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WUWM's Susan Bence reports on Wisconsin environmental issues.

Milwaukee Black community leaders shine at African American environmental pioneer event

Six people pose for the camera.
David Thomas
Six of the 11 Milwaukee environmental pioneers honored Feb. 21 at the Wisconsin Black History Society/Museum. (Left to right) Detaya Johnson, Danitra Jones, Lamont Smith, Rev. Michelle Townsend De López, Nateya Taylor, Jalen Greenlee.

Milwaukee community leaders shined Monday evening, Feb. 21, as 11 of the city's Black community members were honored for their contributions in cultivating a better environment.

The organization Nearby Nature Milwaukee hosted the third annual African American Environmental Pioneer Awards.

Some honorees gathered at the Wisconsin Black Historical Society/Museum, while others joined virtually. As the ceremony got underway, a sense of excitement flowed from the museum to people scattered around the city watching on laptops and iPhones.

Maybe the excitement was from watching a YouTube recording of Wintley Phipps singing Lift Every Voice And Sing or the accompanying slideshow of powerful images including of Malcolm X, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the Obamas, Black soldiers and others.

Mandela Barnes, Wisconsin’s lieutenant governor, described the hour-and-half that followed as a reflection of the changing face of what people think of as environmental leadership.

“So often and for so long people didn’t always think about the space for Black people in these places but we are redefining narratives, which is so vitally important because we are impacted by issues of climate change more than other communities and now the existential threats that we face are all interrelated,” Barnes said.

Each award recipient, five pioneers and six rising stars, received a certificate and a hand-carved walking stick.

Milwaukee native Rick Banks, who co-founded MKE Black, accepted the award virtually and humility. The nonprofit is dedicated to promoting Black-owned businesses and Black culture. Banks was also an inaugural board member of Milwaukee Water Commons.

READ: MKE Black Holiday Gift Box Initiative: Supporting Black-Owned Businesses During Pandemic

“I’m honored to share this award with folks who I personally feel have done so much more than me in the environmental justice realm, but nevertheless, I’m proud to do the work that I do. To make sure we are advocating on behalf of Black people in Milwaukee and Black people all over the planet for the environmental justice we deserve,” Banks said.

Fellow honoree Antoine Carter directs partnerships, including in the Amani and Metcalf neighborhoods for Imagine MKE. Through that work, he has coordinated the creation of more than 40 neighborhood murals.

Environmental pioneer Lamont Smith accepts his award.
David Thomas
Environmental pioneer Lamont Smith accepts his award.

Carter’s career began with community garden building throughout the Milwaukee area. At the time, he helped nearly triple their number.

Carter once told WUWM that his mom, who spearheaded her neighborhood’s garden, was instrumental in his steps into environmental justice work. He said she dragged her son to check out the nonprofit called Groundwork Milwaukee.

READ: Environmental Health & Justice Issues Figure Into Milwaukee's Segregated Landscape

“I want to thank all the neighborhood groups who saw a young Black man and allowed him to lead them to transform vacant spaces. I want to thank the young people who assisted me in helping transform these spaces that were often forgotten into locations that are treasured by residents and neighbors as a whole,” Carter said.

Other award recipients included Lamont Smith, who is the Milwaukee program manager, a brand new position with the Nature Conservancy, and Rafael Smith who was recognized for his climate equity work with Citizen Action.

READ: Milwaukee Is One Vote Away From Creating A Climate Task Force

A joyful Danitra Jones accepts her award presented by Steven Hunter with Nearby Nature Milwaukee.
David Thomas
A joyful Danitra Jones accepts her award presented by Steven Hunter with Nearby Nature Milwaukee.

The Rev. Michelle Townsend De López, pastor at Cross Lutheran Church, also received an award. "I just want to say that it’s real important that for faith institutions to be acknowledged and a person who leads the faith institution because we’re to be good stewards, not just inside the church but also with respect to our environment and being co-creators," De López said.

Steven Hunter of Nearby Nature Milwaukee, the organization that gave out the honors, acknowledged a half dozen rising environmental stars, including 25-year-old Milwaukee native Milton L. Beyers III.

“Milton is able to employ eight young people to do nature exploration in a trauma-informed way, allowing the young people to engage at their comfort level,” Hunter explained.

Yvonne McCaskill looks on as urban agriculturist & educator Detaya Johnson accepts her pioneer award.
David Thomas
Yvonne McCaskill (far left) looks on as urban agriculturist & educator Detaya Johnson accepts her environmental pioneer award. Musician Jahmés Finlayson on right.

Danitra Jones is another rising environmental star. She’s community organizer withNorthwest Side Community Development Corporation. Jones said she does what she does because it needs to be done. Her work includes coordinating community clean ups and organizing pop-up farmers markets to create access to fresh produce to families on Milwaukee’s north side.

“I’m thankful to wake up every day to help service the people who look like me. There’s nothing more great than to talk to someone and see that smile on their face after you have listened, taking the time to listen,” Jones said.

Nobody was more proud than Yvonne McCaskill. An unwavering advocate for her own Milwaukee Century City Triangle Neighborhood, McCaskill helped plan the awards event.

READ: Bike Ride Through Milwaukee's North Side 'Promise Zone' Shows Hope, Challenges

“Because I consider myself one of the elders, I can get to say what I want to say. What I want to say is don’t let anybody tell you that young people aren’t doing great things in the community,” she said.

McCaskill said those great things need to be acknowledged more often than once a year during Black History Month.

Gradually the hundred-plus attendees departed to the jubilant drumming of Jahmés Finlayson.

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Susan is WUWM's environmental reporter.
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