IN COMMUNITY, WE THRIVE
Growing up in South L.A., surrounded by hardship, gave Prophet Walker perspective. “I remember someone saying that the acronym for Watts is We Are Taught To Survive. And I couldn't agree more. We were taught to survive,” he says. “There was a tremendous amount of violence that existed around me. There were drugs, there was the proliferation of Bloods and Crips as a young person, as well as Chicano gangs that were on the rise when I was young.”
“That was unfortunately normal,” he says. But also normal was a deep connection to each other. “I didn't realize or appreciate how powerful and important it was — community.”
Living in close proximity meant witnessing all of life’s ups and downs together. Whether celebrating milestones or mourning losses, they supported each other. “If you couldn't pay your power bill that day, you went and got an extension cord knocked on your neighbor's door,” he says. “And then you’d run your extension cord in the house and plug all your appliances back up.”
This deeply connected community is something he feels is missing in people’s lives today. “The culture that we exist in broadly is that we don't need people, we can be totally independent. And we've become accustomed with the transacting of the good and not the transacting of the actual relationship,” he says.
Proximity plays a role in this disconnection. In an internet age where items can be purchased with the tap of the finger, we’ve lost opportunities to build relationships. “Imagine the pharmacy of the [past] … You went to your local pharmacy and then when you bought the goods, you also transacted a relationship at that moment. You went there regularly. If there were butchers and fishmongers, you talked to them. You began to understand what their lives were, what their family lives were. And so you had both a culture that cared about the individuals that were serving and transacting with you in addition to the proximity.”
At age 16, Walker was sentenced to six years in prison after being involved in a fight with other teenagers. “There's a mundane nature to [prison]. We have all the TV shows that show these snapshot moments of violence or something salacious and crazy. And that happens without a doubt. But 98% of the time that's not happening. It is really boring, really boring. And I think that you then make a choice, are you going to be really present for what you're experiencing or not? And most people choose not to because it's painful, frankly,” he says. “Prison afforded me the opportunity to sit with my thoughts a lot and to contemplate what it is that ultimately matters to me. Or happiness, and how I want to treat people around me, and how I want them to be treated.”
Up until that point in his life, no one had believed in his potential. Everyone around him perpetuated feelings of self doubt. “They were not looking to harm me, but they were feeding me messages inadvertently of self-hate, like, ‘Leave the hood, get out of the place that you grew up in. Don't get yourself in trouble, if you ever want to get up out of here, if you're ever going to make something of yourself.’”
The stillness of life in prison forced him to confront his views on himself. “I had to accept that I first didn't believe in myself,” he says. “To believe that you can be bigger than what you're told you are, is a scary feat in and of itself.” But over time, he found peace with all aspects of himself, “the good and the bad and the ugly,” he says. As his self-love grew, he found himself started caring less what others thought of him. This opened his aperture for doing things differently.
He remembers listening to radio dedications in prison: “I can't begin to tell you how full I would feel sitting in a dark eight by nine prison cell in solitary confinement, when we are all in absolute silence, listening to the song,” he says. “After the song goes off, everyone is cheering for that person. You don't care about their race, you don't care if you've just got in a fight with them. It does not matter. There was just a human. The energy was so palpable and so fulfilling. It's really hard to describe.”
Today, Walker is the founder of Treehouse, a co-living space in Los Angeles. With one location in Hollywood and another on the way in Koreatown, Treehouse — like Walker — is centered around community. The buildings are designed with private living spaces and communal shared areas like the cafe, dining hall, art studio, library and lounge. It’s the result of his belief that wealth breeds isolation, and a desire to counteract that with luxury living accommodations in close-knit communities with others.
Growing up, he remembers watching television and seeing expensive cars and homes, but knowing they were out of reach. “We had a culture that recognized that our happiest moments in the absence of things were with each other. That's where we found the most joy,” he says. “That my joy is inextricably linked to your joy.”
Cultivating joy and connection are core to everything Walker has done. Walker also co-founded Watts United Weekend, a weekend retreat that brought community members together with law enforcement and local officials to strengthen trust. He came to the idea after observing a local summer sports camp that invited inner city elementary school children to participate. “I came along to watch one of these retreats and I was like, ‘Oh, this is cool’”. And I pitched the idea of, “If we brought all of the kids from all the rival gang areas, their parents, law enforcement, all the big fancy people ... and we just brought them all to one place and played and laughed together, we might actually find connection with one another,” he says.
The retreat was a success and evolved into a summer camp that continues today called Camp Ubuntu Watts, a six-week program for youth growing up in the area. “I don't know what that is, but when we drop into connection and relation at more of a micro level, we do find community there. And all the rancor and the divisiveness, it all goes away,” he says.
Walker believes the best thing we can do for younger generations is to protect the innocence of their childhood. “The thing that I observed is when we were kids, we played, we laughed, we rode our bikes, we were legitimately rugrats. We weren't trying to harm anyone. We were just having fun,” he says. But he remembers growing up with a pressure to participate in violence. “Fighting to prove yourself or to prove masculinity or just not be sort of a victim almost, was a big part of it,” he says. “And I never quite felt I was violent in any way, but I always felt like I did not want to get picked on and I didn't want to become anyone's victim.”
He wondered if children were given a space to play, they’d be relieved of this pressure. “I really wanted to provide a safe space. And I found a lot of camaraderie and fun with sports, a lot of discipline. And so I wanted to provide that for children where I grew up and to be in nature,” he says.
The importance of play continues to resonate with Walker as an adult and is a key driver of creativity for him today. “I try to detach myself from the ways in which young men are deported in America, and in some instances young women as well,” he says. “At our core we are all just children looking to have fun. We're growing older and the playgrounds are a little bit different,” he says. “It's the little kid that doesn't see problems. They only see a place and a playground to create in.”
Ultimately, Walker wants us to remember our shared humanity. Society is divided in America today, filled with discourse that encourages us to see ourselves as separate from others.“The human spirit is so resilient and its resiliency is tied to us pulling toward each other,” he says. To build community, we have to prioritize and seek connection, and pull toward one another.
To learn more, visit treehouse.community.