communitystories

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

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

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. 

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.

Riverwest's Woodland Pattern Book Center

The Riverwest neighborhood is a gathering place for artists, writers, dreamers and those who choose to live slightly outside the norm. It is one of the few truly interracial neighborhoods of Milwaukee and has a vibe that is both welcoming and accepting. Many people who have lived in Riverwest for a long time consider it to be part of their identity.

But Riverwest was not always the creative hub that it is today. In the 1970s, if someone wanted to be at the center of the poetry scene, they would look to places like New York or California. So, in 1979, Karl Gartung, Anne Kingsbury and Karl Young started the Woodland Pattern Book Center to create a spoken-word scene in Milwaukee by hosting writers from around the country. They felt that Milwaukee needed a physical space where artists and idealists could come together to share knowledge and collaborate.

In Gartung’s manifesto, he wrote, “We exist to prove the living artist. We exist against isolation,” describing how important it is that the artist not make work in isolation. To allow the work to come alive, the artist needs an audience, whether that is a small group of people in a workshop or a large audience. And that is what Woodland Pattern has provided to the community since the very beginning.

The team made it their life’s work to strengthen the Riverwest neighborhood with Woodland Pattern at the heart of it all. After more than 30 years of helping build a community of poets in Milwaukee, Kingsbury, who remained the executive director, decided to retire. In March of this year, Kingsbury and the team at Woodland Pattern hired two dedicated and hopeful poets to take her place: Jenny Gropp and Laura Solomon. New to Milwaukee, Gropp and Solomon moved from Georgia as soon as they saw their dream job open up. “We are here because of the mission; that’s why we wanted to come,” Solomon says. They strongly believe in the idea of making art by sharing and listening to one another’s emotions.

In addition, Gropp and Solomon were attracted to the book center’s uniqueness. Woodland Pattern is nationally known for its collection of more than 26,000 small press titles, including hand-made letter-press books by writers from around the world. Many of these books are made for live readings and meant to be handed out to the audience.

In the coming year, Woodland Pattern plans to open its own record label to record the live readings on vinyl. The book center regularly brings in spoken-word performers from around the country who create a safe space for emotions and ideas to be shared with the audience. “The space sort of functions as a sanctuary,” explains Gropp.

Woodland Pattern Book Center continues to make efforts to inspire the next generation to become leaders. “A lot of what I’ve learned from this place is respect and examination of what has come before and for the community that is all around us,” says Gropp. The center’s history is a large part of the neighborhood’s story. That story is one of a community open to trust, sincerity and acceptance.

Woodland Pattern Book Center is located at 720 E. Locust St. For more information, call 414-263-5001 or visit www.woodlandpattern.org.

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

Marcela 'Xela' Garcia

Marcela “Xela” Garcia grew up attending art classes at the Walker’s Point Center for the Arts (WPCA), a non-profit arts center that provided opportunities for her that she couldn’t find in other places. The center helped her grow and understand her place in a culture that was new to her. Born in Guadalajara, Mexico, Garcia’s native language was Spanish. When she came to the United States at a young age, she stood out. Because of her different language and customs, Garcia questioned where she belonged in her new environment.

“I had very supportive parents that instilled the power of my culture and my identity. I really found refuge in that, especially in the arts,” she explains. Art allowed her to ask those questions, helping her make sense of the world around her. Garcia uses her childhood lessons as a driving force to show others that art can transform lives and neighborhoods. So, in 2016, when the executive director position opened at the WPCA, Garcia decided to join the team and merge her goals with those of the organization.

Since the inception of the WPCA in 1987, the mission of the organization has been providing accessibility to the arts for youth and underrepresented people in the Walker’s Point neighborhood. The WPCA invites artists from around Milwaukee and around the world into its gallery to participate in arts education programming. With the varying ideas and experiences of the artists, the WPCA can incorporate vastly different cultural perspectives into their programs.

One of the many ways the WPCA represents the traditions of the people who have lived in the Walker’s Point neighborhood is through events like their 26th annual Día de los Muertos exhibition. The exhibit that opened Friday, Oct. 19, challenged the viewers to consider their ancestral connections and the meaning of death in communities. Local artists were invited to create altars that explored the theme of tradition, family, life and death.

The WPCA is a safe space for people to start a dialogue, which is why it has been seen as an anchor in the Walker’s Point neighborhood for the last 31 years. “We have what we need as a community, and oftentimes we don’t realize that,” states Garcia. The organization uses artist talks, exhibitions and community events to talk about relevant issues, such as immigration, gentrification and segregation. Through art, people are able to express how they feel about such issues, giving them a platform to explore solutions when they wouldn’t otherwise have one.

“At an early age, I saw the power the arts had in building confidence, pursuing leadership and finding a voice when you sometimes didn’t feel like you had one; in doing it in your own way, and in your own terms,” Garcia says. The first step to helping youth and underserved community members succeed is by opening doors that allow them to explore their creativity.

For more on the Walkers Point Center for the Arts, visit wpca-milwaukee.org.

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

Jean Bell-Calvin

This country’s health care system is complicated, difficult to navigate and not attainable for everyone. Jean Bell-Calvin and her team at the UW-Milwaukee Silver Spring Community Nursing Center are working to change that, starting at the local level. The team at the Nursing Center treats their patients differently than the average hospital. Rather than simply looking at symptoms, they take the time to speak with their patients about their day-to-day habits and stressors that may have caused the symptoms. “You have a right to be treated a certain way, have your questions answered and have somebody take the time to listen,” says Bell-Calvin, the Nursing Center’s director and driving force behind the clinic for the last 30 years.

Bell-Calvin has made it her life’s work to help the community understand health. If asked to talk about her life, she will tell you, “It is not about me but the wonderful team of people I work with and the people we serve,” yet she deserves enormous praise for her dedication to the people of Milwaukee. In 1988, Bell-Calvin took a job at the recently opened clinic and has worked to improve the programming to meet the needs of North Side residents ever since. The original goal of the clinic was to promote health, focusing on education and nutrition. But in the late 1990s, after being approached by Milwaukee County, the clinic transitioned to providing primary care for the underinsured. Through the General Assistance Medical Program, the clinic became a contracted insurance provider for the county and began to provide primary care to community members that otherwise could not afford it.

There is more to health than clinical diagnoses; the Nursing Center also takes into consideration the many factors that can affect people’s well-being, such as relationships at home, not being able to pay the bills or a lack of reliable transportation. The Nursing Center seeks to build a relationship with the people they serve and adapts their programming to meet the needs of the community.

A vital partner that helps them achieve this goal is the Silver Spring Neighborhood Center (SSNC), a non-profit community center that services the people in the neighborhood through programs relating to health and wellness, education and employment. The SSNC often looks to the Nursing Center for programming related to health and nutrition, providing an opportunity for the nurses of the UWM Nursing Center to go out in the community and learn what is needed to improve people’s health. “It’s about looking at people, finding out what their needs are and plugging them in,” Bell-Calvin explains.

Bell-Calvin and the UW-Milwaukee Silver Spring Community Nursing Center emphasize that primary care is not enough to keep people healthy; they must also be educated. Whether that means teaching people proper nutrition or helping them understand how to use their insurance plan, the goal is to empower people with knowledge. “This is the work I’ve been called to do,” says Bell-Calvin, and with that work, she continues to change lives one family at a time.

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

Dasha Kelly Hamilton Helps Milwaukee Youth Find their Voice

“We need each other.” Those are Dasha Kelly Hamilton’s words describing what she’s learned from young people she has worked with for the past 18 years. Our country and our city are changing because more people are speaking up, but the voices we need to hear the most are those of the youth in this country. For them to speak louder, they need a support system and the confidence that their voice matters.

Still Waters Collective (SWC), founded by Kelly Hamilton, is one of many organizations in Milwaukee working with local youth to help them find their voice. It is an outreach organization that uses creative writing and performance art to build community. The organization started as an adult open mic but has since grown to predominantly serve youth by partnering with public schools to teach poetry workshops. Words have power when we speak our truth, but the real power happens when an audience listens to those words and is affected by them.

The organization first transitioned to work with youth when Kelly Hamilton was asked to teach a workshop at a Milwaukee high school. Her world changed when she asked the class a simple question: “How many of you think your voice matters?” Less than a third of the class raised their hands, which surprised her. They were so young, she thought, but not excited by their ideas, thoughts and imaginations. “I was never there to teach them but to show them that they are important,” says Kelly Hamilton. At the end of all her workshops, she has each student write a poem because it “requires the young person to consider all the possible ideas in the universe... Recognize that you’re creative, and your voice matters. Magic happens by the time we get to that poem.”

Words Have Power

Kelly Hamilton reiterates one point to every one of her students before they perform their poems: “Every time you speak your truth in front of an audience, there’s someone who needs to hear it.” That statement is why poetry is so important. We all relate to one another and through words, we can come together to a common understanding. Listening can be just as powerful as speaking, and having active listeners shows these young people that their words have power.

Words touch our lives in many ways, and SWC wants to make sure that words are also being used to connect the people across our city. One of their core programs is the SWC Fellowship in which students from ages 18 to 25 complete course work and connect with local community members to build relationships. The intention is to cross the lines in Milwaukee’s different neighborhoods and show the participants of the program that they are welcome in any part of the city.

“These are young people who have figured out that their voices matter,” says Kelly Hamilton, but, as she explains, this is also a time in their lives when they could lose that confidence. Still Waters Collective ensures that they have a time and place to share that voice.

We all have stories hidden away where the still waters run deep. Telling those stories helps the listeners better understand their community and allows the storytellers to speak their truths to the community. The people of this city can empower each other by listening; by listening we can open a conversation.


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

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.  

CORE El Centro

Our current health care system is complex, difficult to navigate, and inaccessible to people with limited funds and recourses. Especially for people from different cultural backgrounds, these challenges can feel impossible to overcome. But CORE El Centro understands health differently.  To them, health is an elaborate web of pieces that we must tie together to be our best selves and that starts with a safe space to practice healing.  When co-founders Jayne Ader and Madeline Gianforte started CORE El Centro 16 years ago, they saw a need for an understanding of healing and access to health services in the community.  “People have this innate wisdom about their path and each path is different. So how do we help you find that,” says Ader.  Their goal is to inspire individuals and families to achieve optimal health by offering affordable services in both English and Spanish. 

co-founders Jayne Ader and Madeline Gianforte

CORE El Centro treats members of the community that have limited access to health care due to low income, language barriers, cultural barriers and other factors. Most of the organization’s clients are Latino, but anyone is welcome for treatment.  Their ability to connect with clients through language and culture is what makes CORE El Centro unique.  When a client first visits the building, they meet with a staff member called a health navigator, who discusses their health concerns, problems at home, and general troubles to truly understand the factors impacting their health.  “They can really connect with what you are going through,” says Carla Del Pozo, director of the Integrative Health and Wellness program.  These health navigators are able place the client with the best possible practitioners because they are trained community health workers and people from the community.  In order to heal someone, CORE believes you must first get to know them and understand where their pain originated from.

The organization is built with four main programs: Integrated Health and Wellness, Gardening and Nutrition, Children’s Wellness and Volunteers.  They offer one-on-one sessions in therapies such as acupuncture and massage, as well as courses like reiki, yoga, gardening and nutrition.  CORE El Centro has also built strong relationships over years with their partners, such as Aurora Walker’s Point Clinic, The Healing Center and others.  These close relationships allow CORE to confidently refer clients who are in need of different healing services than what they offer.  “Part of the mission is building community,” explains Ader. “By building community, you also heal.”  When people are given access to health care through language, cost and community members that understand their needs, people are able to better themselves and give back to their community. 

 

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

Dr. Kyana Young and the Marquette University Strategic Innovation Fund

 Dr. Kyana Young, a postdoctoral fellow at Marquette University, began working in the Global Water Center in 2016.  With a background in environmental engineering, Young’s passion is finding solutions for safe water to improve global and public health.  Soon after she arrived, it occurred to her that there was a lack of diverse groups of people represented in the building.  But it didn’t take her long to do something about that. 

She spoke with staff at Marshall High School and Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS), including Larry Farris, Toby Hairston, Rochelle Sandrin, Jan Haven, and Megan Sun, who helped her come up with an idea for a program that would provide opportunities to demographics that are underrepresented in scientific fields relating to water research.  She applied for a grant from Marquette University with the support of the group at MPS, and was awarded the Marquette University Strategic Innovation Fund Grant.  The grant made it possible for her to provide internships to students at Milwaukee’s Marshall High School and bring them to the labs of the Global Water Center to do hands-on research. When working in the classroom at Marshall High School, the youth learn how to write lab reports and do data analysis with their teacher Megan Sun.  The students are taught how to apply their newly learned scientific knowledge to solve real world problems.

Each student is assigned a project for the semester by participating companies and universities.  Young asked these organizations to host and mentor the youth, including Stonehouse Water Technologies, Youth Rising Up, Solar Water Works, DRM International Inc., Sun Yat-Sen University, Grand Valley State University, Assembly of God and Marquette University.  Dr. Young knew that the students needed more than community partners, they needed mentors like Dr. Moe Mukiibi, the chief technology officer at Stonehouse Water Technologies (the company with the most interns in the program), to make the program a success.  The program is meant to “create a path for them that could be life changing, so that they can see why they are working in a lab and see what this can become,” says Mukiibi.

 “When you provide an opportunity and you back that up with resources, this is what can happen,” says Young as she describes how the students have excelled far beyond the expectations of the program. “This impacts the global community.”  Thanks to Young and the team at MPS, these students have a chance to explore their interests and realize career paths that can make a major difference in their lives.   

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