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Justin Roby: Healing the Hood in Milwaukee one block party at a time

Founded in 2012 by Ajamou Butler, also known as Brother Heal the Hood, the mission was simple: “heal the hearts, heal the homes, heal the hood.” Now in their eighth year, the block parties are only one sector of stimulating the healing process in Milwaukee’s urban neighborhoods.

Multiple times a year the nonprofit Heal the Hood Milwaukee congregates in the city’s streets welcoming people to free food, entertainment and an unexpected topic for a block party: healing.

While the nice weather and live music may draw the crowds in, the local vendors and other hometown heroes are what keep the people returning year after year. From buying a t-shirt or talking to the local alderwoman about needed changes for the neighborhood, it is a space specifically created to make people feel safe, welcomed and at home.

It was just over two years ago when Justin Roby stumbled into his first Heal the Hood block party. As he was leaving a wedding he noticed a large gathering of people in the street and wanted to see what the hype was about.

“I just stopped and said I’m in love. I had never seen such a gathering of people that made me not feel anxious in the inner-city.”

Now as the vice-president of Heal the Hood Milwaukee’s Board of Directors, 28-year-old Roby is pushing for a vision that founder Ajamou Butler set into motion back in 2012: heal the hearts, heal the homes, heal the hood. What began as a violence prevention effort seven years ago has expanded to a movement driven by Butler. He does not shy away from using his own experiences growing up in poverty on Milwaukee’s north side to motivate young and older minds alike. His message has been that the fight for a better community is not one person’s burden alone.

The block parties gave birth to workshops that range from the the effects of poverty on the mind to leadership workshops that allow young people to express themselves creatively through poetry and public speaking. But most importantly, Heal the Hood acts as an liaison in the community, connecting people to resources that they may not even know exist.

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Q&A with Justin Roby

How did you become connected with Heal the Hood?

I’m really involved in my community which is how I ended up stumbling into Ajamou. I walked in [to the block party], I seen resources, people dancing and smiling and having fun. After that I was like, okay, I need to be a part of this. So I would show up volunteering and sometimes he asked me to host. So I just kept believing in his vision back when it was the LLC and then this year he got us to come along and make a team. And now we’re a 501(c)(3). It’s been really fun going through that process so we’re an official nonprofit now.

How has Heal the Hood grown since it began?

We realized the impact of the collaborations that we have brought into the city. Ajamou does a lot of leadership development series and he travels school to school around various parts of the state and it’s starting to expand outside of Wisconsin. Just Ajamou’s flair from Milwaukee allows him to connect with so many of the youth, especially just his story. Where he came from, how he came through, what he’s come through, where he’s going. We still believe in empowering everyone. We still believe in just being there, being a voice, being an advocate. That’s not changing.

Why do you think people support Heal the Hood and Ajamou Butler work?

He’s sincere. He really means what he says, he really wants a healing for these communities. It’s more than just well wishes and no hard work. It’s more than him chasing the dollar. You could tell he took his God given talent and put it to work.

How do you teach children that they are more than the negative depiction of their neighborhood?

I feel the more we be the example, the more that we show our kids that it’s okay to defy those images and not get boxed inside those images. We can fix our hood. If we all go get degreed up and solve the issues that we have. Who better to solve them except for those who know. Our job is to brighten their horizons, see the beauty in their hood.

What message do you want the general public to know about your work?

I think it’s important for people to know that Heal the Hood aims to talk to everyone, not of any particular socioeconomic status. If you’re poor, we want to talk to you. If you’re middle-class, rich, black, white, Asian, Vietnamese, Native-American…We want to understand what it’s like a day in your life. We want to understand what it is that you think would actually bring a healing to your community because although we can say, this is our vision, this is not only our hood.

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