On a recent evening outside the gym at Nickerson Gardens in Watts, a boom box fills the air with the sounds of a jazz flutist. Big Hank Henderson walks over to his GMC Yukon with the shiny 24-inch rims and pulls out one of his jazz compilations. He tells the boom-box man to put on the Les McCann–and–Eddie Harris cut “The Generation Gap.” It’s a fitting jam.
For two decades, Big Hank Henderson, 49, and his ace partner Big Donny Joubert, 46, both raised in the projects, have been reaching out to a younger generation of youth and young men in Watts, urging them to avoid gang violence, stay in school and pursue their dreams. Naturally, in this rough neighborhood, they have been through many heartbreaking disappointments and countless funerals, but without these two powerful men, the situation would be far worse.
“We all about Watts, period. Not just Nickerson Gardens, but all of Watts,” says Joubert, sitting on a folding chair in front of the gym’s entrance. “All these guys and girls deserve to graduate and be all they can be. Gang violence is a disease.”
“To me, Donny and Hank are community heroes,” says Sheldon Cruz, policy administrator for Los Angeles’ Human Relations Committee. “They do all this work to help the community and they do it for free on their own time.”
Cruz recalls how back in 2003, when he came to Nickerson Gardens, the relationship between the project and the LAPD was very low. “Hank and Donny helped rebuild a rapport with the LAPD,” Cruz says.
In March, the LAPD’s Southeast Division, which patrols Watts, played a basketball game in the Nickerson Gardens gym against a team from the projects. Ten years ago, that would have been unheard of.
“I can vouch for Hank and Donny that they are doing a great job,” says the LAPD’s Jerome Walker, of Southeast Division.
Congresswoman Janice Hahn, whose was the councilwoman for L.A.'s 15 District includes Watts, often dealt with the peacemakers.
“They can calm things down because they have the respect of everybody in the neighborhood,” says Hahn. “Hank and Donny are making a big difference.”
“If more urban neighborhoods had individuals like Donny and Hank, who selflessly work toward providing a better place for young people to grow up and achieve their goals,” says Gregory Thomas, a community interventionist who is also devoted to ending the violence, “then Los Angeles would be a better place for all of us to live in.”
Henderson and Joubert come to their maintenance-department jobs at the projects at 7:30 a.m. and get off at 4:30 p.m. Then, after working out on a bench press and a speed bag, they hang out around the gym, offering advice, refereeing games, breaking up an occasional fight and just making sure things are calm. They usually leave around 9:30 p.m. But that doesn’t mean their day is done.
“It never ends,” says Henderson, a man of few words who normally stays out of the spotlight. “We can be home at 1, 2, 3 in the morning and get a phone call that there’s some trouble, and we are right back here.”
Both Henderson and Joubert are quick to point out that they are not alone in their quest to keep the peace. There are many others involved. One of them is Dameian Hartfield.
“To put it simply,” Hartfield says, “they do way more than the average person to help the community in a positive way.”
For all the nice words that everyone says about them, what the two could really use is some help.
“We can’t do this alone. This is a huge problem,” Joubert says. “Get us some computer programs. Some afterschool programs. When you have nothing to fall back on, what are you gonna do? You are going to get in trouble.”
When Henderson’s jazz CD plays out, the boom-box man walks it back to him. Henderson tells Boom Box to put the CD back in his Yukon.
“But keep your hands where I can see them,” Henderson says, smiling just a bit.
On his way back, Boom Box says, “When I get my Caddy, I ain’t even gonna let you sit in the front seat.”
Joubert chimes in, “That’s okay. Hank rather be in the back seat anyway.”