It was on March 12, 2020, that Gov. Tony Evers declared a public health emergency because of the pandemic.
Life as we know it was disrupted, but for these Milwaukeeans, the year was not lost.
We asked NNS contributors who wrote during the pandemic to distill lessons they’ve learned through this tumultuous period, either about their community or for themselves.
‘If we don’t take care of ourselves, who will?’
After serving 14 years at the ACLU of Wisconsin, Emilio De Torre became the executive director of the Milwaukee Turners in June. He also serves on the steering committee of the National Lawyers Guild of Milwaukee.
If I’ve seen anything clearly this past year, it’s that we were NOT prepared to take care of our people.
Milwaukee reeled from the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on Black and Latino communities due to generations of institutional harm. Social media was flooded with “neighbors” who gaslit, victim blamed or flaunted that the disproportionate impact on elders and people of color were allowable casualties, or worse still, lies. There was a prevalent and false narrative that if the harm wasn’t fatal, it was somehow acceptable, and we were weak for not sucking it up.
From my viewpoint as new executive director at Milwaukee’s oldest civic group, I saw us being able to offer some small piece of the solution.
Mutual aid is essential to our ability to thrive in Milwaukee. I’m not looking to get bogged down in definitions and philosophy with the term. For me, mutual aid is about listening to what your friends need and supporting where you can.
The Milwaukee Turners was able to offer free programs to almost two dozen Black and Latinx community leaders who were working to assist neighbors and families affected financially or physically by the COVID-19 pandemic. It was our responsibility to show solidarity with these incredible people who were working tirelessly at great physical and emotional cost to themselves.
We prepared wellness kits for participants to take home and keep. These include annual Turner memberships, yoga mats, exercise equipment, masks and all sorts of self-care goodies from Venice Williams at Kujichagulia Producers Collective and other local businesses. We reached out to community partners to offer free physical and mental fitness classes, yoga, responsibly distanced video games, nutrition, exercise and socializing at Turner Hall and virtually.
We were able to partner with community groups to host food, resources, blood and diaper drives. We’re still in the process of working alongside groups from across the city to listen for what is needed and pull together to do the work.
Those closest to the problem are closest to the solution. This includes disrupting the segregation and racism that has always afflicted Milwaukee and exacerbated the problems that the pandemic brought.
This Saturday, we are again partnering with groups from across the city to provide 500 boxes of free food and over $2,500 worth of gift cards to El Rey. These efforts don’t come from any one organization. The list reads like a who’s who of Black, Latino, Native, Asian and multiracial groups — both new teams and institutional partners — but all regular Milwaukeeans working together during irregular times.
And most importantly? People WANT to support one another. Within 30 minutes of posting on Facebook we had over 40 requests to volunteer for this Saturday’s event.
If we don’t take care of ourselves, who will?
‘We don’t have to lose our love and concern for our fellow man in the midst of it all’
Brenda Marie Banks, affectionately known as Mama Banks or Evangelist Banks, is a mother, grandmother, ordained minister, prayer warrior and spoken word artist.
This year has taught me that, even in a year of isolation and precaution, love and care still abound.
I had a medical emergency occur late last year where I called an ambulance to transport me to the hospital. It was the evening. My car was parked on the street and needed to be taken into our underground parking garage. Because of what was going on medically, I did not feel safe completing that task; however, I could not leave it parked on the street.
I knocked on a neighbor’s door, one who, along with his wife and toddler, is just a casual acquaintance in the building. I asked for his assistance with moving the car. He knew no more about me than I knew about him.
The possibility that either one of us could have been COVID-19 positive or asymptomatic never entered either one of our minds at that moment. The fact that I was handing my house and car keys to a near stranger wasn’t a consideration for me.
I needed help, and he took that burden off of my heart. He moved my car and stayed with me in the lobby of our building until the paramedics came and took me away.
This incident was a reminder that we must maintain social distancing, practice safe measures and take necessary precautions because of the unknown that COVID-19 brings with it, but that we don’t have to lose our love and concern for our fellow man in the midst of it all.
I have kind and caring neighbors throughout my building, and we may not always know each other’s name, we all must use precautions during this pandemic period, especially in our common areas, but we have never allowed the pandemic to cause pandemonium in our lives.
‘I learned how resilient we are after having uncomfortable conversations’
Jenny Lee is a stay-at-home chef and former newspaper journalist.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, I learned how to use my voice for good.
Having an open conversation is the one action we can still do at a time when we have to wear masks and socially distance. I’ve virtually tapped friends and strangers on the shoulder and pointed out an ignorant, racist or unkind action.
The more friendly I was, the more I could slowly turn around the person’s way of thinking to understand why the action was hurtful. I felt full of gratitude when the person and I came to an understanding. Talking it out made a difference.
I learned how resilient we are after having uncomfortable conversations. And I made more friends.
‘Hope must be accompanied by work’
Pardeep Kaleka is executive director of Interfaith Conference of Greater Milwaukee, a published author and clinician specializing in trauma-informed approaches to treat survivors and perpetrators of assault, abuse and acts of violence.
As I reflect on the past year of living through the pandemic, I do so with mixed feelings.
During the first few months of the lockdown, my hope was that our great human family would come together in some sort of united front to fight against this common enemy. However, to my dismay, divisions, politics and American exceptionalism took center stage. As hopeful as I initially was during the months that followed, I felt that hope was truly naïve.
Then came the summer, which put racial justice on the frontlines. The numerous murders of unarmed Black men at the hands of police officers not only challenged our state-sanctioned use of force, but also indicted our deep-down spiritual understanding of the dignity and worth of other human beings. The summer of 2020 provided us with the opportunity to sit still long enough to truly reflect on the historical harm and the trauma that still pervades too many communities in America.
While it may or may not have been the perfect ticket, the election of President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris helped many reclaim hope in our far from perfect democracy. Jan. 6 saw the Capitol taken over by insurrectionists who felt threatened that this America was no longer their America. This was a tipping point. We could no longer ignore our violent history.
When I think about the past year of living through the pandemic, I feel fortunate for my health, thankful for my family, friends and community, appreciative that we now have vaccines available and hopeful that the hardships are being exposed and addressed to create a more caring and equitable world.
However, I also look back at this past year and feel extremely grateful that my naiveness was instead replaced by the realization that hope must be accompanied by work, and I’m so proud of all those who continue to do this needed work.
‘Success does not happen by accident; it happens by design’
Dr. Victor Amaya has 14 years of experience working in and with public schools in the Milwaukee area. Since July 2017, Amaya has served as the managing director of Impact and now is the interim executive director of City Year Milwaukee.
Some say that every cloud has a silver lining. If there was one through this pandemic, it was the opportunity to reimagine education by prioritizing differentiated support and discovering what students need to succeed.
At a time when it is easy to identify the challenges and setbacks that a global pandemic has created for our city and the students we serve, I choose to focus on the lessons we learned and the resiliency and collaboration we have shown as a community to create a great educational experience for students.
When schools closed last spring, City Year Milwaukee AmeriCorps members and staff wasted no time in thinking of ways we could best support students and teachers virtually. We quickly learned about virtual platforms, found best online practices for student engagement and adapted our programming to fit the new needs of students and partner schools.
We worked closely with teachers and principals and saw firsthand that remote learning emphasized the need for students to connect with one another, build relationships and experience a sense of belonging virtually. Building relationships with students was a critical first step in ensuring students had what they needed to be successful.
As a result, our AmeriCorps members found ways to increase the joy factor, greet students in the chat, make positive phone calls home and provide extra academic support during whole class instruction and academic tutoring sessions.
I am grateful for our MPS partner, teachers and school leaders who were willing to share their needs and ways City Year could be leveraged in the virtual space. This year has taught us that our community is in this together. Success does not happen by accident; it happens by design, and I am humbled to have worked alongside such incredible people invested in the development and success of our students.