Nellie Vance: Volunteer/activist/communicator plants seeds of positive change in Riverwest
story by Peggy Schulz
photo by Alice Waraxa
When Nellie Vance first came to Milwaukee 10 years ago to attend UWM, she lived on the outskirts of Riverwest. But, as she got to know the neighborhood—and the neighbors—better, she physically moved further in towards the heart of the hood.
And, over the last few years, she’s also moved to a point where she’s making important contributions of her passion and skills to the community of Riverwest.
Vance recently has devoted her personal energy, as well as helped organize the efforts of others, around two important issues in the community, via major projects that will have positive impacts on the quality of life in her new neighborhood.
Getting to know you, Riverwest
“At first,” Vance says, “I knew nothing about the Milwaukee neighborhoods. I lived on the edge.”
In time, Vance learned more about where she wanted to plant herself, through simple observations.
“Other hoods tend to look so cookie-cutter,” Vance says. “They’re homogenized. The houses are so similar, the lawns are perfectly manicured, everything looks so picture perfect, you know? But in Riverwest, everything is unique, worn-in and you never feel like an outsider.”
As a person of color, coming to Milwaukee from Green Bay, Vance was a bit cautious at first, knowing nothing, really, about places to live in the state’s largest city.
So she was happy, after she settled in to her current residence near Wright and Bremen, near the Kilbourn Gardens, to feel as though she fit in better there than her first housing in Milwaukee.
Vance originally planned to study architecture at UWM, but, as is common with undergrads, she “jumped around a little bit,” she says. She eventually settled on a degree in art and design.
She now works at Kohl’s corporate offices in Menomonee Falls, as a web developer.
She enjoys her work at Kohl’s, but adds that “most of my creativity now is freelance stuff,” Vance says. “I build websites for people, design logos, and do commissioned work.”
Kilbourn Gardens and Kohl’s volunteers
It was Vance’s Kohl’s connection that led to her first major project in Riverwest, with the Kilbourn Gardens.
“Kohl’s is an amazing place to work,” Vance says. “There’s a great team there. I feel fulfilled with the work that I’m doing.”
Vance learned about the “Associates in Action” program at Kohl’s, which contributes funds to organizations where its employees/associates volunteer their time.
“I got my co-workers involved,” Vance says. “For every five volunteers who worked three hours, the organization, Kilbourn Gardens, would receive $500 from Kohl’s.” Vance figured, “why not go for double that,” and was able to get a solid team of her fellow Kohl’s employees to put in six hours each doing clean-up and composting, among other tasks, at the Kilbourn Gardens, on May 24.
“Kilbourn Gardens drew my interest because of the community garden aspect,” Vance says. “It’s a place that serves the community and where community members can gather to do that. The gardens are a place where people can learn and work hard and help themselves and/or others.”
Vance notes that “the view isn’t bad, either. To be doing gardening work and turn and see the cityscape is pretty gorgeous.”
Vance’s interest in urban gardening predated her move to Riverwest.
“I’ve always been interested in sustainability and urban gardening,” she says. “I used to volunteer at Growing Power years ago, but I just thought it would be cool to take part in that kind of thing in a community/neighborhood I feel so close to now.”
Allies with Planned Parenthood
One of the reasons Vance cares so much for her Riverwest community and her neighbors is what she’s observed as a “good awareness of issues” in the area.
“Unfortunately, muggings and carjackings everywhere seem to be on the rise,” Vance says. But, in Riverwest, she appreciates that “people look out for each other. I feel safe.”
Her confidence and ability to communicate with her neighbors are, perhaps, what led to her involvement with her other recent community activity—a fundraiser for Planned Parenthood.
At a get-together with friends, Vance met Brittany Nordstrum and Kate Parisi.
Vance says she’s always been politically interested, but at this get-together, all three women quickly realized they had a mutual interest in attempts across the United States to not only make abortion illegal, but also to shut down all Planned Parenthood clinics. For some women, especially in rural areas, the health care they get at their Planned Parenthood clinic is their only medical care.
Nordstrum initiated the idea of getting the documentary “Trapped” and showing it in Milwaukee, to raise funds for Planned Parenthood.
Vance agreed with Nordstrum and Parisi that it was important to share the information in this film with people in Milwaukee.
The trio reached out to Planned Parenthood with the idea.
“Planned Parenthood was ecstatic,” Vance says. The three women connected with PP’s Leadership Council, which meets every other week.
“We were invited to speak with them,” Vance says. “They told us they were excited to have young people helping other young people,” she says. “It’s an awesome partnership,” Vance says, one she will keep working at.
“We want to form an ally group,” she says. “It will be good at first. We need to keep talking about what’s happening legislatively regarding abortion and Planned Parenthood in general,” Vance says. “We need to keep pushing forward, otherwise, it will be a start and stop.”
Vance encourages people to watch news from the U.S. Supreme Court, where a Texas clinic is suing over the so-called “TRAP” issue, Targeted Regulations of Abortion Providers, which gave the documentary “Trapped” its name.
The “Trapped” event was held in late May at Co.mpany Brewing, on Center Street. The proceeds from the fundraiser have gone to Planned Parenthood.
What lies ahead
Vance isn’t done with her work to assure that women have access to a full range of safe, legal health care.
“Right now, I’m working on organizing an ally group and a more private, intimate screening of ‘Trapped’,” Vance says. The ally group will consist of volunteers who will accompany women who have chosen to have an abortion, possibly provide child care if they need it. So often, the anti-abortion protestors at the clinics act as a deterrent to women.
Other things that keep women from accessing safe, affordable, reproductive health care include the fact that some insurance plans don’t cover contraceptives, but they will pay for erectile dysfunction drugs such as Viagara.
“It’s part of this crazy, backwards thinking,” Vance says, “working to shut down Planned Parenthood clinics because they help prevent unplanned pregnancies,” but providing insurance coverage to men so they can continue to have intercourse.
In February of this year, Kentucky Rep. Mary Lou Marzian (D) introduced a bill as a way to protect men’s health and ensure they are informed about a drug with potentially dangerous side effects. Marzian’s bill would require men who want to use erectile dysfunction drugs such as Cialis, Viagra or Levitra to get a note from their wife first. Then they’d have to make two visits to a doctor and promise to only take the pills before sex with a spouse.
Marzian admitted after introducing the legislation that it really is a tongue-in-cheek way of pointing out how anti-abortion advocates want to involve the government in people’s bedrooms.
Vance is keeping an eye on developments in the Kentucky legislature, as well as here in Wisconsin, where Gov. Scott Walker continues to try to shut off funding for any clinic, including Planned Parenthood, that performs abortions, even though such procedures often are a very small percentage of the clinic’s total provided services.
How you can help
Vance’s No. 1 vehement suggestion for people who want to help with any issue in the community is to VOTE! “Vote in people who have our best interests at heart,” Vance says.
No. 2? “Speak up. People may feel one way, but be shy about speaking up,” Vance says. She encourages everyone to support people who share their views. “Let them know you’re on their side.”
As a third way to be a helpful community member, educate yourself, Vance says.
Finally, keep communicating.
Vance recommends not to get lost in your device, but to keep your eyes and ears open for your neighbors.
“I make an effort to not be looking at a screen,” Vance says, “especially after work, where I’ve been staring at a screen all day.”
“We live in a technology-dependent society these days,” she says, “but there still are manners.”
Vance relates her frustration with people who pull out their devices while in a conversation with her.
“I just stop and wait for them to realize I’m not responding,” she says.
For the sake of Riverwest, as well as the larger community, let’s hope Vance never stops speaking about and responding to things that matter to us all.