MKEinFocus

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.

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

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

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. 

Milwaukee Fatherhood Initiative's Natasha Dotson

Many of our city’s men are struggling because they are dealing with poverty, child support and other issues, but they don’t know where to turn. These men have grown up being told to “act like men” and show no signs of weakness, so instead of asking for help, they often turn to crime, because, as they see it, it’s the only avenue available to them.

Sitting tall and speaking with a strong voice, Natasha Dotson talks about her brother, who fell into the same cycle that many of Milwaukee’s men have fallen into. She speaks of his extreme frustration when he needed support but couldn’t find it. “Nobody is going to help him. Nobody is here for us,” thought Dotson at the time. With no one to work with him to find a job or figure out his child custody issues, her brother ended up committing a crime and was sentenced to 18 years in prison. “His choices were his choices,” explains Dotson, but the fact remains that “he didn’t know what to do or who to call.”

What happened to her brother was Dotson’s motivation for reaching out to the Milwaukee Fatherhood Initiative (MFI) 11 years ago. When she first called the organization, she screamed at them on the phone, furious that they weren’t visible enough for her brother to find them in time. That’s when Terence Ray, the director at the time, got on the phone and said two very powerful words to Dotson: “Get involved.”

Those two words changed everything for Dotson, motivating her to volunteer with the organization for the next nine years and eventually become MFI’s full-time project director. “I’m going to do all that I can to help this not happen to somebody else’s brother,” she says, and she has acted on that incentive, working to broaden MFI’s outreach in the community.

The Milwaukee Fatherhood Initiative was started in 2005 by Mayor Tom Barrett, who recognized the issue of fathers missing from the family. The overarching goal of the organization is to promote healthy fatherhood engagement and connect men with the resources they need to succeed. MFI has community partners that provide services for child support, health, legal issues, housing, job searches and much more.

‘Something for and About Men’

Some of MFI’s most impactful events have been “Real Men Real Talk” and the annual “Fatherhood Summit”—events that bring men together from throughout the community to talk about their struggles and show them the resources that are available to them. The 2018 Fatherhood Summit took place on Oct. 5 and 6, and had health screenings, legal services, a job fair, driver’s license recovery services and child support services all in one room. Men will had the opportunity to solve those problems and attend workshops about fatherhood, trauma, personal care and conflict resolution.

“The Milwaukee Fatherhood Initiative was created to say that this is something for and about men,” Dotson says. There are many programs focused on women, but people don’t realize how little assistance is available for men looking for guidance. Dotson and the team at MFI are making it clear that they are here as a support system, and they are helping fathers understand what being ‘manly’ really means.


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

Hero of the Week: Christine Neumann-Ortiz Fighting for Immigrants

Christine Neumann-Ortiz is the epitome of an activist. She dedicates what seems like every moment of her time to fighting against political causes that hurt immigrant and Latino communities. She has become the leader of a movement that defends the rights of immigrants by organizing masses of people from those groups in solidarity. “For me, it’s making sure we keep that link with each other,” she explains, “and really beat back those politics of divide and conquer. That’s how we’re going to move forward.” Making a change is all about organizing groups of people from the ground up and building a community that is ready to put everything on the line for a new outcome.

Neumann-Ortiz got involved in activism in her early 20s—“late in life,” as she puts it. She began participating in social justice, organizing and realizing that there was “an economic structure that was benefitting from putting one group against the other.” That realization informed her approach to organizing and motivated her to dive deeper into social justice movements. In those early years, she learned the power a movement could have when unifying people from a grassroots level.

A few years later, in 1994, Neumann-Ortiz took her advocacy to a new level when she started the newspaper Voces de la Frontera, or Voices from the Border in English. She used it as a way to draw attention to the terrible conditions in Mexican factories and advocate for fair rights for the workers. The name of the newspaper references the voices of the factory workers in the maquiladora industry who were coming together to demand fair conditions.

Voces de la Frontera and Neumann-Ortiz continued to grow a larger support system of immigrants, refugees and Latinos. As she explains, “Voces draws strength from its members” and is “able to organize in ways that can scale up powerfully with tens of thousands of people.” Voces has always been a voice for those that don’t have one and has worked to change laws and policies that hinder the lives of their members.

Currently, Voces and Neumann-Ortiz are determined to change Act 126, a law passed by Wisconsin in 2006. Under the law, the state cannot not give driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants or people without a social security number, but Voces has created the Driver’s License for All campaign to put power back in the hands of immigrants. For undocumented immigrants, no driver’s license could mean not being able to get to work, traffic fines they can’t afford or deportation. If Voces can get their plan for change into the state budget, “it’s the greatest protection for immigrant families in Wisconsin,” says Neumann-Ortiz. “We do need everybody’s help.”

“Organizing is like gardening. It’s constant,” she continues. In conversation, Neumann-Ortiz is quick to talk about the next issue and how to improve policies because there is always more progress to be made. “We just have to make sure that we continue to be strong and unified and bold and the times require it.”

Learn more at vdlf.org/drivercards.

Wisconsin Voices' Markasa Tucker Brings Activists Together

Markasa Tucker was never really involved in civic engagement, until April 30, 2014, when Dontre Hamilton was shot and killed in Milwaukee. “That is what struck a nerve for me,” she states. New to activism, Tucker responded to the call when the Hamilton family asked people to join them in protest at Red Arrow Park following the shooting. She felt drawn to the protest and wanted to show support for the family, becoming one of many to demand justice and accountability from the police department.

That same year, Tucker took a job at Wisconsin Voices, knowing that her career was heading down a new path. Wisconsin Voices is an organization that connects social action organizations with one another to build a collective that jointly has a stronger voice to make Wisconsin better. Once Tucker got a taste for activism, she couldn’t turn back. As she got more involved, she noticed “the community is often left from the table” when talking about policy changes and social justice, but she has made it her mission to bring them front and center. In 2016, the Coalition for Justice (CFJ)—an organization started by the Hamilton family focused on vindicating Dontre’s death and holding police accountable—asked Tucker to join their core team. That topic of police accountability would become one of the core issues that Tucker would work to improve.

A turning point for Tucker came in 2016, when Dontre’s brother, Nate Hamilton, personally asked her to speak at a rally in front of a crowd. After speaking with a bullhorn for the first time, she realized that is where she is meant to be. “I’m a connector and collaborator,” she says. “Continue to connect and engage people, because there’s value in all of us.” That year, she began incorporating the work of the CFJ into her work in the African American Round Table (AART), which is a monthly meeting of black leaders from the organizations that partner with Wisconsin Voices. Their goal is to create a unified partnership that empowers African Americans to lead and change policies through civic engagement. Tucker is now a lead facilitator of public protests, community meetings and organized lobbying efforts that push to open conversations between Milwaukee’s police and its citizens.

‘Don’t Get Comfortable!’

“With Wisconsin Voices, I’ve learned that sometimes we show up in spaces as if we’re going to be a savior. We’re not the saviors,” explains Tucker. “The people who are affected and impacted by the situation, those are the people whose voices should be up front.” She goes on to say that, now that the election has ended, more than ever our citizens need to be present.

The AART will be hosting community meetings with the elected office holders before Tuesday, Jan. 1, to educate people about each role and to allow people to ask the elected candidates questions. Whether people call their alderperson or simply show up at a meeting, there are plenty of opportunities to jump into the movement. “Find a way to plug in,” states Tucker. “Just don’t lose this momentum. Don’t get comfortable!”

To learn more about Wisconsin Voices and the AART, visit wisconsinvoices.org.

Maudwella Kirkendoll

Maudwella Kirkendoll grew up in Milwaukee’s 53206 neighborhood, which gave him a perspective of people who work long, hard hours to support their families but still need some help to get by. It’s that perspective that drove Kirkendoll to become the devoted community worker that he is today. “I know there is some point when you can move people from needing help to the people that are helping,” he says.

Kirkendoll loved growing up on the North Side because of the sense of community, but it was also a rough part of town because of crime and poverty. The deaths of friends due to violence and lower economic status in the neighborhood were simply circumstances he had to navigate through. Once he learned how to overcome those challenges, though, he found a way to help others do the same.

When he was a child, Kirkendoll describes standing in endless lines with his mother, waiting to receive government assistance. He remembers feeling embarrassed and treated poorly at the time—two things that motivated him to change the system to make it easier for people with similar situations. In 2000, Kirkendoll was hired as a caseworker at Community Advocates (CA) and has since worked his way up to become the company’s chief operating officer. The reason he was drawn to the organization was its passion for helping people, a characteristic that has persisted for the past 18 years.

CA is a social service agency that is composed of four divisions: Basic Needs, Milwaukee Women’s Center, Behavior Health and Public Policy. People come to CA’s Basic Needs Division for assistance with issues including housing, landlord issues and tenant training. The Milwaukee Women’s Center Division provides a family shelter, domestic violence shelter, drug treatment programs and more. The Behavior Health Division aims to relocate people living on the street into permanent housing. Simultaneously, CA works on changing public policies that will help reduce poverty and transition people into regular jobs. This only touches on the many programs CA implements, but they impact the lives of community members in so many more ways.

One program that drastically affected Kirkendoll’s life—and the lives of the participants of this particular program—is the mentoring of young men at the Racine Youthful Offender Correctional Facility. Kirkendoll and other mentors go into the prison matched with young incarcerated men in hopes of steering them onto the right path for their lives post-incarceration.

Kirkendoll strongly connects with these men because, as he says to them, “I’ve been where you’ve been. I grew up in the same area, had some of the same experiences, and you guys can make it. Stay focused.” These men need someone to understand what they’ve been through and someone to guide them to the right choices at times of weakness.

Connecting with one another and taking the time to listen is what makes a difference for so many people looking for a safe haven when they walk through the doors of Community Advocates. Our community is hurting in so many ways, and it’s time for us to follow this model—and Maudwella Kirkendoll’s personal example—and listen to those that are speaking the loudest.

 

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

Fyxation Bicycle Company

Those of you that have strolled into the Fyxation bicycle shop in Riverwest, may not know the whole story behind the company that designs their own bicycles and parts.  The concept for the brand and their original product first came to light in 2009 when owners Nick and Jessica Ginster were living in Taiwan.  An idea popped into Nick Ginster's head to design a bicycle tire for fixed gear bikes that had both sturdy tread and was available in multiple colors; a niche in the market.  He was originally contracted by a company to make the tire, but they backed out.  So, with the encouragement from his wife Jessica, they decided to invest in the brand and take the tire to market.  At the same time, Nick's brother Ben Ginster came on the team to run the accounting and logistical side of the business.  With a perfectly balanced group of people driven to succeed, the company was born.  

Originally from Milwaukee, Nick and Jessica first met over 20 years ago while working together at a bike shop.  Nick worked as a mechanic and Jessica was the store manager.  They were brought together by their love for bicycling, health and spreading adventure.  Nick was always mechanically inclined and an avid biker since a child, and at the age of 13, he disassembled a snow blower engine to create a gas-powered bicycle.  His mom looked at his dad and said "engineer."  The rest is history.  Jessica, however, has a background in health, science and community engagement.  She has a natural talent of adapting to rapidly changing circumstances and understanding the needs of Fyxation’s customers. 

Before moving back to Milwaukee in 2009 to start Fyxation, the couple lived in Taiwan for five years because of Nick’s job that involved overseas production of bicycle products.  He later took that knowledge to start his own company (still in Taiwan), doing product design and product sourcing overseas for U.S. companies.   When Nick and Jessica came back to the United States, they first presented their fixed gear tire with Ben at the world’s largest bicycle trade show.  “Fyxation has always been a Milwaukee company and Milwaukee is our home,” says Nick.  

The business took off when they found distributers to sell their product through bike shops around the U.S. and globally, but this did not happen by luck.  It was a "very tactical approach," explains Jessica.  Their well laid-out plan combined with years of experience allowed the company to grow quickly.  Soon after their tire was on the market, other companies began making competitive tires so Fyxation started diversifying their products to include pedals, parts, accessories, frames, and then bikes. 

“That has developed into the product line that you see today," says Nick.  "We are quick to change when we need to.  But from the beginning of our brand, we always made quality affordable products and we still do that.”

The time came when they needed a local warehouse.  The natural choice was to use the Pedal Milwaukee building in the Silver City neighborhood. The building was formerly owned by Tom Schuler of Team Sports but Fyxation just bought the space.  Until that point, Fyxation only sold their products through other bike shops, but when people started knocking on the door of the warehouse looking for a Fyxation store, the team decided it was time to open a public storefront, so they could better connect with their Milwaukee customers. “We had never been very good at telling our story locally," explains Nick, "and when we opened the store, we had a public front and decided to change that.”  So, in 2014, the company opened the store you now know in Riverwest.  

Fyxation has continued to grow over the years, both in their production and community outreach.  One of their first local projects was designing a custom bike for Colectivo and have since expanded that by designing custom bikes for Lakefront Brewery, Milwaukee County Parks, Wisconsin Bike Fed, Goose Island, Nike and many other partners.  Nick's favorite project they've done recently is their custom-designed bike for the Milwaukee people's flag.  The bike was in such high demand that they decided to do a limited run of 40 bikes, which sold out in under a year. “We really believe in cycling and trying to help out in our communities as much as we can," says Nick.  It's impossible to list all of the ways Fyxation gives back in a short blog post, but to name a few, they host and support local organizations like DRAFT Milwaukee and Black Girls Do Bike.  Fyxation also donates to organizations outside of biking like Lymphoma & Cancer Society, Progressive Community Health Centers and Feeding America.

Everything they do as a company comes back to their core mission: to deliver adventure.  Fyxation wants to be a place where people of all ethnicities, backgrounds and experience levels feel comfortable to get on a bike and ask questions.  “One of the strongest suits that I bring is the fact that I am a female in a male-dominated industry and I’m also a woman of color," states Jessica. "For me, it’s all about empowering the consumer, empowering the community.  Knowledge is power so let’s share the knowledge I’ve gained with people who are intimidated."  Biking is for everyone, whether you're the urban commuter, the mountain bike adventurer or the person that occasionally wants a little wind in your hair.  Stop by their shop so they can find the perfect bike to fit your style and help you discover your adventure. 

Visit Fyxation's website to get in touch or see their product line. 

 

Finding Affinity: Sung

This month I want to do something a little different than my normal blog posts.  I recently spent five weeks in Vietnam and while in this drastically different culture, it made me think about how we relate to each other in Milwaukee.  Hear me out for a second.  At first, the country seemed so foreign that I could not relate at all, but after spending time there and getting to know the welcoming people, I started to realize that we have a lot in common.  Milwaukee sometimes struggles with this because as many of us know, it is a very segregated city.  This series called “Finding Affinity,” that I will occasionally post, is meant to help us find similarities in each other rather than differences.  If we can connect with one another, maybe we can make the world a more peaceful place.

 

Affinity:  /noun/

  1. a spontaneous or natural liking or sympathy for someone or something.
  2. a similarity of characteristics suggesting a relationship, especially a resemblance in structure between animals, plants, or languages.

 

* * *

“All of us, we’re not so different.”  Those were Sung’s words as she led me through the narrow paths of the rice fields near Sapa in Vietnam.  Sung was our tour guide, who proudly showed my friend and I around her village in the far north of the country.  We followed her for three days up and down steep dirt roads beneath banana leaves and foggy skies.  The only item she carried was her small, vibrant bag draped over her shoulder, made using of the colors of her village. Adversely, we were weighed down with our large backpacks hugging our waists, with the newest back-support technology.  It was a simpler way of life that she shared with us, but not necessarily an easier one.

Sung is 38 years old, no taller than four and a half feet, with five children and a husband.  The family lives with her husband’s parents because that is the tradition in her culture.  While Sung works the rice fields and leads tours to support the family (as most of the women do), her husband’s parents take care of the children and the home.  Having her children in school, Sung explains to us, is more important than anything because she wants to give them the opportunities she never had.  And isn’t that what all parents want?  Her daughter recently taught her how to spell her own name because Sung never learned to read or write.  Yet, her spoken English is nearly perfect, thanks to the tourists she has talked with every day for the last 6 years.

My friend and I shared long conversations with her, revealing pieces of each other’s lives for about 10 hours a day, and we slowly came to realize how similar we are, regardless of the cultural differences.  We are all searching for happiness and finding a balance in our lives.  Often all of us must compromise our hobbies and desires for our obligations.  The moment this all became obvious was when we took a break from hiking to swim in a peaceful river at the base of a waterfall.  As I was sitting on a rock drying off, I noticed Sung was perched atop the adjacent boulder with her long hair let out, deep in thought looking over the valley.  It was her bold independent gaze that I recognized in myself; a woman determined to achieve her goals, no matter the cost.

We often get caught up in the conveniences and privileges in our lives, but we too easily forget that we all want the same things: peace, freedom and happiness.  Sung opened my eyes to her way of life and made me realize how lucky I am, but the truth is that we all have challenges and we all have to find a way to make the most of what we’ve been given.  On our last day together, we walked up a dirt road with the occasional motorbike zooming by, to sit above what seemed like endless rice fields stretching below us.  I tried to imagine what life would be like if I called this home.  After sitting quietly next to Sung for a few minutes, I looked at her, and she looked back and smiled.

Kavon Cortez-Jones

When you first meet Kavon Cortez-Jones, you will be inspired by his optimism and avidity for Milwaukee.  Also known as K.J., he is a poet, spoken word performer and to some, a mentor who is immersed in Milwaukee's art community.  His dedication to writing is remarkable to say the least. “I don’t think I’ve missed a day of writing in the past 10 years,” says Kavon proudly before mentioning that he has filled 65 composition books.  But his words don't stop at the end of those pages, rather he makes a point to influence and teach others what writing has taught him.  Through performances, collaboration with various art organizations, and the written words in his book Club Noir, Kavon is very much a part of the city's pulse.

Currently 23 years old, Kavon grew up in the Harambee neighborhood of Milwaukee. Everything changed for him when Kwabena Antoine Nixon and Muhibb Dyer came to his elementary school to perform poetry for the students, as part of their "I Will Not Die Young" campaign.  "They wowed me with their performance and that was the spark," explains Kavon. Ever since that day, he was inspired to write and become a poet but did not know what to write about until he met Paul Moga, an educator at Riverside High School who opened up new possibilities for him.  That's when Kavon discovered performance and slam poetry, focusing his efforts on that medium.  K.J.'s early life in Harambee was challenging but writing carried him through and allowed him to express himself in the only way he knew how.  Now he tries to share his love for writing with others in the community.

After high school, Kavon started performing his poetry at open mics around the city such as Linneman's and Miramar Theater, and now runs an open mic called "Express Yourself Milwaukee," which happens on the second Friday of the month at 1300 West Fond du Lac Avenue in collaboration with the Express Yourself Milwaukee youth organization.  After gaining recognition, he began receiving commissions to perform at places like the Kimpton Hotel and to run poetry workshops for students at Whitefish Bay Middle School and Riverside High School.  "It’s beneficial for folks in Milwaukee to learn poetry because it’s so subjective. All you need is a notebook and a pen, and you can just create your life all over again. You can tell your story," states Kavon.  He is also an intern at TRUE Skool, an organization where youth come to express themselves through hip-hop and the creative arts as a means to educate themselves in social justice leadership and entrepreneurship.  When Kavon teaches workshops, he has the kids "splash the page" or simply write down whatever is in their minds for 15 minutes, helping them to understand the self-discipline of writing.

Kavon's proudest achievement is his book Club Noir which showcases his writings from ages 18 to 22 and acts as his "coming of age story," as he puts it. "I realized that poems kind of spilled out of me cuz I started writing about what I wanted to write about... That book is a dream come true." As explained in the book's introduction, Club Noir is Kavon's imaginary utopia; a cafe by day and club by night, located on Doctor M.L.K. Drive that welcomes all people, specifically catering to the black community and is a safe haven in the midst of our complicated world. "Every city civilian from oldies, youngins to passionate visual artists and writers garrulously make the place come to life," writes Kavon in his vibrant introduction.  Dive into his book to feel the essence of Milwaukee and the nostalgia of his youth.

If you want to have a genuine, engaging conversation, reach out to Kavon on Facebook (search Kavon Cortez-Jones) and he will most likely offer to meet you at one of the many coffee shops around the city where he finds his muse.  Listen to Kavon perform two of his poems by clicking the audio links below.  The first is called "Paris of the Midwest," written when he was 18 years old and is featured in his book Club Noir.  The second poem is called "A Love Letter to Milwaukee," written in 2017 at the age of 23.