Editor’s note: This is one of an occasional series of pieces about grassroots leaders in Milwaukee.
Brenda Hart-Richardson never thought she’d sustain her involvement in Milwaukee community organizing into adulthood. As a child, Hart-Richardson tagged along to various volunteer and church meetings with her mother, who was her best friend in a family of four brothers.
“I always said when I get older I’m not going to be doing this. But, as you can see, I’m still doing it,” said Hart-Richardson, 67.
Hart-Richardson has now been retired for six-and-a-half years, but remains an active community advocate in the Amani neighborhood, where she grew up. “Active” might be a bit of an understatement.
“My kids always say, ‘Gosh, mother, when I call you you’re always in a meeting, leaving a meeting or exhausted from meeting all day,” Hart-Richardson laughed.
Hart-Richardson volunteers in different capacities for the organizations with which she’s affiliated. She has served as a representative for Amani United, staffed information tables at COA Youth & Family Centers and provided information about job opportunities and events to community members.
Every year, Hart-Richardson and other block-watch representatives beautify their block with Christmas lights and bows.
For Hart-Richardson, being a good neighbor is a lifelong commitment.
She said she has seen some negative changes over the years.
Seven years ago, Hart-Richardson was sitting in a meeting and heard the neighborhood she grew up in referred to as “little Beirut.” This was a shock to Hart-Richardson, who recalls the tight-knit and highly involved neighbors from her childhood.
One of the changes that Hart-Richardson pointed out is an uptick in distrust among neighbors. She remembers being met with suspicion and skepticism when she canvassed her block to ask questions about what her neighbors would like to see in their neighborhood. The neighbors were worried she’d disclose the information to the police, she recalled.
Researchers from Marquette University and University of Wisconsin Milwaukee were met with similar skepticism when they came to Amani to interview people on Hart-Richardson’s block and asked questions concerning their income and financial situations.
“That is too in-depth. You don’t know people so you don’t ask some things. Ask some lightweight questions to build trust: ‘What do you like about your block? What would you like to see change?’”
Hart-Richardson knows that real change comes from gradual, sustained involvement.
“It’s just like peeling an onion to get to the core of it. It takes time.”
Despite apathy and distrust from some neighbors, Hart-Richardson consistently encourages them to visit COA Youth & Family Centers and Dominican Center, where staff members offer assistance with everything from writing resumes and doing practice interviews to getting a GED.
“I’m trying to explain to them… Just go around there and spend some time because if you don’t utilize these things, they will be taken away.”
Hart-Richardson personally takes advantage of community resources. She recently completed a course at the Milwaukee Police Department Citizen Academy, where she interacted with police officers and learned their protocol for handling a chaotic situation.
After this eye-opening seminar she had a message to bring back to the youth in her community: “Respect each other, do what the police ask you to do, and don’t get caught up.”