Lyssa Spencer by  Tea Krulos, Photo by Paul Kjelland 

The Gathering by the Waters festival is a meeting of three different tribes – Latino, Native, and Polish Americans of the Lincoln Village neighborhood. The event will celebrate the three cultures and give them a chance to break bread together, and enjoy music, a parade, and a peace offering ceremony at sunset. The festival is being organized by Urban Anthropology, Inc. (UrbAn) where Llysa Spencer works as a cultural anthropologist.  llysa_spencerweb.jpg

Llysa Spencer

by Tea Krulos

Photo by Paul Kjelland

“Before I was a member I did my cultural anthropological internship there. I’ve stayed ever since because it is such a great organization,” Spencer says.

 “When you have tension between racial groups you have gangs, violence, fear. You are living in a neighborhood but everyone is still segregated,” she says.  “When you create community events where everyone is being celebrated, you start to dissolve the tension. When you start to bring people together, then it becomes a neighborhood. We’re a culturally diverse city – why aren’t we celebrating it?”

Gathering by the Waters is an ambitious project, but far from the only thing on Spencer’s dance card. Her high energy demeanor keeps her busy as a productive student, musician, mom, and world traveler.

In fact, upon on meeting her, you can’t help but wonder out loud – how does she do it all?

“I don’t go out much,” Spencer laughs. “I just focus on what I’m working on. I don’t socialize much. I mean, I love people, obviously. My favorite interaction is working with people. That’s when I feel the most like myself, when I’m working on projects.”

Meeting new tribes is something Spencer excels at. She has traveled around the world, starting her bold adventures at a young age.

 “I think I’m very free spirited. I moved to southeast Asia when I was 16, Europe when I was 18, South America when I was 20,” Spencer says, reflecting on the thousands of miles of latitude and longitude her life has spanned.

One of her homes is Riverwest, where she gardens, practices yoga, participates in community events, and collaborates with the neighborhood’s many musicians.

“I think I am a person who is devoted to improving myself and my ability to give to the community around me,” Spencer says. “I like to collaborate. I like to be not that into my own individualism, I’m more into being a part of a team.”


She also owns a second home “off the grid” outside of Taos, New Mexico.

“I spend about half my time in Milwaukee, and I love it, and half my time on a mountain in New Mexico, with solar energy, lugging my own water.”

In New Mexico she participates in a community farm. “I spend as much time in nature as possible,” she says. Her daughter, Naya, 14, is going to ranch camp to learn to be a rancher.

“I try to give her a real cultural balance, a lot of choices,” Spencer says, referring to their transition between urban Milwaukee and the semi-arid mountains of New Mexico. She is hoping that the two of them can make some voyages abroad in the future.

Naya is also carrying on the Spencer music legacy – she’s currently collaborating with her aunt,  Heidi Spencer,  to make a music video for a school project.  Heidi and Llysa have collaborated on music before.

“We’re independent and have different styles, but when we need help we have that connection,” Spencer says. “Sometimes it’s just a late night text or phone call asking for help to figure out the line of a song.”

Llysa’s music influences are as varied as the roads she’s travelled, so she uses a wide range of genres.

“My fourth record is a spiritual and my third one is hip hop, so I don’t know if I have a particular style,” Spencer laughs.

Her latest CD, Red Hen, offers a lot of folk and other influences and. Her next show is scheduled for May 24 at the Jazz Estate.

Llysa and Heidi’s father was Jim Spencer, a counterculture figure of the 60s and 70s who was well known as a local writer, poet, and musician. He recorded a couple of solo albums and one with the band Major Arcana, whose sound was sometimes labeled “acid folk.”

“My grandma played guitar and was a dancer, too,” Spencer adds.

Spencer is also working on her PhD in a program of her own design. She presented her PhD plan to UWM and it was enthusiastically approved, putting her on a short list of those who have created their own PhD program.

“I figured I could get a PhD in Urban Education…but I thought it was kind of lacking the creativity and the passion I wanted.  It was kind of killing me.  I wanted to merge advocacy with the creative arts.”

She is currently writing her dissertation on musicology, specifically reggae and reggaeton music  in the Latin community. She’ll soon be known as Dr. Spencer.

“I don’t think I’m a wise woman quite yet, but I’ve got strong instincts,” Spencer says. “I’ve really been influenced by a lot of cultures from underground subcultures to Native culture to living in different countries.”

She also admits the diverse tastes leave her feeling eclectic at times.

“Sometimes when you live like that, you feel like you’re half Amish, half French prostitute; like you’re just all over the place. Maybe it’s hard for some people to follow me energetically,” Spencer reflects.

“Energetically” is a word that certainly describes Spencer. Those who benefit from it are the tribes of people and the communities that try to keep up with her.