May is for Mothers. This month we’re spotlighting a pair of mothers who are themselves a mother and daughter, Liioness Gwendolyn Barnett and Alexandria Barnett. Both are familiar and appreciated figures in the neighborhood, especially at the Riverwest Co-op, where Alex works in the café and Liioness volunteers in the store.
Liioness, left, holds picure of youngest daughter, Diamond. Middle daughterI’Nity is center rear. Alex, right, holds her babies I’Jah & Tafari. Photo by Barbara Miner More on that later, but first let’s meet their children. Alex is Liioness’ eldest. We wish Alex a happy birthday on May 1, when she’ll be turning 24. Next comes I’Nity, who is an honor student at Riverside. She’s a soccer player and cellist. The youngest is Diamond, who attends Tamarack Waldorf School and is a “serious writer” and flautist at age 13. Alex is the mother of two little ones. Her first born is a 3-year-old boy who was one of the “Co-op Babies” featured in a Riverwest Currents photo a couple of years back, when people involved in the Co-op created, or should we say, procreated, their own baby boom. His name is Tafari I Most High Anthony Wright. Tafari means “One who inspires awe.” Thirteen months later Alex gave birth to I’Jah Purity Nyabinghi, who will turn 2 on May 17. Nyabinghi’s meaning is “Warrior Queen known for her battle strategy.” Clearly, names are important in this family. When questioned about her own, Liioness says, “I was raised knowing that ‘free men and women name themselves.’” It was Diamond who began hanging out at the Co-op from its early days and introduced her mother to the site. Liioness, who hopes to found a Women’s Co-op, thought it would be a good place to volunteer to help her learn about the “business of running a cooperative.” Alex became involved when her mom informed her that the café was in need of help. Previously she had been a chef at Outpost for four years. She managed the Co-op Café for a period, but returned to part-time cooking when her pregnancy required more of her time and energy. Alternative styles of education appeal to both these mothers. Liioness, who Alex describes as a “Dora the Explorer,” got things going in her youth. Raised in foster care, she found her own way to attending mostly alternative schools. “I had [Peace Action Program Director] George Martin for a teacher once,” Liioness confides with a smile. She’s pretty sure it was at Crossroads Academy. Alex spent her early years in Waldorf schools: Prairie Hill in Pewaukee and the original Milwaukee Waldorf School on East Pleasant Street. (Passing through this neighborhood during those years was what familiarized them with, and drew them to, this area.) Alex was homeschooled for high school. “I would like to homeschool my kids,” Alex offers, “if I can get my finances the way I would like them to be.” She would “outsource” as needed, she says. Her mother speaks for both of them when she explains, “We chose Waldorf because it was the next best thing to homeschooling, for a single parent.” Presently, Alex is a student in the School of Business at UWM. She would eventually like to open a restaurant in Riverwest, “a place where you can chill out with the family.” With a focus on quantity as well as quality of food and a varied menu including vegetarian, soul food, and Caribbean, her plans require that 80% of the produce be organic and/or locally grown. Live music in the evening would complete the picture. Liioness and Alex recently lived together for a year in a home that Alex owns. “She’s an aspiring real estate mogul,” Liioness says proudly of her daughter. “She bought her first home when she was 19.” Alex decided to acquire her real estate license due to the difficulty of that first buying experience. “It was a hard process,” she explains. “You don’t have anyone to guide you and I made a lot of mistakes.” Working with buyers in order to provide that guidance is what most interests her. She’d like to work for Kinetic Realty on Brady Street, but before she can it’ll cost her $800 to join the GMAR. “I need a sponsor,” Alex exclaims with a laugh. (Anybody interested?) Liioness is involved in art, her own and others. Her own vivid style declares that before you even find out that creativity and a desire to help people prosper through doing what they love becomes apparent. Hesitantly, not wanting to sound pretentious, she says, “I consider myself an art dealer,” and adds, “I like selling local artists’ work.” She vends at virtually all of the street festivals and sometimes at Club Timbuktu. And what Liioness really wants is to create a Women’s Cooperative, “A space,” as she describes her vision, “where artists can distribute their wares in a great enough quantity that they can make a living wage.” She’s talking about all the different artistic wares, from jewelry to books to paintings and more. The majority of artists will be African American women. Liioness says, “I wanted to be limited and say Black women only, but that’s not my reality. My reality is diversity.” Here’s to two inspiring mothers, Liioness and Alex! Happy Mother’s Day to you, and to all the wonderful mothers of Riverwest, and everywhere!