Rick Deines, a conversation facilitator with The Zeidler Center for Public Discussion, writes that using our public spaces is critical to building community.
My family has lived in Milwaukee for 37 years. We have been nurtured by the whole community through our public opportunities. Far from being self-made people, we have depended on and used for free the parks, the schools, the libraries and the public square.
Through these, we have grown into more responsible citizens and people who care about our present and future. We have not been activists but participants and beneficiaries. If every family took advantage of those opportunities, we would strengthen our community.
There are many things that contribute to “building community.” However, it seems undeniable that a priority is the places we call “public.”
Public places are those places where you and I can go regardless of education, income, age, etc., do important things and interact with one another however formally or informally.
Public places build and sustain our community. This is action we can begin today!
I want to suggest four public opportunities that with our increased participation begin to impact our social fabric in ways that will lead to our making better choices about who we want to be and who we choose to represent our interests politically.
Not every neighborhood park, library, school or voting booth is created equal. However, with some focus and attention from citizen, alderperson, mayor, county executive and governor, these resources can be a strong fabric in every neighborhood. Plus a new kind of city would begin to emerge.
Parks: My neighborhood park for the past 30 years is Lake Park. It’s a no-brainer being near the lake in an upscale community. Even with county cutbacks, the Lake Park Friends and the drivers behind renovating the Lighthouse have made sure, as much as possible, that any resident and family can walk, run, bike, lay in the sun, play ball, tennis, sled, ice skate — for free. It’s public.
Contrast the recent crime activity in Washington Park and other communities labeled “not us.” It’s not a level playing field. These communities have also been working for years to bring resources into the parks to give all of our citizens places to be active for free!
The incredible Urban Ecology Center is a key player in reviving the parks.
Libraries: My favorite library is the architectural gem at 8th and Wisconsin. Many of the homeless find some solace in its proximity. Enter the building and it’s a sacred space. The mixed population and general quiet soothe the “savage beast” in me. The resources to understand the world, Milwaukee and my life are legion. An upper level gives us a chance to research Milwaukee in ways that Frank Zeidler (then) and John Gurda (now) have pioneered.
And the East Library brings that larger reality into my neighborhood on North Avenue. I’m there several times a week just to rub shoulders with the diversity that Milwaukee is. Yes, there are some libraries that are homogeneous, but for me they have also been safe and “filled with revelation” about who my neighbors in different ZIP codes are.
I’m convinced that individuals and families will enrich themselves and each other by spending more time in libraries. It’s a much better source of humanness than the Internet, which I also use frequently.
Schools: Moving to Milwaukee late in the summer, the slots of the more prestigious schools, like Rufus King were filled. Our 7th grader went to our neighborhood school, Hartford Avenue, a school that seems above average and our 11th grader graduated from Riverside, a school in transition at that time. They now have had children in public schools in Minnesota and Michigan. Public education taught our children as much about social skills as academic skills.
Private, charter, choice, and homeschools have added to the debate. My only plea is that we not abandon schools where every child can be in a safe, high-quality learning environment. The interim superintendent at MPS is a cheerleader and our citizen responsibility is to support him and MPS, even if we choose to send our children to other learning environments.
The Public Square: We are a representative democracy. How do we reclaim the power of each citizen and of us together as a force?
When troubling decisions are made and supported by our politicians on a daily basis, it is not enough to say, “This is not who we are.” Voting as a right and responsibility becomes more important than ever. Voting and organizing are two ways to make the Public Square an arena for meaningful citizen engagement.
This is not partisan. I’m finding few representatives in either party who boldly present a challenge to the present malaise. Who can I vote for with full-hearted passion? I need a choice!
We can get started by naming and supporting representatives who clearly place the public interest above their own self-interest. We, together, can put parks, libraries, schools and voting front and center. Family-supporting jobs, health care, etc. can follow.
By radically increasing participation in our public places, our community will become more connected and healthier. And it’s all free.
“Government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the Earth,” said Abraham Lincoln. (Now that’s “radical.”)
Barbara Richards says
Hi Rick, I couldn’t agree more. I am working to create a new public green space in downtown Milwaukee. Check out Facebook: Friends of MIlwaukee’s Downtown Forest. This a critical time for this vision as the county is preparing a new RFP for the site and FMDF will respond. Message me at Facebook FMDF if you want to help!
Margaret Swedish says
Well done, Rick. Unfortunately, the well-off stay away from some of our most important public spaces out of fear, one of the outcomes of generations of segregation. Reclaiming these spaces in some of our poorest urban neighborhoods is a work that must be done across this historical divide. That’s how we also make them “safe,” spaces in which we can celebrate who we are as a city and county. We make these spaces safe not by our separation and fear but by our being in them, and caring for them, together. And in these spaces, maybe we can finally get to know one another, build trust and a sense of the common good – also the good of the commons that we all share one way or another. It is within the commons, within these public spaces, that we can build the kinds of bonds that might bring this fractured, fragmented city together.