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A Milwaukee Love Letter in the Final Stretch of the Mayoral Campaign
"Milwaukee inspires me and breaks my heart all at the same time." Guest column from Angela Lang, executive director of Black Leaders Organizing for Communities (BLOC).
The Recombobulation Area is a six-time Milwaukee Press Club award-winning weekly opinion column and online publication written, edited and published by veteran Milwaukee journalist Dan Shafer. Learn more about it here.
Guest column by Angela Lang, executive director of Black Leaders Organizing for Communities (BLOC).
I love when people ask me how long I've been in Milwaukee. I always tell them I was born and raised here. Sometimes people look at me surprised, a surprised look that I've intentionally stayed here this long.
I think of Milwaukee as something personified. Milwaukee is a loving person until you betray her. Milwaukee shows you “tough love.” Milwaukee is harsh and, at times, moody. Milwaukee helped raise me. I have fond memories of my childhood here. I remember practicing Powderpuff Football at Gordon Park, I was a camp counselor at Safe Nights in Jackson Park, I spent many days and nights at Sinai as my mom underwent cancer treatment. I went to Wisconsin Avenue School, where the playground now looks like a ghost town. I remember getting up early on Saturday mornings to take the bus to North Division for my basketball games in the 4th grade. As someone whose family didn’t have a car growing up, I spent so much time on the bus exploring the city. I still, to this day, don’t always take the most efficient route driving because I remember, and follow, the MCTS bus route. You get to see the neighborhoods; you see how they change. You see what is invested in, and what isn’t. You start to see the cast of characters Milwaukee has. Each character seemingly represents a different challenge Milwaukee faces, and how this city has failed them.
I asked the BLOC team what they love about Milwaukee, and whether they have been here all their lives or only a short period of time. This conversation got us reminiscing about how things used to be. We talked about playing “cans” outside while adults down the block looked out for all of us. We talked about the summer concert “Jam for Peace,” and Juneteenth. We talked about what used to be that unfortunately is no longer. Lack of things for young people to do in the summer, parks that have cut back services, Juneteenth having an increased police presence.
Milwaukee never has been, nor will it ever be, a perfect city. But we deserve so much. I’ve told people that Milwaukee inspires me and breaks my heart all at the same time. Milwaukee no doubt has its challenges, but our resilience and willingness to fight and come together is beautiful. I’ve made the choice to do important work and live in a city I love so much. I choose to stay here, when so many of my friends have left. I’ve seen this city change, and I see how its toughness has remained. We’ve seen downtown continue to see investment and development, but when you cross the bridge to the north side or the south side, we see a completely different city.
When Tom Barrett announced he would be leaving as mayor, I was excited for what a new chapter in this city could bring. New leadership is always an opportunity to start fresh, and this is an opportunity Milwaukee hasn’t seen in nearly 20 years. A lot has changed in 20 years. If you’ve lived here long enough, you’ve seen those changes.
As our team was reminiscing about a better day in Milwaukee, I couldn’t help but notice common themes – feeling like our communities and our parks were more invested in, a time when we had a deeper sense of community with one another. Judging by the commentary and ads in the mayoral primary, you wouldn't have ever imagined that Milwaukee is capable of such a beautiful time. The Wisconsin State Legislature bad-mouths Milwaukee in racist dog whistles – look to any number of examples here, from breaking up one of the most diverse public schools to framing reckless driving only in terms of youth of color stealing cars, and so on – and the mayoral candidates did much the same.
Milwaukee deserves investment into all communities and neighborhoods. Milwaukee is home to the nation’s most incarcerated zip code; we need to do the hard work and find non-punitive solutions to our problems. Solutions that don’t put our students into the school-to-prison pipeline. We know what keeps our communities safe. Milwaukee, as a city, is scrappy. We'll always find a way to survive. You can’t keep Milwaukeeans down, but don’t we deserve to all thrive, and not just survive? Not just thrive if you live downtown or on Lake Drive, but a thriving 53206 where parks and green space flourishes. 53206 is a neighborhood seen with potential, and talent, instead of merely looked over and ignored.
Milwaukee has a shot at doing things differently. We don’t need to do what we always do. We don’t need to tweak what has been done in the past.
Let’s come together the way we did when the Bucks won. The amount of unity I saw was more than I’ve seen in a long time. It gave me joy to see so many people love not only the World Champion Bucks, but Milwaukee as a whole. For once, Milwaukee got a little shine. We can come together in this next phase of leadership to be a true community.
The new mayor and the community should be seen as equal partners working to make this city the best it can be for its residents. It starts with loving the city you live in, and the city you represent.
We’re in the final stretch of this mayor’s race, and it’s time to think about the future. How are the candidates prepared to take this city to the next chapter? People say this all the time – now is the time to put politics aside and make the government work for the people – but it’s true. I hope the next mayor has enough humility to work with the community and not continue to further divide the city.
We can choose a different path. We can choose investments over policing. We can choose community over isolation. The incoming mayor has a lot of choices to make and I hope they include the community every step of the way. Hopefully, in the next chapter of Milwaukee leadership, we aren’t reminiscing about how things used to be, and we can all thrive.
The choice is up to the next mayor. What will their legacy be?
Angela Lang is the executive director of Black Leaders Organizing for Communities (BLOC). She was born and raised in the heart of Milwaukee. She has an extensive background in community organizing. In the past, Angela served as both an organizer and State Council Director for the Service Employees International Union, working on such campaigns as the Fight for 15. Before joining BLOC, Angela was the Political Director with For Our Future Wisconsin. She is a graduate of Emerge Wisconsin and has had the pleasure of being the featured trainer for Emerge's Diversity Weekend since 2015.
Follow Dan Shafer on Twitter at @DanRShafer.