I think of Milwaukee activist and former school board member Jennifer Morales as a strong advocate for the city’s schools and children. So, when her new book, "Meet Me Halfway: Milwaukee Stories" landed on my desk, I assumed it was a work of non-fiction.
To my surprise (and pleasure), the book turned out, instead, to be nine short stories centered around Milwaukee and populated by Milwaukeeans. The richly drawn works open a window to the city and the struggles and joys experienced by its people.
Morales, who now lives in Viroqua, returns to Milwaukee this week to read from and sign copies of "Meet Me Halfway: Milwaukee Stories," Friday, April 17 at Boswell Book Co., 2559 N. Downer Ave. at 7 p.m. Admission is free.
We caught up with her earlier in the week to ask about the book and her experience writing it.
OnMilwaukee.com: First off, tell me a bit about your fiction writing. Is it something you've always been interested in?
Jennifer Morales: I've always been a writer, but pursuing that work fairly quietly while my more public life was focused on politics and activism. Unlike much of the world, I think American voters have a bias against voting for the poet-statesperson.
I remember when Peter Blewett and I were first running for Milwaukee school board back in 2000, I heard that people were referring to him as a poet on the campaign trail. I was like, "No, man! Don't let them call you a poet. You'll never get elected." Happily, I was wrong because Peter was a great representative for Milwaukee kids.
For most of my life, I mainly identified as a poet. I like the economy of poetry – small, sharp bursts of thought and language – but about 10 years ago, I found myself becoming interested in telling longer and longer stories. I started studying performance art and then enrolled in the low-residency program at Antioch University in Los Angeles to get my MFA in fiction writing. During my years in the Antioch program, I composed versions of eight of the nine stories that now form Meet Me Halfway.
OMC: Tell us a bit about the title of the book, if you will.
JM: The title comes from a conversation between two characters, Bee-Bee, a black woman, and Netania, a Latina. Bee-Bee and Netania have fallen in love – unexpectedly for Bee-Bee, who always assumed herself heterosexual – but they've also stepped on each other's toes a bit.
They're learning to love across racial and cultural boundaries and, like all of us, make a few mistakes in the process. So, "meet me halfway" is used between characters from two different minority groups trying to build a relationship.
OMC: Are Milwaukeeans working to meet each other halfway?
JM: I think Milwaukeeans are starting to talk about race in a productive way. The new Greater Together initiative and the work that groups like the YWCA, Interfaith Conference, Professional Dimensions, and others have done over the years are showing how that might be done in a place as segregated as Milwaukee.
That said, I don't want anybody to take the book's title to mean that I think all groups must go an equal distance to end racism. The majority of that work falls to white Milwaukeeans. It's white people's job to end racism and to reconfigure the structures that perpetuate it so that we all have equal opportunity to grow and succeed.
OMC: Has living outside Milwaukee helped give you a different perspective on the city?
JM: I don't think it's changed my personal perspective at all. I love the city and the people, and that isn't ever going to change. As a Milwaukee advocate who is now living in the rural, southwestern part of the state, I've been sharing what is great about the city, but it's a hard sell.
When I was a school board member and an urban activist, I traveled around the state representing Milwaukee and the needs of Milwaukeeans, and discovered that, in general, out-state folks don't have much understanding of Milwaukee and how important it is. That understanding was something I worked on developing in my time in office, especially as part of the statewide school finance reform movement.
The people in that movement – the school board members, students, school principals, PTA leaders, etc. – definitely understand that all Wisconsin communities are suffering under the state's systemic starvation plan. But without that conscious outreach to build genuine connections among urban and rural communities, Milwaukee is largely seen as a violent, chaotic place.
OMC: What I find especially striking is your use of fiction to address the race and class issues that plague Milwaukee.
JM: I started writing the book because I wanted to explore some of the inter-group relationships I'd observed over my years in Milwaukee. I came from the Chicago area, from a racially mixed family and a diverse group of friends. Milwaukee's hyper-segregation was shocking to me and I started to watch and listen for the behaviors and systems that maintain that segregation. There are so many, many stories in that dynamic – misunderstandings between strangers, institutional and neighborhood histories, assumptions made by people in power – that it's hard as a writer not to start pulling out characters and plot tensions just from the everyday life of the city.
OMC: How does fiction allow you to tell these stories in a way that differs from non-fiction?
JM: Fiction can be a less-threatening way – for both writer and reader – to explore the hard questions, like, "What is racism and how is it maintained?" Or, "What role am I playing in combating or sustaining racism?" Those are tough questions and it's easy for people to become defensive. I hope that readers will find some of the characters and inter-group situations familiar, and that this gives them entry into conversations about the tough questions.
I think fiction gives just enough distance for these conversations to start, allowing us to say, "Well, if I were this character, I would ..." or "That character should have ..." and help us talk through ways of being better. But this is something I realized toward the end of writing the book.
At the start, I just wanted to record some of the voices of Milwaukee and consider how different people listen or don't listen to people from another group. And to write stories that people want to read, of course!
OMC: What do you hope readers take with them once they've finished the book?
JM: First of all, I hope they think of it as a good read. Reviewers have described it as warm, funny, compelling and real. But I also hope that readers can reflect on the words and actions of the characters in the book and see if there are any echoes in their own lives. Dismantling racism is going to take changes at both the institutional and individual level.
While the characters in "Meet Me Halfway" are caught in the legacies of institutional racism, I hope readers focus on changing themselves, because that's part of the solution, too. We make a million choices every day: whether to listen or not listen, to meet each person as an individual or to be driven by stereotypes, to be open- or closed-minded, to give someone the benefit of the doubt or to judge them, to be guided by fear or by bravery. These daily choices change others' days and others' lives, so we need to make them carefully. If Meet Me Halfway gives readers a way to enter that conversation with themselves, I'm very glad.
OMC: I'd be remiss if I didn't ask you, a former board member, for your thoughts on MPS and the proposed two-year state budget as it pertains to education.
JM: The state budget is a systemic starvation plan. I truly believe the intention is to starve the city, decrease the functionality of advocacy organizations and the public sector, and increase inequality. There are some giant battles to be fought, not too far down the line, over the control of Lake Michigan's water and other city resources. How much easier it will be for outsiders to take them over the if the city's population is struggling, ill-informed and fighting over crumbs.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.
He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.