Regardless of how and whether Milwaukee manages to “rebrand” itself, our city faces a greater challenge in light of our designation as the most segregated city in America. The third installation of the MilMag Live series , this time in conjunction with WUWM’s Neighborhood Project, addressed this topic, and Milwaukeeans seemed eager to join the discussion.
Lenore Lee was the first to enter through the doors 6:00 p.m. “I could cry,” Lee said, taking a seat. “We’re just so segregated in every way.”
Attendees cited myriad reasons for their interest in the event. Andrew McLean, for instance, recently moved to Milwaukee from New York. He was struck by the segregation he saw downtown and wanted to see what the conversation in Milwaukee around segregation was like. Many others came in hopes of finding practical solutions to Milwaukee’s segregation issues, like Amari Bell, who wished to discuss the job market on the North side and the factors preventing African Americans from finding jobs.
By the time musical guest Kiran Vee of New Age Narcissism took the stage, Colectivo was filled to the brim, with over 200 people in attendance. Vee set the mood for the following panels, belting out a haunting three-song set, accompanied only by his keyboard and two soulful backup vocalists. He ended the set with a breathtaking chorus about identity and dissociation that repeated the line, “Which side are you on, boy?” without providing an answer.
Photojournalist Chris Arnade, whose work on African American communities in Milwaukee’s north side was featured in Milwaukee Magazine this month, took to the stage next, to be interviewed by Editor-in-Chief Carole Nicksin and co-host of WUWM’s Lake Effect, Bonnie North. Arnade discussed the ongoing series on poverty and addiction he has been covering for four years throughout U.S. cities. He talked about the negative tone of his first piece highlighting Milwaukee’s blatant segregation, and how his perception changed when he returned to the city and realized the vibrancy of neighborhoods he previously thought destitute.
After acknowledging those in the audience who he photographed for the Milwaukee Magazine article, Arnade said, “As somebody who spends a lot of time in neighborhoods where people say, ‘that’s where people get shot,’ I’ve found in this particular neighborhood on Milwaukee’s north side a real sense of community and real sense of ownership.”
The main panelists took the stage next: Nate Holton, Deputy Chief of Staff at County Executive Office; Reggie Jackson, Head Griot at America’s Black Holocaust museum; Dr. Pamela Malone, sociology professor at Milwaukee Area Technical College; Dennis Walton, Co-Director/Outreach Coordinator at the Milwaukee Fatherhood Initiative; Paul Decker, Chair of Waukesha County Board of Supervisors; and Venice Williams, Executive Director at Alice’s Garden comprised the panel. Williams and Jackson, both sharing the names of famous athletes, were seated next to each other, which inspired countless jokes throughout the rest of the night.
Moderators Mitch Teich, executive producer of Lake Effect, and WUWM reporter LaToya Dennis opened the panel by addressing their own races. Teich, a white man, lives in Wauwatosa and Dennis, a black woman, lives in the city. “We’re our own microcosm of Milwaukee,” Teich said.
Teich and Dennis then asked each of the panelists to introduce themselves and answer the question, “What does Milwaukee miss out on by being so hyper-segregated?” The answer from most panelists: talent. Many talented people of color, they said, leave the city as fast as they can because of Milwaukee’s heightened racism and segregation.
In light of the 50th anniversary of Milwaukee’s housing marches, Jackson spoke first of the historical roots of segregation in the city. He discussed the deliberate ordinances that were put in place to keep particularly African Americans out of the suburbs and in the north and west parts of the city.
Jackson’s discussion of these ordinances led Decker, an elected official in Waukesha, to defend the suburbs by asserting that people of color are welcome in these communities, and citing the logistics of housing costs and public transit as places to focus improvement efforts.
Williams responded, saying that even if her son could afford to live in Waukesha, he would not be welcome due to outright discrimination. “A green alien with tentacles has a better chance of being accepted in Waukesha than my black son,” she said to audience applause.
In response to a question from the moderators about what people can do to help break down the barriers of segregation, Holton discussed voting in local elections. He talked about the recent elections for municipal court positions that only had nine percent voter turnout, and then pointed out that there are elections coming up where Milwaukeeans have the opportunity to vote for people who intend to fight segregation.
The most common response to the question of what people can do themselves to end segregation from nearly all panelists was to get acquainted with people who don’t look like you. “The best thing you can do for yourself is get out of the bubble you live in,” Jackson said.
Williams, for example, has taken a stranger to lunch every week for the past six years in an attempt to break down barriers dividing Milwaukeeans from one another.
After audience questions and comments around white privilege, Milwaukee’s flawed education system and assimilation, each panelist gave their advice for tangible ways to make a difference in the fight against segregation. The overall verdict: building bridges, and creating spaces that look the way you want them to look. “We each have the responsibility to create the spaces we need,” Williams said.