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Aqeela Sherrills: The Homegrown Watts Peacemaker

"We are here changing lives" | Still from "Broken Bread" Watts
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Hear more from Edwards about what Watts Coffee House means for the community in "Broken Bread" episode - S1 E6: Watts.
Watts

Several years ago, activist Aqeela Sherrills met Chef Roy Choi when the chef was working with high school students on a smoothie business. "They started selling these smoothies at Jefferson High School and it blew up," Sherrills recalls by phone from Newark, New Jersey. "They went from selling two or three to having lines around the campus."

When the business moved off campus, Sherrills came in as a partner for 3 Worlds Cafe. Following that venture, Sherrills joined forces with Choi again on Locol, which opened across the street from where Sherrills was raised in Watts, which is also the neighborhood that marks the beginning of his journey as an activist.

"I grew up in Jordan Downs Housing Projects and participated in what many social justice activists call the longest running war in the history of this country — urban street gangs," says Sherrills, who now splits his time between Los Angeles and Newark. "In the late '80s, a number of us started organizing to make a change, to end the war in the neighborhood. I had a transformative experience in college. I went back to the neighborhood and started organizing."

Aqeela Sherrills in Watts | Still from "Broken Bread" Watts
Aqeela Sherrills in Watts | Still from "Broken Bread" Watts
Aqeela Sherrills with a fellow community member | Still from "Broken Bread" Watts
Aqeela Sherrills with a fellow community member | Still from "Broken Bread" Watts
Aqeela Sherrills cooking with his mother, "Mama" Wajeha Bilal, who is also very active in the community. | Still from "Broken Bread" Watts
Aqeela Sherrills cooking with his mother, "Mama" Wajeha Bilal, who is also very active in the community. | Still from "Broken Bread" Watts
The peace agreement between the Crips and the Bloods Aqeela Sherrills helped broker. | Still from "Broken Bread" Watts
The peace agreement between the Crips and the Bloods Aqeela Sherrills helped broker. | Still from "Broken Bread" Watts

Sherrills was part of a group that would go on to form Amer-I-Can with former Cleveland Browns star Jim Brown and then organize a peace agreement between the Crips and Bloods in Los Angeles. They went on to do the same for gangs in other cities. Sherrills eventually left Amer-I-Can to launch the Self-Determination Institute in Watts. He traveled the world speaking on violence and peace. Then, in 2003, the oldest of his eight children was killed at a party in Los Angeles while on break from college.

"I'm no novice to violence and death. I grew up around it all my life, but nothing ever prepares you for the loss of your child, man," he says. "That was transformative…it made me question everything."

As a result, Sherrills started The Reverence Project and co-founded Californians for Safety and Justice and Crime Survivors for Safety and Justice. The latter has been integral to the fight for criminal justice reform and worked on passing Prop. 47 in California. Sherrills also works with the city of Newark on gang violence reduction. "We've now had three years of decreases in a row in homicides [and] violence in the city," he says. "Newark is no longer in the top 10 most violent city list."

In his work, Sherrills sees the connection between food and peace. "For years, there have been studies that looked at this relationship between food and consumption and how it contributes to behavior," he says. "A part of our overall strategy around violence reduction is food, is food and water."

Aqeela Sherrills | Still from "Broken Bread" Watts
Aqeela Sherrills | Still from "Broken Bread" Watts

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 Watts Coffee House logo | Still from "Broken Bread" Watts

Watts Coffee House: A True Community Hub

Watts Coffee House has been open for more than 50 years, but since Desiree Edwards took over in 1997, the restaurant has become a community gathering place and driver for a more positive future for locals.
Watts Towers Art Center | mirsasha/Flickr/Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

8 Organizations That Attest to Watts’ Resilience and Legacy of Activism

A chaotic riot narrative may have plagued Watts for the last five decades, but these long-running organizations show the community’s deep and lasting legacy of political and cultural organizing.
A field full of broken watermelons. | Still from "Broken Bread"

Food Waste and Climate Change: How to Tackle Both from the Kitchen

It’s hard to eat, drink, and be merry when you think about just how much our food system contributes to climate change around the world. But it also means there’s plenty you can do to help mitigate the effects of climate change right from your kitchen.