Story by Ellen C. Warren, Photo by Barbara Miner

That’s Debbie Davis towering over the crowd in her Statue of Liberty regalia in the Riverwest Fourth of July parade. She’s the stilt-walker everyone loves to see.

“She has quite a large fan base,” admitted her partner, Dimitri. He works in Waukesha and meets people out there who plan their summers around events where they’ll see “the Stilt-Walker.”

“Our little Gordon Park parade is my favorite parade of the day!” said Debbie.

How did a nice girl like Debbie wind up on stilts in Riverwest? She got her start in San Francisco studying circus, Vaudeville Nouveau. She made her first appearance as a stilt-walker at a political street theatre event with her teacher-friend holding her hand because she could barely walk.

After a time it occurred to Debbie that she could take her Statue of Liberty to big political events. She regretted missing the WTO in Seattle but when the big demonstration against NAFTA took place in Quebec she was there. As she tells it, the police had built an illegal fence. On one side were the protesters, on the other side, the riot police. The protesters, who’d thrown some rocks the previous day, were being tear-gassed and hosed down.

“Well, the hose ran out of water,” Debbie recounted. “The people were milling about and they were kind of agitated, and I thought ‘You know, I should just go up there and parade back and forth, just to bring a little visual, theatrical, ideological relief.’” She reasoned that they wouldn’t do anything to her because, “One, I’m on stilts. Two, I’m the Statue of Liberty. And three, there’s media everywhere.”

A short time into her walk the hoses were refueled. She thought she was still in the clear when they pointed the hose over her head. But then they brought it down, aiming the water straight into her face. If someone hadn’t broken her fall she may have ended up seriously disabled or worse, since her stilts are strapped on. As it was she had a hemorrhaging eye and severe bruising of the face. It hasn’t deterred her.

Debbie’s early life in Franklin, Wisconsin was loving and supportive, but in no way prepared her for the undiluted realities of life. At a college fair she discovered the Friend’s World College. It was started by the Quakers as an experiment in the ‘60s, but is no longer affiliated. Its motto: World peace through world understanding.

Looking at the world’s most serious problems through experiential learning and field study was the basis of the curriculum. “You had to study in two other cultures besides your own before you graduated,” Debbie recalled.

The first year required four months of fieldwork. She opted to live in a nonviolent, anarchic, feminist collective in west Philadelphia. There she was immersed in political thinking and action, and learned about atrocities around the world – including those perpetrated by the United States. The education was shocking and painful, but enriching.

The following year, with a desire to learn Spanish and to understand what was happening in Central America during their civil wars, she moved to a Salvadoran refugee community in Costa Rica. She also spent time at a refugee camp in Honduras and visited camps in Belize and Mexico. “I feel like I still have some post-traumatic stress from that time,” she admitted. “What do you do with that much pain?”

When Debbie returned to Milwaukee, after college, she worked with a Central American organization and with MPS. She wanted to continue her education, and decided to explore the use of theatre as a tool for social change. She worked with a feminist theatre company in Minneapolis for a summer, then went to San Francisco to learn with a mime troupe. A poet-juggler inspired an interest in the circus, which led to a physical theatre school in northern California.

After Debbie returned to SF she helped form a women’s circus. In 1987 several members of that group toured Nicaragua.

During the summers before and after the tour Debbie had been working with Friends Mime Theatre (now Milwaukee Public Theatre). She had planned to continue her studies at the Chicago Art Institute, but changed her plans after members of the group were in a major car accident. She didn’t want to leave her friends.

“It didn’t take me long to realize that Milwaukee is a phenomenal city. It’s small enough to feel at home, but large enough to keep you inspired,” Debbie said of her decision to stay. She began to do her own performance then, as well as continuing with Friends Mime and working as a bilingual paraprofessional for MPS.

Debbie has been a certified teacher for MPS for more than 15 years. Two and a half of those years were in project-based schools. She took a leave of absence this past November but is considering going back to teaching in the fall.

“There’s nothing like being in the classroom to really develop strong relationships with the kids,” she stated. “There’s a lot of work you can do when you have day-to-day relationships. On the other hand I feel like there’s so many resources in the community, (and) that community members and teachers don’t have time to build those bridges. So I’m also tempted to do more project-based work, building collaborations between non-profits and schools.”

In project-based schools kids design their own curriculum and use the whole community as their classroom. According to Debbie, the idea is becoming more popular. “People really want their kids’ educations to be more community-based, more authentic.”

More good news about this delightful, dynamic woman is that she’s planning to stay in Riverwest, buying a home here after 18 years of renting. She has a list of what she enjoys about this neighborhood: “I love the Riverwest Co-op. I can practice Spanish with my next-door neighbors. I love that there are gay organizations in this neighborhood.”

She helped organize a produce-buying club and an informal bio-diesel group. “It’s just so easy to organize things here!” she said with an easy smile. She does add, though, “You can’t help but have mixed feelings as you watch it turn over,” in reference to Riverwest’s gentrification.

These are just a few of the tales that make up the life of Debbie Davis. If you have a chance to catch her on the ground, sit her down and ask to hear some of her other stories, like “The Inner Monologue of a Cannery Worker” in Alaska; Vipassana meditation; fear of flying balls; feminist analysis of “Sex and the Circus;” being the Statue of Liberty at Milwaukee’s Immigration Rally.

And don’t miss your chance to catch this liberated Lady Liberty up in the air – on the Fourth of July, in the parade starting at 9 a.m. in Riverwest.

Riverwest Currents online edition – July, 2007