Milwaukee’s “Program the Parks” Earns Forward Community Investments’ Game Changer Grant


    Forward Community Investments has announced that a Milwaukee based organization called Program the Parks has earned the Game Changer grant for November.

    Every month, Forward community investments awards a $3,000 grant to a community entity that is working to make a difference particularly in communities of color.

    Vaun Mayes, who helps run a classroom initiative called It Takes a Village in Milwaukee and the organization We All We Got along with Gabri-El Taylor Bay, was the recipient of the latest game changer grant for his work in Sherman Park and the surrounding area in Milwaukee.

    Programm the Parks has helped heal the divides and provide resources to residents in Sherman Park, once one of the most troublesome spots in all of Milwaukee. Mayes estimates that his program, which brings an array of resources to the park, has reduced crime by 80 percent.

    Mayes says that he started Program the Parks in response to the violence and other activities kids from across Milwaukee would come to Sherman Park to engage in.

    “The reason we started this in Sherman Park is because I ended up seeing a video of police kicking kids out of the park in the middle of the afternoon,” Mayes told Madison365. “So when I tried to find out what happened what I didn’t want is to just go out and say ‘This is wrong of the police’ without knowing what it was. I found out this park was like a hangout spot for all the kids in the city and they would go there to fight and other activities. So that was why we started the program.”

    But Program the Parks nearly got derailed before it even took off. Sheriff David Clarke, who has been involved in much conservative punditry and controversy, imposed a curfew at 6 pm — precisely when the volunteers and workers would start their work. Mayes said a nearby Boys and Girls Club closed daily at 5 pm and that needy kids and members of the community would flock to their programming. With Sheriff Clarke’s curfew in place they were not able to help anyone.

    “There was a mini-riot where kids threw rocks at the police,” Mayes said. “They busted glass off a gas station window. So that’s when our program became a daily program. We held community mediation between the community and the police, and between the community and the stores that were being violated. But then Sylville Smith was shot (in August 2016) and that led to riots. Sheriff Clarke had this whole thing about kids doing damage, so he implemented a 6 p.m. curfew. They sent in officers to make people leave at 6 pm until we got some elected officials involved and they took it to court and the curfew was overturned.”

    But by the time the curfew was overturned the cold Wisconsin winter was beginning and no one was showing up to the park.

    Mayes continued to press on, however, and has been able to gain access to a permanent building to house the program which will help during the cold winter months. Mayes says they have after-school programming for kids. They have invested in things like printing presses, camera equipment and studio equipment so that people can learn technical skills that they can use for careers or school.

    More than anything Mayes says they have decreased the crime in the park while at the same time making youth more employable and interested in a future.

    “I’ve seen a decrease in youth incidents. Sherman Park was initially bad,” Mayes said. “The sheriff’s department was getting five or six calls a day to the point where they couldn’t respond to other parks. But now they don’t even have a squad car there. We’ve implemented a no-fight policy and worked with the youth so that they hold each other accountable. So we’re just trying to get them some skills and tools that they can use right now. Everyone needs website design. Everyone is making movies or Youtube music videos. Giving them these skills is putting them on the path to making a company of their own or having this be a career.”

    Everyone always asks kids where they see themselves in five years. Mayes says the youth in Milwaukee can’t even think about where they’d be next year. Mayes says the grant from Forward Community Investments is one of the first they have ever received.

    “The challenge is that although our programming is effective there’s a lot of things we’re unable to do or services we can’t give because we don’t have the funds. We give rides to people. We take people to school or work or job interviews. We have all the volunteers we need. We just need the funds. We don’t have programs in Milwaukee doing this. This is a calling out for unity in the community to address our issues.”

    The Game Changer grant program is unique in that it allows small organizations access grant funding with just a short video and one-page application.