Meet the Honorees of Our First-Ever Unity Awards

Six individuals and organizations working to bring us all together.

In our community, in our times, it’s essential to not only find but also create common ground.

It’s why Milwaukee Magazine is proud to present our first Unity Awards to honor those working tirelessly to bring us all together.

The paths to this goal look different – education for all, ensuring voices are heard, focusing on the grass roots – but these six individuals and organizations are united in a mission to build a better Milwaukee, brick by Cream City brick.


The Unity Awards Virtual Event

Join us in toasting the inaugural Unity Awards winners in a virtual event including a panel discussion moderated by Dominique Samari of P3 with the honorees and a keynote address from featured speaker Rev. Nontombi Naomi Tutu. We would like to thank our presenting sponsor Quad and our keynote sponsor Molson Coors. The event is 7:30-9 a.m. on Feb. 25. For more information go to: milwaukeemag.com/unityawardsevent.


 

 


Illustration by Gabriela Riveros; Photo by Steve White

Tenia Fisher: Running Fearlessly

The news hit Tenia Fisher hard. Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man in coastal Georgia, had been shot and killed while on a run. For Fisher, a decorated college runner, the sport had long been an escape and a source of joy. But the killing of Arbery confirmed a darker truth that Fisher also knew all too well: That running is too often neither a welcoming nor safe activity for Black Americans. 

Fisher, 36, first discovered her love, and talent, for running when she competed in a race at Milwaukee School of Languages middle school. She won and thought, “Oh I like this,” recalls Fisher. 

Fisher, it turns out, wasn’t just a skilled athlete, she was a star. In 2003, the North Side native received a full-ride scholarship to UW-Milwaukee to run cross country and track and field. During her four years at UWM, Fisher broke five school records and was inducted into the university’s athletic hall of fame in 2019. Fisher’s gifts, however, were not the only quality that made her unique. “I was the only Black woman on the UWM [cross country] team until my sister got there,” says Fisher, whose three younger siblings were also successful college runners. “I was almost always the only person of color on the distance running team. It was just something I had to adjust to.” 

And while Fisher always felt safe running in her UWM gear surrounded by her white teammates – “It told people I was educated and not a threat,” she says – that changed when she graduated. “I started running with one earbud out. Many people feel threatened if they see a Black person running. That’s scary.” 

So, Fisher decided to build her own community. In 2015, she joined F.E.A.R. (Forget Everything and Run), an offshoot of Social X MKE, a diversity and inclusion consulting group. As its health and wellness director, Fisher started leading group runs for runners of color twice each week. By early 2020, as many as 40 runners would show up to each session. “It makes a huge difference to run with a group of people who look like you,” she says. “A group of people who have your back – literally.” 

Though coronavirus restrictions meant F.E.A.R. had to shift online this spring, the killing of George Floyd in police custody, a tragedy that also brought renewed anger and attention to Arbery’s death, reminded Fisher why she joined F.E.A.R. in the first place. “People need this community. And now, running is also a form of protest.”

Tenia Fisher leading a group of F.E.A.R. runners through Milwaukee. Photo by Joshua Lott

What work needs to be done to improve a sense of community in Milwaukee? 

 

“I really don’t like that Milwaukee is known as one of the most segregated cities. It’s terrible. We need to start there. For me, I know there’s a void of people of color being represented in the running community. So that’s where I can start – in my community. But we all need to do that work. Everyone should feel welcome in every neighborhood.”


Illustration by Gabriela Riveros; Photo courtesy of Jose Trejo

Jose Trejo: Education For All

When Jose Trejo considers what drove him to become an educator, he often returns to a childhood memory. The 9-year-old had just arrived in Davenport, Iowa, where his mother, who was undocumented, had spent nearly a year saving enough money to pay a coyote to bring her son to the US from his hometown outside Salvatierra, Mexico. In Davenport, Trejo was one of just two immigrant students in his elementary school, so the school offered no English-language learner program. “My teacher would tell me to sit in the back of the classroom where I’d play Pac-Man on one of those old Apple computers with the green screens,” recalls Trejo, 39. “I remember every night going home and asking my mom, ‘You brought me here for this? This is what you consider a better education?’” 

Trejo held that question close over the next two decades as he moved through Milwaukee Public Schools (Trejo moved to Milwaukee in elementary school) and worked his way through college at Milwaukee Area Technical College and UW-Milwaukee. “I didn’t want anyone else to go through what I experienced,” he says. 

Trejo first began tackling the issue as an organizer with Voces de la Frontera, the nonprofit that advocates for immigrant, student and worker rights. There, Trejo, who lived undocumented for the first 10 years of his life in America, focused on ensuring undocumented, college-bound students had the help and guidance they needed. “I really didn’t have support when I was applying to college,” says Trejo. “I had so many questions and so few answers.” 

In 2009, Trejo took his mission one step further and got a license in bilingual education from the UWM School of Education, Trejo worked for several years as a teacher before shifting to professional development. In 2019, Trejo was hired as the assistant principal at South Division High School, and he took over as principal last summer. For Trejo, the job at South, where 55% of students are English-language learners, brought his story full circle. “It was really personal,” he says. “When we first got to Milwaukee, we lived just a few blocks from the school. It’s really a privilege to come back and serve the community.” 

One way he plans to invest in that community is by inspiring a new generation of educators who, like Trejo, understand the immigrant experience. Last month, Trejo got approval – and funding – from the school district to introduce an honors education track for South students interested in teaching. He plans to roll out the program next year. “For me, education was the key to a better future,” says Trejo. “That’s why I became a teacher. And now, I want to use my story to encourage students to consider doing the same.”

Jose Trejo with two students from South Division High School; Photo courtesy of Jose Trejo

What work needs to be done to improve a sense of community in Milwaukee? 

 

“It is critical for us to break down some of the silos that exist in the city. There is a real need to understand and appreciate one another’s personal stories and backgrounds, and our educational institutions can help make that happen. Schools are places where people from all over the city come together. They are places where we can start to appreciate those things we have in common.”


Illustration by Gabriela Riveros; Photo by Andy Lira, A.L.L. Creative Studio

alida cardós whaley: Spinning the Cultural Web

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.” 

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.”

Members of Ayuda Mutua MKE packing food supplies for families in need. Photo by Claudio Martinez

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?”


Illustration by Gabriela Riveros; Photo courtesy of Pardeep Singh Kaleka

Pardeep Singh Kaleka: Building Community From Tragedy

Nanak naam chardi kala, tere bhaane sarbat da bhala. The phrase, which roughly translates to “In God’s will, we shall remain relentlessly optimistic in our commitment towards the betterment of all mankind,” sits at the heart of the Sikh religion, and Pardeep Singh Kaleka has said it tens of thousands of times over the course of his life. But while Kaleka memorized the expression as a kid, he would not come to truly understand its meaning for another three decades, when he found himself rebuilding his life in the wake of tragedy. 

Growing up in Milwaukee, Kaleka, whose family moved to the United States from Punjab, India, in 1982, often played the role of cultural – and literal – translator for his immigrant parents. “We moved a lot and I had to learn how to fit in,” says Kaleka. “My father, who had a thick accent and wore a turban, didn’t always get that opportunity. So for those people who were not comfortable with him, I was often the one to bridge the gap. I was always the one to bring people together.” 

Kaleka’s ability to connect proved useful in the Milwaukee Police Department, where he served as a police officer for four years, and in Milwaukee Public Schools, where he taught at-risk youth for eight. But it wasn’t until Aug. 5, 2012, when a white supremacist entered the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin and fatally shot six members, including Kaleka’s father, that the 44-yearold decided to focus his life around building bridges. “In the hours following the shooting, so many different people and communities came together,” recalls Kaleka. “They all spoke this universal language of empathy. In that moment, I felt I had a choice. I could let this be a one-off or I could keep people together and help them navigate different languages, customs and cultures.” 

Kaleka, perhaps unsurprisingly, chose the latter. He soon started giving talks on the power of empathy, and in 2018 Kaleka, along with former white supremacist Arno Michaelis, wrote The Gift of Our Wounds, a book that explores the power of forgiveness. A year later, in 2019, Kaleka was hired as the executive director of Interfaith Conference of Greater Milwaukee, a role he hopes will broaden the longstanding group’s reach. “I’m the first nonwhite, non-Christian executive director of Interfaith,” says Kaleka. “I took the job because I believe in the work, but I also took it because for America to feel welcoming to immigrants, people need to see themselves in institutions.” Last year, he also took on the executive director role of the Zeidler Group, a nonprofit that promotes civic discourse. 

While it’s been difficult to build any kind of community during the coronavirus pandemic, Kaleka hasn’t lost sight of the work. Sometimes, he says, the most important connection is the one with yourself. “There are so many people struggling right now,” says Kaleka, “but living through this has also caused us to sit still and take in what’s really important. Maybe there’s purpose to this, too.” You might even call it chardi kala.

Pardeep Kaleka and former white supremacist Arno Michaelis. The two co-wrote The Gift of Our Wounds in 2018. Photo courtesy of Pardeep Singh Kaleka

What work needs to be done to improve a sense of community in Milwaukee? 

 

“When I first came to Milwaukee, what I observed was a city with a neighborhood feel; a feeling where you feel like you’re being raised by a village rather than living in fear of the village. And there’s work to be done: it has to focus on how we can get Milwaukee to feel like a village once again. How can we care for our neighbors’ children? We need to repair that. Not just the individual level, but a systemic one, too.”


Illustration by Gabriela Riveros; Photo by L. Matz

Nurturing Diversity Partners: Starting the Difficult Conversations

Tell the truth without shame or blame. That’s the deceptively simple idea behind Nurturing Diversity Partners, Reggie Jackson and Fran Kaplan’s consulting group that leads workshops on issues of race and racism. 

The truth when it comes to entrenched racial disparities, however, is not always easy to hear or confront. That’s why Jackson, 55, and Kaplan, 73, have spent their professional lives helping Wisconsinites do just that. 

The duo first met over a decade ago when Kaplan interviewed Jackson, who has long served as head griot for America’s Black Holocaust Museum, while researching a film on the institution’s founder, James Cameron. The two hit it off, and when the museum closed its doors in 2008, they reunited to brainstorm how best to carry on Cameron’s work. One idea was a program series called Griot to Go. “The goal was to have people come together for conversations about things we don’t normally talk about in this country,” says Jackson, a history buff whose work focuses on America’s legacy of racism. “And the fact that Fran and I are from different generations, racial groups and backgrounds showed people that you can do this work across such boundaries.” 

The workshops were such a success across Milwaukee that Jackson and Kaplan wanted to expand their reach. So, in 2017 they created Nurturing Diversity Partners as a way to bring anti-racism workshops to the whitest parts of Wisconsin. “Everyone told us we were crazy to go into these communities and that we’d be run out of town,” recalls Jackson. “But we went anyway, and we’ve found that there are people in every community who are willing to stand up to injustice, and they’re often looking for allies.” 

Over the past four years, Jackson and Kaplan have traveled to over 40 communities across Wisconsin, where they’ve worked with churches, businesses, health care systems and school districts. “There are always people who really care about these issues, and they’re the ones who invite us,” says Kaplan. “What we do is help them normalize the conversation about race so they can continue it.” 

Though Jackson and Kaplan pride themselves on an arsenal of unique programs, Nurturing Diversity Partners regularly tackles familiar topics. Among them is unconscious bias, an issue that Milwaukee County hired Jackson and Kaplan to help employees address after the county named racism a public health crisis in 2019. The move was a step in the right direction, says Kaplan, but Milwaukee still has a long way to go. “Cultures do change, but what public health tells us is that you need a lot of different factors to change,” says Kaplan. “We now have to figure out what those factors are with race and begin to really address them.” The need for Nurturing Diversity Partners, in other words, shows no signs of slowing.

Reggie Jackson gives a presentation at Kettle Moraine High School. Photo courtesy of Nurturing Diversity Partners

What work needs to be done to improve a sense of community in Milwaukee? 

 

“It’s very simple: A healthy Milwaukee is a city that values every individual equally. It’s a city that provides people in every community with opportunities that allow them to use their human potential in the best way possible.” – Reggie Jackson


From left: Michaela Lacy, Alea McHatten, Nicole Acosta, and Megan McGee; Illustration by Gabriela Riveros; Photo courtesy of Ex Fabula

Ex Fabula: Centering Stories – of All Tellers

When the members of Ex Fabula, the Milwaukee storytelling collective, introduce themselves, they start at a natural place for any narrator: the beginning. Megan McGee, the collective’s executive director, explains that her interest in theater led her to explore what she calls “the unspoken rules of being human.” Event producer Alea McHatten first started sharing stories in a diary and later through poetry. Marketing and communications associate Nicole Acosta recalls how every family gathering centered around sharing tales. And Michaela Lacy, Ex Fabula’s Public Allies fellow, puts it this way: “I don’t think there’s much you can do without telling stories. Stories mold and shape who we are.” 

The origin story of Ex Fabula itself begins with McGee, who helped found the group with four others in 2009. Named for the Latin term for “from stories,” the collective created Milwaukee’s first “StorySlam” series. “It started as a grassroots effort,” says McGee, 42. “Storytelling is a great art form because literally everyone has stories. But we were also all white folks with college degrees. We were in a bubble.” 

That’s why when McGee stepped up to executive director in 2014, she did so with a question in mind: Who is not being heard and why? McGee’s first step was enrolling in the YWCA’s Unlearning Racism program. Several new events, all focused on inclusivity, followed, including the Puente Project, a bilingual story slam, and the Equal Access Project, which allowed people with disabilities to tell stories from the stage. McGee also began to expand the organization. “We haven’t grown quickly, or hugely,” says McGee, “but that’s because the work we do is messy and intentional and it’s heavily shaped by everyone involved.” 

For McHatten, who joined Ex Fabula in 2019, that ethos was important. “Often times, there are folks who are told to shut up and sit down, and Ex Fabula takes that head on,” says McHatten. “To be radically inclusive means to confront the issues for what they are and not sugarcoat it.” 

One way Ex Fabula exemplifies that work is through Brave Space, a workshop for Black and brown storytellers, an idea that Acosta pitched when she was hired. “It is a way to remove the white gaze,” says Acosta, who also hosts Ex Fabula Radio with Lacy. “And what I’ve witnessed is Black and brown people being their authentic selves.” 

Over the years, Ex Fabula has held upwards of 600 events and featured more than 1,500 stories. McGee estimates that more than 38,000 people have attended the events. And they have no plans to slow down, continuing to push for people to listen and learn. “Our work isn’t done until every person in Milwaukee feels heard,” says McGee.

Ex Fabula storytellers at an event at Anoydyne Coffee Roasting in Walker’s Point. Photo courtesy of Ex Fabula

What work needs to be done to improve a sense of community in Milwaukee? 

 

Michaela Lacy: Check yourself and hold yourself accountable. 

Nicole Acosta: Allow ourselves to be vulnerable. 

Alea McHatten: Do not be afraid to be wrong. There’s going to be a time when you get it wrong, and that’s OK. It’s OK to unlearn something, it’s OK to relearn. But learn it. 

Megan McGee: We need to make sure that every individual is thriving and able to use their talents. Every individual needs to feel safe and be treated with dignity.


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

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