Where Is the Diversity in Milwaukee’s Creative Industry?

A project to foster diversity among Milwaukee’s creative professionals starts with a hard look at the whiteness of those fields.

A 16-year-old DeChazier Stokes-Johnson fell in love with the advertising world the day he shadowed a BVK creative director and saw real-world applications for his artistic gifts.

“Before that moment, I was toying with the idea of MIAD, and I liked art. I did not know there was this profession where you could be creative and have a career,” Stokes-Johnson says. “It became a dream for me to make it there.”

Now 37, Stokes-Johnson long ago entered his dream field, but he remained burdened by feelings of looking in from the outside. They subsided when he swapped the Milwaukee agency world this summer for a Chicago outfit that readily embraces what he brings to the table.

Stokes-Johnson is not alone. Milwaukee’s creative professions are not creating enough space for people of color. New research outlines the city’s unrepresentative arts and design sector, which the U.S. Census groups in an occupational category called art, design, entertainment, sports and media (ADESM). UW-Milwaukee professor Marc Levine identifies roughly 15,000 of such jobs in metro Milwaukee, of which fewer than 2,000 are held by people of color.

A fuller view of the data is no less brutal. Black workers represent 12.8% of the region’s total workforce but only 5.8% of its creative workforce. Hispanics make up 9.3% of all greater Milwaukee workers, but only 6.3% of its creatives. The numbers of other groups, including Asian Americans, in Milwaukee’s creative community are too small for reliable statistical measurement. Another way of expressing representation is with a tool called index of concentration. This number measures a group’s presence in one industry by comparing the racial makeup of its workers with citywide workforce percentages. An index of 100 signifies equal representation. Anything above 100 is a concentration; anything below is a scarcity. The number of black creatives in Milwaukee is roughly half that of total black workers, resulting in an index of concentration of 45.3. Hispanics fare somewhat better, with an index of concentration of 67.7, but remain considerably short of equal representation.

Milwaukee’s numbers are not that far out of step with national statistics. America as a whole underrepresents people of color in creative fields. Still, Milwaukee fails to match even the underperforming baseline, particularly for African Americans. The concentration of ADESM jobs for black workers in Milwaukee ranks 40th among the nation’s 50 largest metros.

Levine’s research did not attempt to explain the causes for this, but it did link the intensity of a city’s segregation with the size of its diversity gap in the creative sector using another tool called the dissimilarity index. “Over 70 is considered very highly segregated, and over 80, most sociologists consider hypersegregated. Milwaukee is right on that 80, and has  basically been there since 1970,” Levine says.

In general, the more segregated the city, the lower the concentration of African American creatives. So it’s not surprising to see a city among the most segregated have one of the lowest concentrations of black creative professionals.

Interviews with creatives of color reveal what numbers cannot. The lack of representation does not go unnoticed. Many express frustrations borne from isolation. A few who’ve made it feel they’ve been admitted through a turnstile rather than a pipeline, that their aspirations are at odds with their employers or the city at large.

They, like most Milwaukeeans, don’t need academic tables to know they reside in segregated communities. The numbers only abstract the stories of daily life. Stories that don’t get told when specific identities are excluded from an insular storytelling space. This issue is far greater than Milwaukee’s creative community, which is small and clannish. Yet, even among careers that are considered exclusive and prestigious, segregation is no excuse to ignore the divide.

“The mindset has to change. No one is letting the creative sector off the hook just because there is a problem on the city level. It’s our job historically as creative individuals to push the culture where it should go. We’re not trying to meet it where it’s at,” Stokes-Johnson says.

Put simply, Milwaukee needs to essentially double the number of people of color working in its creative fields to reach equal representation. “That is achievable,” Levine says. “It will obviously require efforts on a number of levels: growing ADESM occupations generally, attracting people from outside Milwaukee and developing from the school level on interest among youth of color and providing opportunities for them.”

A new initiative called Greater Equity 2030 is taking up the call, with the goal of placing 1,600 additional creatives of color by 2030. It’s led by Ken Hanson, who stepped down from his creative agency Hanson Dodge in July 2017 after 35 years to devote more time to addressing inequality. Hanson has worked in this space more broadly for five years, and he came to the Greater Equity 2030 project after his first entreaties were met with gentle pushback suggesting he should first look to his own industry’s diversity issues.

“We became aware that we should be tending to our own house,” he says. “For me, it’s an industry that’s been incredibly generous. I feel lucky every day. Concepts like white privilege – what do you do about that? Have I been complicit? What I do know is I don’t want to be,” he says.

Among Greater Equity’s first phases will be partnering with businesses to place students from Milwaukee Public Schools in internships next summer. The hope is that dozens of young people will discover a passion for careers previously invisible to them, just like Stokes-Johnson did many years ago. The dream is that those who wish to return after college will find a place to stay.

Milwaukee Magazine asked six people of color to share their stories of working in – and in some cases out of – the city’s creative industry. Profiles as told to Zach Brooke

John Ridley: Writer & Filmmaker

Film and television writer and director, novelist  | Academy Award-winning screenwriter of 12 Years a Slave | Emmy-nominated writer of “American Crime” Co-founder and owner of Nō Studios
Photo by Rocco Ceselin

PEOPLE TALK ABOUT writing what you know, and there’s a bit of truth in that. Almost everything we do is informed by who we are at the core.

That speaks to the wider question of why it’s important to involve folks who are not of the prevailing culture in work because it is about perspective. I’m on a show now, and wonderful people want me to work with them and this and that, but I’m the only person of color involved in a show that deals with people of color. Part of the reason for me to come in is to add some authenticity. As a person of color, I’m still me. I can’t possibly represent all people, all circumstances, all ideologies within my race.

When I started “Martin” 22 years ago, the writer’s room was full of young people of color, and I was not the only talented person in the room by any stretch. We all thought we were headed toward running shows, directing shows, producing shows. Yet many of those folks could not maintain their careers because it’s still gated. It’s improved from the past, but we haven’t begun to really tell the totality of the black experience in cinema and stories on TV, let alone Hispanic families, let alone Asian families. It’s too lonely as it stands, and we’re not even beginning to invite to the party other individuals who have these stories that need to be told.

I’ll be honest, I don’t like the term diversity. That’s something that we were trying to achieve in the ’70s. I prefer reflective. How reflective of the community are we? We’ve got to work to a space where one person of color in the room does not let the employer off the hook because they’ve got a diversity hire.

“I’m the only person of color involved in a show that deals with people of color”

Portia Cobb: Filmmaker

Associate professor of film, video, animation and new genres, UW-Milwaukee’s Peck School of the Arts |  Director, UWM’s Community Media Project
Photo by Nick Drain

I GREW UP IN the Los Angeles area, and even as a young girl, I was always aware of Hollywood and the enormity of it. However, I didn’t feel connected, so I went to the Bay Area to become a poet.

Somewhere in my journey, I ended up in radio. Because I wrote poetry, I could write copy for radio. Soon I was working on air and realized I was telling stories through music. My stories are conscious of home, place, memory and identity. There is context framed around the history that precedes us. We get here after it, but it remains significant, like a ripple in a pond.

Milwaukee was a different place when I first got here. I was younger, and I had dreadlocks. I was seen as being radical, and I had to build trust even within the African American community. I was hired to direct the Community Media Project in the UWM film department. It had three prior directors, who were all black women. People in the film community wanted to support me, but they also wanted me to know this other thing had happened where a black woman professor on tenure track was not retained.

It hasn’t ever been easy. It isn’t getting easier. I’m trying to find my voice again. I don’t feel like I’ve made enough of my own work. Students come in with knowledge and see me, the only African American in the department right now, with salt-and-pepper hair. It takes a while for them to believe that I have something to offer.

Recently, a retired colleague heard me introduce myself as a professor to someone I was chatting with and stopped me midsentence to ask if I had actually achieved the full professor status. This former colleague, who is white, felt she needed to interrupt me to point that out. I earned tenure from assistant professor to associate conventionally. However, I remain, after 28 years, an associate in a department of newly tenured associates.

“It hasn’t ever been easy. It isn’t getting easier.”

DeChazier Stokes-Johnson: Designer

Creative direction and design on projects for Talib Kweli and David Blaine | T-shirt design for a Barneys exclusive collection
Photo by Nick Drain

BEING A CREATIVE director is not something that I do; it’s something that I am. It doesn’t get turned off. My job is to talk with a client, figure out what they need, and then provide it in a way that differs from what I’ve given to others.

Milwaukee is five to 10 years behind in everything that we’re doing creatively. We’re working in a field that is supposed to mimic the people we’re speaking with, the audience. We’re not able to properly speak with those people because design and creative teams at companies are not as diverse as they need to be.

I have a multitude of multicultural friends. They have left. Chicago, LA, Seattle and New York aren’t worried about retaining talent because they attract it. I tried to stick it out here to be rebellious against those people who said you must leave Milwaukee to make it.

I freelanced because I was not satisfied with the work that I was getting. That freelance work is what got me my next job. It kept me relevant. It’s endless what I was able to accomplish from Milwaukee, but I still wasn’t able to get the kind of success I was after. I’m extremely grateful for my experiences here in Milwaukee, but I also have learned what needs to be better. Being in a group that is not diverse, I often felt not listened to. There were a lot of nights where I felt like maybe I’m not that good.

I’ve been loving it ever since I’ve started working in Chicago. I still live in Milwaukee, and I commute three days a week. Thursday and Fridays I work remotely. I’m at a place with five African American owners, and the team is not just African American, it’s very, very diverse. It more accurately represents what the world looks like. Because of that, I feel we come up with better solutions.

“Being in a group that is not diverse, I often felt not listened to.”

Debbie Sajnani: Designer

UI/UX designer | Digital content creator | Adjunct instructor, Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design
Photo by Mahdi Gransberry

I AM A FIRST-GENERATION American. My mom is from Mexico, and my dad’s from India. My immigrant parents did not want me to go into the arts, but I liked design and decided to give it a try.

I’ve worked at Milwaukee agencies and honestly have not had good experiences. People don’t believe in my expertise.

My husband and I literally have the same resume. The only difference is that he’s a white cis male and he’s older than me. There’s a huge difference in the way people treat him. There’s a respect there. But for some reason, account managers would not trust my own answers. It’s strange to be hired on to specific roles and not be considered an expert in my field.

If I were not a part of LUNA (Latinas Unidas en las Artes), I don’t know if I would have ever gone independent. I had 20-plus amazing, talented Latina women as a resource. They’re the ones who saw me struggling with racism at my corporate job and said, “You need to leave.” Immediately they were reaching out with projects, making sure I was OK and sending messages of encouragement.

Now when I look at job openings, I’ll go to a company’s social media. A lot of times they’ll have photos of people who work there, and I’ll note the racial makeup. I don’t know if I want to put myself in that position again, where I am the only person of color in the office. It’s scary. You don’t know if you have allies. I teach classes at MIAD, and I worry whether my students will be able to find a place for themselves. But I’ve also seen students go the independent route. I’m wondering if that’s what the landscape is going to look like: more designers creating space for themselves instead of waiting for the invite.

“I am the only person of color in the office. It’s scary. You don’t know if you have allies.”

CK Ledesma: Visual Artist

Visual artist | Former professional ballroom dancer | 2018 Milwaukee Public Library artist-in-residence
Photo by Mahdi Gransberry

I’VE MOVED BETWEEN Puerto Rico and Milwaukee since I was little. I like to dig into identity with what I do because performing culture at a distance connects me to home. The arts in Puerto Rico have a different vibration. It’s like a 3D movie. Everything is coming at you constantly.

Milwaukee feels more like a regular 2D movie. I moved back to Milwaukee in 2007 and danced professionally with a company for two years. In the beginning, when I was finding my voice as an artist, I felt scattered. Now I know the themes that I work with are so diverse. Some manifest in photography and others manifest in performance pieces. Other things need to be painted. I’m not scared of looking scattered anymore. I want to be experimental.

Studio visits and conversations and critique work are great, but when the room doesn’t look like you, it is isolating. People who don’t have the skin experience that I have start analyzing my work as if it’s “the other.” It’s a much more clinical critique rather than one coming from a point of understanding.

Large institutions within Milwaukee were created by and for white people. Still, to this day, it is that way. Luckily now there is an effort to try and be more equitable, diverse and inclusive. But there is a long way to go on the tokenization of black and brown bodies.

I want to be part of the conversation, and I want to be in these spaces. But at the same time, I feel like maybe I should make my own space instead of being the checkbox. Do they see me as an investment? Is this relationship two-sided? Is it authentic?

As a person of color, I find myself confronted and conflicted. I’ve been thinking about this for quite some time. I believe in full transparency. Tossing it out there is going to create other conversations that will hopefully lead to some sort of progress.

“When the room doesn’t look like you, it is isolating.”

Angie Swan: Musician

Guitarist for touring bands including David Byrne, CeeLo Green and Macy Gray | Studio work includes recordings with Cirque du Soleil and Kelly Rowland
Photo by Bobby Singh

SUMMERFEST MADE ME WANT to get into music. I worked as an usher at the Marcus Amphitheater, so I got to see a lot of shows for free as I was showing people to their seats.

After that, I pursued the American dream. If you put your mind to it, you can make it happen. I actually believed that. Now I know they definitely sugarcoat it. It’s a hustle. I always say, if you’re not working, you’re working on working.

I came back to Milwaukee after I got stuck in a monsoon in Chennai, India, and it put life into perspective. I wanted to be closer to family. I came back home and found out my grandmother had cancer. I was happy to spend the last few months with her before she passed away.

I left this past June. I’m pretty much New York based now. I could not make a living playing music in Milwaukee. You can make a living teaching music in Milwaukee. But I realized the work I was used to isn’t available in Milwaukee. I was reaching out to people in other cities, asking if they could slide me in places. Milwaukee is a very segregated city. The New York Trader Joe’s doesn’t look like the Trader Joe’s I see at Bayshore. I connected with a lot of artists in Riverwest. It’s a cool, tightknit community. But then I realized there were bands out in West Allis and Bay View that I had never heard of – it’s segregated even in that way.

Music and entertainment are the only industries where they can hire a specific-looking person for a role. It makes sense sometimes. Nobody would cast Denzel Washington as Bill Clinton. But sometimes in music, they don’t want to hire a female in the band. They’re going for a specific look. Sometimes it works for you, sometimes against you.

“I could not make a living playing music in Milwaukee.”

What’s Next? 
The Greater Equity Launch Event is set for 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. on Dec. 4 at 88Nine Radio Milwaukee, 220 E. Pittsburgh Ave. All are invited to learn more about the effort.



This story is part of Milwaukee Magazine‘s December issue. 

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