Margaret Rozga, poet, civil rights activist and professor emerita of English at UW-Waukesha, writes that Milwaukeeans have the power and talent to create their own future.
What does Milwaukee have going for it? State legislators apparently think Milwaukee is hopeless and impose their measures without the advice and consent of Milwaukeeans. But David need not be powerless against Goliath.
Milwaukee has the power, the creativity, the vision, hard work, and persistence of its people, artists and grassroots leaders, young people like Fidel Verdin, teacher, hip-hop artist and co-founder of Summer of Peace, an annual one-day youth rally celebrating positive contributions of young people throughout the city.
Milwaukee can re-envision itself and what it can be. This vision consists of more than anti-violence rhetoric. Verdin steadfastly advocates a positive vision of peace. It is a vision not of unilateral takeover, but of collaboration among neighborhood residents working with their City Council representative, with community organizations, with artists and arts organizations, and with the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee and the Milwaukee School of Engineering.
I had the honor to speak at the recent opening celebration of the Martin Luther King Jr. Peace Place, a significant example of this vision. The creation of this meaningful place out of a vacant space owes much to Verdin, who had already led a successful project turning a vacant lot at 5th Street and Locust Avenue into a flourishing garden.
This new project on Martin Luther King Drive celebrates homegrown heroes from recent history and lays groundwork for the future. Verdin collaborated on this project with urban historian Michael Carriere and artists Nicolas Lampert and Paul Kjelland, who were seeking a public space for their mural panels honoring the Commandos of the 1967-68 Milwaukee NAACP Youth Council. The Youth Council led 200 consecutive nights of marching for local and national fair housing legislation.
With help from Alderwoman Milele Coggs, daughter of an NAACP Youth Council stalwart, they found the Martin Luther King Drive site that is a perfect fit, directly across the street from HeartLove Place. The center is described on its website as the “hub of the Harambee community offering many programs, activities, and events throughout the year.” Included among these programs are food services, a culinary training program, family resources and a child development center. That Claudette Harris, the director of the child development center, is another NAACP Youth Council fair housing campaign veteran once again connects social justice history to social justice present. This is the Milwaukee I’m proud to be part of.
In giving public honor to the courage and vision of Milwaukee civil rights participants, Peace Place also holds them up as a model for today. If the young people portrayed in the murals, Richard Green, Marion Glass, Karate Joe and Fred Bronson, among others, could stand up for justice then, young people today can be empowered to see themselves as people who will bring a vision of justice forward to additional places and situations.
Peace Place brings meaningful public art to what was a vacant space. It will also provide produce grown in the garden to the programs at HeartLove Place. It promises to nourish body and spirit.
Milwaukee neighborhoods can and will define themselves. They can best do the job without the top-down interference of glib politicians who have no appreciation for the public role of the arts and haven’t anything like this day-to-day stake in the well being of the community.
My applause and gratitude to the hard-working, visionary local leaders and artists willing to do the nitty-gritty work that makes our community a place where life will flourish.