by Lee Gutowski
Sarah Zahner (pronounced “ZAYner”—and she goes by her last name) was downright giddy to be featured in this space when I asked her if she’d participate. As you will learn—unless you already know Zahner, and in that case, it’s no surprise—the woman is an enthusiastic, active community member who’s been involved in more neighborhood activities in the 7 years she’s lived here than many will even think about undertaking. “Honestly, I’ve secretly hoped to be asked to do this because I love Riverwest so much,” was her two-thumbs-up answer when asked if we could write about her.
Zahner has such a stake in the neighborhood, you’d think she was “from” here. But you’d be wrong—she’s really from Philadelphia. Born, raised and educated there through her college years, she came to Milwaukee for a “dream job. I love to travel, and I got this job with CPI—Crisis Prevention Institute—where I was a global professional instructor. I travelled all over, doing ‘train-the-trainer’ programs. I got to make connections in all these cool places, training trainers in non-violent crisis prevention and trauma-informed care.”
“‘Human services’ is my passion,” Zahner states. You’ll find, getting to know her, that Zahner is passionate about more than one or two things—she’s someone who relishes challenges and just good ol’ “doing stuff.” In our conversation for this article, she was generous with the word “passion” in the same way she’s generous with her time as she attempts to embrace all she can in life.
Speaking of passion, Zahner’s love affair with Milwaukee began when she visited a friend she met while doing a two-year Americorps stint after college. Her friend was here attending grad school, and “She lives on the East side, right near Brady and Farwell. I lived in that area for my first year, but found myself constantly going to Riverwest for rad events or community meetings. My first impression of Milwaukee was ‘This is Milwaukee?! Blue water? White sand? How could there be such beautiful beaches and water next to skyrises? And how come I never knew about this?’ I was this East Coaster getting introduced to the hidden gem of the Midwest.”
So, Zahner was introduced to Milwaukee, impressed with it, and moved here to work the dream job, training trainers in over 130 cities across the U.S. and Canada. Somehow, though she was on the road a lot during the six years she spent at CPI, she managed to get deeply involved in the community at home in Riverwest. She volunteered at the Riverwest Co-op. She hung out at Riverwest Film and Video, and when Riverwest Radio (which is run out of the video store) was still only an online presence, she and Sarah Moore (Pink House) had a show called “On Center.”
She bowled on a team at the Falcon Bowl. She met other community members through participating in Transition Milwaukee, and she helped organized Power Down Weeks in 2013-2015. As part of those Power Down activities, she also worked on Contra Dances (these are folk dances accompanied by “wooden” and stringed instruments) at Falcon Bowl. These dances were a fun community activity that provided another chance for Riverwesters to connect.
Oh, and Zahner also had a heavy-duty honey collection. “I had between over 100 different honeys at one point. I would have honey-tastings during Power Down,” she says. “It was another fun thing to do with neighbors.”
Of course, here in Riverwest, the Peoples’ Holiday—otherwise known as the Riverwest24 (Hour Bike Race, riverwest24.com)—is for many the most awesome of opportunities to have fun with our neighbors. Turns out, Zahner and her husband, “Long” Jon Glabere, got hitched at the Riverwest24 in 2014. After agreeing to propose to each other on that long-awaited holiday weekend in late July, “We decided we wanted to share our intention with our world. So, with Katie (Maedke-Hall) and Wendy (Mesich), we came up with the idea of having our wedding be a Bonus Checkpoint at the RW24 … Katie and Wendy basically ‘magicked’ everything!” Zahner still talks about the event with glee.
A relatively “quiet, private wedding with each other and our families” at the All Peoples’ Church Community Garden turned into a fun morning of RW24 riders coming by to witness the event. Then Zahner and Jon “rode our bikes to Snail’s Crossing, where the Bonus Checkpoint was starting. For two hours, we got married over and over again. Well, we kind of got bored just doing that, so we started doing other stuff. Like, ‘Any relationship takes inner work, so let’s do a little meditation.’ We had people doing the electric slide like at a reception dance; catch the garter, or the bouquet; wedding photos; and we had some do improv best man and maid of honor speeches!”
Zahner tells of meeting people at other events since then, some even out of town, who remember that day, too. “People have said, ‘I know you, I was at your wedding!’ See, everybody at the Bonus Checkpoint gave us a word, and that was their wedding gift to us. One guy I met somewhere else way later said, ‘Yeah, my friend and I were at your wedding at the RW24! I gave you (the word) passion and my friend gave you luck.’ It’s, funny, I feel like River-
west has seen our relationship unfold,” Zahner laughs.
Meanwhile, Zahner had been traveling heavily for work, and wanted to stick closer to home for longer spells. Interested in intentional community environments, she and Jon lived for some months at the Bay View Eco Village. After their time there, they took a road trip to check out intentional communities back East, in her old stomping grounds. During this trip, Zahner and Jon got pregnant. “I realized that I was traveling all over, looking for intentional communities, and I had one the whole time back here in Riverwest. It was always pulling at my heartstrings, and it pulled us back here to settle our family.” Zahner enjoys having a close-knit biological family back in Philadelphia, and another close family of friends in Milwaukee.
She worries, though, about people being able to live here sustainably in the future. “My passion is definitely social justice, and I like to work with overlooked and marginalized individuals. I like that Riverwest is a mixed-income area. These areas are going extinct, and I’ve seen housing prices in Riverwest go up tremendously—both renting and buying. I’d love to ask the community what we can do to control rent, and to keep Riverwest a mixed-income neighborhood. Because having the wealthy live in one area, and to have this separation of people of lower income … that doesn’t help build community.”
Zahner, Jon and six-month-old Finley now share a first floor Riverwest flat with their friend Kate. Zahner, after getting her Commercial Drivers’ License and driving school buses for DBI (at Holton & Keefe) during the last few months of her pregnancy, is now working at The Healing Center at Aurora Sinai. As an advocate coordinator, she works helping people who have experienced sexual assault.