After Sylville Smith and summer unrest in the city, five Milwaukeeans talk openly about race and what we can all do to form a more perfect union.
Sister Patricia Rogers
Age 68 // Executive Director, Dominican Center
Sister Patricia Rogers has spent her life as an intermediary between blacks and whites, going back to 1963 when, as a 15-year-old student, she was part of a lawsuit desegregating the schools in Fort Smith, Ark.
Today, the nun is one of a handful of African Americans in her Dominican order. She lives at the convent at Dominican High School in Whitefish Bay, and each workday she heads to 25th and Locust in the Amani neighborhood. She is executive director of the Dominican Center, a nonprofit providing adult education and neighborhood improvement programs, from housing to community relations with police.
Sister Patricia didn’t come to her vocation easily. It took a nightmare that she now sees as a message from God. At the time, she was a layperson teaching math at a Dominican school in Chicago. She saw the sisters’ good intentions but felt they lacked cultural understanding of their students.
“I started praying to God, ‘Please, send a black sister to help these people,’” she recalls.
In the nightmare, her kitchen stove was on fire, something needed to be done, and she heard a question: “What about Patricia Rogers?” When she awoke, she looked in the phone book for other Patricia Rogers (there were five). But she knew she was the person. She became a novice, starting her life in the order.
From that fateful night, by way of Sinsinawa, Wis. (the motherhouse for Sinsinawa Dominicans), Montgomery, Ala., St. Louis, New Orleans and Chicago, Sister Patricia came to Milwaukee six years ago to work with the Dominican Center.
In Her Own Words:
How do we, as Catholics, address the issue of racism in Milwaukee? Yes, the church is doing good things. But do we really know the people we are trying to help? That’s the challenge.
People often think that if they serve in a meal program, or help build a house, that’s enough. But is it? Are you really interacting with people, spending time with them, having honest conversations? Until you are able to have an argument with someone who is not of your own race, you haven’t really gotten to know that person.
We live in a city that is perhaps the worst place for African Americans to grow up. Whether we are Catholic or not, if we are Christian at all, that is not the first thing I would want known about my city. I would want to try to find out what I can do. It’s a cop-out to say, “I don’t live near black people, I don’t hang out with black people, so therefore I am neutral.” As a Christian, it’s impossible to be neutral.
Let’s talk about Black Lives Matter. Some think that people are saying only black people matter. No. Black people are asking, “Do we, as a people, matter?” Of course all lives matter. But do we really believe that all lives matter, given the way black people are being treated, and have been treated over the years?
People of color are very aware that we need white people. But are white people aware that they need us? That we matter?
Age 49 // Co-Founder, Safe Zone
It’s 4 p.m. and Shawn Moore puts on his yellow Safe Zone T-shirt. For the next five hours, Moore and four other members of the Safe Zone Initiative walk the neighborhood surrounding 27th Street and Capitol Drive. Their goal: to stop trouble before it happens or, if a dispute has already started, to ease the tensions.
“I’m the person that, before the guns are drawn, the neighborhood calls me,” Moore explains. He carries a cell phone answering a Safe Zone hotline 24-7.
The publicly funded, two-year-old Safe Zone Initiative operates in the Garden Homes and Franklin Heights neighborhoods, this year from June through December. Under the concept that “it takes a village,” Safe Zone members are NeighborHOOD Ambassadors — “Helping Others Obtain Direction.” They are the neighborhood’s eyes, ears and heart.
Moore knows the streets better than he might admit. He came of age when de-industrialization started wreaking havoc on the city’s economy, and as a teenager he joined the “24 boys,” a gang centered at 24th and Capitol. He was in and out of legal trouble, with the most serious charge for bad checks.
When he was 32, Moore went to prison, serving almost six years. After his release, his future was uncertain. But he knew two things. He wanted a better life for his 7-year-old son, and he wanted to help rebuild the Garden Homes neighborhood that was there for him as a child. “This community,” he says, “it loved me, it fed
me, it clothed me.”
Moore is confident that during the winter months he’ll find work, perhaps as a union/community organizer or in the service sector. His main concern is for the six sons in his blended family, ranging in age from 10 to 25 years old: “I fear for my sons, and for everyone’s sons, that one day I will get a knock on my door and someone tells me my son’s life has been taken for no reason.”
In His Own Words:
The night Sylville Smith was shot, I got a call from a friend who told me to get to Sherman Park right away. People were mad and he worried there might be a riot.
When you see the anger, the pain, the frustration not just in Milwaukee but around the country, it was only a matter of time before something like Sherman Park happened. But Milwaukee should be grateful. It could have been a lot worse if you hadn’t had grassroots men and women immediately trying to calm things down, before the pastors came, before the cameras.
Could we have prevented the fires from taking place? No. Can you stop a tsunami with a bag of sand?
It’s unfortunate, but what happened in Sherman Park needed to happen. It took that mini-riot, that uproar, for people outside the community to see things need to change.
Yes, there are social services agencies in the neighborhood. But too often, it’s just a job and at 4, 5 or 6 o’clock, the staff go home and the agencies close. In the summer, life is just beginning at 5 o’clock.
Milwaukee’s epidemic of hopelessness did not pop up overnight, and it’s not going to magically disappear. But one thing I know. The solution won’t be found in some program cooked up in some office downtown, based off statistical data by someone who doesn’t know the community. The answer is to start including people from the community in the decisions that affect them.
Age 31 // Youth Mentor and DJ
As a black man who grew up in the central city, Tyrone Miller had made it. With a degree from the Milwaukee School of Engineering, he was working as a computer engineer at GE Healthcare.
But six years ago, as part of a GE volunteer day for employees, Miller was helping to rebuild a library at an inner-city school. One of the kids there asked if he’d be coming back. “Of course,” Miller replied, even though he knew another volunteer day hadn’t been scheduled.
Miller realized his job was out of sync with his true passion: music and working with kids. He quit GE.
Miller now is best known as DJ Bizzon, one of Milwaukee’s top DJs. He is also a youth mentor, using music to teach skills such as self-confidence and perseverance. Every Monday from 4-8 p.m. at the Jazz Gallery in Milwaukee’s Riverwest neighborhood, he gives free DJ lessons to youth 12-19 years old. He also advises the DJ club at Reagan High School.
Hip-hop is not a music genre, Miller emphasizes, but a culture that includes DJing, MCing, break-dancing, graffiti art and, most importantly, acquiring deep knowledge
of history and culture. With its origins in the streets of the Bronx, N.Y., hip-hop is a tool to give voice to the voiceless.
Today, Miller works from gig to gig – not the most reliable way to earn a steady living. That’s OK with him. “My goal is to wake up every day and do something that matters to me and helps other people. I’m lucky that my passion can pay my bills.”
In His Own Words:
You want to learn? Turn off the media, get off the internet, put this magazine down and go support the African-American community.
If you like coffee, go to Coffee Makes You Black on Teutonia Avenue. If you like smoothies, go to the Juice Kitchen on North Avenue. If you like music, go to a hip-hop show. If you like books, read The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander. Be part of the solution.
People need to get away from the white default and understand what change looks like. If I went to the doctor’s office and I saw 10 white doctors, that would be considered normal. If I saw 10 black doctors, now that would be a change. If you’re serious about confronting racism, you’ll realize the word “normal” should not mean “white.”
It’s also important to start at home. What are you teaching your kids? How do you deal with racism on television or with your relatives? If Uncle Mike says something racist at your holiday dinner, do you brush it off by saying, ”Oh, that’s just Uncle Mike.”
Yes, it might make you uncomfortable to say something. But if you’re not uncomfortable, maybe you’re not doing much. If you’re not willing to jeopardize a relationship with a racist associate or random friend, you need to look in the mirror and check who you really are.
What are you willing to sacrifice? Because blacks sacrifice damn near every day — sometimes our dignity, sometimes our dreams and sometimes our lives.
Age 39 // Co-Founder, Urban Underground
Like many African Americans, Sharlen Moore’s family came to Milwaukee to live the American Dream. Arriving more than 30 years ago from Jamaica, her father found work at the former Peck Foods meatpacking plant in the Menomonee River Valley. It was a thankless, bloody job, but it paid well. Her mother worked at the now-demolished St. Mary’s Nursing Home at 35th and Center streets.
Moore’s parents moved to the Sherman Park neighborhood, first renting and later, in that iconic fulfillment of the American Dream, buying a home. Today, the 39-year-old Moore, her husband Reggie and their three children share the duplex with her parents. To her, the neighborhood is one big family. It is her past, present and future.
Moore’s passion is developing youth leadership. She co-founded Urban Underground in 2000 with her husband, Reggie, who now heads the city’s Office of Violence Prevention. At the time, cruising along Capitol Drive was a favorite nighttime activity for youngsters in the area, creating tensions with residents. Urban Underground organized discussions to hear from young people. Two decades later, they are still listening.
Programs have evolved, but the issues have not fundamentally changed: health, education, criminal justice, public safety. The school-to-prison pipeline has been a key concern. Last June, Urban Underground helped end a controversial police program in Milwaukee Public Schools classrooms that, Moore argued, taught youth to fear the police.
In one of the now-discontinued program’s skits, a police officer pretended to pull out his gun, warned he might shoot if a student runs, and then yelled: “Bang, bang, bang.”
In Her Own Words:
Too many people are looking for superheroes to solve the problems. As we tell the young people we work with, “You are the superheroes. You are the ones who can make the changes.”
Milwaukee Magazine readers need to get involved. I know that’s a cliché, but it’s true. It needs to be based on your interests, whether that be sports, music, food, whatever. And because Milwaukee is so segregated, you need to go beyond your comfort zone.
A lot of times, we want to integrate by having black people move into predominantly white neighborhoods, or work with white organizations. Why not the other way around? Why is the burden always on black people to integrate?
I would love for white folks to understand what people of color go through on a daily basis, and that it’s not just about pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, especially when you don’t have bootstraps. We need to create a way for whites to understand what it means to be black and living in the City of Milwaukee.
It took us a long time to get here, and it’s going to take time to get better. Until we create more equitable communities where people of various backgrounds can live together in a safe and healthy neighborhood, we are not going to get where we need to go.
I love my city. I see these stories on the disparities — incarceration, education, infant mortality. And I go, “Hey, this is Milwaukee. This is Wisconsin. We can do better.”
Age 47 // Associate Professor of History, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
From a young age Robert Smith was told to be “a gentleman and a scholar.” What might be surprising is how Smith came by that counsel: from a two-time convicted felon who also happened to be his father, James.
Smith’s early memories of his father are mostly of visiting him in prison. After James Smith was released, when Smith was in his teens, he worked for the city of Indianapolis as a garbageman for 20 years before he passed away. “Thank God for city jobs,” Smith says about his father’s final years.
It wasn’t until Smith was working on his master’s degree at Central Michigan University that he understood his father’s advice. An African American professor of his was one of the most polite men Smith had ever met. He also was the most radical professor on campus. He wouldn’t lecture in anger, but he was blunt and let the facts speak for themselves. “I realized,” Smith says, “that this man was a gentleman and a scholar. And that’s what I wanted to be.’”
Smith graduated from Purdue University and received his PhD from Bowling Green State University in Ohio. His 10-page curriculum vitae speaks to his focus on the intersection of race and law. But his most important lessons are grounded in his youth: growing up in poverty, his father in jail, learning how to navigate around police. As for his soft-spoken, calm demeanor, it’s partly from his father’s advice.
“But as a black man,” Smith adds, “it’s part of survival. You learn
not to be outwardly hostile or angry. You learn the performance.”
In His Own Words:
When I came to Milwaukee, I underestimated its racial politics and landscape – the rigid, unspoken boundaries between neighborhoods and between city and suburb.
I like to walk to work and I found a home on the East Side. I had to learn the connotations. That for black people, you live in a white, exclusive neighborhood near the university – a part of the city that’s been off-limits for most African Americans.
As a black person, I’ve also learned not to like Milwaukee’s suburbs. I live on Maryland Avenue and Newberry, one of the most beautiful boulevards in the city. Shorewood is just a few blocks away, and it doesn’t look any different from my neighborhood. I don’t mean to pick on Shorewood, but there’s an arrogance, a smugness, a going out of one’s way to identify with this small, overwhelmingly white community rather than with Milwaukee. It’s absurd. But it’s not accidental.
We live in a legal climate where blacks have to prove they’ve been mistreated based on race. So if you’re not overtly denying black people access to better neighborhoods, jobs or schools, you can smugly proclaim you’re not racist. Yet often it is very intentional – it’s just not easily proved.
Racial politics aside, Milwaukee is a gem of a Midwestern city: an incredible lake, wonderful parks, beautiful historic homes. I’m amazed there isn’t more of a commitment to make Milwaukee more cosmopolitan, to let the eclectic nature of the city breathe and expand. And more gastropubs ain’t going to do it.
Barbara Miner is a regular contributor.