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. 

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Standing up for the Standing Rock tribe

Supporters from across the county gather in North Dakota to support tribal rights and oppose the Dakota Access oil pipeline.

Part of the main camp, which on Thanksgiving weekend swelled to well over 5,000 people.
Note: This opinon was published by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel just before the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced it would not grant the easement needed for the pipline to cross just north of the Standing Rock reservation. The opinion explains the underlying issues behind the protests and their historic importance.

Cannon Ball, ND —Authorities are threatening to evict the thousands of people camping north of Cannon Ball, ND and protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline. It’s impossible to predict how events will unfold.

But the fundamental issues have not changed. They explain why people from across the country are willing to brave not only the winter cold of the Dakota plains, but also possible confrontations with police.

The camp’s protests, which began in mid-August and are led by the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, focus on a proposed 1,170-mile, $3.7 billion pipeline that will carry an estimated 470,000 barrels of oil a day from the fields of North Dakota.

The encampment of water protectors, as the protesters prefer to be called, has spawned the most important coming together of native tribes in the history of North America. The encampment is also the largest and most sustained such event in recent memory, dwarfing actions such as Occupy Wall Street.

And with good reason.

The Standing Rock Sioux argue that the pipeline crosses through treaty lands and would desecrate sacred burial grounds and cultural sites. What’s more, if the pipeline were to leak as it crosses under the Missouri River just north of the reservation, the water supply would be contaminated for the Standing Rock Sioux and for millions of people downstream.

“Water is life” — the encampment’s overarching theme — is not just a catchy slogan. It recognizes the fundamental reality that human beings cannot survive without water. “There are alternatives to oil, but drinking water is essential to life on this planet,” notes Kandi Mossett, of the Indigenous Environmental Network.

The protest also signals an unprecedented convergence of native peoples, environmental activists and concerned citizens spurred into action by the November elections. It is a powerful model for cross-issue organizing in the era of Trump and climate-change denial.

Finally, the Standing Rock struggle must be seen in its historical context. It is the latest manifestation of a centuries-long struggle for tribal sovereignty in the face of federal troops driving out native peoples and opening their lands to white settlers and profiteers. In the 19th Century, the cavalry led the charge. Today, it is law enforcement agencies.

My husband Bob Peterson and I spent five days during Thanksgiving week at the main encampment, The Oceti Sakowin Camp, about 40 miles south of

One of four separate protests on Thanksgiving Day, this one on the highway just outside the main camp.

Bismarck. By the time we packed our tent the encampment had grown to well over 5,000 people.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers now threatens to evict the Oceti Sakowin Camp. The Corps legally oversees the land of the Oceti Sakowin Camp. It is also the authority that must grant permission for the pipeline to cross under the Missouri. [Update: Sunday afternoon, Dec. 4, the Corps announced it would not grant the easement needed for the pipeline to cross under the Missouri, and called for an environmental impact statement to look at possible alternative routes.]

Bruce LaMere, a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation, who lives in
Tomahawk, Wis. He is holding the Ho-Chunk flag.  
I worry for the many people we met at the camp. They are not just nameless, faceless protesters. They are human beings with whom I had eaten, shared stories, and laughed together at the absurd turn of events in this country.

I think of Cameron McCluggage, a 23-year-old student from Colorado Springs who works summers in charter fishing in Door County.  Or “Screwdriver,” an Ojibwe who was camped out in the moose-hunting tent he uses back home in Canada. Or the seven middle and high-school teachers from Denver who came over their Thanksgiving break because, as one put it, “We need to be an example to our students.”

Or Tracey Heilman, a 53-year-old United Church of Christ minister from Montana, who came with her 
husband and 15-year-old daughter. Or Bill Washburn, a retired high school principal from Albany, NY. Or Mark Parow, a 52-year-old web marketer from Jacksonville, Florida, who filled his van with food and drove four days to help feed people because, he said, “I saw elders and medics getting sprayed with tear gas and I knew I had to do something.” Or Betty Archambault, a long-time Lakota educator who runs a Montessori school at the camp.

I worry about them.

Media coverage on Standing Rock has focused on confrontations with police. The seeming neutrality as to who’s behind the violence is an injustice to the water protectors.

The Oceti Sakowin Camp is a living organism of thousands of people, constantly evolving. Yes, there may be a few hot-heads who, in the face of police violence, hurl a rock or throw back a tear gas canister. But spend any time at the encampment and it is clear that, above all, tribal leaders and organizers stress non-violence, prayer and peaceful resistance. In fact, the Standing Rock protests are perhaps the clearest example since the Civil Rights Movement of non-violent civil disobedience.

A protester at an action in
downtown Bismarck on Nov. 21.
The police at Standing Rock, meanwhile, are a disturbing example of the militarization of law enforcement, acting as if the broad range of American people represented at the camp are an enemy to be subdued and defeated.

The authorities promise they will not use force in any eviction. But can one believe them? During a recent protest, police used percussion grenades, rubber bullets, tear gas and water cannons against unarmed protesters in sub-zero temperatures — all but ensuring cases of hypothermia, with the closest hospital more than an hour’s drive away.

Shortly before Bob and I left for Standing Rock, I re-read Dee Brown’s classic history of the West, “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.” It’s a painful account of theft, slaughter and broken promises.

The book ends with Wounded Knee in South Dakota, where 120 Lakota men and 230 women and children had surrendered and were being disarmed in December 1890. (The Lakota at Standing Rock, like the Lakota at Wounded Knee, are part of the Great Sioux Nation.)

No one knows exactly what happened at Wounded Knee 126 years ago. But a shot was fired, most likely by a deaf member of the tribe who may or may not have understood the military’s commands. After hearing a shot, U.S. troops indiscriminately fired into the crowd.

A banner at the Oceti Sakowin camp.
“Final estimate places the final total of dead at very nearly three hundred of the original 350 men, women and children,” Brown writes. “The soldiers lost twenty-five dead and thirty-nine wounded, most of them struck by their own bullets or shrapnel.”

The Wounded Knee massacre marks the end of the U.S. military conquest of the West. It is burned into the memory of all native peoples.

Today, Standing Rock, like Wounded Knee, is a watershed in relations between native peoples and white authorities. The outcome is uncertain.

While at Standing Rock, Bob and I rode with Dave Archambault Sr. of the Standing Rock Sioux as he drove into Bismarck to try to gain access to documents on the pipeline’s specs. One point, in particular, stands out from that hour-long conversation:  “There’s only thing we truly have on our side,” he said. “And that’s the protests and public opinion.”

Tribal leaders are asking people to demand that that the Obama Administration rescind all permits, deny the easement needed for the pipeline to cross the Missouri, and order a full Environmental Impact Statement in consultation with tribal governments.

In the near future, news will likely focus on possible evictions. But even if the encampment is removed, people will not leave. They will simply move to the nearby Standing Rock reservation.

For people across the country, the essential question will remain: What side of history will you stand on?

A common banner at the Oceti Sakowin camp.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Harvesting from deep roots: Alice's Garden grows carrots, confronts segregation, heals a community

Two miles northwest of downtown Milwaukee, 21st Street and West Garfield Avenue frame a small plot of publicly owned land. It’s called Alice’s Garden, named after Alice Meade-Taylor, the first African American director of the Milwaukee County Cooperative Extension. Here, crops push from the earth—corn and tomatoes, sunflowers and herbs—surrounded by wood chips, wheelbarrows, and tool sheds. At first glance, it might look like any other community garden.

But this two-acre tract, hemmed in by chain-link fencing, is about more than urban agriculture. It connects two essential movements in Milwaukee’s African American neighborhoods: Black Lives Matter, and a garden movement focused on healing a community traumatized by the racism, abandonment, and day-to-day realities of living in the country’s most segregated metropolitan region.

Jalanah Smith-Rainey, 10, playing in the garden on movie night. "That's my first time seeing a sunflower," she says.

The garden is in the 53205 ZIP code and just south of 53206, in an area where male employment hovers around 50 percent and more than 40 percent of residents live in poverty. In 2014, when the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a child welfare organization, ranked Wisconsin the worst state in the country to raise an African American child, that designation was driven largely by Milwaukee.
Barbara J. Miner
Alice’s Garden is not isolated from those struggles, but it provides some refuge from them—especially this summer, when the city experienced its most violent racial unrest in decades. Central to that sense of refuge is Venice Williams (pronounced “Venus,” as in the goddess of love and fertility), the garden’s modern-day steward and executive director.

But the story of Alice’s Garden is not just about Venice Williams, as she’d be the first to tell you. It’s a long tale about the land and who lives on it, about justice and injustice, and about the changing nature of a city that has been tormented in recent decades by a loss of industry, and joblessness, and racism.

It’s a cloudless Monday night in early August. Families gather at the garden, unfolding lawn chairs and spreading quilts as gardeners tend nearby plots: watering corn, picking peppers, weeding the peanut patch. Ning Thao, a Hmong gardener, is packaging green onions she’ll sell at a farmers’ market the next day. It’s the garden’s first Family Movie night—a screening of Disney’s Zootopia. The DJ plays a final song while children dance on the makeshift stage. And then, at sundown, Williams addresses the audience—a diverse crowd of people, many whom have never visited before.

Venice Williams.
“Who we are in Milwaukee, it’s here,” she says. “The garden is not just about growing food, but growing the health and wellness of our community.”

Five days later, her words will take on added importance. On Saturday August 13, Dominique Heaggan-Brown, a Milwaukee police officer, shoots Sylville Smith, a 23-year-old black man, after a traffic stop. The killing sets off the city’s worst racial unrest in half a century—angry crowds who will not be mollified, random gunfire, a squad car ransacked and burned, eight businesses torched.
One of the businesses is MJM Liquor. According to witnesses, shortly after 2 a.m., six cars stop at the store. Three or four people get out of each car; they burglarize the store, then set it on fire. The incident happens just three blocks from Alice’s Garden.

After urban farmer Will Allen won a MacArthur “genius” grant in 2008 for his work at Growing Power, Milwaukee became recognized for the strength of its agriculture movement, in which a new generation of green-thumb activists linked wholesome food to racial equality. For years, Alice’s Garden played a role in that mission. But after the 2012 killing of Trayvon Martin—the 17-year-old black teenager whose death galvanized the Black Lives Matter movement—the garden pivoted.

“At that moment, when we chose to address that issue,” says Williams, “we turned a corner in terms of the purpose of Alice’s Garden.”

After George Zimmerman, Martin’s killer, was found not guilty in 2013, Williams hosted a showing of the film Fruitvale Station, which tells the true story of Oscar Grant, a black man who was fatally shot by an Oakland transit cop. The post-screening discussion featured an unorthodox twist: only the African American men in attendance were allowed to speak.

“For many of them, it was the first time they felt fully heard,” Williams told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. “I’m still hearing from grown men about how powerful that night was for them.”

Meanwhile, gardening continues. There are 122 rental plots at Alice’s Garden, ranging from 8-by-16 feet for $15 a year, to 32-by-16 feet by $50 a year. The plots are rented by 90 different families or community groups, from youth groups to churches. Some gardeners are well past retirement age, some are teenagers. Some are gardening for the first time; others have been working land in one form or another for their entire lives.

A 54-year-old lay Lutheran minister with a theology degree from Valparaiso University in Indiana, Williams says her mandate includes the spiritual.

“We use gardening as the carrot, pun intended, to get people to walk through that gate,” she says. “But we want to impact their entire quality of life. We’re talking about physical health, spiritual health, and the health of the community as we deal with issues of social justice.”
Williams has expanded the garden’s programs to include an array of initiatives–from potluck dinners to yoga in the garden, music concerts, back-to-school clothing swaps, labyrinth walks, herbal apprenticeships, summer job programs for teens, batch cooking classes, and working with Marquette University on production of rice varieties able to withstand Wisconsin winters, including varieties from Africa. Williams estimates that last year, about 5,200 people visited or took part in programs at the garden. To complement the work done there, several years ago she started the Body and Soul Healing Arts Center, which operates year-round at a former Lutheran church.

With predominantly African American heritage but also some Choctaw through her great-grandmother, Williams feels a particular connection and responsibility to the land at Alice’s Garden. “The complexity of this piece of land, I don’t even try to explain it,” she says. “But it’s very real to me.”

Talk to her for more than a few minutes and it’s clear that land, history and ancestors are ever-present forces in Williams’s life. She’ll often tell a story, jumping back and forth through time to eventually make her point. Take for instance, the story of her daughter’s name, Sojourner.

Williams grew up in Pittsburgh and in the summer she would visit relatives in Battle Creek, Michigan. “Going to Battle Creek was like watching paint dry, and one summer, I think I was ten or eleven, I told my aunt I was bored,” she says. Her aunt gave her a book to read, the autobiography of Sojourner Truth, the abolitionist and women’s rights activist. “When my aunt came back later that day, she found the book on the kitchen table and asked why I hadn’t read it,” she says. “I told her I’d already finished it.” A few days later, Williams’s aunt took her to Sojourner Truth’s grave in Battle Creek. “After I saw that grave, I said, ‘If I ever have a girl, I will name her Sojourner.’”

From a mural at Alice's Garden.

The modern-day story of Alice’s Garden began in 1832, when the defeat of Sauk leader Black Hawk signaled the end of armed Native resistance in what is now Wisconsin. In 1833, the Treaty of Chicago turned over Native lands to the U.S. federal government, allowing white settlers to move into the region.

One key moment started early on the cold and grey morning of December 4, 1834. Samuel Brown and two companions took a narrow Native American trail north from what is now Chicago, reaching a trading post in what is now downtown Milwaukee four days later. Brown was one of the first white settlers in southern Wisconsin and became a leading figure in the growing Milwaukee settlement. Among his holdings was a farm on the city’s outskirts, on land that today is the home of Alice’s Garden.

Brown made another mark on history. On July 4, 1842, Caroline Quarlls, a 16-year-old fugitive slave from Saint Louis, reached Milwaukee, having traveled by steamboat and stagecoach. But bounty hunters were on her trail and she knew she had to continue to Canada. To elude her captors, on her final day in Milwaukee she was hidden in a barrel. A deacon in the Presbyterian Church and a deeply religious man, Brown picked up the barrel and took Quarlls to his farm for safekeeping. The next evening he hid her in his wagon and they set out for a farm in Pewaukee, several hours away. Weeks later, guided from one abolitionist home to the next, Quarlls arrived in Sandwich, Ontario. Hers was the first documented case of a runaway slave reaching freedom via Wisconsin’s Underground Railroad.

Over time, the land changed. Cities swelled across the country, and Milwaukee grew up, too. Brown’s farm was swallowed by development. German immigrants dominated the neighborhood for many decades, but that changed with the Great Migration of southern black people to the industrial north. Though Milwaukee’s Great Migration was several decades behind Chicago’s and Detroit’s, it no less shaped the city. In 1930, black residents were less than 2 percent of the city’s population. Today, they make up about 40 percent of the city’s roughly 600,000 people. Predatory housing and real estate practices have long restricted the African American population to certain neighborhoods, including where Brown’s farm had been.

In the 1960s and 70s, African American communities bore the brunt of eminent domain policies and an “urban renewal” effort to bring a network of freeways to Milwaukee. In the 1960s, a north-south freeway tore in half the historic Bronzeville neighborhood. Then plans were developed for a downtown freeway heading northwest—right through what had been Brown’s farm. Homes were demolished, trees razed and an entire neighborhood destroyed—all for a freeway project that in 1972 was ultimately abandoned. The empty lots, however, remained.

After the abandoned freeway project, Milwaukee County maintained ownership of the razed land. Alice’s Garden was inaugurated in 1972, but like much of the central city it was an afterthought, given minimal attention and funding. Then Venice Williams entered the picture.

Williams came to Milwaukee on a summer internship in 1988, thinking she would ultimately move on to work in Africa. But, like her stories, her life is ever unfolding. “There is nothing about my life that has ever been linear and I hope there never will be,” she says.

She became involved in the garden about 12 years ago through her husband Demetrius Brown, a Milwaukee native whose family came to the city during the Great Migration. Brown works with urban teens as part of 4-H Youth Development for Milwaukee County, affiliated with the University of Wisconsin-Extension, and had a project at the garden.

“That first year I came in thinking I would plant right away,” Williams says. “I saw these tall mounds in the corner, and I thought it was soil. But it was trash. So that first year all I did was deal with those mounds and apologize to the land for its condition.”

Gardener Shu Yang tends to her corn crop. 

Beyond Williams’s vision and drive, the garden’s transformation is due to two main factors: the support of Lutheran churches, and a public-private initiative to transform the 13-acre Milwaukee County Johnsons Park, of which Alice’s Garden is the northwest tip.

“This place would not exist without Lutheran money,” Williams says of the garden, ticking off a list of Lutheran-funded projects, from the porta-potty to the yoga instructor.

The development of Johnsons Park, meanwhile, was made possible through a $3.2 million project that began in 2009, spearheaded by the Wisconsin-based Center for Resilient Cities. Almost half a million dollars went into Alice’s Garden. Trees were planted, running water installed, and basic infrastructure built: picnic tables and shelters, tool sheds, and a cyclone fence.

In the early evening of Thursday, August 18—four days after Milwaukee’s violent unrest and two days before another potentially tumultuous weekend—women of various ages and races gather at Alice’s Garden for a full moon ceremony and campout. The evening was billed to pay homage to fertile crops and “to honor the fullness within.”  But the week’s events have forced a shift in tone and focus. “We need healing,” Williams says.

A burned-out gas station from the Sherman Park protests.

The almost three-hour ceremony involves a range of spiritual and cleansing rituals, many of them based in Native American traditions and all with an emphasis on renewal and forgiveness. The formal activities end with a potluck dinner.

Shortly before 10 p.m., the full moon makes its way above tree line, its rays forming soft shadows. The sounds of basketballs bouncing at a nearby playground mix with the chirps of crickets. People break into various small groups–some teens make chalk drawings, some women linger over the campfire, a few lay out sleeping bags while others, especially the older women, head home.

I find myself sitting next to Linetta Davis, a 41-year-old African American woman who is dean of students at a Milwaukee middle school. Neither of us is sure if we will stay the night, but we’re not in a hurry. Perhaps it’s the residual effects of the ceremony, perhaps it’s the stillness of the moon. But Davis takes her time explaining how she became involved in the garden, showing little hesitation even though she and I are strangers.

Davis goes back about a decade with Williams, first working with her on a program for African American young men, “Safe in My Brothers’ Arms.” She admits that gardening “is not my thing,” but her 8-year-old daughter, Zora, loves Alice’s Garden. Davis is also a member of The Table, a “first-century-style community in the twenty-first century” that is based at the garden and recently became part of the Lutheran Greater Milwaukee Synod.

I ask Davis to describe the garden’s essence. She pauses before answering. “This is the only place in the city, honestly, where our differences aren’t that prominent,” she says. “And I’m not talking from a color-blind perspective … You can’t ignore race. But it’s not the first thing that enters your mind when you come here.”

“This is almost like an oasis,” she continues. “I wouldn’t just come to this neighborhood and hang out at night. I wouldn’t do that within a two-mile radius of this place. But here, it’s safe.”
We continue talking, and a few minutes later we hear gunshots. Not particularly loud, and not particularly close. But clearly gunshots. I pretend to ignore them. Davis doesn’t.

“Like right now, we’re in this oasis and we’ve just heard gunshots. The contrast is …” Her voice trails off. “I don’t know how to articulate that.”

We talk a few minutes more. “You know,” she says as our conversation ends, “you can come here and forget about the chaos. Even if it’s just for one night.”

Williams, meanwhile, is looking not just to heal the present but to also build the future. What would she like to see at the garden in 5, 10, 20 years? “Oh my god,” she begins, then rattles off a wish-list: a year-round educational facility, food trucks, year-round jobs at the garden, more gardens on empty lots from the never-built freeway, the garden as a tool to revitalize the neighborhood, to build a less-segregated Milwaukee.

But Williams also knows that, as in the past, the land will be shaped by events impossible to predict. The garden, she says, “will always be available to meet the needs of the community. It’s that simple.”

This article was originally published in The New Food Economy on September 13, 2016.