by Ellen C. Warren, photograph by Vince Bushell

“I just meet interesting people,” says Donnell McDougal. “I’ve been meeting interesting people since I was five years old.”

About a year back Donnell sat down on a bench in front of the Riverwest Cooperative. A young man joined him there and they spent a time in conversation, mostly talking about themselves. The young man was Gibson Caldwell, volunteer coordinator of the co-op. That day Donnell stayed on to help out, and he’s continued to do so ever since.

If you’re a Riverwest Co-op shopper it’s more than likely you’ve seen Donnell there. He’s generally quiet and unassuming, yet he’s always ready to return a smile. What draws him to spending so much time at the co-op is mostly that “the people have a feeling of self-worth,” he says. He emphasizes, “You don’t find that in too many places.”

Self-worth is high up in Donnell’s list of what’s important in this life. Another is that one becomes aware of one’s potential.

“In your early twenties you have to know you have potential,” he stated, offering Gibson as concrete proof of what that looks like. Also important is “being exposed to other people’s example.” Donnell’s been exposed to many people’s examples, some good, some not so good.

At five years old Donnell moved with his family from his birthplace in Mississippi to Detroit, Michigan. He didn’t know his father very well, although he recalls that the man, who called himself a “player,” was in that role only when he was out in “his” world and not when he spent time at home with the family. Donnell’s mother was the “common link” that held her and her three sons together until her death in 1995.

After a few years in Detroit they moved to the Projects in Chicago. Shortly after their arrival Donnell became involved with the Black Panther Party. It was the late 1960’s and the height of activity in the party, some groups of which were scattered about through the Chicago Projects, meeting clandestinely in various locations. Only eight or nine years old when he was introduced to them, Donnell became a “lookout.” In his words, “I looked for signs of trouble, for when things weren’t right. I told them about what I’d seen and what I understood about what I’d seen.” He recalls that there were good members “who were working for the black people” and bad or “rowdy” members “who were only out for themselves, only active when they were in need.”

Meanwhile he was getting kicked out of school a lot as well as being involved in a great deal of fighting. “It was like trouble followed me,” he says, “like if I wasn’t trying to get out of trouble I was being coached into trouble.”

His peers, he explained, “thought that ‘hardcore’ was the right way to be.” He realized on his own that, “the best way to be in life is yourself.”

He added, “If you have rights, stand up for your rights! Be hardcore about that!”

When Donnell was about thirteen his mom made the decision that their situation in Chicago “wasn’t the right atmosphere” and moved the family to Milwaukee. Here he attended Benjamin Franklin Elementary School and Washington High School through tenth grade. “I viewed school, for me, as a way out of the ghetto. I still do, seriously,” he shared.

“I believe in working for what you want,” says Donnell. “It won’t just come to you, you have to work for it.”

He left school and began working odd jobs. “All my jobs have been ‘odd’ jobs,” he joked.

He’s worked factory jobs, warehouse jobs, for corporations, for private companies, a general labor stint at the Journal Co. “They’ve all been labor,” he said with another grin. “Helping out at the co-op is R & R.”

For now Donnell lives with his two brothers on Holton Street where they’ve been for the last two years. He’ll stay in Milwaukee, he says, “if things permit.” Yet, his professed dream is to “wander free.”

There’s more to that dream than the apparent meaning of the words. And much more to Donnell than meets the eye.

Riverwest Currents online edition – December, 2006