James Arms on a Mission to Improve Milwaukee

To make an impact on our communities, the first step we must take is to show up for the causes we care about, but James Arms took his passion for helping others a step further: He structured his business to work with companies whose missions involve improving Milwaukee.

Arms is an entrepreneur who has worked from the ground up to grow a successful graphic design and video business. Having lived in Milwaukee his whole life, Arms has been frustrated with the issues Milwaukee carries like inequality and segregation. So, his solution was to use the skills he learned to offer promotional materials to organizations that need assistance with outreach.

Arms grew up in central Milwaukee on 28th Street and began his career on the press floor at Quad Graphics. In those early years, he remembers traveling home from his factory job and being laughed at because of his dirty clothes. One day, Arms walked past a neighbor sitting on his porch who told him to ignore the insults and continue to work hard. The man said his hard work will be worth it. Arms remembered those words and held onto them when he needed encouragement.

Keeping that work ethic front and center, Arms eventually worked his way up through the company, taking every opportunity he could to learn extra skills and ask questions. In 2005, he left Quad Graphics to start his own business with the help of Debbie Lassiter, co-founder of the Convergence Resource Center (CRC). The nonprofit is focused on helping women in human trafficking find resources and now works nationally to help the cause. But at the time, the organization was new and in need of funding. Lassiter and Arms connected and built an image for the organization that showcased their dedication to the victims of human trafficking.

Arms was inspired by Lassiter’s vigor for her work and made it a goal to put that same energy into showcasing the CRC. In that process, he created his first logo, along with other promotional materials like brochures, print materials and videos. Everything he was creating was aimed at finding donors that would help the CRC with the funding it needed.

Early on, Arms learned the importance of connecting with his clients and understanding the problems they are working to solve. “You kind of just connect with the pain that they feel for what’s going on in the city,” he says. That connection is what gives his promotional products a strong message, helping nonprofits attract supporters.

Arms’ company, JL Promotions, continues to grow, and before accepting any new work, he asks himself, “Is this going to help somebody?” Since 2005, he has aided countless nonprofits by building an image for them that demonstrates the work they are doing for the city.

You can learn more about JL Promotions by visiting jlpromotionsonline.com.

Read the article in the Shepherd Express.

Dan Newberry, a Veteran Reaching Out to Other Veterans

At the young age of 19, Dan Newberry enlisted in the U.S. Army. By the time he turned 28, he served two tours in Iraq and was awarded a Purple Heart, but in 2012, he was medically discharged. For nine years, Newberry lived in a world of structure and discipline. Everything he needed was provided for him, from the clothes he wore every day to the doctor who checked his health. But when he was suddenly let go, Newberry had to learn how to do everything for himself and had little resources to help him with the transition.

“When I got out, I had a really hard time, primarily because I didn’t know how to integrate myself back into the community,” he says. More than fulfilling daily needs, the former soldier was struggling to make sense of the traumatic events he experienced in the army and unknowingly dealing with PTSD.

No matter how hard he tried, Newberry couldn’t find a way to fit in. Potential employers were telling him he wasn’t worth their time and people he opened up to about his past didn’t know how to respond. When he would talk about losing a close friend in an explosion, people would respond with a story about their grandfather passing. He felt overwhelmingly lonely and didn’t want to ask for help because he saw it as a sign of weakness. Struggling with depression and unemployment, Newberry attempted suicide in 2015. “I decided I needed a way out.”

After being at the lowest place in his life, Newberry started looking for things that made him feel better about himself, and what he found was physical fitness. A regular workout routine reminded him of the military and the bond he and his fellow servicemen would share every morning. He began going to the gym again but felt that the sense of community was missing.

So, in 2017, Newberry began teaching a free fitness class for veterans that focused on comradery and acceptance. He wanted to create a safe space for people dealing with trauma to have a conversation. He personally understood that traumatic experiences are “wounds that don’t really heal” and sought to bring people with those struggles together. “I don’t want people to feel like I did. I wish that, when I got out of the military, there would have been something like that for me.”

The class, called 22 Fitness, is hosted at FUEL Fitness in Oak Creek every Sunday at 11 a.m. Newberry structures the class so that people of any fitness level can participate. During the class, he will often share one of his difficult experiences, opening the floor for anyone that wants to talk. 

Since losing his way after being in the military, Newberry is now driven to help veterans find the recourses they need to acclimate back into society. The last few years taught him that he can’t always solve problems on his own. In his words, “the most courageous thing someone can do is reach out for help, and the most selfless thing someone can do is listen.”

Learn more at 22fitnesscommunity.com.

Read the article on the Shepherd Express.

Healthy Food for Everyone - The Victory Garden Initiative

Many of us take for granted what we have available to us when choosing the food we eat. We often try to make healthy choices at the grocery store, telling ourselves to buy more produce and less packaged foods. But what if those fresh vegetables aren’t available? For many people in Milwaukee, grocery stores are hard to come by.

The 2015-2016 Milwaukee Community Health Assessment shows people in lower income neighborhoods are nine times more likely to have less access to healthy food choices than those in higher socioeconomic areas. The report defines a “food desert” as a “neighborhood where a high proportion of residents have low access (more than one mile in an urban setting) to a supermarket or large grocery store.” Food deserts are very prevalent in our city. Access is even harder when residents have to rely on public transportation. Their options are corner stores with rotting produce (if there is any produce at all) or a long bus trip to a higher income neighborhood with more grocery stores.

Montana Morris, the community programs manager and event coordinator at the Victory Garden Initiative (VGI), sees the answers to these problems in urban farming and food education. For 10 years, the organization has been providing healthy food access to the community through events like their Garden BLITZ, their pay-what-you-can farm stand every Tuesday and their upcoming fifth annual Farmraiser harvest festival on Saturday, Sept. 28, from 4-7:30 p.m.

The organization started the Farmraiser to advocate the basic human right for everyone to grow their own food. Since their first year, VGI installed raised beds in yards around the city through their Garden BLITZ event, an annual 15-day event with 300 volunteers installing 500 raised beds.

VGI has become deeply rooted in the Harambe neighborhood. On any given day, you may walk into the garden space hidden between bungalow houses to find local kids doing summersaults amongst the crops. It feels like a refuge away from the busy city. Growing our own food is “helping us personally get in touch with the changes of nature, learning how to work with nature and getting something rewarding out of it,” says Morris.

Morris regularly works with kids that have never seen food pulled from the ground. Not knowing what a carrot was, one youth told Morris it looks like a Cheeto. Such a profound moment allowed Morris to realize how disconnected people are from their food and how easy it is to overlook what is available to us. “I realized that education was the most important part [of the solution],” she says. Through education on healthy food, VGI puts power in the hands of the people to become self-reliant food sources.

Learn more at victorygardeninitiative.org.

Read the article on the Shepherd Express.

Jared Bell’s City Champs Brings Martial Arts to Kids with Less Opportunities

While training at a local boxing gym in Milwaukee in 2017, Jared Bell watched as a boy from Puerto Rico trained alongside him. The boy came from a difficult family situation but found boxing as an outlet. Bell witnessed that the physical exercise and discipline of the sport changed the boy into a strong young man full of passion and certainty. It was then that Bell realized the influence boxing and other martial arts could have on young lives.

Bell was inspired by this young man and wanted to help other youth lacking opportunities in Milwaukee. So, that year he started the foundation called City Champs, a nonprofit that provides scholarships to youth, allowing them to train at local martial arts gyms. “We want to come up with the simplest solution to solving a large societal challenge,” says Bell. His idea was not to create a brand-new gym, but instead to utilize the many gyms and seasoned trainers we already have in Milwaukee. Bell looked at studies showing that martial arts and boxing are successful means to help troubled kids. He wanted to use local resources to provide access to youth who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford gym membership.

Martial arts and boxing teach discipline and respect. In the ring, opponents bow to one another or shake hands before beginning a match. Trainers stress that fighting is only used in competition or for self-defense. Initiating violence is unacceptable, and most trainers of the sports will not let their students practice if they break those rules. When youth come to train in the gyms, they are not learning to fight, but are learning control, focus and confidence.

City Champs started by partnering with the Sixteenth Street Clinic to offer an eight-week program where kids can try different martial arts disciplines at participating community centers. The goal of the program is to help kids build self-assurance and provide different training options that best fit each student. The participants who graduate from the program are eligible to apply for a one-year gym scholarship, which gives them a free gym membership, including access to the equipment.

In the last two years, City Champs has given away five scholarships with the help of generous sponsors. Bell has seen this intensive year of training and mentorship change the lives of the participants. Kids who were aggressive in schools, he explains, turn into hard-working students who have the confidence to achieve their goals.

Bell and the other dedicated people who have worked to build City Champs have no intention of slowing down. City Champs will soon have a course that Milwaukee Public Schools students can take at Bradley Tech High School. They are keeping busy writing curricula and developing new programs that will strengthen the self-esteem of our city’s youth, working to build up the future members of our community. “I want to leave something greater behind,” says Bell. “I think everybody wants to belong to something bigger than themselves.”

Learn more at citychamps.org

Read the article on the Shepherd Express.

Monica Lopez Helping Parents of Special Needs Children

Born and raised in Guadalajara, Mexico, Monica Lopez never planned to leave her home, but when her first child was born, her and her husband’s lives drastically changed. Her son, Francisco Javier Jr., was born in May 1982 with cerebral palsy and at the time, Lopez could not find any services in Mexico for people with special needs. Like many immigrants, Lopez and her husband decided to move to America in search of a better life for their child. So in 1987, while pregnant with their second child, Lopez and her family boarded a plane in Mexico and landed in Milwaukee.

Her son was not diagnosed with cerebral palsy until she found a doctor in the U.S., but even in this country, there were not many services available for those with special needs in the 1980s. At the time, Lopez didn’t realize that she would eventually be a leader in the community, helping to develop a better array of resources for families.

Lopez explains the move to America being one of the hardest things she’s ever done. She had to leave the rest of her family behind and start a new life in a place where she didn’t know the language, culture or school systems. It was extremely difficult for her to find the necessary resources for her son, but with the help of a family friend, she was eventually connected with the right doctors and therapists. Those initial years in America were often isolating because she spent much of her time at home with her kids while her husband worked long hours.

The family got used to their new lives in Milwaukee, but in 1992 their fifth child, Ivan, was born with cerebral palsy. It wasn’t until then that Lopez learned English, got a drivers’ license and started getting involved with local organizations. She became a parent mentor with the nonprofit Healthy Transitions, visiting hospitals to talk with parents that had children with special needs. ”Being involved was helping me cope and find balance. I didn’t want to stay in the home all the time,” she says. While Lopez was preparing families for what to expect and where to find assistance, she realized that many of them had that same feeling of isolation that she experienced. The parents felt like they were the only ones going through hardships and didn’t know where to go for help. 

So in 1997, Lopez started a support group for families who have children with special needs, showing them that they were not alone. After 10 years, the group became a non-profit called Alianza Latina Aplicando Soluciones (ALAS), specializing in aiding families whose native language is not English. The nonprofit provides trainings for families, hosts youth events and connects people with schools and doctors specific to their needs.“At one time, I was receiving a lot of services for my kids, and now I want to give those things to other families,” says Lopez. Motivated by her love for her children, Lopez has dedicated her life to increase the services available for children with special needs in the Milwaukee area.

Learn more at alianzalatinawi.org.

Read the article on the Shepherd Express.

Rafael Mercado and TEAM HAVOC Leverage the Power of Community

Sitting at a park bench in Clarke Square Park, Rafael Mercado, better known as Pancho, is proud when he talks about the surrounding neighborhood where he grew up. He points to the house across the street with a smile on his face that he can’t seem to hide.

“My brother owns that house there,” he says, then he points at the brick house further down. “There was a lady there named Ms. Robinson. We’d all go there, and she’d hand out candy.” Mercado describes the neighborhood as a lively melting pot where everyone knew each other when he was a boy in the ’70s. Then his expression changes and his cheerfulness fades as he begins to describe what the neighborhood has turned into.

Gang violence, crime, prostitution and illegal drug activity became prevalent. Mercado got swept up in gang life and committed crimes that eventually got him sent to juvenile detention. He was a good kid until he was molested by a priest when he was between the ages of 8 and 12. It wasn’t until he worked with a psychiatrist while in federal prison that he realized how much the experience influenced him to make poor choices later on in life.

“You feel like crap when you commit a crime, and you don’t know why you’re doing it,” he says. “Then you find out you’re a good person.” After making light of his own life, he began considering the many other people that have been through traumatic experiences and pondered ways to help. Once he was released from prison, Mercado returned to his neighborhood to find heroin addiction destroying the lives of relatives and friends. Within a nine-month period, he lost four cousins to the drug. To him, it seemed like no one was talking about the problem, so he took it upon himself to spread awareness and make a change in his community the only way he knew how.

With friends and neighbors, Mercado began passing out pamphlets to educate people about drugs, self-defense and places to go for assistance. He leveraged the power of community by recruiting people he knew who wanted to make a difference in the places they call home. A group of volunteers and he continue to knock on doors and walk up to sex workers, proving to be friendly faces in the neighborhood that will keep coming back.

“You gotta engage the community, get them involved,” explains Mercado. “You just keep coming, then they accept you.” That community service group became TEAM HAVOC, which stands for “Together Everyone Achieves More Helping Another Volunteer or Cause.”

The group meets in Clarke Square Park every Saturday to clean up nearby parks. On Friday and Wednesday nights, the group of volunteers meet from 7-10 p.m. to hand out pamphlets and other safety items like condoms and gun locks. TEAM HAVOC works with existing organizations to raise awareness about the issues mentioned and to show offenders that they will be welcomed back to their neighborhoods. Mercado has learned that the most effective way to stop people from committing crimes and taking drugs is to “let them know that they are part of the community.”

You can learn more about TEAM HAVOC on Facebook.

View the article on the Shepherd Express.

Tony Báez Challenging the Norms in Education

Tony Báez has always seen literature and education as ways to strengthen his activism and political arguments. As a young activist growing up in Puerto Rico, Báez looked up to prominent Latino leaders who fought for issues like Puerto Rican independence and civil rights. “We were reading their books and tearing up the literature of Latin America,” he says. He continued his education as a means to inform others on issues that need to improve, such as human rights and bilingual education. Now in his 70s, Báez is the director of the Milwaukee Board of School Directors, District 6. He continues to challenge the norms of school curriculums and push for teaching practices fair for all students.

In the early 1970s, Báez moved to Milwaukee and got a job at Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS). He helped develop the curriculum for bilingual education, a topic he would focus on for the next 40 years. Before Báez and other leaders of the bilingual movement began changing school curriculums, lessons were taught in English and translated into Spanish with no consideration for culture. Students who were not native English speakers were forced to assimilate, bettering their English but leaving behind their own cultural identity. Those students were not receiving an equal education, Báez explains, because they were forced to take standardized tests and learn standardized lessons that were not adapted to their culture.

With a committee of people adamant about incorporating bilingual education into schools, Báez and the group negotiated with MPS to implement new bilingual practices. The program was one of the first in the country and became a model for other states.

These issues are personal to Báez because he understands the challenges of trying to become part of a new culture. Originally from a poor neighborhood in Puerto Rico, he moved to Chicago in his early 20s. Worried for his safety because of his involvement in protesting the Vietnam War, his parents sent him to America. Almost immediately, he got involved with the Young Lords, a national human rights organization that fought for neighborhood empowerment and the rights of Puerto Ricans and other Latinxs.

For Báez, assimilation was never the answer. His experiences in Puerto Rico and Chicago taught him the importance of building a new cultural identity alongside one’s home language and traditions. He has always stressed that suppressing one’s culture hinders an individual’s potential and hurts a community. The bilingual education movement does more than help individual students, it helps create leaders for the future.

There are still improvements to be made to our education system so segregation does not cripple the opportunities of specific groups of students. And Báez does not plan to slow down his work. “To do the right thing for everybody is going to require that we change how schools function,” he says. “I think that’s what my role on the board is going to be. To keep pushing for that.”

Visit mps.milwaukee.k12.wi.us to learn more about MPS’ Bilingual Resolution.

View the article on the Shepherd Express website, part of my regular Hero of the Week column.

How Milwaukee Barber Shops Open Conversations for African American Men

On Saturday morning, in the busy barber shop on MLK Drive and Garfield Avenue, you will hear the sound of shears clipping, trimmers buzzing and men talking amongst each other. Gee’s Clippers always seems to be full of energy and people with hopeful faces. There is a welcoming atmosphere in the midst of the bustling barber shop.

On the other side of town, on 76th Street and Capitol Drive, you’ll find a quieter barber shop with a staff that seems like a family. Styles Par Excellence, managed by Dart Townsend, has a staff that supports one another and their clientele by being there to listen when someone needs to share their struggles. These barber shops, like others in the city, hold onto a culture that has been rooted in the African American community for decades. Barber shops have been a gathering place for black men, providing a safe space to talk and build self-esteem.

A barber is far more than someone that cuts hair; he is a role model, a health advocate and a reliable person to talk to. Especially to a man dealing with difficult life experiences like poverty or family problems, a barber is a steady person in his life who can empower him with a new haircut. As is commonly reported in the news, the rates of obesity, incarceration and poverty among African Americans are vastly higher compared to those of whites.

Most Milwaukee residents probably already know that our city is one of the most segregated cities in the country and home to the zip code with the highest percentage of black male incarceration. Those issues are real and present for too many local men, but barbers “can be an ear to those individuals that come from a broken home,” states Gaulien “Gee” Smith, owner of Gee’s Clippers. More than that, these barbers are embracing their role as trusted community members and partnering with organizations like the Milwaukee Fatherhood Initiative (MFI) to bring real solutions to this city.

One of those solutions is an event put on by Gee’s Clippers and MFI called “Real Men Real Talk,” a conversation for and about men. The idea came together when Gaulien Smith and MFI’s project director Natasha Dotson realized that men aren’t talking to each other about their personal issues. Dotson has witnessed how hypermasculinity can cause men to withdraw from their families and avoid confronting their problems. Smith has seen similar patterns in his customers and over time has seen more mothers bringing their sons to the shop, rather than fathers. Men have been withdrawing from the family because they don’t know how to act as fathers. But going to the barber is one of the key ways African American men have traditionally bonded with their sons, Dotson explains. “That’s what men did. It was a man thing.”

Real Men Real Talk is Dotson and Smith’s direct response to those problems. The recurring event is a workshop and open conversation which gives men the tools to be engaged with their families and steer their lives in a positive direction. Hosted in Gee’s barber shop, the gathering is only for men and pulls in leaders and business owners from around the city to teach men about entrepreneurship, health and confidence. The moderator of Real Men Real Talk, Kwabena Antoine Nixon, explains the conversation provides black men a place for healing, a place to discuss their concerns and a place to feel welcomed.

“Barber shops are the heartbeat of the community,” Smith insists. They are one of the few places many of these men feel comfortable talking about their vulnerabilities. Many men don’t know where to look for help so they choose to go to their barber, someone they trust, a place they can let their guard down. “You can say the things here you can’t say nowhere else,” says Anthony Millions, a barber at Gee’s Clippers. “You can talk to somebody, another man, about things you can’t talk to your girl about.” These conversations allow men to talk through their frustrations, find guidance and be more present when they go back to their families.

Gee’s Clippers allows for one-on-one conversations between barber and customer, but Styles Par Excellence tends to be a group conversation in their smaller space. “Everything is on the table when you’re in the shop. Everybody is welcome to chime in,” says Townsend. “It’s like a group therapy session, so to speak.” Whether it’s a conversation between two men or ten, these barbers make sure their shops are a place for men to have meaningful conversations whenever they are needed.

The essential thing that barber shops provide is trust. When boys and men sit in their barber’s chair to get a haircut, they are sitting in the chair of a man they confide in. “In this day and time, for the most part, a barber is the only positive male role model a kid might talk to on a regular basis. We don’t have enough positive African American men out here,” says Smith. He believes barbers have a responsibility to impart as much positive energy and insight as they possibly can. While inside a barber shop, a man gets to escape from the burdens of daily life and be in a sanctuary that guides him to become a stronger man. 

Venice Williams Cultivates Food and Community in Alice’s Garden

Aware of the significance a bridge has in connecting two places, crossing bridges is an integral part of Venice Williams’ identity. Originally from Pittsburgh, the city of bridges, she grew up walking across them to get everywhere. Years later, Williams describes herself as a bridge between communities. She has made it her life’s work to connect different groups of people, helping them “bridge their uniqueness,” she says. Today she runs Alice’s Garden, an intersection of the many neighborhoods in Milwaukee.

Williams began her community work through the Lutheran Church, always using her love of food and gardening as a way to bring people together. From a young age, she learned to grow plants in her family garden. Her father was a chef, her mother a grocer. She learned the importance of cultivating her own food and having a connection to the soil. As an adult, she works to teach others that same value.

Expecting to stay for only two years, Williams moved to Milwaukee in 1989 to pursue her ministry work. She found it hard to leave the city after quickly building relationships with the people she worked with. Still in Milwaukee 13 years later, she found her way to Alice’s Garden, a community garden since the early ’70s. Located on 21st Street and Garfield Avenue, the garden presented the perfect opportunity for Williams to marry her passion for food and building community relationships. Alice’s Garden is now part of her ministry called The Table. Even as the executive director of the garden, she still calls herself the “the weed puller.”

Alice’s Garden has become a center point in the community. It is a place where people of different cultures and ethnicities intersect to celebrate their similarities through food. “Everyone wants to come to this piece of land to cultivate food, but you’re cultivating community just as much,” explains Williams. There was a point when you could tell the ethnicity of a gardener based on the crops they grew. Now the garden plots are diverse like the gardeners cultivating them. With a multitude of programs focused on food and spending time outdoors, Williams has helped people share their traditions and cultures.

The garden comes alive with programs and events during the growing season. Events like yoga classes, meditation walks, group book readings and drum circles all take place in the garden with “the sky as the ceiling,” says Williams. “We create a stronger bond with each other and with the land when we are in the open air,” she explains.

Williams believes “authentic development comes from within a community,” meaning the garden structures its programming based on what the local neighborhoods say they need. Cultivating change is a group effort, requiring help from community members and partnering organizations. Everyone involved with the garden has redefined what a community garden can be, bridging the diverse parts of a segregated city.

Learn more at facebook.com/alicesgarden

Cendi Trujillo Tena: Honoring the Voices of Youth While ‘Igniting Transformation’

Cendi Trujillo Tena is soft-spoken and humble, but as soon as she starts talking about the youth she works with at Leaders Igniting Transformation (LIT), her eyes light up, and you can hear the passion in her voice. Trujillo Tena has worked with young people at other organizations in the city but explains that their voices aren’t always honored or valued. However, at LIT, the number-one goal is to put power in the hands of the youth and teach them how to advocate for themselves.

The young organization started in January 2018, fueled by the issue of the school-to-prison pipeline. At least 12 Milwaukee schools have metal detectors and law enforcement officers who are enforcing school policies with the use of restraints and seclusions. Those schools predominantly serve students of color. Many see the added security as an answer to the violence and disruptions occurring in the schools, but the founders of LIT see it differently.

In April 2018, the organization partnered with the Center of Popular Democracy to publish a report that looks at the outcomes of these extra security policies. They found that there were much higher expulsion rates among black and brown youth and those with learning disabilities. According to the report, 80% of suspensions were of black students, and 85% of referrals to law enforcement were black students, but only 53% of total students enrolled were black.

Let that sink in for a moment. As a student of color, you are far more likely to be suspended or get involved in the criminal justice system. The report shows suspensions lead to lower academic performance, a higher likelihood of dropping out and a higher chance of being entangled in the criminal justice system. Rather than tackling these issues alone, Trujillo Tena and the staff at LIT decided that the youth being affected should be the ones making the decisions.

When Trujillo Tena came on to the team, she emphasized that “the youth have to be in every step of the process.” LIT now has chapters of students advocating for their rights located in Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) high schools with high security. The leaders in the organization start by building trust with the youth. Then, they teach the students about the school-to-prison pipeline and show them that these practices are unjust. Together, they have created the Youth Power Agenda—an action plan that presents an alternative to harsh discipline practices. The adults let the youth take it from there.

“They are the ones who decide what they want to bring up and what they see as the solutions to these issues,” Trujillo Tena says. LIT simply provides a platform to amplify their voices, such as taking the students to Madison, Wisc., to let them speak with their elected officials. Trujillo Tena and the staff understand that the youth’s experiences are real, and that their values matter just as much as any adult’s. “I let them lead, and they know what they are doing.”

Learn more about LIT by visiting litmke.org

Christie Melby-Gibbons: Serving Community (and Healthy Meals) at Tricklebee

When walking into Tricklebee Café, light fills the space and there is an energy that is inviting and calming. Patrons are engaging in conversations, children are running around, acoustic music is humming through the speakers and a smell wafts from the kitchen that makes you want to stay forever. This is the atmosphere Christie Melby-Gibbons and her family wanted to create when opening a café in a neighborhood that has been neglected. “It’s a safe spot and people can feel that when they come in the door,” says Melby-Gibbons. Tricklebee has become a cornerstone in the community, providing both healthy food and a support system.

The goal when opening the non-profit café in 2016 was to make healthy food accessible to an underserved community. New to Milwaukee in 2015, Christie Melby-Gibbons and her family searched a little differently than most would for a new place to live. “We looked for places where poverty is very common,” says Melby-Gibbons. So, they opened the café on North Avenue and 45th Street. Obesity and diabetes are also common in the area, which Melby-Gibbons believes has a lot to do with diet and few sources of healthy food. According to the Wisconsin Health Atlas created by UW-Madison's School of Medicine and Public Health, the 53210 zip code has a 49% obesity prevalence, meaning almost half of adults in the area are obese.

When the family first moved to the area, it was quickly apparent that there were no healthy or fresh food options. In fact, the only fresh produce Melby-Gibbons could find nearby was rotten vegetables in grocery stores. Wanting to help people in the neighborhood combat those health issues, the family made sure anyone could eat their vegan and organic food by allowing people to pay what they want. “We want to make sure that people have access to the foods that are available in other parts of the city.” says Melby-Gibbons. “In Shorewood and East Milwaukee, there are lots of healthy places to eat, but around here there’s nothing.”

Over the last two-and-a-half years, Melby-Gibbons has seen changes in the health, diet and overall attitudes of her regulars. Before Tricklebee opened, many of her customers only ate processed foods, but the café opened their eyes to new options for eating. All of the restaurant's food comes from its garden plot next to the building or from donations. The café-goers see the ingredients for their meals pulled from the soil and brought to the kitchen—that creates a trust that is hard to come by. Melby-Gibbons wants her customers to see how easy it is to eat healthy and to make those choices part of their normal routines.

To Melby-Gibbons, food is more than something to eat; it is an opportunity. She has used food to lift spirits, strengthen a community and show her neighborhood that someone cares for their well-being. "This is my real calling,” she says. “To get food out of the waste stream and into people’s bellies, especially in places where people can’t afford it... So, we did it and it’s working.”

Learn more at tricklebeecafe.org

Stacey Williams-Ng: Finding Opportunities for Local Artists

Stacey Williams-Ng is a mural artist who has found her calling as an organizer. When asked why she is inspired to bring street art to the buildings of Milwaukee, her response was simply, “the empty walls.” Originally from Memphis, Williams-Ng moved to Milwaukee and saw a blank canvas waiting to be filled with color. Her background in illustration and chalk art led her to painting murals, but her life changed when Tim Decker, an animation lecturer at the UW-Milwaukee Peck School of the Arts suggested they convert a dirty alley into an art festival. That alley is now Black Cat Alley.

The transformation of Black Cat Alley was an important change in Williams-Ng’s life because it allowed her to do more than create art; she was able to provide opportunities for other artists. In the two years it took to bring Black Cat Alley to life, she learned the intricacies of fundraising, legal paperwork, marketing and everything in between. “The biggest thing I’ve learned is that I like helping other artists better than I like painting the murals myself,” she says. “I feel like if I stop and paint one wall, it’s a waste of my time. I could do so much more work to help the other artists.” The hype that followed Black Cat Alley opened doors for her to develop more street art throughout the city.

Williams-Ng’s next venture came in 2017 when she was approached by the Kinnickinnic Avenue BID to decorate Kinnickinnic Avenue with five murals. Painted by female artists from Bay View, the murals start at Café Lulu and go as far south as Sprocket Café. With this project, Williams-Ng founded her company, Wallpapered City, and her new career was officially born as an organizer for street art.

Since the Bay View mural project, Williams-Ng and her new company have only gained momentum and they have big plans for the future.  She is currently working with the Wauwatosa neighborhood to adorn the walls of North Avenue. Her goal is to connect the city with murals along North Avenue from Wauwatosa to Black Cat Alley on the East Side by 2021. “Public art, and murals in particular, bring communities together and create conversations,” explains Williams-Ng. She envisions completing this project neighborhood by neighborhood, allowing each one to tell their unique story and history through art. Eventually, those stories will build a bridge across Milwaukee, helping Milwaukeeans discover their affinity.

One thing Williams-Ng stresses is that street art does so much more than beautify a wall, “it gets people talking.” In the case of Black Cat Alley, it reinvigorated the area, brought in new business and became a destination for portraits. “I want to help elevate the discussion and help people realize that what [mural artists] are doing is going to have a much greater impact.” Street art represents culture, it opens conversation and it brings life to a colorless space.

Learn more at wallpapered.city

Angela Lang: Working for Community Engagement in Politics

“Milwaukee inspires me and breaks my heart every day,” says Angela Lang, the executive director of Black Leaders Organizing for Communities (BLOC). “It is such a beautifully complex city and it’s full of potential.” Interacting with people in her community almost every day, Lang sees immense hardships but also uplifting resilience. She is the kind of person who witnesses struggles in her neighborhood and feels moved to take action. In her eyes, there is a path for change and a way to achieve a better future. “All we have to do is tap in and engage folks in a really meaningful way,” she says. By organizing her community and encouraging participation in the political process, she gives others the power to fight for their rights.

Lang grew up on 32nd and Wisconsin, well aware of the dichotomy of the neighborhood’s low-income housing in the shadow of Marquette High School, a school most of her friends would never be able to afford. She also watched as her single mother struggled with breast cancer while working multiple jobs. These early experiences made her aware of the inequality, but at the time, she didn’t know the term “racial justice.” It wasn’t until she got to college that she started to truly understand the political system and what she could do to fix the problems she grew up with.

Fast forward to 2017, when Lang and five elected officials (Sen. LaTonya Johnson, Rep. David Bowen, Ald. Chantia Lewis, County Supervisor Supreme Moore Omokunde and County Supervisor Sequanna Taylor) founded BLOC, an organization aimed at getting the black community involved in the political system. The BLOC leaders felt they needed more people in their community to vote, or if they couldn’t vote, engage in some way. Their first step was to ask folks what they wanted to improve in their neighborhoods. After hearing the concerns of everyday people and taking time to understand their hardships, BLOC began training canvassers (or ambassadors, as BLOC calls them) to educate citizens about the political system. “Sometimes, people just see the effects of policy but don’t know how to interject and make their voices heard in such a complicated system, so we’re trying to break some of that down and do some of that education,” Lang explains. BLOC is helping to put power in the hands of the people to create a thriving place to live.

The African American community has been left out of the political agenda, especially on Milwaukee’s North Side, which is why Lang explains that BLOC is “targeting black folks in a very bold and unapologetic way.” BLOC is changing that narrative and listening to the stories being told by their community. As of the election on April 2, they made 51,587 door attempts since Feb. 26. “How are we uplifting each other?” Lang asks. “How are we talking about the issues? How are we putting pressure on elected officials?” For Angela Lang, sitting back and waiting for society to change is not an option. There is power in numbers, she explains, and to build a thriving city, we have to get involved.

Learn more at blocbybloc.org

Portia Cobb, Mentoring the Next Generation of Storytellers

Portia Cobb has always seen the world as a series of stories, and through art she has made a point to tell the stories of the people in her community.

Raised in California, Cobb started her professional career in radio, where she learned the art of storytelling using music and audio. Eventually, she transitioned into video when she started thinking about attending graduate school. Driven to talk about the struggles of homelessness and what it meant to be black, Cobb would continue to use video as her chosen medium to talk about experiences close to her.

While pursuing the theme of the African diaspora in her work, she flew to Burkina Faso in West Africa to attend a prominent film festival focusing on the topic. It was on that trip in 1991 where she met a UW-Milwaukee professor, who recruited her to teach at the college and lead UWM’s Community Media Project (CMP). Cobb never expected to be a teacher, nor did she expect to live in Milwaukee, but all of the unexpected happened in 1992. She found herself in a new city helping young people tell their stories with a video camera.

The CMP was started in 1985 as UWM’s effort to provide artistic programming to underserved groups around the city. “The CMP existed as a way to empower—to tell the stories of those we weren’t seeing,” explains Cobb. She would partner with community organizations such as the Boys and Girls Club and the Midtown Neighborhood Association to find participants in the program. In addition to learning the mechanics of a camera, the students would have the opportunity to meet prominent video artists brought in from around the country.

Cobb would constantly be changing her programming to fit the needs of the students. After first getting to know the students, Cobb often realized they were already activists with goals for changing the narrative. She simply gave them the tools they needed to amplify their voices. “They already had stories. All we did was bring the equipment,” she says.

The CMP still exists today, but it doesn’t have the funding and influence it once did. In its prime in the late 1990s, Cobb would bridge the gap between Milwaukee’s Central City and the East Side by bringing students to the college or by going into their neighborhoods. Now, however, the CMP functions as a mentoring program for anyone that reaches out.

The CMP created ripple effects throughout the Milwaukee community, being one of the first programs to regularly show films by artists of color. They would focus on themes about the black community and the African diaspora. Cobb sees the program’s influence in organizations like Black Lens, an organization that has been bringing films by African American artists to the Milwaukee Film Festival. Directing the CMP since living in Milwaukee has allowed Cobb to view the city through the lens of the people she’s worked with. As Cobb reminisced about these experiences, she flashed a broad smile and reflected on how much her students have inspired her.

Learn more at uwm.edu/arts/film/documentary-media

Convergence Resource Center Helps Women Inmates Reintegrate Into Society

More than 40 years ago, Debbie Lassiter began going into prisons to work with women who were lonely and in need of someone who would listen to their stories. Driven by her faith, her work in prisons began with bible studies, but she soon realized that the women needed more assistance that that; they would tell her: “When we get out, there’s nothing to help us keep moving forward with a different kind of life.”

The women would explain to Lassiter that, once released from prison, it was safer for them to reoffend and get sent back to prison than it was for them to stay out. After being released from prison, these women would often be in dangerous relationships or dealing with trauma from experiences like human trafficking. They couldn’t find resources that would help them get out of their harmful situations.

In 2003, Lassiter and Carly McKiver responded to this need by founding Convergence Resource Center (CRC), which is a faith-based community service and non-profit organization. It started as a call center with the sole purpose of finding the resources that women needed. At the time, there was only one person answering the phone and responding to letters written from local prisons. Two days after they opened, Lassiter got a call on her cellphone notifying her that there were more than 20 women standing at the door; these women had nowhere else to go. The overwhelming amount of calls—along with the long wait times women were experiencing with the available resources—led the organization to offer its own services.

“We started offering services, which meant we didn’t get a lot of sleep,” says Lassiter. CRC always responded to the needs of the community and evolved to offer programs that were some of the first in the country. They were the first organization in the U.S. to use HearthMath to treat human trafficking survivors, which is a science-based technique used to help people build personal resilience after a traumatic incident. The organization’s programs continue to provide support for those recovering from trauma, specifically female survivors of human trafficking and formerly incarcerated women.

At the core of their organization is the call center, which has been operating since the beginning. The call center provides a warm line of support, meaning it has trained specialists who will take the necessary time to speak with the caller. These specialists can refer callers to a network of trusted organizations that the CRC has partnered with throughout the years. CRC relies on those trusted relationships because, as Lassiter explains, no one organization can solve this problem alone.

Throughout her life, Lassiter has helped people with a range of hardships and traumatic experiences, which has taught her not to look at what people actually did, but what they were trying to do. Through patience and understanding, Lassiter and the CRC have helped hundreds of women accomplish what they were trying to do. As she explains: “When people feel valued, there are almost no limits to what they will do.”

For more information about the CRC, call 414-979-0591 or visit convergenceresource.org

Pat Wilborn, Fish Farmer from Port Washington

When Pat Wilborn learned about aquaponics 12 years ago, it opened his eyes to a sustainable way of farming and he knew immediately that this was something he wanted to pursue. “I bought into the concept and decided it was time to give something back,” says Wilborn. He and his wife, Amy Otis-Wilborn, first built a small aquaponics model in their home in Port Washington, and after refining the process, they eventually built a 3,500-gallon aquaponics system called Port Fish. The nonprofit has a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) model and also sells their larger fish to local restaurants. But most importantly, Pat Wilborn explains, the farm is a teaching device.

Aquaponics is the combination of aquaculture (fish farming) and hydroponics (farming without soil). The system works in a cycle: Fish create waste, which is then used to fertilize the water where the plants grow. When the plants take in those nutrients, they clean the water, which in turn is transferred back to the fish tanks. Or as Wilborn states: “You feed the fish, they create waste, plants grow.” Simple enough.

It’s hugely beneficial for the environment because it conserves water, fertilizes plants with natural fertilizer, has no run-off into rivers and lakes, and the list goes on. But unfortunately, aquaponics is not used on a large commercial scale despite the environmental benefits because it is expensive, something that the Wilborns realized when they started their first aquaponics experiment. They make some revenue with their CSA and restaurant fish sales, but they continue to put money into their organization to keep it running. The Wilborns, however, look at their venture in a different way. “It’s not a money-making opportunity,” says Wilborn, “but an opportunity to expand the capacity of knowledge.”

Traditional agriculture techniques must adapt to our changing climate, and people need to be educated about possible solutions. That is why the Wilborns and James Godsil of the Sweet Water Foundation (a supporter of Port Fish) strongly believe that aquaponics should be taught in schools. Port Fish has been working with the Milwaukee School of Engineering (MSOE), Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) and Johnson Controls to install an aquaponics system in Browning Elementary School. Located in the greenhouse on the school grounds, the small garden is expected to be finished next month and incorporated into the curriculum. Pat Wilborn’s intention is to help the school staff be self-sufficient in terms of maintaining the garden. The greenhouse allows the students to get out of the classroom and learn by getting their hands dirty—literally. “They have to get over the fact that they don’t know anything about it and just start poking it,” says Wilborn. When the children are physically involved in the growing process, they get a chance to see where their food comes from and how to lead healthy lifestyles.

Aquaponics has given Pat and Amy a healthier outlook on life and encouraged them to change their diets to whole-food and plant-based diets. In 12 years, they have built a sustainable farm, a strong connection to their community and a space for learning. Wilborn smiles while standing in his greenhouse and says, “The people that come through here benefit, I benefit, the community benefits.”

Learn more at portfish.org

Building Community Through Poetry with Kwabena Antoine Nixon

Many people in the Midwest know Kwabena Antoine Nixon as a poet, but that is a drastic simplification of the way that Nixon uses his words to touch our city. From hosting live poetry events, to teaching young people in schools about their potential, to organizing a panel discussion for struggling fathers who need guidance, Nixon has been anchored in the Milwaukee community for more than 20 years. He uses poetry to tell a story. Whether that be the story of black oppression or his own life story, his poetry has grabbed the community’s attention in a way that allows them to connect to those stories.

Nixon is not originally from Milwaukee. He grew up on the west side of Chicago, raised by his grandmother who gave him his moral code and his sense of discipline; she also constantly reminded him of his life’s purpose, as he explains. At age 11, Nixon’s father was killed, which made him angry and made him question his identity. He started down the wrong path, getting mixed up in the streets. It was a natural path to follow, because he simply supported and protected his friend group. Before he knew it, feuds between neighborhoods became gangs, and he was too far down a road he never meant to take.

A year away in California at age 14 saved his life by separating him from the only world he had ever known. Nixon returned to Chicago but “kept getting caught up in the life,” he says. So, around the age of 23, he moved to Milwaukee when a friend convinced him to leave that part of his life behind for good.

Based on his own background, Nixon understands how easy it can be for young men of color to get caught up in crime. That is what led him to start speaking in schools and sharing his story with young people in similar situations. He has been in their shoes and knows that the young students need to tangibly see what is possible for their future. “That’s where we can win,” he says, “when young men actually see what they can become.”

Along with Muhibb Dyer, Kwabena Antoine Nixon founded Flood the Hood With Dreams—an initiative that serves at-risk youth by showing them how to reduce violence through conflict resolution training and poetry workshops. They are building relationships with young people and getting them to care about their own lives. Once they care about themselves, Nixon explains, they will care about others and start looking at the world around them. It’s important for youth to see a person like Nixon, who identifies with their perspective and is an example of success.

Nixon believes “every story matters.” He adds, “When we use our story, it changes things.” His book Sensitive Warsongz tells his story to “black and brown boyz” and puts the reader in the midst of the pain and struggles that many young men face. With portions of the proceeds going to scholarships for young men, his book helps youth in more ways than one. Driven by his experiences, Nixon has dedicated his life to improving the lives of others and continues to inspire the community into action.

Support Nixon’s mission at sensitivewarsongz.com.

Speaking Loudly and Getting Her Hands Dirty - Milwaukee Water Commons’ Brenda Coley

As a child in the late 1960s, Brenda Coley remembers being in the attic of her grandmother’s house, feeling the footsteps of marchers as they walked through the streets of Milwaukee demanding justice. Living in Milwaukee during the civil uprisings shaped Coley’s thinking and influenced her life’s work as an activist and community advocate. “You’re formed by what’s happening in your environment,” says Coley. She has always had a way of understanding people from differing backgrounds, and she goes on to say that she has spent much of her life explaining one group of people to another.

Coley’s drive comes from the many eye-opening experiences throughout her life. For a time, Coley was one of five women out of 800 employees, which made her aware of issues involving gender. Later, she moved on to work in HIV research in the ’80s while taking care of her brother when he was diagnosed with HIV. She experienced first-hand how the gay community was shunned by the general public, fueling her passion to speak for people identifying as LGBTQ. Coley was never one to sit back and accept the inequality that is ever-present in our country; she has always been one to speak loudly and get her hands dirty.

Her community work and reputation eventually led her to her current role as the co-executive director of Milwaukee Water Commons (MWC). “What we’re about is connecting the community to water,” states Coley. “We want to engage and educate people about being stewards of water.” The organization achieves that goal by reaching out to all races and ethnicities, then asking those communities what being a “global water city” means to them. MWC has created a community inspired Water City Agenda with six initiatives and gets people involved through cultural events, art and education.

According to Coley, “Every culture has a water story, and one has to understand that story in order to re-engage people who have been disengaged from water.” The Mississippi River, for instance, was a pathway of freedom for African American slaves along the Underground Railroad. By using water as the vehicle to engage the community—and by believing that “water belongs to no one and everyone”—the organization can address some of the problems we face in Milwaukee.

So, how can everyday people of the Milwaukee community help address segregation? Brenda Coley has a few thoughts. Follow the examples put out by the leaders in the civil rights movement, who pushed for change on an individual level and on a systemic level. Go into an unfamiliar neighborhood with the intention of integrating and discover what that neighborhood has to offer. On a systemic level: vote, write to your congressperson and attend city council meetings. But whatever you do, says Coley, don’t just talk about the problem, because that’s not enough. You need to act.

View the article on the Shepherd Express website, part of my regular Hero of the Week column. 

Tatiana Maida is an Advocate for Community Health

Sixteen years ago, Tatiana Maida immigrated from Cochabamba, Bolivia, to Los Angeles, making the choice to leave the comfort of her family and follow her new husband. As she describes, people in Bolivia don’t understand the concept of personal space. And, to Maida, that means close relationships and a family that is always there for one another. On the other hand, “it takes a while to build relationships,” in the United States, she says. “It’s learning how to adjust, how to be alone, truly alone.” But, after more than 10 years in L.A., Maida eventually found herself in a new city, where she’s seen diversity and people with a resilience and passion for improvement in their lives. That city is Milwaukee.

When Maida arrived in Milwaukee, she continued with her career in journalism and began writing about holistic nutrition. Motivated by her personal experiences with illnesses, she was driven to help others find healthy alternatives in their not-so-healthy lifestyles. She thought, “How can I not just write about it, but do something about it?” It didn’t take long for Maida to find her way to CORE El Centro, where she began developing nutrition and health programs. From there, she moved on to work at Milwaukee’s Sixteenth Street Community Health Center (SSCHC). She worked her way up to her current role as the Healthy Choices Department Manager, transitioning from the world of journalism to community advocacy.

Maida found a home at the SSCHC because their mission easily aligned with hers. That mission is to improve the health of Milwaukee community members, not just through medical treatment but through education and prevention. Maida developed a curriculum for the Family Education Program that teaches families about healthy eating habits, physical exercise and stress management. The goal is to empower people through knowledge to make their own healthy choices. Most importantly, the program accommodates the cultural background and language of the participants. “Families and children have the right to receive education according to their age, language of preference and culture,” she exclaims. According to Maida, the education shouldn’t stop there.

Once community members in this program have the education to lead healthier lives, Maida believes they should learn the leadership skills to speak for their community. That is why she created the Community Advocacy Program. In this program, people learn how to be leaders by promoting health and advocating for the change their community wants. With that program comes the challenge of creating space at community meetings for both professionals and community members. “That’s been my fight; to connect with the community in meaningful ways and give them the voice and the space to make decisions.”

Over the years of doing this work, Maida explains how her eyes have been opened to injustice and inequality. However, through those hardships, she has also witnessed the power of people to change their own homes and environments. And Milwaukee has provided her with that opportunity: a space to make closer connections and for her work to be visible. The main lesson she’s learned is to “have a lot of hope,” she says. “We can’t give up.”

Learn more at sschc.org/health-community/healthy-choices

Bread of Healing Clinic Finds Solutions for Health Care

About 20 years ago, Rick Cesar was working as a nurse in the Aurora Sinai Emergency Room, treating patients that often had no reason to seek care in an emergency room except for the fact that they had no insurance. The sad truth was that the ER was their only option for medical care, which is still the case for many people today. In the same hospital, Cesar knew a doctor, Tom Jackson, and a residency student, Barbara Horner-Ibler, who were both frustrated with the treatment system they were a part of.

Cesar, Jackson and Horner-Ibler watched as patients came in to the hospital to be treated for an illness, temporarily recovered from their symptoms, were discharged with a prescription and would start the process all over again a few months later. These patients would not be cured; they were simply sent off with a quick fix. If patients do have health care, their level of care is dictated by what their insurance covers, which often limits follow-up appointments and other necessary treatments like behavior health assessments. These three health care providers came together to find a solution to these problems and make health care more accessible to those who cannot afford it.

In 2000, Cesar, Jackson and Horner-Ibler co-founded the Bread of Healing Clinic (1821 N. 16th St., in the basement of Cross Lutheran Church) with help from partners including Aurora Health Care and United Way. Although the clinic has grown to treat almost 2,000 patients and accommodate around 6,800 visits per year in three locations, it started much smaller. In the beginning, Cesar was stationed as a parish nurse at Cross Lutheran Church and began seeing a few patients a week to keep them out of the ER for needs like removing stitches and checking vitals after starting a new drug. Horner-Ibler then joined Cesar and prescribed medications to patients. She would leave her credit card on file at the pharmacy so that when patients went to fill their prescriptions, the pharmacist knew to put the bill on her credit card. Jackson became the medical director, and the clinic grew quickly with the needs of their patients.

At Bread of Healing, they consider themselves to be an integrated health provider, understanding that an illness comes from medical, social and behavioral problems. That is why all their patients interact with someone from their social work, behavioral health and medical team that are available at every location. But there’s more to health than that; there’s hope, explains Michele Cohen, the clinic’s behavioral health director. “I hold hope when other people can’t hold it for themselves, and that’s what this place is,” she says. “I’ve learned how much of a difference we can make in someone’s life by just listening, by just telling them the truth.”

The clinic’s health care providers are used to their patients telling them that no one cares about them, that they have been forgotten. These are fellow citizens of this city that feel alienated. Bread of Healing was founded to show Milwaukee’s underinsured that “you need hope, and somebody does care,” states Cesar. “You have to be willing to accept people and understand you are not the one doing the favor. You’re going to learn more from people than anything. And if you can have a heart that’s open, and you can encourage caregivers to do that, it’s going to make them better practitioners and provide better care to the patients.”

View the article on the Shepherd Express website, part of my regular Hero of the Week column.