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PBS Rereleases Documentary Following Two Milwaukee Families

Keith Stanley in PBS documentary
Frontline PBS
A young Keith Stanley from the 'Frontline' documentary 'Two American Families.'

It may come as no surprise that the movement of factory jobs away from American cities to other countries had a huge impact on Milwaukee. Many people were laid off from well-paying, union jobs at factories throughout the area. Families that had once benefited from stable incomes were left struggling to survive on minimum wage or unemployment.

In 1992, PBS's Frontline began tracking the lives of two Milwaukee families dealing with these issues — the Neumanns and the Stanleys. The filmmakers returned to Milwaukee several times to catch up with the families and see how they were doing years and decades after this life-altering disruption.

The film was recently rereleased on YouTube and for some there was a familiar face. Keith Stanley was just a kid when these filmmakers began following his family and as the documentary goes on, we see his journey through college and the beginning of his working life. Stanley is now the executive director of Near West Side Partners.

Stanley says growing up and being a part of this project, it became normal for people walking down the street to ask him personal questions about how his family was doing.

“Sharing my life, my family’s life in the public, I got used to people coming up to me and just saying, ‘Hey, how’s your mom doing?’ and you know, strangers just reaching out — I got totally comfortable with that,” he says.

But now that the documentary has become popular in the digital age, Stanley isn’t just having people around his neighborhood make comments but people from all over the internet. He says his family has received disrespectful messages, which makes him question whether he would participate in the documentary if it was made today.

“Before social media, people saw here humanity and if they’re going to write you a letter, they’re not going to say, ‘Well I didn’t like that dress you wore,' whereas social media people will just rip you apart,” he says.

Despite never having met a member of the Neumann family, Stanley says the most powerful part of watching the documentary himself is seeing how his family’s lives compare to theirs. Seeing how both families experienced hardship, often through no fault of their own and just because of the change going on in the country.

Stanley says his family’s and the Neumann family’s stories still serves as a good insight into what deindustrialization actually looked like for people as they started to make less money and wealth began to leave communities.

“We represent ... a large segment of the population in this country — whether it’s here in Milwaukee, Chicago, Pittsburg, go all the way to Jersey or whatever. It’s everywhere,” he says.

Joy is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.
From 2020 to 2021, Jack was WUWM's digital intern and then digital producer.
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