Thursday, May 24, 2018


Published in the Sunday May 13, 2018 Crossroads opinion section of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

By Barbara Miner

Budget cuts in the Milwaukee Public Schools have become a rite of spring, seemingly as inevitable as the dandelions in our lawns. 

But the cuts have nothing to do with the weather and everything to do with political decisions that have perpetuated the system of separate and unequal schools in the Milwaukee region.

Like so much else, the fundamental sticking point — it pokes us in the eye even as we try to ignore it — centers on race.

As we mark the 50th anniversary of the open housing marches in Milwaukee, it is worth remembering that Father James Groppi understood the inherent link between housing and school segregation. In fact, Father’s Groppi’s first arrest was in 1965 during civil disobedience against Milwaukee Public School (MPS) policies promoting segregation.

Ald. Vel Phillips (left) and Father James E. Groppi (center) confer after the Common Council passed an open housing ordinance on April 30, 1968. Listening in were several NAACP Youth Council Commandos, including Lawrence Friend (right) president of the council. This photo was published in the May 1, 1968, in the Milwaukee Journal.MILWAUKEE JOURNAL
Martin Luther King Jr., in a 1964 visit to Milwaukee, also spoke to the two sides of the city’s segregation. While he agreed that residential segregation should not be used “as an excuse” for segregated schools, he also noted that “honesty impels me to admit that the school problem cannot be solved permanently until the housing problem is solved.”

Today, Milwaukee is one of the most hypersegregated metropolitan areas in the country. At the same time, the gap between black and white academic achievement in Wisconsin is among the worst in the country, numbers driven by Milwaukee. And we act surprised.

This is not to say that black kids must sit near white kids in order to learn. Asking blacks to assimilate into white culture and power structures is itself a form of racism. At the same time, it bears repeating that segregation — whether Jim Crow policies or contemporary reincarnations —is a foundational pillar of white supremacy, making it easier both to control and to neglect communities of color. (Control, Wisconsin style, also means locking up African-American men at a higher rate than any other state in the country.) During the school desegregation struggles of the 1970s, activists advocated metropolitan-area solutions, including redistricting that combined city and suburban schools. They knew that Wisconsin had a long history of modifying districts. In the 1930s, for instance, Wisconsin had 7,777 school districts. Today there are 424.

One modest proposal called for merging a few Milwaukee schools with Shorewood and Whitefish Bay. You can imagine the outcry. At a public meeting, state Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., a Republican, received thunderous applause when he attacked the plan for “using children as pawns for some social technician’s wild-eyed scheme.”

Nor have housing policies significantly improved in the last half-century. The big difference is that segregation today is regional, maintained by suburban zoning regulations, lack of public transportation, policing policies and deep-seated prejudices.

The most prominent example erupted in New Berlin in 2010. A proposal for an apartment complex included “workforce housing” priced for people earning $35,000 a year or less. 
Opponents feared that “undesirable elements” would move in from Milwaukee. Mayor Jack Chiovatero, who supported the complex and complained about bigoted and prejudiced opposition, received threatening phone calls. A sign that read “Nigger Lover” was put in his yard and talk erupted of a recall. When he ran for re-election in 2013, he lost.

Power shifts to the state
While today’s school controversies in MPS often seem a rehashing of decades- old struggles, there have been important changes. Perhaps most significant, Milwaukee is no longer the center of economic and political power in Wisconsin. Today, the state Legislature is calling the shots on education.

It’s impossible to ignore the racial politics: A legislative body controlled by conservative white men is dictating policies for a school district populated primarily by low-income students of color. If that smacks of colonialism, well, there’s a reason.

In recent decades, state policies have exacerbated education inequality in the Milwaukee region. There are so many examples it’s hard to keep track.

In 2015, for instance, the state phased out the metropolitan desegregation program known as Chapter 220, which promoted the enrollment of blacks and other non-whites in suburban schools. Today, the emphasis is on “open enrollment,” a nominally colorblind policy that has facilitated the “white flight” of Milwaukee students to suburban schools.

It was also the state legislature that began the voucher program providing public tax dollars to private schools. Since 1990, more than $2 billion in public money has been funneled to the Milwaukee voucher schools, money that could have been used to strengthen and improve MPS.

Not to be forgotten — revenue limits set in 1993 that cap how much a district can bring in, not including so-called categorical aid for students with disabilities, in poverty, or English language learners. Looked at philosophically, the revenue limit summarizes how much the state values a child. Not surprisingly, children in overwhelmingly white suburbs tend to have a higher value.

For instance, the revenue limit for a child in Shorewood is $11,623 in fiscal 2018. If you’re born a few blocks away, in Milwaukee, the figure is $10,122.

One more example. (Yes, school funding is mind-numbing and complicated. But it’s important.) Milwaukee has a disproportionately high percentage of students with special educational needs, almost 19%. When the federal government first passed protections for special-ed students in the 1970s, it promised to pick up 40% of the costs. That has never happened.

The state also promised to defray costs. Not only has state aid never reached the levels needed, but the percentage reimbursement has steadily decreased over the years.

The Legislative Fiscal Bureau reported this January on the shortfalls in state and federal reimbursement for special ed in 2015-16, the most recent year with audited data. The shortfalls left MPS responsible for $139 million in additional funds — dwarfing the $38.7 million MPS budget gap this year.

If Father Groppi were alive today, I have little doubt he would take the fight to the state Legislature. He certainly didn’t hesitate to march into what was perceived as foreign territory in 1967, when open housing marchers crossed to the south side and were greeted by thousands of whites who jeered and threw bottles, stones and chunks of wood.

It’s important to commemorate the open housing struggles of 50 years ago. But a reinvigorated mass movement against segregated housing and schools might be a more fitting tribute.

— Barbara Miner is a Milwaukee journalist, and author of “Lessons from the Heartland: A Turbulent Half-Century of Public Education in an Iconic American City.”

Photography Website:

Monday, April 2, 2018

The New Land: Milwaukee's Changing Immigration Landscape

They came to Milwaukee to flee strife and persecution, and to seize opportunity. Despite the rhetoric from Washington, they’re here to stay.

Shaukhat Kyaw Soe Aung Ali, center in blue shirt and black jacket, stands with other Rohingya immigrants at the Rohingya American Society; photo by Lacy Landre

By Barbara Miner
From the April 2018 issue of Milwaukee Magazine
Ziabur Muhammed, a 31-year-old Rohingya from Myanmar, knows little of Milwaukee’s history. But he is following in the footsteps of Polish immigrants from a century ago, hoping to build a better life for his family. Along with his wife and four sons aged 1 to 9, Muhammed has settled in a wood-frame, 1908 home on Mitchell Street on Milwaukee’s near South Side – once at the center of Polish immigration.
Muhammed and his family spent about a decade as refugees in Malaysia after fleeing Myanmar, and were resettled in Chicago two years ago. But living in Chicago was expensive, and his two older kids often missed school because of the long walk. So last fall, with the help of cousins who live on the near South Side, they moved to Mitchell Street.
Today, his children attend Grant School and “it is good,” Muhammed says in halting English. “The bus picks them up.”
As with many new immigrants who lack English skills, Muhammed’s job options are primarily in entry-level, manual labor. He cleaned planes in Chicago and hopes for a similar job in Milwaukee, or perhaps at the box-making factory where a cousin works.
Milwaukee is believed to have more Rohingya than any other city in the United States, but they’re just one immigrant group changing the face of Milwaukee. Our city prides itself on its ethnic heritage – it was the Germans, Poles, Italians and Irish who built Milwaukee into an economic powerhouse a century ago. In the 21st century, it is immigrants such as Latinos, Somalis, Eritreans, Burmese, Russians, Hmong, Indians and Saudis who are transforming the city and region.
There are myriad factors in current immigration. One is the increasingly worldwide nature of manufacturing, agriculture and technological innovation, from the dairy industry to high-tech companies such as GE Healthcare and, soon, Foxconn. Another is the global migration and refugee crisis, the most severe since World War II, spawned by war and political upheaval in dozens of countries. Together, these developments are shaping the Milwaukee region, putting students in our schools, workers in our factories and highly skilled professionals in local tech industries.
Given the policies and rhetoric coming from the highest office in the land, questions abound about the future of immigration. But if history is any guide, immigrants will continue to be essential to Milwaukee’s future.
“Milwaukee is changing, that’s just the reality,” says Pardeep Singh Kaleka, a Sikh immigrant active in promoting peace and racial healing. “And I believe that Milwaukee, because of its appreciation of immigrants, will change for the better.
It’s easy to look through rose-colored glasses and forget the conflicts that are at the core of U.S. history, from the enslavement of free Africans to the displacement and disenfranchisement of Native peoples, including the forced removal of the Potawatomi from the Milwaukee area in the 1830s.
While today’s upsurge in anti-immigration sentiment may seem unique, it has lengthy precedent in U.S. history. Most infamously, in 1882 Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, and in 1917 it instituted an “Asiatic barred zone” that prohibited immigrants from India, most of Southeast Asia and almost all of the Middle East.
Here in Milwaukee, residents born outside the U.S. and their children made up 86 percent of the population by 1890, leading some to call it the most “foreign” city in America. At the time, there were fewer restrictions on European immigration, and the modern system of passports and immigration quotas had not yet been established.
Amid the global conflicts of the 20th century, the country grew suspicious of even well-established immigrant communities. Not even Milwaukee’s large and powerful German population was immune from the hysteria of World War I. Speaking German became unpatriotic, sauerkraut was renamed “liberty cabbage” and the German-English Academy dropped “German” from its name en route to becoming Milwaukee University School (now University School of Milwaukee). During the next world war, 117,000 Japanese Americans, mostly citizens, were forced into internment camps on the West Coast.
Over the centuries, the main evolution in Milwaukee immigration centers on where one was born and the color of one’s skin. Immigrants of the 19th and early 20th centuries were principally white Europeans. Today’s immigrants primarily come from countries considered “non-white.”
At the same time, evolving immigration patterns complicate but do not replace the central transformation in Milwaukee’s demographics – the migration of African Americans from the South in the decades after World War II, providing essential labor for the city’s still-vibrant manufacturing economy. Race and racism, whether toward immigrants or the descendants of enslaved Africans, remain overarching issues.
Shortly after taking office last year, President Donald Trump temporarily halted all refugee admissions and banned travel to the U.S. from seven Muslim-majority countries. The news sent a wave of fear through immigrant communities, including Milwaukee’s.
Behind the headlines are human beings – people such as Ubah Abdi, a 43-year-old Somali businesswoman in Milwaukee. Somalia is included in Trump’s bans, and under the administration’s policies, she might not have been allowed into the U.S.
Thirty years ago, in the middle of the night, Abdi gathered a few small belongings. In a group of six families, she left her home in Somaliland, a region in northern Somalia that was fighting for independence. To evade enemy soldiers, they traveled at night, on foot. Younger children were carried. After 50 miles, they reached Ethiopia. Four years later, via a refugee camp in Ethiopia, then Djibouti, then Cairo, Abdi arrived in Milwaukee.
Ubah Abdi at her Kids Land Learning Center. Photo By Lacy Landre.
A graduate of Washington High School and UW-Milwaukee, today Abdi operates Kids Land Learning Center at North 80th Street and West Capitol Drive. Her family recently moved to Fox Point, and her two children attend Whitefish Bay High School.
Unlike many Somali immigrants in Milwaukee, Abdi was not a refugee, because her deceased father had acquired U.S. citizenship during World War II. Along with her mother and six siblings, she moved to Milwaukee because a distant uncle lived here.
With a background in social work, and skilled in cross-cultural complexities, Abdi notes significant differences within the Somali immigrant community. First, she is from Somaliland, which considers itself an independent state even though most of the world views it as an autonomous region of Somalia. Second, the most recent wave of immigrants is made up largely of Somali Bantu, an ethnic group from southern Somalia who are racially, culturally and linguistically distinct.
The majority of the immigrants to Milwaukee speak varying dialects of Somali and are predominantly Muslim. There are close to 1,000 Somalis from the first wave of refugees, mostly on the South Side, according to Abdi. The Somali Bantu population is significantly higher, and most live on the North Side. About 90 percent of the children at Abdi’s day care are Somali Bantu.
While the current political climate is worrisome, the Somali Bantu she works with are more concerned about issues that affect many North Side residents. “I have kids who say, ‘We didn’t sleep last night because there were gunshots,’” Abdi says. “And it is heartbreaking, because they left Somalia because of gunshots and war.”
Abdi wears the Muslim headdress known as the hijab, and she marks 9/11 as the date when her life changed: “After that, especially for women, your clothes showed that you are Muslim. So you always worried you might be a target.”
Recent refugees are a fraction of Milwaukee’s immigrants, and tend to be the least well-known. Take the Rohingya.
The Rohingya are a mostly Muslim ethnic group in Myanmar (formerly known as Burma). Last August, the Buddhist-dominated government intensified longtime persecution of the Rohingya with a campaign of mass rapes, murders and burning of villages that one United Nations official called “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.” In one of the fastest displacements of a people since the Rwandan genocide in 1994, an estimated 655,000 Rohingya fled Myanmar between August and the end of the year.
Shaukhat Ali at the Rohingya American Society; photo by Lacy Landre
It is likely to take years before those Rohingya resettle in other countries or return to Myanmar, but even before the latest crisis, Rohingya refugees had been resettled in Milwaukee. Shaukhat Kyaw Soe Aung Ali, 50, is from the first Rohingya refugee family to settle in Wisconsin, more than 15 years ago. Today he is the founder and executive director of the Rohingya American Society on South 16th Street and West Oklahoma Avenue.
Ali, married with three children, two born in the U.S., is in regular touch with Rohingya groups across the country. He estimates about 2,000 Rohingya live in Milwaukee, more than any other U.S. city, with the next-biggest number in Chicago. Overall, 7,086 Rohingya refugees were settled in the U.S. from 2009 through July 2017, according to figures from the State Department.

Shaukhat Ali at the Rohingya American Society
Photo by Lacy Landre

Ali fled because his political activism made him a targeted man – originally going to Thailand, in 1990, then to Malaysia. In 2002 his family was
resettled in Hartland, and a few years later they moved to Milwaukee to be closer to the Muslim community.
As with many recent immigrants, Ali initially found work through temp agencies at low-level hospitality and factory jobs. In 2008, he was hired by the Catholic Charities’ Refugee Resettlement program, becoming a key player in Rohingya settlement in Milwaukee. Today, Ali heads his own business as an interpreter.
Ali became a U.S. citizen in 2007, and he has a deep respect for American protections of freedom of religion and expression and what he calls “freedom of opportunity, especially education.” He beams when he mentions his 17-year-old daughter has been accepted at UW-Madison.
Why have the Rohinyga settled in Milwaukee? One reason, Ali says, is its many well-respected refugee resettlement and social service agencies, especially the local Catholic Charities and Lutheran Social Services organizations. Another is that the Rohingya are primarily a rural people, and Milwaukee is less intimidating and less expensive than many cities.

Ali, echoing comments made by many immigrant leaders, says that language is perhaps the biggest obstacle for new arrivals. Language barriers not only limit job opportunities but also reinforce isolation. This in turn makes it difficult for immigrants to counter stereotypes.
“Because English is new and it is very difficult to communicate, education is the highest necessity,” Ali stresses.
People fleeing conflict or persecution are protected under international law, and the U.S. State Department tracks their numbers. From 2001 to September 2017, nearly 10,000 refugees were resettled in Milwaukee County. The top countries of origin were Myanmar, Somalia, Laos, Iraq and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
No group in Milwaukee has been more affected by Trump’s anti-immigration policies than the Latino community. And yet in recent decades no group has been more essential to stabilizing Milwaukee’s population and economy.
After years of quiet community-building, Milwaukee’s Latino population burst onto the political scene on March 23, 2006. As part of a national mobilization against a sweeping immigration proposal, thousands of people marched from Milwaukee’s near South Side across the Sixth Street Viaduct. Organized by Voces de la Frontera, it was the first major demonstration by Milwaukee’s Latino community. (The bill, sponsored by longtime Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Menomonee Falls, failed.)
According to a Greater Milwaukee Foundation report, the city’s Latino population grew from 39,000 in 1990 to more than 108,000 in 2014. Without this surge, the city’s population would have declined significantly. In roughly the same period, the number of Latinos in the metropolitan region tripled to more than 160,000.
With that growth has come increased economic and political clout. Latinos have been elected at the local and state level, organizations such as the United Community Center have expanded their influence, and major business players include Agustin Ramirez of HUSCO International.
Voces de la Frontera remains at the forefront of organizing for immigrant rights. Christine Neumann-Ortiz, the group’s executive director, says Trump’s initiatives, especially the repeal of protections for undocumented youth known as “Dreamers,” have generated intense fears. “The announcement was like a shock wave that hit people at their core,” she says. “There was a lot of tears, a lot of fear, an uptick in bullying.”
Neumann-Ortiz also says there has been an increase in raids and deportations by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), including arrests at two dairy farms in Washington County this January.
At the same time, Neumann-Ortiz is optimistic – particularly about Milwaukee, where schools, churches and public officials have shown support for immigrants. Perhaps most important, she says, the Milwaukee Police Department has resisted pressure from the federal government and has maintained its policy that police will not routinely profile and question people about their immigration status.
The Latino community has been organizing for so long, with significant victories along the way, “that we have become aware of our own importance,” she says. “It’s like we have been in training, and so we are ready. I feel hopeful.”
After Latinos, Asians – a term applied to dozens of widely distinct nationalities – are the most numerous of Milwaukee’s new immigrants. The Hmong, who have been arriving in Wisconsin for decades, are the largest  of this group, followed by Indians.
The Hmong are an ethnic people in Southeast Asia who allied with the U.S. during the Vietnam War. After the war’s end, thousands were resettled in the U.S. Wisconsin has the third-largest Hmong community in the country, after California and Minnesota. The highest percentage live in the Milwaukee area.
Three decades ago, Milwaukee’s Hmong faced issues common to new immigrants: learning English, finding housing and good jobs, establishing a community. Today, there are new issues. The younger generation, for instance, is increasingly Americanized, not only losing touch with the culture and language of their elders, but resentful of parental expectations that seem out of touch with life in the U.S.
Dawn and Thay Yang, both in their 40s, have made it their life’s passion to address contemporary concerns in the Hmong community. Last September, in the finished basement of their Oak Creek home, they began producing a weekly Hmong news show – “Nyob Zoo,” a traditional Hmong greeting roughly translated as “Hello, how are you?”
Thay, who works by day at Milwaukee Public Television, views “Nyob Zoo” as a way to counter stereotypes in the mainstream news. Dawn, who works in social services, sees it as a way to unite the Hmong community, which traditionally is organized by clans that keep to themselves.
Her experiences as a refugee and mother of a grown daughter also allow her to help bridge generational rifts among the Hmong. Dawn was born in a Thai refugee camp in 1975, and her family was among the first wave of Hmong to the U.S. She has lived in both worlds.
The Yangs estimate that more than 20,000 Hmong, both immigrant and U.S. born, live within “Nyob Zoo’s” viewing area in Southeastern Wisconsin.
While the Hmong are centered primarily in Milwaukee, the second-largest Asian population in the region has gravitated towards the suburbs.
The Indian community’s cultural and religious focal point sits on 40 acres in Pewaukee, across the street from a Costco and Walmart and next to a Lutheran church: the Hindu Temple of Wisconsin, which opened in 2000 and expanded in 2016 to accommodate the growing number of Indians.
Susmita Acharya, president of the temple’s board, and her husband are representative of the region’s Indian population in that they’re professionals who came to the U.S. to pursue graduate studies, a common path in the 1960s and ’70s. Acharya, 70, was a chemistry professor at Cardinal Stritch University from 1985 to 2014, while her husband, Kishore, was an electrical engineer with General Electric.
“Most of the Indians originally came as professionals – doctors, professors,” she says. Today, a growing number of Indians in metro Milwaukee work in information technology and related fields. Acharya does not know any Indians who entered as refugees, or who do not have legal documents.
The Indian population differs from other immigrant groups in a few key respects. Because English and Hindi are the dominant languages in India, most came to the U.S. knowing English. Second, the disproportionately professional profile means the Indian community is generally more affluent, which has led them to prefer the suburbs. “We bought a house in Brookfield because of the school system,” Acharya says. Asian students comprise almost 15 percent of the student body in the Elmbrook district that serves primarily Brookfield and Elm Grove.
The number of Indians more than doubled in metro Milwaukee between 2000 and 2010, to about 12,000, Acharya says, citing census figures and adding that the number today is considerably higher. Nationally, foreign-born Indians are now the second-largest immigrant group, after Mexicans.
A century ago, immigrant communities in Milwaukee were unified by language, culture and national origin. Older Catholics in Milwaukee can readily recall which parishes were identified with the Polish, the Italians or the Irish. But for a key immigrant community in today’s Milwaukee – Muslims – religion is the only reliable common denominator.
Othman Atta, operations manager at the Islamic Society of Milwaukee, is well versed in the history of Muslims in Milwaukee – his grandfather came to the city in the early 20th century. Atta, a Palestinian born in the West Bank, arrived in Milwaukee in 1966, attending Rufus King High School and earning a law degree from Marquette University.
In the 1960s and 1970s, the Muslim community was dominated by Arabs, he recalls. They were later joined by Muslims from the Indian subcontinent, many of them medical professionals. Today, many are from the more recent points of origin: Somalia, Myanmar, Iraq, Syria. Overall, Atta estimates there are 15,000 to 20,000 Muslims in the metro area. They have no single language or nationality. “At the Islamic Center, the sermon is required to be in English,” he says. “That’s the only common language.”
Atta dates the beginning of Milwaukee’s contemporary Muslim community to 1982-83, when the Islamic Society of Milwaukee formed. Establishing the Salam School in 1991, which provides a religious-based education and is part of the Milwaukee voucher program, was another important step. Families have even relocated to Milwaukee because of the school, Atta says.
Atta views himself as a bridge between the Muslim and non-Muslim communities. He is committed to his religious identity but not necessarily to an ethnic identity. “I am a Muslim, but I am an American,” he says. “And my kids are American. That’s their culture.”
As both an American and a Muslim, Atta worries about the “normalization” of anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant rhetoric. “If a politician running for the highest office in the land is able to say things that sound hateful, discriminatory, inflammatory, that will empower the normal guy who will crawl out from under the rock they have been hiding under,” he says. “That’s my biggest fear.”
It is a fear that, unfortunately, came true for Milwaukee’s Sikh community. In 2012, a white supremacist from Cudahy burst into the Sikh Temple in Oak Creek and fatally shot six people before committing suicide. Among the dead were 65-year-old Satwant Singh Kaleka, a founder of the temple.
The Sikh religion is centered in the Punjab region of what is now northern India and Pakistan, and political tensions in the region have played a role in Sikh immigration to Milwaukee. Pardeep Singh Kaleka, Satwant’s 41-year-old son, explains that his uncle was among the first wave of Sikh immigrants to Milwaukee, in the 1960s and 1970s. Most were well-educated, and Kaleka estimates that today there are about 2,000 Sikhs in greater Milwaukee.
In 1982, Pardeep Kaleka’s uncle, a veterinarian, sponsored the Kaleka family so they could come to Milwaukee. “The long and short of our story is that my family came here with $20 in their pocket, fulfilling that immigrant dream,” Kaleka says. His mom worked at Eagle Knitting Mills making OshKosh B’gosh clothes, and his dad worked at a gas station. Eventually they saved enough money to buy a gas station/market on the South Side. He and his brother were the first two in the family to graduate from college, from Marquette University.
Kaleka first worked as a police officer, then an educator. Since the massacre, he has dedicated his life to healing and now works as a therapist specializing in trauma.
Both his religious beliefs and personal story lead him to value peace, Kaleka explains. But that does not mean ignoring unpleasant realities, and he worries about today’s “toxic, anti-immigrant environment.”
“What are we saying?” he asks. “That we want the world’s resources, but we don’t want the world’s people?”
Kaleka has not lost faith in Milwaukee, but he believes it is at a crossroads. Will it embrace the world’s new realities, or yearn for a past that can never return? “I’ve been around Milwaukee long enough to have seen the exodus of jobs in the 1980s,” he says. “Right now, the immigrants and refugees coming here, we need them to help rebuild Milwaukee.”
Five years ago, Kaleka had a tattoo engraved on his palm: 8-5-12, the date of the killings at the temple. The tattoo is wearing off, but that’s OK with Kaleka: “I see it as a metaphor, to embrace our impermanence.”
And, yes, it could also be a metaphor for Milwaukee. “Change,” he emphasizes, “is the only certainty in life.” 
End of main story.

MPS: Home Base For Immigrants
Of the institutions serving immigrants, none is more important than the Milwaukee Public Schools.
When a student enrolls, the first questions are the student’s address and whether the family is doubled up with relatives, which makes them eligible for services for homeless students. MPS also asks the student’s primary language. That’s about it. “As a matter of policy, we do not ask for documentation or immigrant status,” notes Lorena Gueny, who oversees the district’s Division of Bilingual/Multicultural Education and was herself born in Chile.
MPS students speak more than 54 different languages and come from more than 70 countries. The district routinely translates documents into six languages: Spanish, Arabic, Hmong, Somali, and Burmese and Karen, two languages spoken in Myanmar. This school year, almost 8,500 MPS students receive English language services in MPS, up from about 7,000 in 2013-14. In October, I met with nine students at South Division High School who are part of a “new arrivals” program for new immigrants. South has about 200 students speaking more than 15 languages in the program. The school, with a total of about 1,100 students, has an additional 350 students in the Spanish bilingual program.
Many students in the new arrivals program suffered significant trauma in fleeing their homelands, followed by years of limbo in refugee camps. But these young people also have undeniable strengths.
Take the issue of language. While many students struggle with English, especially writing, overall their linguistic skills put U.S. students to shame. For example, 19-year-old senior Mona Mohammed moved from Saudi Arabia to the United States in 2015. Her conversational English is strong, and she also speaks Arabic and French, and is learning Spanish and Sudanese Arabic.
The students are also resilient and resourceful. In those first months when everything about the U.S. was new and their English was limited, they used hand gestures, drew pictures, or went to a translation app on their smartphones. They would also use a common language to help each other, whether Arabic, Burmese or Thai.
The most complicated problem, however, is not academics but attitudes from other students. Some of the new arrivals try to ignore hurtful comments, some get angry and some fight prejudice with information.
Farok Rashid, from Myanmar, told how one student complained during a class that “immigrants should not be allowed in this school,” and he decided not to let the comment slide. “I gave her more facts,” he said, “and at the end of class she came up to me and apologized.” 
end of sidebar.

Eduardo Martinez, a Milwaukee Dreamer
Three years ago, Eduardo Martinez thought he had it made.
Although he had illegally crossed the border from Mexico when he was 13, he applied for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. An Obama-era executive order, DACA allowed young undocumented immigrants known as “Dreamers” to live, work and go to school without fear of deportation. It cost Martinez a lot – almost $500 for the application, plus lawyer’s fees – and it wasn’t a path to citizenship. But DACA was important to Martinez, 29. He had a new son and was thinking of the future.
Perhaps most important, Martinez could get a driver’s license and a Social Security number. No longer having to work low-level jobs that paid under the table, he found a factory job at about twice the pay. In August 2017, he and his girlfriend bought a house in Bay View. A few months later, they married.
In September, however, President Donald Trump repealed DACA, and the fate of Dreamers took center court in a game of political ping-pong.
Martinez’s DACA status expires this August. If DACA ends and he cannot re-apply, he will lose his driver’s license. He’ll take his chances driving without a license and risk serious consequences if caught, including possible deportation. But bicycling or walking to work aren’t feasible, nor is public transportation.
Eduardo Martinez at home with his wife, Lisbeth Sancehz, and son, Aiden. 
Photo by Lacy Landre.

There are other worries. Will he lose his factory job? His credit rating, home ownership or Social Security? His wife is a U.S. citizen, but it’s unclear how that will affect his status because, contrary to popular thinking, marrying a citizen does not automatically protect one from deportation.
A lawyer might have answers, but lawyers are expensive. And even if Congress finds a way to temporarily protect Dreamers, what if the Trump administration – or Congress – changes the rules again?
Martinez tries not to dwell on questions he cannot answer. But he knows one thing. “Without DACA, I am going backwards, to a worse life,” he says. “I don’t want to go back to Mexico. It’s been 15 years already, and this is my home now. My life is here.”
Just under 800,000 people signed up for DACA after it began; this includes about 7,500 in Wisconsin, with the highest percentage in the Milwaukee area. Multiply Martinez’s story by the thousands and you get a glimpse of the human impact of DACA.
For now, Martinez is taking it day by day, trying not to obsess or get angry. When I ask if he’s worried about giving me his name and address, he shrugs. “They have that information anyway, because when you apply for DACA, you give it to them,” he says. “They know where they can find me.” n
End of sidebars.

Barbara Miner is a Milwaukee-based writer. Her feature in Milwaukee Magazine on the 53206 Zipcode, “A Dream Deferred,” was the statewide winner of Best Long Feature Story of 2015, awarded by the Milwaukee Press Club.
Photography website:
Instagram: @barbarajminer

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Unequal at Birth: The joy of a new grandson, tempered by a Milwaukee child's eviction

From Milwaukee Magazine, January 2018

By Barbara Miner
I arrived in Brooklyn last July to experience a miracle. I held my first grandchild, 10-day-old Cashel Alexander. Overwhelmed by how small and fragile and precious he was, I sometimes joked with my daughter, “Keep him alive, all else is commentary.”

Two days later, that off-hand joke sickened my stomach.

I was skimming through JSOnline, and a headline caught my eye: “How 6 Milwaukee kids died in 5 days.” The first death — I had difficulty reading further — involved Miguel Henderson, a preterm baby with an ailing heart. Miguel died the day after he, his mother and three siblings were evicted from their North Side home. Miguel was 27 days old.

While in Brooklyn, I would look at Cashel, think of Miguel and be tempted to say, “There but for the grace of God.” But I knew that grace had nothing to do with it. Cashel is white, of middle-class parents. Miguel was Black, evicted from a home in Milwaukee’s central city.

Months later, I still can’t wrap my head around Miguel’s death. One question, above all, lingers: How could anyone — especially landlords, judges, sheriff’s deputies — allow the eviction of a premature newborn in delicate health? Do we, as a society, believe that is acceptable public policy?

Miguel’s story received 139 words in the newspaper. Based on Google searches, there was no television or radio coverage that mentioned his name.

According to state data, roughly 15,000 people were evicted in Milwaukee County in 2016 — slightly more than the population of Whitefish Bay. A disproportionate number of those evicted were women and children. Less than 1% had an attorney.

I wonder: If everyone in Whitefish Bay had been evicted last year, wouldn’t officials have put a stop to such madness? If nothing else, the media would have gone crazy.

In 2016, Matthew Desmond wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning book based on Milwaukee, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. Desmond documents how Milwaukee’s housing market systematically helps landlords make substantial money off poor people — that the problem isn’t just that poor people have trouble paying rent, but that the housing and eviction market is structured to increase profits for central city landlords.

The book received extensive local publicity, almost as if there were reason to be proud that a book about Milwaukee won the Pulitzer Prize, even though the book reflected horribly on the city. But there were no outcries for change.

At some point in our state’s history, we had the compassion to pass a law preventing utilities from being shut off in winter, apparently believing we should not allow people to freeze to death. I asked Raphael Ramos, head of Legal Action of Wisconsin’s Eviction Defense Project, if there were a similar statute preventing evictions of people with serious medical conditions. He couldn’t think of one. Nor is there a moratorium on wintertime evictions.

Miguel lived in a single-family bungalow near 47th Street and Meinecke Avenue. The family had planned to sleep in their van after the eviction June 5, but snuck back inside when it got chilly. In the morning, the baby was unresponsive.

The Medical Examiner’s autopsy report lists the cause and manner of death as “undetermined.” It notes a history of co-sleeping, and cites the baby’s prematurity and heart condition. There was no evidence of injury.

As with most tragedies, there are more questions than answers. Ultimately, the heartbreak of Miguel’s death goes beyond his story and speaks to the ongoing epidemic of evictions in Milwaukee.

City of Milwaukee records list the home’s owner as JPMorgan Chase Bank. When I went by in late September, the home was abandoned, with 4-foot weeds, broken windows and unpainted, rickety porch steps. The tragedy of Miguel was compounded by the tragedy of a blighted home on a block of modest but well-maintained bungalows in a neighborhood struggling for respectability.

Miguel Edward Henderson Jr., meanwhile, was buried June 16 at Graceland Cemetery in a section known as “Babyland” — described by one Graceland worker as “the saddest place in the cemetery.”  This fall I visited Miguel’s grave, inexplicably compelled to extend my condolences. I whispered the only thing that seemed appropriate: “May he rest in peace.”

Friday, December 9, 2016

COME TOGETHER: After the police killing of Sylville Smith and Milwaukee's summer of unrest, five African Americans talk to whites about race

The following first appeared in the December 2016 issue of Milwaukee Magazine. The brief biographies are by Barbara Miner, followed by personal statements of those interviewed. All photos by Adam Ryan Morris.

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?

— — —

Shawn Moore 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.

— — —

Tyrone Miller 
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.

— — —

Sharlen Moore 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 O ffice 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 o fficer 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.”

— — —

Robert Smith 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 learnnot 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 o ff-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. 