by Elizabeth Vogt
Here we are in Milwaukee—Smallwaukee, Killwaukee, a city of festivals, industrial rebirth, and lakeside marvels, a city of gun violence and segregation—our city. We all have our rounds here: work, play, people, and places. Some of the turf is so tough that it’s poisonous, but not for everyone: brothers Darren and Vedale Hill have grown out of bitter poverty into community leadership. They know Milwaukee’s shadows, estimating that they moved as children within the city about 50 times. Now, they help kids transform plight into progress.
“We are rarities,” both exclaim. Not only as African American college grads from the city, but also because they left dream jobs to do community work. Why? Darren and Vedale are men of action, their qualifications to empower city youth especially unique. ‘Action’ is the Sanskrit meaning of karma, and their center, Jazale’s Art Studio, is generating positive change. Good karma.
Their own beginnings are familiar today. Young men of color are simply not welcome outside of their homes or schools and are met in stores, parks, and public places with suspicion. As boys, walking to play basketball in the park, the brothers were constantly being stopped. They had to navigate cautiously, especially as their lighter skin was considered white in the black community and black by whites. “It’s a heavy load for kids to be continually judged”, Darren notes, “and it’s difficult to stay positive when presented with so much that is negative.”
Darren, self-elected patriarch of a tribe of eleven siblings and cousins, started steering kids toward the positive as a child. Walking to the bus together, Darren would busy the younger kids with quizzes, jokes, and stories. This taught and amused them, but also diverted attention from the grime along the way. Vedale, sandwiched between a “genius older brother and beautiful younger sister,” learned to philosophize but fought his way forth. That changed completely when he got a paintbrush in his hand.
Now with wives, children, and generations of connections, Darren and Vedale are building a natural community. “Kids look for a right answer,” Darren says. “We help them develop their own answers, content within themselves.”
When finished with their degrees at UWM and MIAD, Darren and Vedale joined forces to create Jazale’s Art Studio in Riverwest. The center reopened at 2201 N. Martin Luther King in Bronzeville with free afterschool and summer programs. Children explore a variety of media and projects, sometimes joining artists-in-residence Mikal Floyd-Pruitt and Sherman Pitts at work. High quality, free offerings—no wonder it’s becoming a destination.
“Art is the great equalizer!” Vedale pronounces. We enter Jazale’s to be engulfed by bright colors, projects, and energy; it is the eye of a constructive storm. Darren emphasizes that all city kids need is right in front of them; they just need to find it. Understand more, judge less. “We want you to help yourself find your way,” Vedale explains. “It’s a tree of opportunity that keeps expanding.”
Good karma, cultivating roses that grow from concrete. Art karma.
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