The work alida cardós whaley does across Milwaukee – or Minowakiing, the Anishinaabemowin name for the land, which whaley prefers – is not easily defined by a single designation. It’s multilayered, complex and ever-changing. That is perhaps why whaley created their own term: Cultural Webworker. “All the work I do is based on relationships,” says whaley, 31. “It’s about people. The personal and the collective.”
For whaley, such “webwork” takes many forms. Whether they connect to others as a parent – whaley has two young children whom they refer to as “little elders” – a neighbor, an organizer, a healer or a poet, their goal is always the same: foster community. That stems, in part, from whaley’s own sense of alienation growing up on the North Side of the city. “I was raised with my white family,” says whaley, who did not connect with their father until later in life. “I was not surrounded or affirmed by my Indigenous Mexican heritage. I was just browner than my white family, but never felt brown enough to fit in at my MPS schools.” Whaley began to unpack those feelings when they joined the inaugural class of First Wave Scholars at UW-Madison in 2007. There, whaley explored threads of their identity through spoken-word poetry and hiphop theater performance. Whaley found the art forms so inspiring that they, along with two classmates, created STITCH MKE, a local open mic series for young people of color. The series toggled between neighborhood venues on the North and South sides and served as a bridge between the two. “It was the kind of space we hadn’t accessed as young people,” whaley says. “And it was unique because it was being led by young folks of color.”
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After several years running STITCH MKE, whaley and their co-founders mor – phed the event into a cultural marketplace, one modeled after traditional tianguis, or open-air bazaars. The market, the first of its kind in Milwaukee, included food, clay pieces, books, herbal medicines, live music and more, all of which celebrated makers of color. That experience then inspired BLK+BRWN+BRUJX, a second event that offered space to Black, brown, and Indigenous communities. “Being in those spaces, you felt possible. You felt you could dream,” whaley says. “And it was us doing it. It wouldn’t be as successful if it was people not from our community.”
Though the pandemic now prevents such gatherings, wha – ley has continued to find ways to uplift their community. They work as a “bearthworker,” sup – porting people of color through pregnancy, birth and early parenthood. And in March, whaley and seven others cre – ated the Ayuda Mutua MKE collective, a mutual aid group that collects and distributes food and supplies to families in need on a weekly basis. Ayuda Mutua also coordinated 150 tote bags for children, each of which were packed with school supplies, and raised over $50,000 for undocumented families who were ineligible for stimulus checks. “For all of us, our hearts are our people and supporting our folks,” whaley says. “Community is everything. It’s the way to restore. It’s the way to heal. It’s the way to liberation. It’s the way, period.”
What work needs to be done to improve a sense of community in Milwaukee?
“I don’t think the question is about improving a sense of community and unity in Milwaukee. This question doesn’t matter to me because it’s void of actual change. A better question would be framed around equity and justice. A better question could be, what work needs to be done in Milwaukee that brings more equity and justice to the most marginalized people in our community?”