Editor’s note: This is one of an occasional series of articles about the people and places of 53206.
Nine months into his tenure as executive director of Walnut Way Conservation Corp., Antonio Butts envisions the Lindsay Heights neighborhood, located in the 53206 ZIP code, as a prime destination for African-American professionals.
He acknowledges the challenge of achieving this goal in a community that’s known for high rates of poverty and incarceration, but pointed out that Lindsay Heights has come a long way since founders Sharon and Larry Adams incorporated Walnut Way in 2000. Walnut Way has worked to move past the economic struggles that have plagued the neighborhood.
“The neighborhood is primed for revitalization, not redevelopment. We don’t need to displace people and rebuild. We will work with the people that are there to get to the goal of having an economically diverse community.”
According to Butts, revitalizing Lindsay Heights starts with civic engagement, which is a lesson he learned as a child growing up in the neighborhood.
“Civic responsibility was a very important value…in my household,” he said. He added that it remained important when he began working at various community-based organizations.
In 2000, Butts joined the Lavarnway Boys & Girls Club as a counselor and later a program director. In 2004, he began working at the Bureau of Milwaukee Child Welfare, where he started various small businesses, including a landscaping company, to create jobs for teens. Later, he created a program called the Mobile Market for Share of Southeastern Wisconsin to bring nutritious groceries to food deserts in Milwaukee.
“[Mobile Market] was started from scratch. One of the things that you see throughout my career is that I’ve been a part of either starting initiatives or driving new initiatives and lifting programs off the ground and carrying them forward,” said Butts.
At Walnut Way, Butts is shepherding Phase II of The Innovations and Wellness Commons, located on the corner of North 16th and West North Avenue, focusing on new construction adjacent to the building. Phase I of the project included The Juice Kitchen and a commercial kitchen for the Milwaukee Center for Independence.
The first floor on the Wellness Commons will be rented to a Milwaukee Jobs Work satellite office, a locally owned cafe and bakery, and the headquarters of the African American Chamber of Commerce, according to Tyler Weber, program manager of catalytic development for Walnut Way. The second floor will contain both Walnut Way’s Center of Wellness, which will focus on events such as yoga, meditation and healing circles, and the Center For the Arts and Community, which will host acting classes, poetry readings and art galleries. Phase II concludes with the construction of the Sharon and Larry Adams rooftop terrace.
Weber added that Walnut Way holds women’s healing circles and men’s wellness peer groups, as well as offering wellness practitioners of color an opportunity to expand their businesses.
Butts plans to use the principles of environmental stewardship and catalytic development to advance the neighborhood. “In each of those areas we have a portfolio of projects, programs and initiatives,” he said.
Projects such as the community garden, yoga wellness classes and the Boys 2 Leaders project revolve around strengthening the community, Butts said. Creating stronger father figures, improving personal health and shaping youth into leaders drive the Lindsay Heights community forward, he added.
“[Local families] are our guides in the issues and projects that we go deeper into and explore so that individuals and families can feel as though they’re part of community,” Butts said.
These programs and the Innovations & Wellness Commons bring community members together to engage with one another.
“It’s about connecting with people, it’s about understanding who they are and being willing and open enough to share who you are,” he said.
“I really do believe it is the work of the heart.”