By Jimmy Carlton Sportswriter Published Aug 24, 2016 at 7:01 PM

To scroll through LaShawndra Vernon’s LinkedIn page is to be awestruck by her extensive outreach experience in civic engagement and public and social service – as an employee, volunteer, board member, political candidate, organizer, educator and more – with organizations and advocacy groups and health care initiatives from Community Advocates to United Way to the Human Trafficking Task Force of Greater Milwaukee that she helped found. It’s also a reason to put on another pot of coffee.

To speak with Vernon, since June the executive director of Walnut Way Conservation Corporation, 2240 N. 17th St., is to be granted access to a level of historically informed, ultra-progressive and confident sociological insight into Milwaukee’s racial issues and, to a small degree, her understanding of conflict resolution, which is so advanced it feels like she’s almost beyond the present. It’s also an exercise in, comparatively, feeling very not smart.

The present is why we sat down with Vernon last week, a few days after the shooting and subsequent unrest in and around Sherman Park. We talked with Vernon about Sherman Park, its aftermath and the underlying factors – particularly the institutional lever she’s most focused on pulling that isn’t discussed as much as others – as well as false racial constructs and how hip-hop suggests that, while culture isn’t constrained by race, opportunity might be. Make sure to watch the video at the end of the article for Vernon's idea for one way to make Milwaukee a better place to live for African-Americans.

To read other installments of the Milwaukee Talks Race series, click here

Here is our interview with LaShawndra Vernon, unfiltered and (only slightly) edited for length.

OnMilwaukee: Can you tell me how you experienced what happened over the weekend in Sherman Park? I know it’s still recent, but how did you process everything over those first hours and did the impact and your thoughts change at all as the next few days played out?

LaShawndra Vernon: On Saturday, I received a call from my children’s father, my partner, and he said that the BP gas station was on fire on Sherman. I was really well aware of the already existing challenges at that gas station. I have a lot of relationships with lots of the people that were frontline. The first thing I did Sunday morning because (Saturday) night I was still numb, but Sunday morning, I called all of them. I started texting all of them to make sure they were OK, because one of the things we believe in doing here at Walnut Way, and I think me personally, as well, is we heal the healers.

We make sure we keep those relationships with the people that put themselves at risk in this community for the issues that we’re facing. I spent all day Sunday, texting and emailing and phone calls and checking to see who was where and if they were OK. Most people were managing. No one was OK. I didn’t hear ‘OK’ from anyone.

Sunday was a rough day because you sit there and you’re like, "What can I do?" Fortunately Erica Heisdorf, our communications point person, sent me an email while I was sitting there staring at my computer, with a blank Word document up. I knew I had to do something for the organization, but I didn’t know what. I didn’t know what to say, I didn’t know what to write.

Erica emailed me right as I was sitting there. It was like, "We’ve got to do something." Now, that’s more incentive to do something. So I wrote an op-ed. I used to be one of the ones that would have been on the frontline. I’m almost 40 now. I have a teenage daughter. There’s several ways that you have to address our community violence, but one of the most important ones I have learned is when you have a teen at home, you need to make sure that they’re safe.

Because as (authorities) are saying there’s a curfew, as they’re accusing young people – and let’s be really clear, most of what you saw were not teenagers; that’s my biggest frustration with this – then that means now as a parent of a teenager I can’t even get engaged in any of this. I have to make sure my teen did not decide to go to a friend’s house today who said, "Let’s go to Sherman Park," because when you see this on the news, you might have a friend that lives there, you might want to go for that reason.

I had to keep my daughter out of the loop. She wasn’t even really impacted by it very significantly because she wasn’t watching the news. She was being a teenager. She was in her room ignoring everyone, like most teenage girls do. My concern was how do I keep her safe from this? I think every parent with a teen was petrified less of our teen’s behavior and more of the way our teens are seen in public.

My Sunday was sitting there thinking about what’s the root cause of this? It’s not what we see on the news. It’s not a protest like you think. People assign Black Lives Matter to everything that black people do, which has become very frustrating for me because, absolutely, black lives matter. I don’t care what hashtag you use. I don’t care what statement you use, the underlying tone is stop killing us. That’s the message that is on the street for our young people, for our young adults.

When I was sitting there, I said, "I’m not writing what you expect." Everybody expects me to just say this is racism, and that’s the answer. It’s systemic oppression; racism is a lever you can pull within a myriad of levers. Racism is one. You can also use poverty. That’s another lever. You can also use poor food options. That’s another lever. You can also use lack of jobs. That’s another lever. But the lever I choose to pull in the umbrella of types of oppression is the foreclosure crisis. I started digging into research, went to the Equity Atlas, looked up the zip codes that were surrounding this.

We always say 53206, right? Very high numbers for negative things. But this happened in 53216. The catalyst of all this was one zip code up from 06, and what does 53216 lead in? Foreclosure. If you look at Sherman Boulevard as a whole, there’s a part of it that’s still doing pretty well, beyond Capitol, in that little triangle by Roosevelt. That area is still pretty well-maintained. Still lots of homeowners. But once you cross Fond Du Lac, everything changes.

The people who used to own those homes, many are still there fighting to keep their spot because it’s the home they invested in. But a lot of great professionals in the African-American community used to live there. There has been a churn and now they’ve moved to Menomonee Falls, they’ve moved to Brookfield, they’ve moved to Greenfield, they’ve moved to St. Francis. So there are people that have shifted, most of the population you’ll see has shifted northwest. Some have gone southeast, southwest, but that leaves this pocket of lack of ownership on a street that traditionally was highly populated by owners.

That used to be the street where you would find the doctors, the professors at the universities, the lawyers. People who have a stake in this community. If there’s a dispute at the gas station, and all of the people that live around the gas station own their homes, and everyone has this great respect for the people who are there in the house and outside of their porch, you can see them. When you lose the population that’s outside and then there’s neighbors who live nearby that come into that area, if they don’t own it, why would they value it? None of the things that were owned in that area were black-owned.

The narrative you see on the media is, "Why are they burning up their own stuff?" They are not. That’s the thing. The things that were getting burned were not African-American-owned businesses or homes. What you have in that situation is this lack of ownership, lack of dignity that they’ve received in that area, lack of respect. I mean, if you’ve got stores – I’ve always frowned upon stores that say only two students are allowed in the store at a time.

You’re saying, "Keep going. Don’t come into my store." And that’s usually close to a high school. Some high school areas, the laundromats, the candy stores or the convenience stores, maybe like the small restaurants that are fast food-type, they will have this rule that’s posted on their window. It’s because they don’t want this large population of people inside. They don’t discriminate against anyone except for the students.

That’s part of this issue. When we issue a curfew for people under 18, that doesn’t stop the people from 18 to whatever age from continuing whatever actions. And for me, a parent, now I have to make sure that my child is at home and my child feels like a hostage in my house. This is the experience that we’re passing on to our teens, which makes them want to rebel more. "You won’t let me go anywhere so I’m just going to leave."

My daughter is not really into just hanging out on the street. She’s very into very specific activities, and I’m blessed in that way because I’m able to provide her with those activities. I can take her to her dance team rehearsals, to her school-related engagements. She goes to Divine Savior. She’s given all the opportunity to thrive far from home. We live down here. We live in the Lindsay Heights area. She attends high school at Divine Savior. I also have transportation, so I can get her there. Not everyone has that ability. Not everyone has the resources to get their children into programs. Not everyone even has the understanding or knowledge of programs because they didn’t have that handed-down information.

You have some of that in that (Sherman Park) area. Young people who would love to do more, but the resources are slim, the choices are few and they’re just trying to figure it out. Trying to figure out what to do. For a nice-sized period of time, you had a bunch of youth organizations, activists and just genuinely concerned citizens in the Sherman Park area doing this organic youth engagement in that park. For months, they were there this summer – whether it was Urban Underground, Boys and Girls Club staff, all of the organizations that are doing the youth work, Running Rebels. They were going to the park. I heard there was a Double Dutch competition; I was sad I missed it. There were things that were happening in the park that could be free to these teens. The teens were coming, having a good time, not getting in any trouble, but something would happen near them and they were all associated to it.

It wouldn’t have necessarily been them, but we had nothing for them to do and wide-open space for them to engage and some people decided to just organically make things happen for them. We had an already existing conflict that was happening in the neighborhood that had not been fully addressed, and some of the efforts to address it didn’t work.

The thing about conflict is you can’t guarantee resolution. You can do everything in your power to work towards it, but theory of conflict suggests conflict is inevitable. It’s in everything. And our internal conflict, our latent conflict, is a greater indicator of whether or not explosive conflict will happen. We had latent conflict over there. We had people saying that the police relations there were bad for a long time. Until we get to a point where we address the latent conflict, we will see things like this happen again and again.

That’s the key thing. Milwaukee has all the elements that are the same as any other city that has rioted and has rioted before. It doesn’t necessarily have to be about racism, but oppressed people, when they feel they have nothing to lose, their fightback is like no one else’s. It’s like no one else’s. And so we witnessed the fightback of the oppressed, and everybody is like, "Oh, there’s this organized movement." No, what’s worse is the chaotic.

The human anarchy-based chaos that comes out of oppression is something that you can’t get a lid on because you have no idea where it started. That’s what we had. There were lots and lots of layers. Layers from many years, but this summer just there were all these telltales signs up until this. And a lot of us were just hoping that things would work themselves out. A lot of us were hoping that – there were these great people in positions in places that were working on it. It’s not in Lindsay Heights. It’s not an area that I need to focus on right now.

This map here is just as destitute when it comes to some of the lack of home ownership. So I’m keenly aware of it. Lindsay Heights only has 20 percent home ownership. And a large percentage of our homes in this area are foreclosed upon and owned by banks. We’ve got this vacuum. Meanwhile, we’ve got development happening Downtown, and people have to get through it, people have to drive through it. So what are we going to do to make sure that we don’t eliminate revenue streams to a city that needs all the resources that it can get, tax payers coming in for entertainment, all the dollars that we can get in this space?

We have to work on these pockets where the poverty has become so intense that we’ve got homeless people congregating and kind of couch-surfing. We know that’s happening. We know it. Just from neighborhood engagement come to a housing committee here and we’ll talk about anything from people not cutting the grass to we’re not sure who really lives in this house, there’s lots of people in it, there’s an elderly person that may own the house and their grandchildren and children are layered into the house. And there may be some cousins because they fall out of hard times. That’s what’s happening in the neighborhoods we’re talking about. Families are truncating into one home, trying to survive. The problem is they don’t have economic opportunities that they need, so they’re fighting each other.

Like, how often do you see families are breaking up over finances? "You need to go because you’re not contributing and I’ve got kids and you’re staying in my house." These things are the everyday things that, suddenly the guy leaves the house, just had this horrible confrontation with family, and now, "You want to start with me today?" That’s the nothing-to-lose moment. "I just lost my home."

Again, I don't know this specifically for this situation, this intricately. What I’m describing is the process of the experience of the oppressed. The people who don’t have what they need to survive. The more we watch that happen in these communities, our communities, the more we have to be really, really conscious of how to unpack all of this and to get at every one of this social factors that contribute to the potential for disaster.

I found it interesting, in the aftermath of the protests, you had all these different messages coming from different people and different language used. Scott Walker says, "Sherman Park is a good neighborhood; this doesn’t represent Sherman Park," and some people had that sentiment. Then you’ve got Khalif Rainey and others saying, "This was a powder keg that was going to explode at some point; it happened in Sherman Park but it could have happened anywhere because of all these underlying adverse institutional factors," which you’ve talked about.

You mentioned oppression and layers of problems and sort of hoping things would work themselves out. Did you feel like Sherman Park was inevitable, reaching this boiling point? Did you see it coming? Obviously, you don’t want to have to find a silver lining in violence, but do you think, or hope, something good could come out of this – some positive improvement from all the attention on the negative? Like, in human history and society, horrible things can ultimately produce good change – does that factor into the formula of how you analyze everything that’s happened in Sherman Park now and Milwaukee for decades?

Something great can come out of a crisis, always. I think the onus is on all the parties necessary – city government, county government, state government, people in the community … just more people, more organizations with the capacity to do more. The people that decide the budget for our state, if we spent less time funding prison and law enforcement and if we spent more time funding population and public health and prevention measures.

We have an Office of Violence Prevention in Milwaukee. That office has been around for years. Reggie (Moore) is in charge of it. We need to fund more programs to prevent public health crisis. All of them. Violence is one. I could go down a laundry list of public health issues that if we spent more money in the health department, if we spent more money in the economic development space, if we spent more money in DWD, in development, if we spent more money on those things, then we do on the fire and police budget. I think that that’s one step that could be taken, because the city could be an economic engine for jobs in a different way if their focus was not on the police being the ones to get all the money.

Use it. There are other cities that have moved that way. Change how we tax. There is a way we could be more innovative with our taxes. Be more innovative to make sure that – you know, this is not something that’s on the table for the city right now because of policy issues – what if, we don’t want people to smoke cigarettes, right? That’s a public health issue. We want everyone to stop. Some cities have taken cigarettes to $9 a pack because they tax the living daylights out of the cigarettes for the people who are going to continue to smoke, no matter how much it costs, to pay for their public health.

If you’re going to throw bricks at death, you’re more than welcome to at a higher rate, so that we can put some prevention in the way of our youth so that they won’t choose the same path you did. There are ways that we could be innovative with tax levy and still provide supports to the police for safety and fire – those are necessary responses. But some things we’re paying for in those departments we don’t need; we could move that funding over to our health area.

For a lot of people, especially white people, race is a difficult thing to talk about, it’s very uncomfortable. Is that part of the problem to finding real solutions to these big institutional issues – that on a basic level, people aren’t good at even talking about it? How racist is Milwaukee? I think a lot of white people who are progressive and not actively discriminatory think they’re not making things worse because they’re not overtly racist; but if there’s this inequality gap that already exists, we’re really not shrinking that difference by just going along being nice and trying to empathize but not proactively altering it, right?

What should white people do? What can people do, in authentic and, as you said, innovative ways, to improve race relations and disparity? How do we talk better about race? And what’s the media’s role in all of this?

That’s a loaded question. Let me do a peel-back first; let me say the provocative parts of what I have to say.

I am an equity activist and advocate. So for me, race, like I said, within the land of oppression, is only one lever. Racism, on its face, doesn’t bother me. I could care less how someone thinks about me, based on the color of my skin, and I won’t stop being as a result of that. You can be mean to me and I could say, "Well, you’re ugly, and now we’re done talking." I don’t have a lot of emotion, and that’s tolerance that I’ve built as an African-American woman with dreads. That’s the real reason I’ve built a tolerance to that. I just kind of let it happen and let it move on.

But what I don’t have any tolerance for is the mechanisms of racism that are built into the institution of the United States, that cities like Milwaukee have more data-based impact that we pull from. What’s unique about Milwaukee and why we always rise to the top as being the worst place to live because you’re black is more rooted in how many black people live here versus the rest of the state. So, when it comes to being the worst place for black people to live and when we talk about segregation, there are two views on segregation.

There are some cultures that believe that they embrace living in a united space and they would rather you come in and access and experience their culture and leave. That’s not segregation to them. Data says segregation exists in Milwaukee. Culture says people of color have congregated in areas in some of these situations for safety. That’s why it doesn’t bother me much if someone is racist in Milwaukee, because most of you aren’t here and there’s, quite frankly, more of us than you.

Racism is not a strong mechanism in Milwaukee. The only people that think it’s a strong mechanism in Milwaukee, by and large, are white people. The other thing that I’m going to say that some people might think is controversial – if you decide to print it, you might not – but I don’t think white exists. White is a false racial construct; it was created – mostly in this country; other countries use the term – to separate what white people have decided are white people.

There are people in the census that can check white that aren’t white. White is something that America gives people so that they don’t have to be black or Hispanic. And they can then have what is called an American Dream by being white. So the thing that white people in America can do – and to be more specific, white people in and around Milwaukee can do – is reject whiteness.

That is the only real answer to it. And that doesn’t make you any less of whatever culture you come from. It is not being white, because you are not. You are whatever your parents were culturally, whatever country that was. And so the lie that America told us about whiteness is what has to be undone. The thing about it is people of color know it. We don’t have to argue with you about it. It is the discomfort that some white people have with being told that white doesn’t exist, holding onto a reality that they’ve had all their lives, that causes racist behavior. Some of the most well-meaning white people I know behave terribly when you remind them that white is a false racial construct.

When people say, "What can I do as a white …" I’m done listening now. You can’t do anything as a white anything. But you can as a human being whose family comes from Germany, from Russia, from wherever your family comes from. It is those labels that perpetuate the race-ism. The structures that exist can only be dismantled by changing the laws. So, if we had a Racial Impact Statement on every piece of legislation that addressed how many people of color would be impacted adversely by passing a piece of legislation, we would prevent racist practices throughout the state. These kinds of things have been rejected. These are the kinds of things that we need to prevent things like what happened in Sherman Park because every form of legislation has a racial impact. And if we get smart about what that means as a city, as a state and as a nation, we can behave differently in the way we legislate, and then we won’t have the impact of racism. Then we won’t feel like we have to make everyone move somewhere else so that we’re not segregated.

We can flip the message around segregation if we understood the cultures and why (people) choose to live collaboratively. And it is cooperative economics. African-American people believe strongly in cooperative economics, but guess who else does? Jewish populations. Certain cultures, their money circulates more often. In our culture, our original African culture, we would have been circulating in the villages. That culture is destroyed, by the country that we live in, because that is not a normal practice. We don’t necessarily as a country encourage circulation of dollars within a city. It’s a new thing to people now. Now, we’re like buy local. It’s hip. It’s hot. "Hipsters are doing it. Roll up your pants and buy local."

That’s what we’re saying to everyone, but that’s the concept of the villages, of all the cultures that have had tribes and villages. We’ve gotten away from that. That’s not about race; that’s about culture and that’s about geographic relevance. Tribes from wherever commune and share resources and raise funds for their own tribes in a way that has always existed since the beginning of time.

The problem is our structure doesn’t look like that. Our structure is very bureaucratic. Our structure is, although we came here to not be what Europe was, we built things that look just like it. I shouldn’t say we came here that way; my culture didn’t come here that way, to be quite frank. But people who migrated to the country, that was the reason that they came to be separated from what was oppression in another place. Only to come here and, did you ever read the book "Animal Farm?" We came here, and we played "Animal Farm."

The big problem is it’s really that. It’s really the embrace of humanness, the elimination of whiteness, because black – we wouldn’t call ourselves black if you didn’t call yourselves white. My skin is not black. My skin is brown, but we chose the opposite because we were the ones under attack. In the ‘70s, when we decided we were black and brown, it was because y’all was white and proud. So we had to be what we are and own that, right?

That’s the root of the resilience of people of color. The only way to undo that is to let go of these lies we’ve told ourselves in this country about whiteness. And that’s a huge on-taking. If we’re going to do it, that’s the only way to do it, and good luck to us convincing some white people from up north to not be white. There is privilege that comes with whiteness. "We want the privilege." People who check the white box, they want the privilege, they don’t want to oppress. They want to get what comes with privilege. That’s the problem.

The thing about African people, when you look at the diaspora of us, we were everywhere on the globe and we were still called black. You could go to Switzerland, you could go to Germany, you could go to Russia. Black people are still black in all those countries. The narrative of the United States has become a global narrative, and the countries that we like to say are utopias don’t have large populations of African-born people. Everybody loves Sweden. There’s no black people in Sweden. I’m overstating that; there’s maybe seven.

But the whole point is the places where there are large populations of African-born people there is a fear of us that is a white noise that has been put into the media by our country’s media, and that other countries follow suit because our media has become global. I don’t watch the news. People are always just like, "Oh LaShawndra, you were on the news. Great job." I’m like, "Thank you."

You spoke earlier to how I’m above the fray. That’s one of the ways I stay above the fray. I do a lot of self-care. My self-care is before I, out of passion, jump in to something full force, I think about all the things that will collapse if I do that. My children need me to be sane. They need me to be able to keep them safe, to protect them, to provide for them, my partner as well.

We all need to be sane and safe. I can’t dive in to protest like I did when I didn’t have children. I could be on the frontlines of race-related issues when I was younger because I didn’t have children, but I’m in a stage of my life where I don’t think of that should stop. I think people should continue to raise their voice, continue to do it in whatever way organically makes sense for them, but I have stepped back and become very strategic in my voice.

Someone has to go upstream. I’ve made that conscious decision to go upstream. And I’m a nerd. I’m a big dork. So I went to Marquette, I studied really hard. Who, other than me, sat down on Saturday and wrote a blog for Huffington Post with data? How many people were in the right headspace to even do that on Saturday? But I knew I needed to get it out there because I caught the news when I turned it on and I listened to it for just a few minutes, and reporters, bless their misguided hearts, say the stupidest things while they’re in the station. The person who’s doing the news feed, they’re just asking them the most asinine questions you could possibly ask, coupled with I live in Milwaukee and I’m hearing this commentary from CNN people.

I’m watching a person on the camera talking about what they think they’re seeing and I’m actually hearing the dialogue walking past, realizing a percentage of this is just people walking through trying to get home. Because if you know your streets, some people when they’re walking home, they might be listening to music; they’ve got headphones on and they’re rapping on the way home. So you’d hear, "I’m going to stop the sound, it seems like there’s some aggressive language going on." Yeah, dude was just walking by going to the bus stop. That was not part of the protest. I could witness that from being at home. Knowing Sherman, they just got off the 30. They are literally in front of the 30 bus stop, sir. That’s what’s going on here. He’s not on the scene.

That’s why I had to pull myself out of it, because I’m more useful if I don’t dive in right now. Others dive in, and so what do I do? I access them. I was just saying, "We heal the healers." Those individuals that were on the frontline that have been mistreated by people that have all this violence that they’re managing, my job is to call them and to just discharge the emotion that they have. Triage. Check and see whether or not they’re ready to go back into the field where they probably need to be. Not all of them need to be there.

And the key component is I used to do a lot of direct service work. I was a social worker. I did door-to-door home visits for a whole amount of people that were sick. I did everything. I worked at Community Advocates. At the time I was there, it was all about who’s sick? Let’s go find the shut-ins. Let’s get them enrolled in a health insurance so that they’re not paying out of pocket. Let’s make sure they have access to these resources. Let’s get them these discount cards that we just got from the pharmacies. Let’s get all the things into the hands of the people.

I witnessed, on any day doing home visits, the equivalent to what we saw on the news, minus the fire. People having confrontations in their homes, on their blocks. I see that today. I can see that when I leave our building and walk in any direction. That’s just stuff you see in neighborhoods. People are at home. They can have an argument with a family member; domestic violence is in every neighborhood, so I don't care if you’re talking about Central City or way out. That’s happening.

So you get to this point as a social worker – my personal belief, this is my own belief – that you have to quit. And I hit my threshold when a caller that I was trying to do a home visit on that I couldn’t get said he was about to kill himself. I had to go find him. I had to call the police because once you make a threat, you’re a mandated reporter, you need to make sure there’s a 72-hour hold is placed on this person. Get another social worker with specific certification to come follow through on the conversation about suicide prevention. When you do direct frontline work, that happens over and over. Especially if you’re good. I got to a point where I was someone that people needed to talk to. "She does walk-ins on Thursdays." I became the walk-ins-on-Thursday girl. This was fresh out of college; I was trying to do everything I could for the community. I’m all ready to just change the world. And eventually, after a good five years of doing that work, I hit a wall. That wall said to me, "You can’t do this anymore because you take it home. You’re waking up in the middle of the night hoping that this person that you wanted to prevent committing suicide, doing harm to self, didn’t do it." It’s all trauma.

I had to get well. Thank God for programs like employee-assistance programs that are associated to most social work organizations and direct-service organizations because I had a mechanism to talk me into a new path, and I left that job and went to do some policy work on health. … That’s why I started focusing on healing the healers. If I went upstream to the policy perspective, then I could change some of the laws, I could suggest some of the transitions of some of those services that don’t work. I could make the time period for eligibility on some programs longer, because then people wouldn’t fall off and try to find some alternative means for addressing an issue that they need to address.

The 72-hour hold thing for people who are chronically homeless is a lever they can pull to get a bed. I’m not accusing them of misappropriating; I’m saying if we don’t fix the system, the problem of housing, what do you expect people to do? I expect people to come in and report. I didn’t want to get calloused, because once it’s happened a couple times you’re like, "You’re going to do it too, right? Why don’t you go for it? I don’t believe you." I didn’t want to become that person because that’s what happens; you become completely calloused to community need and then you end up retiring from a career that you hate. That’s what I didn’t want.

We often paint in broad strokes when we talk about these huge systemic issues, like employment, education, incarceration, but you don’t hear about housing as much, and that seems to be something you’ve focused on. Is that one of those issue silos you believe we can fix, on a practical level of helping people have better places to live, and also maybe have a domino effect on other problems?

Yes. All of those things lead to all kinds of cyclical problems, but housing sits at the center of every public health problem. If you have poor housing and you’re pregnant – environmental stressors of not knowing where you’re going to sleep can impact your birth date. Your health in the home can be influenced. For example, you’re homeless, you sleep on someone’s couch, they smoke, they don’t give a damn that you’re pregnant. They continue to smoke. They’re putting you and your baby at risk. You may have consciously decided not to, but that person doesn’t care. That’s one form of risk related to housing for health.

Housing for health with children. School. Your school option changes every time you move, so when you move, new school. No bus if you don’t have transportation. What you have is children that never get socially acclimated to school, so therefore they never learn the social skills that go with education, which lead to a career, because of the constant matriculation into different schools. You don’t build relationships. Bullying happens. You’re new all the time and you probably don’t have the resources you need because housing security is a more prominent issue. You can look at employment. If you don’t have gainful employment, you can’t keep the house that you have. So you keep losing it, back and forth.

Another issue that has come up around housing that I learned when I was working on human trafficking advocacy – the time frame it takes for someone who is rescued from a trafficking situation to go through court could be a year. If they don’t testify because we’ve lost them to the system and they’re no longer at the home where we placed them, that person will go free without any testimony.

Same thing with domestic violence, same thing with prostitution, same thing with any of the issues around intimate partner violence. Housing sits at the center of all of our social problems and it is a public health issue. When we look at this foreclosure crisis, there’s no one renting like they should be in the area either. If there were people that could afford to pay rent, maybe people wouldn’t have lost their homes. If you did do decide to move off of Sherman, buy another house and rent it out, but couldn’t maintain a tenant because people keep losing their jobs, that’s another issue.

All the myriad of health issues around housing. Ableism. If people are disabled and they need very specialized housing with access, but they have low income. They’re not on sectioning, they don’t qualify, they may not have made the list, whatever the case. You don’t automatically get these things just because you have disabilities. Those are all factors that are a heavy lever to pull to ensure that people are safe and well.

So when you excessive homelessness, when it comes to teens, teens will do whatever they need to do to get a bed. Sometimes that includes survival sex, sometimes that’s violent crimes. Sometimes it’s less than violent crimes. But all of these pieces sit back with housing. A secure home and a family that has been living in a home for a long time usually passes down middle-class values in a household, and then your young people in that house are more successful in their careers because they watched that middle-class value in their home as a child. If you have insecure housing as a child, you usually have a harder time with completing things because where’s your support system?

Where and how have you seen local programs and organizations and people that have been successful, especially with youth, being integrative and fostering interracial empathy and communication and meaningful relationships? Is it important to imitate those entities, like sports groups, or do we need a drastic overhaul of social, community infrastructure?

I think people should just get back to being people with one another. When I think about what’s going on with the Simba soccer team, I asked my son, "Will you join the soccer team?" He said, "Absolutely not. I don’t want to do it." There are lots of things that people are interested in that they will gravitate to. If you create these spaces and you don’t put any boundaries on them around culture, allowing people to build a culture together, it will happen.

I think the greatest example of this is hip-hop. Hip-hop is not a black-only thing. Hip-hop grew out of just the destitute nature of what was happening in New York in the ‘70s. We just wanted to do something to have some fun. Then it went global. Now, you can go over to Japan and there’s a breakdancing competition going on. Culture is culture. Once you develop a culture and start to share it with other people, race doesn’t stop other people from checking in on that culture.

I’ve always been very intentional around not saying that it’s going to be all black folks, not saying that it’s going to be all this or all that. You have to work harder to build black people in this country up. It’s absolutely true, as a person who is black, but I personally don’t think that you have to only do things for the black community, by itself, on its face. Do good things. Invite people that you know that just so happen to be black, and Latino, and Asian, whatever cultures.

My son loves gaming, so he wanted to do coding. He didn’t want to go do soccer. That’s what he’s going to do. Choose the things that make you passionate, excited, make you want to learn more and dive into those things.

The big problem is people are not given all these options. We have not created these things and marketed them in places like Sherman Park area. We’ve got to make sure when we do some of the things we’re doing here at Walnut Way, Lindsay Heights is what we’re responsible for, but people from the Sherman Park area are welcome to our programming. You can come here for our peace projects. It don’t matter where you live. We’re not limiting like that. When you have that kind of approach, you break a lot of barriers. We got lots of white folks that work here too. Really great, amazing people, just immersed in the culture that is Walnut Way. It is not a black culture. It’s a love culture. When I got here, I heard "I love you" at least once a week and was always uncomfortable, like "Do I say it back?"

Everyone’s got lots of love. That’s what our founders built in this neighborhood. They didn’t come here and say, "We going to do this for black people and that’s it." They said, "We’re just going to come here. We’re going to love this neighborhood. We’re going to love it one block at a time." That’s the key. I think if you were to go to Sherman Park before all this happened, there was a veritable cornucopia of cultures. That was the thing there, it is a diverse area. Even above and beyond just this pocket. It wasn’t just black people, but black people owned over there, too, as well.

There are major systemic issues in Milwaukee that need large coalitions of involved people, sincere efforts, lots of money and much more to even begin being addressed. That needs to happen and hopefully it will. In the short term, though, what is a basic, specific, actionable thing people in and around the city can do to make the lives of African-Americans better here?

Born in Milwaukee but a product of Shorewood High School (go ‘Hounds!) and Northwestern University (go ‘Cats!), Jimmy never knew the schoolboy bliss of cheering for a winning football, basketball or baseball team. So he ditched being a fan in order to cover sports professionally - occasionally objectively, always passionately. He's lived in Chicago, New York and Dallas, but now resides again in his beloved Brew City and is an ardent attacker of the notorious Milwaukee Inferiority Complex.

After interning at print publications like Birds and Blooms (official motto: "America's #1 backyard birding and gardening magazine!"), Sports Illustrated (unofficial motto: "Subscribe and save up to 90% off the cover price!") and The Dallas Morning News (a newspaper!), Jimmy worked for web outlets like, where he was a Packers beat reporter, and FOX Sports Wisconsin, where he managed digital content. He's a proponent and frequent user of em dashes, parenthetical asides, descriptive appositives and, really, anything that makes his sentences longer and more needlessly complex.

Jimmy appreciates references to late '90s Brewers and Bucks players and is the curator of the unofficial John Jaha Hall of Fame. He also enjoys running, biking and soccer, but isn't too annoying about them. He writes about sports - both mainstream and unconventional - and non-sports, including history, music, food, art and even golf (just kidding!), and welcomes reader suggestions for off-the-beaten-path story ideas.