“Healing is our religion. We heal the hearts, we heal the homes, we heal the hoods,” said Ajamou Butler, an artist, organizer, father, activist, and organizer of the 10th annual “Heal The Hood” Block Party, which will take place Saturday, May 28, noon-5 pm in Milwaukee.
Butler created Heal The Hood (HTH) as a community event intended to rejuvenate and engage the people of Milwaukee and be a space for anyone who believes Black and brown youth deserve a brighter future and a better life. The block party will be adding some new components this year for its 10th anniversary along with their traditional festivities and fan favorites, such as an African drumming and dance performance, the terrific tumbling team of the Milwaukee Flyers, and the Children’s Corner, which will have free HTH shirts the youth can paint and decorate as their own emblems of healing. There will also be face painting and haircuts.
Butler said there will be enough free food at the event to feed 700-800 folks with a wide variety from vegan food to BBQ to sweets. There will be an interfaith prayer walk in the morning which will kickstart the festivities with Christian folk, Muslim folk, the Nation of Islam, and members from several other faith initiatives. Butler hopes this will be a uniting moment for believers in whatever higher power one holds dear to come together and connect with their community. HTH will also make history with 65-plus vendors, the most they’ve ever had.
“We do believe that there’s a spiritual element that’s necessary in the ghettos. There’s a social, emotional, spiritual element of healing that needs to go forward,” Butler said.
“It’s a blessing because not only does it allow space for small businesses to set up shop, make they money, do they thing; but the resources we have are going to be immense,” he continues. “The City of Milwaukee alone has seven or eight booths for us. So they’ll have a ton of resources: housing resources, employment resources, health resources, lead-in-the-water resources, COVID resources, summer programming resources, so on and so forth.”
Butler is also a spoken word artist and a published author and sees himself as a messenger. He said he is inspired by how artists in the 1960s would use their work with a revolutionary purpose.
Making it to 10 years is a big deal for Heal The Hood, and it’s been quite a rollercoaster ride for Butler and the HTH team. Jessica Butler, the operations manager, has been a lifelong friend of Butler and came on strong in the past several years to help elevate HTH. Butler has appreciated the journey and support so when Saturday comes, it’s going to be a type of family reunion for Butler and the HTH team.
“Last year, we had about 1,500 people in attendance. I can only imagine by God’s will and the hood’s permission, we gon double, triple on top of that. That means a lot to me because I come from the ghettos!” Butler said. “We are a part of the disenfranchised and so we can speak to the struggle of the disenfranchised, right? We come from the same ghettos that we are ministering to. The Bible teaches us that the best ministry is to the brokenhearted from the brokenhearted.”
Butler came up in the same communities he’s now serving. He’s gone through struggles with finances, mental health, and being in an underserved area where folks deal with discrimination and poverty. He’s seen many friends and community members pass away during the time he’s put on HTH, including a good friend and supporter of HTH, Dominic Carter, last year to gun violence.
“Back in 2010/11 when I started thinking about wanting to do community and service to the hood and things like that, he was in my ear just barking at me like, ‘Man, you can do it. You got the ability, you got the charisma, you got the knowledge, you have the wisdom.’ He was speaking so much life unto me to really push this thing called ‘Heal the Hood.’ And even back then, we had no idea what Heal The Hood would do. We had no idea what this thing will become. But it is heartbreaking to know that he did make it to the ninth annual Heal The Hood block party, but it does suck that he won’t be able to make it to the 10th annual. He’ll be there with us in spirit on that level,” Butler said.
A moment Butler will never forget was when he met a young woman and her two little cousins doing HTH on 24th & Burleigh. The younger cousin had been shot in the face and has scars on her face as a result.
“The woman comes up to me and said, ‘Young man, is this your function?’ I said, ‘Yes, ma’am. Everything good? How can I help you?’ She says, ‘You know what, my baby told me the situation and things and we haven’t taken her anywhere in public, just out of pure fear, anxiety. So I am so thankful for you. My baby is having a phenomenal time. It’s safe. We see security.’ And, like, that is what Heal The Hood is about,” Butler said.
Seeing how HTH has been a space for folks to be replenished has been very moving and motivating for Butler. His son is 10 and HTH is turning 10, so the endeavors that Butler has embarked on this past decade are not only intended to uplift the community but are also a way for him to be a better person and father for his child.
“When I had my son, I was broke, busted, and disgusted; sleeping on my mama’s couch, no job, no vision, no nothing,” Butler said. “However, I had an amazing father in my life. And so I knew that I had to do something for my little Black boy who’s on his way into the world. But, you know, I’m also realizing like, damn, it’s a ton of kids out here in the world who don’t have a father, who don’t have men in their life loving on them. It really just pushed me to say ‘Okay, them fatherless kids, they need a father role model in they life too.’”
Since that commitment, Butler has been a mentor and educator to youth who are about to graduate high school. The life and guidance he’s poured into them have helped these kids see their own light. The love and discipline he’s given has provided some necessary structure and stability. While Butler started HTH when he was 20 years old, the experience he’s gained through doing work in alternative schools and programs has given him wisdom beyond his years.
“I was dealing with sophomores who had three kids…in high school. I was dealing with seniors who were 20, 21 years old. I was dealing with a population who, if it’s 15 kids in a room, 12 of them got the bracelet on they ankle, you understand what I’m saying? There’s a certain demographic and I was able to relate to that,” Butler said.
Butler has learned that he can overcome the obstacles in his wake and wants HTH to be a space for people dealing with similar demons to come in community and gain some uplifting energy.
“So if you’ve experienced broken heartedness, if you’ve experienced loss, if you’ve experienced self-doubt, if you’ve experienced self harm, substance abuse, all of these type of things that hold us back from our greatness, I got a conversation for you,” Butler said. “It may not be a life-altering conversation. It may not be the conversation to save your life, but I’m gonna plant the seed. And that’s what makes the Heal The Hood experience so powerful because you’re going to be transformed, whether it’s at the block party, or whether it’s in the school system.”
Butler believes in showcasing the true diversity of Blackness and the culture to combat the overwhelming narrow narratives of violence often portrayed to the masses about Black people. He loves seeing how HTH can bring so many different types of people together for moments of joy and refuge.
“At Heal The Hood, it’s not about ‘this versus that or my ideology versus yours.’ When you come to Heal The Hood, we just push this healing, whatever that healing may look like,” Butler said. “It’s a safe space, it’s community, and that’s what I love.”
The 10th Annual Heal The Hood MKE Block Party & Resource Fair will be held Saturday, May 28, noon-5 p.m. on Wright Street, between 1st and 3rd streets, in Milwaukee. For more information about the event, click here.