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An Open Discussion about Diversity in Riverwest

Tanya Cromartie-Twaddle

Suzanne Zipperer

Action Steps

Lobby local officials to ensure all taxpayer funded projects meet residency requirements and promote the hiring of minority workers and contractors. Have an RNA representative join Unity in the Community (check name), which works on this issue. Maintain and promote ethnic and socio-economic diversity in Riverwest’s public schools by increasing collaboration between the school and the community, and reach out to families moving into Riverwest. Have an RNA representative on all school governance councils to facilitate communication. Support existing minority-owned businesses and encourage the development of new ones. Attend events outside of your ethnic community with your family. Display pictures of other ethnic groups in your home and read books about other cultures to your children. Discuss racial stereotypes in the media with your children and the diversity of socio-economic cultures within ethnic groups.

Tanya Cromartie-Twaddle and Suzanne Zipperer, both regular contributors to Riverwest Currents, discussed the nature of ethnic relations in Riverwest. The views expressed here are their own. They are not representing their ethnic heritage communities. Suzanne: I often hear people say that they have chosen to live in Riverwest because they want to live in a culturally diverse neighborhood, yet I see very little mixing among ethnic groups. At parties, in local night spots, even in community groups, there is not much diversity. Is this your perception as well? Tanya: I see the same mosaic. I am often the only non-white person or one of a few in a Riverwest bar or gathering. I often hear African-Americans say when I ask them to go somewhere, “That’s a white bar,” or “Mostly white people there?” I know white people who do the same thing. I am guilty of assessing the color make-up of a situation to determine my comfort or interest level. We do a beautiful job of appearing diverse, and living side by side is a giant step in the right direction, but there are bold color lines all over this community. Most of my non-white friends (age late 20s to early 30s) see such places like the Food Co-op, Uptowner, Nessun Dorma, Riverhorse, Linneman’s, Woodland Pattern, and RNA as “white.” Onopa is “less white” since they started having hip-hop shows a couple years ago. A person can be deemed less “black” if they frequent these “white spots.” There are places perceived as black and Latino, but the list is short until you get to the indisputable dividing line of Holton Street. So, overall, Riverwest is white because most well-known businesses here are “white” and too many non-whites feel uncomfortable or aren’t interested in going into these establishments. Even our celebrations have obvious divisions. Suzanne: I’ve heard the same from other black people who begin to participate in “white” institutions or events. I think that has to do with identity and is tied to class identification. I’m wondering how much of this is because the small black middle class in the Milwaukee area tends to live in the suburbs and not the city, making it difficult for young African-Americans to identify particular interests and activities as being just that and not an indicator of ethnic identity. The area I see the most races mixing is on Brady Street, which is largely a young alternative/intellectual crowd. There is an identity of social class/ethnic culture that either mixes or doesn’t mix people. We notice it when it pertains to race, but when it is by class it is less noticeable. Riverwest also has economic diversity. Unfortunately, the economic diversity is within the white community, not the black. There are very few middle class African-Americans, which is the group that would participate in many social and community events. Tanya: We do have our moments of real ethnic interaction, and we seem to have several individuals who care about the divide. For the most part, however, diversity is just on the surface, which seems to be good enough for too many people. People really concerned about diversity need to practice a kind of “forced inclusion” by putting themselves in those “other” situations. I try to focus on what I enjoy and ignore the ethnic make-up of the event, meeting, or what have you. But that is hard when time after time it is the same picture. Suzanne: It does take effort to integrate. Whites also “size up” a situation as to whether or not they will be the only white person there. But historically, we were not victimized for making that effort, as blacks were. A white person does not have to be afraid of being embarrassed, asked to leave, or even physically harmed when participating in open public functions. To me, that puts the responsibility of integrating more on whites. It is the responsibility of the majority to open up to the minority. For example, I can walk through the Windham Hotel in my garden clothes and no one will question what I’m doing there. But if you were to do that, you would be stopped. Also, too often it is blacks who are expected to come to us. So few whites venture into the black community. Tanya: I agree that whites have more of a responsibility. I just had a conversation with an African American friend. She says, “Whites own this society, so they’ve got to take responsibility for this mess.” I don’t share that attitude exactly, but I know where she is coming from. I agree the lack of a strong black middle-class presence in Riverwest is a part of the problem. If we had more black patrons at local businesses and events, involved in community-building, as well as turning their own social/intellectual interests into successful initiatives, they would create a culture that while accessible to all, would be distinct and attractive to other blacks. Once you move into the middle class you see more blacks into the arts, activism, different philosophies, and such. Perhaps the biggest barrier to true interaction between groups is socio-economic. Suzanne: What I see is that whites don’t recognize the full range of culture within the black community. I know that it took me years to actually know this, even though I intellectually understood that it existed. For example, it still surprises me to find a black person who is a very outdoors type. Is that somehow not black? Why wouldn’t it be? These cultural stereotypes are fed by TV sitcoms and even by what we called “diversity education” a few years back. It takes a lot of exposure to the black community at all levels to break down those stereotypes. In Milwaukee, you have to seek, especially if you work in the private sector. I fear that sometimes young people moving into Riverwest come from the suburbs with the hope of living in a diverse community, but then may find out they don’t have much in common with people of color. Why would they? Their whole personal experience and view of the world is different. The same people would find they have nothing in common with people “up north,” but they don’t see it as a race issue then. Do they recognize that it may be because of social class rather than race? But do we have to mix? Is collaboration enough? Tanya: It is hard for me to say that “mixing” is not important. I certainly don’t believe in the melting pot assimilation view. The problem with collaborations that I’ve seen is that usually it is initiated by whites coming with their ideas of what people want. It usually doesn’t feel like collaboration. Perhaps non-whites need to be more empowered to initiate. It is helpful when more individuals have their finger on the pulse of a community because they put themselves in it and engage with it to create from the inside out. Suzanne: I lived in Zimbabwe for seven years. I was always frustrated with the African way of organizing things. I, with my German heritage, have this linear way of doing things. It’s all planned out. There, for example, we’d have to organize a visit from the Ministry of Education. I’d be flipping out because nothing was set. But when the day came, everyone knew what they were to do. The children would line the road and welcome the cars with singing. The women would kill some chickens and cook up the food. The men would organize the meetings. No one had to say, “This is what we need to do.” Tanya: Our way of organizing is so intuitive. It is so spirit, and some people are afraid of that. I’m like that in my work. It isn’t all laid out. But it always gets done and gets done well and is successful. It shouldn’t be a generalization, but I think for most blacks who have been raised a certain way, which goes back to the South, which goes back to being brought over here, it is almost a way of survival. It’s just a knowing. At times, I’m afraid to say that this is how I operate because it isn’t understood. You can’t explain it, but you know you can do the job. Many times maybe we aren’t articulate about what needs to happen, but if you let us do it, we can do it. Suzanne: So we need to make room for a different way of doing things collaboratively to get the black community to buy into projects. You’d think in Riverwest, which is pretty laid back, that we could make room for that type of organizational structure. Tanya: Yes, it’s often said blacks don’t volunteer much, but you have to understand that we do so much for our communities. There are tons of minority volunteers. We probably don’t come to tables because we question whether or not we will really be allowed to participate or are we just tokens and not part of running the show. I’ve been a part of so many things like that. Suzanne: What about schools? Milwaukee Public Schools is trying hard to reduce bussing, which even the most die-hard must admit has not helped to integrate the city. As in other cities, school integration led to “white flight.” I recently heard a report on the radio about people my age who were in school when integration hit. The vast majority of them said they found going to an integrated school was a valuable experience and shaped their character for the better. Yet, they said having their children in integrated schools was not a priority because they were more concerned with high test scores. To me, in the end, it isn’t the test scores that are going to save this country or this neighborhood. It is our ability to work together. Are integrated schools important? Tanya: It is a mixed bag. A highly educated black friend grew up in Milwaukee’s inner city and went to school in the suburbs. She feels she had an educational advantage but a social disadvantage. She lives in the city and her children attend neighborhood schools. Integration played a minor part in her decision. Most importantly, she wanted her children to feel comfortable and welcome within the community to which they belong and that she found comfort in. One extreme that I do see is the black parent who feels if it’s not “white” it can’t be good enough. They seek not so much diversity but an escape from other blacks. They have determined black schools are inferior, and they aren’t going to sacrifice their kids for the sake of black unity. I’ve witnessed this from the well-to-do to the welfare poor. Another common view is that if a few white kids attend an all black anything, it must be good or safe. Then there is the growing number of black parents who feel the “white man’s” education system has failed them and choose African-centered schools. I think most poor African American parents focus less on integration and more on survival. Suzanne: Let’s talk about racism in Riverwest. It seems like when people talk about rising property values and economic development, they see Riverwest as white, but in terms of black residents, they are only seen as the source of crime. My daughter told me about a young black male friend of hers who lives on Holton Street. The police came by and asked him for an ID. Now, I don’t think we are in old South Africa where blacks needed to carry IDs. The young man was in front of his house and asked to be allowed to go and get it. The police said no and took him to the district station. He wasn’t charged and there is probably no record of him even being there. This is harassment, and as a white person who lives here, I think it is up to me to tell the police not to do this if I want to live in a diverse community. As the majority culture in Riverwest, I feel it is up to whites to fight this kind of racism. Tanya: In Riverwest, I haven’t met white people who are willing to own it in that way. I’m often frustrated because when a black person says that the whites must own it, it’s viewed as if we are shirking our responsibility and accountability. Suzanne: That disappoints me to hear that because whites are dominant in business, in community organizations, and in the leadership of the schools. If we don’t make room, we are still dominant. Tanya: The lack of diversity in leadership is one of the most important things that needs to change. The leadership is very white in most Riverwest organizations, public and private, and there doesn’t seem to be a push or movement to bring in others to lead and serve their own community. Suzanne: Are we a “community in need?” Are we seen as an impoverished community? Tanya: We are and it is intentional because a lot of people make their money off of that. It works well to say that there are these poor disenfranchised kids. Suzanne: But economically in Riverwest, there are many white kids in need. There are many generationally dysfunctional white families who have never gotten out of the “hood.” It seems that if a community is black, it is seen as in need, but here and also on the near south side, there are many white kids falling through the cracks. Tanya: The African American community has been labeled, and most people accept that we are a “hood” full of black men who are criminals, minorities who are needy and not able to help themselves. We have more charity available to us, but less empowerment and resources to do what we need to do for ourselves. We need our hands on the reins more than we need a handout. Suzanne: But again, we are back to the young black men, lack of opportunity, and crime. Have we offered them anything else? Tanya: People in a position to truly affect change, especially white people, need to give the reins to black men who are able to help those “troubled” young black men and make alliances with them. Young black men who are considered our “problem” need to see themselves reflected back in the eyes of a mentor and you and I can’t be that mentor. Suzanne: It also comes down to employment. Maybe we need to challenge the city to meet the employment and training needs of these young men. The city and county both have residency quotas for public works projects, but I’ve heard they are often waived because the contractors say they can’t find qualified people. They also don’t use the minority subcontractors who are those black male mentors you just talked about. These are the men who should be doing job training. The Neighbhorhood Schools Initiative at MPS refused to give waivers. The result was that the contractors have met more than 90 percent of the hiring requirements. We need to push our leaders to stop the waivers. Tanya: We now have Ald. Mike McGee, Jr. We need to know what he can put in place. We need to have more cooperation between Harambee and Riverwest. Holton Street is a big divide. There are kids who come down Center Street and feel like they are in a foreign land and that they don’t belong. It becomes an us and them. I’m 32 years old and there are few places on Center Street I feel comfortable going into. I’m worldly enough and I should not feel that way. Something is not right. Suzanne: So, what can we do? Tanya: For myself, I’ve been having this same conversation over and over. I would like us to begin to act on the issue. To really put effort into truly opening the community up and working to improve it for everyone.