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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. 

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. 

Moxxy Group

If you need a kick-ass marketing strategy and someone to tell you the truth about your business, then call Katherine Juergens and Alice Stephens of Moxxy Group. Katherine met Alice after working together at Aurora and after deciding to start her own business, Katherine founded Moxxy Group in February 2017. These two complement each other's skill sets perfectly. While Katherine is the creative big picture thinker with grand ideas and ambitious goals for the future, Alice keeps clients grounded by focusing on building long term marketing strategies that best align business objectives and the road map for getting there. "What we can bring together is a really cool combination," says Juergens, "plus we happen to represent two industries that are massively underrepresented by women.” Katherine brings more than 15 years of health care industry experience to the table while Alice is equally as knowledgeable about the financial services industry.

Having worked in corporate companies for most of their careers, the two women offer a different perspective to marketing, which is the opposite of corporate America. Juergens and Stephens know first-hand that corporations spend millions of dollars on research trying to find out who their consumer market is, when "it's really quite simple," states Alice. "It’s just not simple to the people who are cutting the checks in leadership positions for a lot of these corporations. And that is a huge problem. A lot of what we do is bringing that customer voice to the forefront.” Moxxy Group works with senior leadership teams to develop a marketing plan that is actually relevant to the consumers, who in these industries are majority women. When proposing necessary improvements, they don't hold back and explain the reality of the company's product. Katherine attests, "My reputation was the girl in the room who is going to say what everybody is thinking but nobody says." And that was the driving idea that motivated her to start this business.

This dynamic partnership works with an array of companies internationally but many of their clients are also based in Milwaukee. Both women have lived in Milwaukee for over 20 years and in that time, they have seen the increasing development of small entrepreneurs. From their perspective, the Milwaukee entrepreneur is unique because they are more vested in developing an idea versus using it as a financial element. They are seeing all kinds of extraordinary ideas pop up around Milwaukee but these inventors don't know where to start and "that's where we come in and help," says Alice. The Moxxy Group feels they are among these start-ups, looking at things in a fresh new way.

A large motivator for Alice and Katherine is girl power and they want to share that message. "We have both lived and grown up in industries where there just is not enough girl power," says Alice. Applying that experience, they make sure to keep a balance in their marketing strategies to ensure all potential clients are being reached. These two have a passion for Milwaukee and are using their unique point of view and no-nonsense attitude to make big changes in this city.

To connect with Katherine and Alice, visit their website: www.MoxxyGroup.com

Silver Spring Neighborhood Center

As you pull off Silver Spring Drive onto 64th Street, you may not think twice about the large building in the quiet neighborhood but once you walk through those front doors, you are greeted by smiling faces and a vibrant chandelier made by the kids that are part of the Silver Spring Neighborhood Center (SSNC).  The community center is a nonprofit organization that services the people in the neighborhood through programs relating to health & wellness, education, and employment.  At the heart of this organization are the people that work tirelessly to ensure these community members thrive in their city. “Whenever you are doing social service work, it is so critical.  You go through a lot internally. It’s no easy job,” says Devin Hudson, the Development Director at the SSNC.  The work they do at the neighborhood center opens so many doors for the individuals that take part in the programs.

The Silver Spring Neighborhood Center started in 1958 as a settlement house servicing the Westlawn neighborhood.  The center was a resource for new residents to turn to as they started their lives in Milwaukee.  Throughout SSNC's history, their partners have helped shape who they are and who they impact.  So in 1986, the center partnered with the UWM College of Nursing, which allowed them to implement programs like health care services for people that are under-insured, classes to teach teens about choosing healthy foods, collaboration with the Childhood Development Center and the list goes on.  At the core of these programs is the director Jean Bell-Calvin, who has been with the UW-Milwaukee Silver Spring Community Nursing Center since the start.  “It’s a blessing to do the work that we do,” says Jean, “It’s about resources.  It’s about how you advocate for resources in the community and it’s a challenge.”  The lives Jean has touched in the community is hard to put into words, much less fit into a blog post.

Jean Bell-Calvin (left) and Devin Hudson (right)

The next major partnership happened in the early 2000s when SSNC joined with Browning Elementary School, part of Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS).  The two started their cooperative because MPS was focused on bringing neighborhood schools back to the city.  A neighborhood of support is what binds these organizations together.

The core of the SSNC's programs have always been youth oriented, but they also have a number of programs for adults such as their GED program and the Transform Milwaukee Program which opens job possibilities for those with a criminal background or a child support order.

For those in the area needing guidance or a way to start over, the Silver Spring Neighborhood Center stands as a center for hope.  The SSNC has quality employees that can work with you to make the program successful.  As soon as you step onto the campus, you are confronted with encouragement and place of comfort away from the challenges of everyday life.  The SSNC's impact on Milwaukee is overwhelming.  Learn more about what they are accomplishing on their website: www.ssnc-milw.org