Some people find common ground, and others create it. That spirit of leadership, innovation and commitment to bridging the divide are exactly what we’re setting out to celebrate with our second annual Unity Awards.
This year, Milwaukee Magazine is proud to honor six individuals and organizations that have dedicated themselves to building bridges – and facilitating profound healing and growth – in the metro community.
From creating spaces for the marginalized to explore and embrace their identities, to educating the community about the cultures and causes that make this place beautiful, each winner has their own story, passion and unique way of contributing to Milwaukee. The common denominator? They’re all on a mission to cultivate a better, brighter Cream City.
Corry Joe Biddle: A Milwaukee for Everyone
ON HER FIRST DAY working for the chamber of commerce in 2008, Corry Joe Biddle attended a networking event at Mikey’s, a now-defunct bar in Cathedral Square. Biddle, who grew up on the North Side and had planned to leave her hometown to move to a bigger city, was stunned by the fancy venue. “I thought it would be like an Applebee’s, but it was exactly what I pictured when I imagined going out with friends after work in a big city,” she says. The only downside? Biddle was one of just two people of color at the event.
It’s been more than a decade since that event, and thanks to Biddle and others with like minds, a lot has changed. The city’s deep-rooted segregation, and its effects on people of color and the city as a whole, are precisely the problems the 42-year-old addresses in her roles as vice president of community affairs for the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce and executive director of FUEL Milwaukee.
“If you grew up in Milwaukee, you often only know the area you grew up in,” she says. Frustrated by what they see as a lack of equity, people of color – and, Biddle says, young white people who value diversity and inclusion – are fleeing Milwaukee for bigger cities with better opportunities.
Biddle is looking to halt that with her work in FUEL, an organization that focuses on connecting young professionals to the community they call home and expanding the network so it reflects the region’s diversity. When inclusion is on the line, decisions like where events are advertised, speakers, venues and music aren’t inconsequential. “Until you start to diversify those things, you can’t diversify the membership.” Since Biddle started as executive director in 2011, FUEL’s membership has grown to incorporate 30% people of color.
In her role at MMAC, Biddle works with local businesses to address racial inequity and, as a result, attract more talent and business to the city. She’s spearheading Making Milwaukee a Region of Choice, an initiative that equips companies to hire more Black and brown employees and managers. So far, 120 local companies have signed the pledge, and the initiative is on track to meet its 2025 goal.
Whether she’s planning a networking event or coaching a local business, creating a city everyone feels at home in is at the forefront of Biddle’s mind. “It’s not too late for any of us to shift our focus to greater equity and true community inclusion,” she says. “I really pray for the day that we all feel that way about each other in Milwaukee. What a beautiful place that would be to live.”
Courage MKE: A Home for LGBTQ+ Youth
BRAD SCHLAIKOWSKI and his husband, Nick, weren’t strangers to the struggles of the gay community, but fostering LGBTQ+ youth flipped a switch. One of their foster daughters had been kicked out of a shelter because she was lesbian, so she couch-surfed and jumped between foster homes for five years. “She would tell us stories about women’s shelters not accepting her because she was gay, and that broke our hearts,” Schlaikowski says. “We were like, what else can we do?”
With no experience in nonprofits and without a dime in fundraising, the Schlaikowskis decided to create their own solution. In 2015, they founded Courage MKE, a collaborative movement that provides housing and services for displaced and homeless LGBTQ+ youth in Milwaukee. The heart of the movement would be a licensed group home, which they purchased in 2018.
The house needed work – a lot of it. Individual and corporate donors, including Kohl’s and Lowe’s, banded together to rehab and furnish the home. Courage House officially opened on Milwaukee’s South Side in March 2019, and Schlaikowski remembers seeing it for the first time. “When I opened the door, I got this feeling in my heart that I hope the kids get when they realize they’re in a place they can call home, maybe for the next several years. It took my breath away.”
The first resident moved into Courage House in May 2019. All residents are referred from social service agencies, and the only requirement is that they identify as LGBTQ+, even if they’re questioning their sexuality. Courage House can house up to five youth at a time, and each receives counseling, health care, training in life skills, and when possible, family reunification. Courage House residents stay 211% longer than the Wisconsin average for youth group homes – at least in part because they feel accepted for who they are, maybe for the first time.
One of Schlaikowski’s favorite things about housing LGBTQ+ youth is when, a few days after they move in, they realize they can be themselves. A few years ago, Courage House welcomed a trans resident. Not long after her arrival, a staff member sent Schlaikowski a picture of her in a long, flowy yellow dress, twirling on the front porch.
“I think about kids who feel deprived if they don’t get a video game, and I gave this girl a dress and her life is complete,” he says. “These kids deserve to be who they are, regardless of the hand they were dealt in life.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: Follow-up statements from Milwaukee Magazine and Courage MKE can be found here.
Jessica Boling: Standing Up and Being Seen
GROWING UP, Jessica Boling didn’t learn much about her Korean culture. She didn’t know many people who looked like her in her small hometown ouher in her small hometown out
on on World War II-era violence against Japanese immigrants. What Boling does remember is a distinct feeling of otherness. “You always know that you’re different and can be targeted for your differences, and I’ve become more aware of it as I’ve grown up,” the 37-year-old says.
That feeling didn’t go away when Boling moved to Milwaukee in 2013. So when she connected with similar-minded Asian American and Pacific Islander friends, she decided to do something about it. ElevAsian, an organization dedicated to elevating the visibility of AAPIs in the Milwaukee community, started organically as small get-togethers to talk about what it was like to be Asian in Milwaukee. Today, ElevAsian has expanded to 175 members, who’ve banded together to host social networking events, support AAPI-owned businesses and educate the community on AAPI history, culture and allyship.
Boling’s advocacy work expands beyond the Milwaukee metro. She also chairs the AAPI Coalition of Wisconsin, which acts as a conduit for AAPI communities and local and state resources to come together against hate and racism. Shortly after the murder spree in Atlanta last March, the group held a virtual rally with state elected officials and AAPI leaders. “During that time, people were hesitant to call it a hate crime, so it felt like we were being gaslit and didn’t have the right to be upset about what happened,” Boling says. “We did a lot of talking about that and informed people about what a hate crime can actually look like.” Recently, Boling and her colleagues have been working with state Rep. Francesca Hong to create a hate crime hotline in Wisconsin.
Along with cultivating awareness to issues of hate and racism, Boling dedicates herself to celebrating Asian culture so Milwaukeeans and Wisconsinites can experience the representation she never had as a kid. In her role at the AAPI Coalition, she’s advocating for Wisconsin public schools to incorporate Asian history in their curriculum. In May 2021, ElevAsian hosted its first Asian Restaurant Week in Milwaukee, promoting 50 local AAPI-owned restaurants in celebration of AAPI Heritage Month.
Boling was in Seattle that month, but even watching the event unfold from afar was a career and personal highlight – it represented something she’d yearned for since she was a kid. “I saw all the things we’d been doing and realized, wow, we’ve really been able to build something over the last few years to bring visibility to this community,” she says.
Vedale Hill: Art and Social Justice, Inseparable
VEDALE HILL has always been good at art. But before it became his career, it was a way to survive. Growing up in extreme poverty on Milwaukee’s East Side, he sold T-shirts, custom-designed shoes and portraits to earn money for food. His senior year of high school, seeking a career path to support himself and his daughter on the way, he enrolled in Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design. Hill, 33, has since established himself as one of Milwaukee’s most celebrated artists – but some of his most important work happens beyond the canvas, empowering local youth and communities to thrive.
Hill’s work, which has been featured in exhibitions around the country, draws inspiration from his personal perspective and his belief that art can unify people from different backgrounds and experiences. You might call him an activist, but Hill says he’s just being honest about his experience as a Black man in Milwaukee. “For me, social justice is tied into my art just as much as the air I breathe.”
Take his painting Wicked Shot as an example: The piece depicts Michael Jordan holding a gun in one hand and a basketball in the other – an illustration of the troubling reality Black boys face each day. “One shot on or off the court can change the trajectory of an entire family or culture,” says Hill.
Through his large-scale community murals, Hill prompts conversations about similar topics. On Juneteenth 2020, Milwaukeeans of all ages and backgrounds joined Hill to paint the Black Lives Matter mural at the intersection of Locust Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Drive. In his partnership with SHARP Literacy, Hill collaborates with local children on murals with themes including diversity and race relations.
Hill is also co-founder of HomeWorks Bronzeville, an artist collaboration development focused on renewing the neighborhood through art, entrepreneurship and youth development. With his brother, he founded Jazale’s Art Studio, where he teaches art – and important life lessons about identity, passion and character – to at-risk urban youth.
While Hill appreciates opportunities to share his work on a broader scale – he describes his murals as megaphones in an ongoing conversation – he says his everyday interactions with the kids in Bronzeville are just as important. “It’s part of my daily life to make a difference, whether I’m teaching a student Art 101 or painting a mural on Locust with thousands of people,” he says.
Light the Hoan: An Icon for Us All
WHEN HE WAS FUNDRAISING to light the Hoan Bridge, Michael Hostad received a phone call from a woman he’d never met. She’d lost her brother to suicide in the 1970s after he jumped off the bridge, and her family was adamantly opposed to the project. “She said they felt disrespectful to those who had taken their lives, but she felt differently,” Hostad recalls. “She said, ‘I looked at the bridge for so many years and only saw pain, but now, I can look at it in a new light and think about my brother in a positive way.’”
Stories like this are exactly why Hostad and Light the Hoan co-founder Ian Abston have worked tirelessly to breathe new life into the soaring freeway span just south of Downtown. In 2018, Hostad combined his IT background with his passion for the city and began fundraising to install thousands of LED lights on the bridge. The organization Light the Hoan officially launched in October 2020, and since, it’s been lit in different color combinations in honor of more than 80 Milwaukee communities, causes, organizations and events.
The Hoan, once merely infrastructure in the city, has become a bridge in a new sense, connecting Milwaukeeans to all the things that make the city special with a landmark that’s visible to so many of its residents. Each bulb on the bridge has been sponsored by an individual or nonprofit who wants to shine light on something that matters to them, whether a social cause, an anniversary or new baby, or a lost loved one. “The bridge itself already means a lot of things to a lot of people, and we’ve created this way for it to turn into a meaningful symbol in so many different ways,” Hostad says.
Since 2020, the organization has lit the bridge with different color schemes and designs to honor special events and causes, from holidays and sports games to International Transgender
Day of Visibility, Sexual Assault Awareness Month, Juneteenth, National Women’s History Month and Hispanic Heritage Month. In 2021, Light the Hoan launched its Shine a Light campaign, honoring inspiring community organizations each month with new light schemes. People can learn more about the organizations and donate money through Light the Hoan’s website.
During Hanukkah, Hostad stood in a crowd of Milwaukeeans watching the bridge transform into a giant, upside-down menorah. “Someone said to me, ‘I hope you take a minute every now and then to think about what you’ve done for the community,’ and I got a little misty,” Hostad says. “I don’t think when we set out to light the bridge we really knew the impact it would have.”
Katie Avila Loughmiller: Connection Through the Arts
LIKE MANY ADOPTEES, Katie Avila Loughmiller grew up with questions about who she was and where she came from. Art helped. The 36-year-old, who was born in Colombia, sees the arts as a vehicle for piecing together her identity as a Latinx woman – and a way to connect those with minoritized identities. That’s one reason she was so rattled by the lack of Latinx representation in the Milwaukee art scene when she moved here in 2016 to work on the Beer Line Trail development project. “I thought, there have to be other Latinx women artists in Milwaukee,” she says.
So together with fellow artist Gabriela Riveros, Loughmiller founded LUNA – Latinas Unidas en las Artes – to cultivate a sense of community among Latinx artists who, like them, felt detached and unrepresented in their art endeavors.
Along with connecting Latinx artists with one another, the initiative provides a much-needed platform for women and non-binary people of color to collaborate and share their art with the community. “These artists weren’t getting shows, or they were getting tokenized at them,” Loughmiller says. “Creating our own exhibitions, we could control our story and the narrative of what we wanted to present.”
The collective also aims to educate the Milwaukee community about their culture. In 2019, for example, LUNA hosted an exhibition celebrating the role of hoop earrings in Latinx culture. Their work also extends into the city: LUNA was recently hired to create three ofrendas, or altars, at Forest Home Cemetery to honor Dia de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead).
LUNA also adds color and diversity to the city by collaborating on large-scale murals. In spring 2019, then-County Executive Chris Abele commissioned LUNA to paint a mural in the Milwaukee County Courthouse, and in July 2021, the collective collaborated with over 20 community members to create a mid-block street mural in the Walker Square neighborhood. Throughout the workdays, Loughmiller says, neighborhood residents came out offering up their own supplies to bring the mural to life.
That work, Floración, or Blooming, depicts a woman’s face surrounded by colorful flowers, representing growth and connection to her surroundings – similar to what LUNA has cultivated in Milwaukee. Says Loughmiller: “Those three days really nailed in my belief that art can bring people together and build community.”