”

She ended up canceling her presentation.

But Wilkinson wasn’t giving up. She felt a personal connection to the people, many of them minorities, who lived in the urban areas where she did her research. “I wanted to give back to the communities who had welcomed me, who allowed me to work with them through all these years,” she said. “I knew there was more I could do and I knew I had the strength to do it.”

She also had an idea of how to continue her work, but with a more positive focus. That idea was a fledgling program she had started at Ohio State just a few months before.

Urban GEMS — Gardening Entrepreneurs Motivating Sustainability — is designed to engage at-risk youth through growing fruits and vegetables, nurturing plants that would help feed their communities. The program provides not only fresh food, but also opportunities to learn science and math and business skills, while showing students a path away from the streets and to college and beyond. It started somewhat as a sideline to the violence research, and now it was going to be Wilkinson’s focus.

Wilkinson piloted Urban GEMS in fall 2015 at two sites in the urban core of Columbus, Ohio, where she had long worked. One is at the community center for Reaching Higher Heights 4 Life, located at Family Missionary Baptist Church on the south side of the city. There, children aged 10 to 17 belong to a garden club that meets every Wednesday after school. An Ohio State team also hosts an eight-week Urban GEMS summer program at the church, working with about 80 kids aged 5 to 15 to plant and care for gardens and work on art projects.

The other site is the Academy of Urban Scholars (AUS), an east-side charter high school for students aged 14 to 22 who are at risk of dropping out. Here, Wilkinson developed an academic program based on Urban GEMS that she hoped would keep teens in school and out of gangs.

Working with colleagues at Ohio State and AUS, Wilkinson had written a funding proposal for Urban GEMS in April 2015 and within a month received a five-year federal grant from the Children, Youth, and Families At Risk (CYFAR) initiative. CYFAR is part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture. She spent the rest of last year starting a test of the program at the two sites and gearing up for the official launch in 2016. Now, with her violence research behind her, she could devote all her energies to her new passion.

Preparing salads at the Academy for Urban Scholars.

It is a late August day, just a week after the start of school at the Academy of Urban Scholars. Shortly after classes end for the day, about a dozen students are busy chattering and working in the Urban GEMS room. On one side of the room are four indoor vertical aeroponic gardens, one of the most visible components of Urban GEMS. These towers allow students to grow fruits and vegetables year-round. Basking in grow-lights, the six-foot towers can support up to 28 plants each with no soil, using only water and nutrients, producing everything from kale and lettuce to eggplant and collard greens. Elsewhere in the room are kitchen prep tables with skillets, blenders and other kitchen implements, alongside traditional school desks.

The students have harvested kale and various varieties of lettuce and greens off the aeroponic gardens, as well as from an outside garden. Some of the students are making salads and eating them; others are boxing them up to take home. Still others drop produce into blenders to whip up fruit and veggie smoothies. A few students are washing dishes. Three are on tablet computers, investigating the nutritional value of the food they are eating as part of their classwork.

Earlier in the day, Wilkinson had students write in journals about how they were feeling, what they had eaten in the last 24 hours, whether they had gotten enough sleep and what their goals were for the week. She discussed with students how to take a recipe for four people and scale it up for 30 people. “We’re integrating math and nutrition and turning everything we do into an opportunity to learn. I’m trying to make every situation into something that is dynamic and hands-on,” she says. “It’s difficult because a lot of the students don’t read at a high-school level, they don’t have a lot of confidence and they get frustrated easily. It’s easy for them to disengage and just look at their phones.”

Nearly every student in the school lives in poverty, a third have children of their own and 20 percent have dropped out of five or more schools already. Few of them have healthy diets — 85 percent eat just two or fewer serving of fresh produce a day.

“When it gets difficult and the students are acting up, I remind myself that these are the kids who really need the help. And I’m grateful that things have worked out as well as they have,” she says.

Terrell Woodall (L) and Dionte’ Brown next to the aeroponic gardens at AUS.

At this early point in the semester, Wilkinson is recruiting AUS students to participate in Urban GEMS. She can take only about 40 students at a time to participate in the intensive 12-week credit course, which covers the science of aeroponic food production, nutrition, food policy, entrepreneurship, basic business math and general workforce readiness. Those who successfully complete the first course will be offered placement in a second course, funded by the Aetna Foundation, which will involve a paid internship at one of 10 local agencies that have agreed to host an aeroponic garden and work with young people. Following the internship, students will complete up to two additional independent study courses.

As part of the grant from CYFAR, Wilkinson and her colleagues will conduct an evaluation study to measure the success of the program. One goal is to increase consumption of fresh fruit and vegetables by 50 percent among participants. The program also strives to increase nutritional knowledge, increase teen engagement in high school and produce young people who are ready for college or work. Students will complete a pre-test before they enter Urban GEMS and multiple post-tests to document its effects. Wilkinson will use a combination of survey data, academic achievement data, observational data and project documentation to see which program components offer the greatest promise for helping young people.

Frederick LaMarr Photo: Jo McCulty

Frederick LaMarr, pastor of the Family Missionary Baptist Church, doesn’t need to wait for the evidence — he has seen the changes Urban GEMS has brought to his neighborhood. “This area is a food desert,” he says. “There are no grocery stores nearby, and the carryouts don’t stock fresh produce. The average family doesn’t eat a nutritious diet. Urban GEMS helps provide nutritious food, but it does more than that — it is bringing the community together and helping people do something that is constructive. They’re teaching young people about healthy foods and inspiring them to get an education.”

Dionte’ Brown, 17, will attest to that. He is a student at AUS who immediately took to Urban GEMS when it was introduced last year. He was involved in helping set up and maintain the aeroponic gardens and is continuing to work with them this year. He hopes to go to college now, a dream he didn’t have before he got involved with Urban GEMS. “Dr. D is allowing us to have opportunities that we didn’t have before,” Brown says.

Terrell Woodall, 16, agreed. Going to AUS and working with Urban GEMS has helped him to feel like he can succeed in school. “Not everyone works at the same pace. Here I feel like I can get help when I need it and work at my own pace,” Woodall says. Urban GEMS is a big part of why he is sticking with school now. “It is a great experience. I really thank Dr. D. She put a lot of heart into this. She is a very good person.”

Wilkinson’s goal is to have the Urban GEMS class at AUS filled with kids like Dionte’ and Terrell, teens who want an alternative to guns and gangs. There’s definitely interest, she says. “A lot of students are still wrapping their minds around the fact that Ohio State and people who have resources are willing to invest in them. They are just not used to that. What I want them to know is that they deserve all of the same opportunities as kids who live in communities with more resources.”

Deanna Wilkinson Photo: Jo McCulty

Wilkinson connects with students like Terrell and Dionte’ because she understands what they are going through, at least in part. She grew up in the small village of Capron, Illinois, with a mother who was an alcoholic and a father who suffered from mental illness.

“I haven’t experienced the racism that many of the kids I work with live through. I can go home at night, while for the families I work with, this is their reality every minute, every day. But I do know what it’s like to go to bed hungry and to fear for my safety. A lot of the kids, you see their jaw drop when I tell them my story. They can’t believe I had some of the same experiences they do. But that’s what makes me so passionate about trying to do something positive. I connect to them through my own experience.”

Her lack of security as a child is one of the main factors that led her to pursue gun violence research in the first place, Wilkinson said. “If you don’t have security, if you’re not safe in your environment, it restricts all your choices. I felt that by understanding gun violence, I could help learn how to prevent it, and bring security to young people who desperately need it.”

She started studying teen violence as a Ph.D. student at Rutgers University, where she graduated in 1998. At Rutgers, she helped lead The New York City Youth Violence Study, which involved interviews with 416 active violent offenders aged 16 to 24 from the South Bronx and East New York, two of the most violent neighborhoods in the nation at the time. Between 1995 and 1998, offenders were interviewed in neighborhoods, in prison or shortly after being released, or in a hospital after being injured in a violent incident. In long, detailed interviews the participants talked about how they made decisions in potentially violent situations. The answers were as depressing as you might expect. “Most of the offenders were exposed to violence early in life. It taught them a limited repertoire of what options they have in a particularly dangerous setting,” Wilkinson said. “We found in the interviews that kids use violence when they think it is necessary to get through a situation and maintain their respect.”

During those stressful years, she often ended her days by watching Winnie the Pooh videos. “That was my way to cope with all that,” she said.

After receiving her Ph.D., she joined the criminal justice faculty at Temple University in Philadelphia, where she spent several years working on a large grant to study the victims of youth violence.

Wilkinson came to Ohio State in 2006 and helped form the OSU Youth Violence Prevention Advisory Board, which consisted of more than 30 local justice, social service, community action and prevention professionals who worked together to find new ways to turn violent youth and neighborhoods around. She also helped form CeaseFire Columbus, a group dedicated to ending gun violence in the city. That effort later became a part of the anti-violence group Ministries 4 Movement, an organization that Wilkinson still works with today.

During the time Wilkinson contributed to the Ministries 4 Movement activities as research partner, there were some successes. The program’s target community in Columbus experienced a 27-month period with no shootings or killings, in part because of the work of the Ceasefire and Ministries 4 Movement teams. Most of the effort relied on community member volunteers working alongside Wilkinson and devoting countless hours behind the scenes to help transform the community. But funding resources needed to sustain the effort never materialized, Wilkinson said.

Over all those years, her research on urban youth violence brought into focus the dynamic processes at work that allow gun violence to spread like a contagious disease. The titles of some of her academic presentations reveal the grim nature of her studies:

· ‘Life Out Here is Not the Life to Live’: Violent Young Males’ Perspectives on Life

· Youth Violence — Crime or Self-Help? Marginalized Urban Males’ Perspectives on the Limited Efficacy of the Criminal Justice System to Stop Youth Violence

· Violent Youths’ Responses to High Levels of Exposure to Community Violence

Her years of research helped guide her efforts to prevent violence in Columbus, but the work was stressful and often heartbreaking. The enthusiasm about her mission that Wilkinson had often shared with her family was quickly turning into anxiety. The violence had always affected her, but she continued because she was passionate about what her work could do for these communities.

Wilkinson with the Ministries 4 Movement and CeaseFire team.

And then three young community members Wilkinson worked with through CeaseFire and Ministries 4 Movement were murdered, all in separate incidents within a few months. One of them, Rondell Brinkley, 24, had changed his life by leaving a gang and had just given a speech at an anti-violence march when he was shot and killed in a robbery in front of his house in October 2014.

“For a while, it seemed like everything was just death, death, death. After helping so many families bury their children, working with the kids whose fathers were murdered, I was starting to feel hopeless. I felt the vulnerability of each victim.

“This was compounded by the fact that advances in the science of gun violence prevention were being ignored. I was witnessing the impact on the lives of African American and Latino youth. It just didn’t seem to matter to society what happened to them. I just couldn’t take it anymore. I needed to create some safe space for myself rather than focusing on the research. I learned that community members would keep on doing the work if I needed to step back.”

During a sabbatical year in 2015–2016, Wilkinson spent time reflecting on how the tragedy of urban gun violence became so personal to her. She realized she was suffering from compassion fatigue, a common condition among people who work directly with trauma victims, including therapists, nurses, first responders and others. She had been a caretaker since childhood but came to realize that she was not doing enough self-care. She recalls one friend reminding her of what plane passengers are told in the event of a loss of cabin pressure: You have to put your own oxygen mask on first before you help others. As she looked for ways to heal herself, one of the things that helped the most was working with an aeroponic garden in her home.

“I got interested in aeroponic gardening about a year before, after I went to a workshop on community gardening at the Franklin Park Conservatory. Soon after the workshop I bought one for my home. You have to understand, I have killed every plant I ever had. But the system almost takes care of itself. Working with the plants was just very therapeutic for me. That got me thinking, if this kind of gardening could help me, maybe it would be a good thing for healing in the community.”

She started with the three plant towers at the church and, later, the four at the high school. At first, community members were curious about these odd “gardens,” and the strange plants that Wilkinson and her colleagues grew there. Many had never even heard of kale, let alone grown it and eaten it. But it didn’t take long for the community to embrace the new foods they were trying.

Now, Urban GEMS has become part of the community. In addition to the six aeroponic gardens at the school and the three at the church community center, Urban GEMS has single towers at five other sites at Ohio State and the surrounding area, mostly for demonstration purposes and partnership building.

After only about a year and a half, Urban GEMS is already producing about 100 pounds of fresh green vegetables and fruits each month using the aeroponic gardens as well as traditional outdoor gardens. But Wilkinson has much bigger plans. Once the project produces evidence of the program’s success, she wants to expand to 90 aeroponic gardens, using them to create a community business that will employ 16- to 24-year-olds in living wage jobs while sparking what she calls “a mini-wellness revolution.”

Buttercrunch lettuce and kale from an AUS aeroponic garden.

Will Urban GEMS work? Research has shown that school-based urban garden programs have had modest success, but they aren’t the whole answer to the problems plaguing inner cities. Garrett Broad, a professor at Fordham University, cautioned in an article against what he calls a “magic carrot” approach that sees school-based gardens as a way to eliminate poverty and health disparities and fix educational deficiencies.

Wilkinson is under no illusions that Urban GEMS is a magic carrot. But she said there is no program she knows of in Ohio, and maybe the nation, that combines all the elements of Urban GEMS, including dropout recovery, workforce development, health and wellness, and youth development education.

“We are being very systematic in how we’re developing Urban GEMS. We are using data to understand what works and what doesn’t. This is driven by science.”

While Wilkinson is out of the business of studying violence, she can’t completely avoid it. On the first day of school at AUS this year, she was helping students create stepping stones as an art project. Two students arrived who had been shot in separate incidents over the summer. One victim was using a walker because of his injuries. “He really loved making that stepping stone. He told me he gave it to his grandmother as a birthday present. He was just beaming from ear to ear about it.”

Experiences like that are why Wilkinson has found peace in her new career path. “Some of my colleagues have reached out to me and urged me to continue the gun violence work, telling me how important it is.”

She paused and took a deep breath. “I can’t do that anymore. I am doing this, and this feels so much more positive and maybe, in the long run, more impactful. Instead of focusing on death and dying and shootings, I’m focusing on something that is alive and beautiful.

“Perhaps I’ll write about healing from violence for the next decade of my career. We certainly have a lot to learn in the healing area.”