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For years, the Milwaukee metro area has had a reputation as one of the most segregated in the United States.How did this complex problem come about, and why does it endure? How does it contribute to persistent poverty? Are there ways to break through the boundaries?WUWM seeks answers to those questions in our Project Milwaukee: Segregation Matters series.

Environmental Health & Justice Issues Figure Into Milwaukee’s Segregated Landscape

Susan Bence
Milwaukee Public Radio
Groundwork Milwaukee's Antoine Carter says one of the beauty's of this community garden is that neighbors decided what they wanted, including its seven murals.

Segregation impacts many different areas of our lives in metro Milwaukee. One that may not be top of mind is its connection to environmental health and justice. WUWM found an intricate tapestry of challenge and hope -- starting with Antoine Carter.

His childhood started on East Chambers in Milwaukee.

Credit Susan Bence
The first place Carter called home.

“I remember drugs and gangs and outdoor football and people getting jumped and all sorts of stuff. Just living in this area in the 1990s, I was a little too young to understand everything that was going on, but I still could see that things weren’t right,” Carter says.

Carter’s mom, a carpenter, raised her young son on her own. He points to a cluster of tall trees across from where they lived - two moves later -on West Finn Place.

“Back here was called the jungle behind this house,” he says.

Carter recalls spending hours there shooting baskets. But not all jungle activity was fun and games, he says. By the time he was 15, many of his friends were selling drugs and most went to jail.

Carter still asks himself: “How was I the one person spared? And it wasn’t that I was overly bright and I was going to be a biochemist or that I had scholarships to play ball."

Part of the answer literally lies around the corner – the place where Carter stepped into environmental justice work.

Credit Susan Bence
One of the garden's murals. Neighborhood kids helped paint them.

“This is the Community Hands Garden on 24th Place and Keefe Avenue,” he says.

Even on a gray winter day, it’s a spectrum of color – raised beds awaiting spring planting, a simple structure to deliver shade and rainwater, two large cisterns for watering and murals.

Carter says something good came out of this place of sadness. “So there used to be a house here, but a friend of mine who lived here was killed and then another friend was killed on the steps of this house. So they tore down the house because the vibes were just horrible. It was just somber.”

Carter’s mom led the neighborhood effort to create the garden and dragged her son to check out the nonprofit called Groundwork Milwaukee. Before he knew it, Carter was a crew leader, hiring young people to assist with the gardens.

Today, he brings neighbors together to envision what they want their urban greenspace - the empty lots in their neighborhood - to become.

“Part of environmental justice is being thorough and diligent at really aware of who should be leading – the voice should be leading a project. It isn’t me, it isn’t aldermen, it isn’t a mayor or a president. It’s the residents. I just like showing this project because it shows what residents have in their heads, what the young kids have in their hands.” Carter adds, “The more projects we have, the more pride can be displayed, then I think, more investment.

Credit Susan Bence
Tiyana Miner and Cello Newson are part of the Running Rebels Youth Advisory Council. For 18 months, the organization explored neighborhood environmental concerns through education, surveys, photos and writing.

Three miles south, eight teenagers spent months exploring environmental concerns in the Lindsay Heights neighborhood, where the youth mentoring organization Running Rebels is based.

Credit Photo by Tiyana Miner, Image courtesy of Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service

Eighteen-year-old Tiyana Miner says learning about health threats associated with lead – from deteriorating water pipes, in soils and from old paint, captivated her.

“Like I would go home, if I’m on the bus on my way home, I would see certain stuff – like the gas or paint on old houses, and I would get home and tell my mom about stuff that I learned, and she said ‘Oh really, I didn’t know that’,” Miner says.

She says the teens looked at their environment as never before. They inspected empty lots and alleys, as well as urban gardens, snapping photos and then putting words to the images.

VIEW: Running Rebels Youth Advisory Council's Lindsay Heights Lens Project

“We didn’t just go out and say ‘Oh, we like this – let’s take a picture’ no, because all you’re going to see is a picture of some grass or some trash or something. We know this about poverty but what does this essentially explain about this group,” Miner says.

"The neighborhood is not connected. Neighbors don't trust each other - it don't feel safe no more, it don't feel like home."

Yet, the Running Rebels team also interpreted environmental concerns – not so much in terms of water or air quality – but in fundamental terms.

Seventeen-year-old Cello Newson’s concerns boil down to an absence of trust. “The neighborhood is not connected. Neighbors don’t trust each other – it don’t feel safe no more, it don’t feel like home. You feel like you have to watch your own back, in your own neighborhood, that shouldn’t be. We’ve got to build that trust back up in the community,” he says.

Credit Susan Bence
Davita Flowers-Shanklin at the Urban Ecology Center in Washington Park.

Urban Ecology Center's Davita Flowers-Shanklin imagines a map when thinking of environmental issues that have come with segregation in Milwaukee. She says when you overlay the area's segregation maps with the maps of our watershed, "you see most of our segregation is also aligned with where the rivers trisect the city."

Milwaukee, Flowers-Shanklin says, was built on a swamp. And some neighborhoods that have faced flooding and basement problems are those where poorer people of color have lived. “So like the Menomonee and Kinnickinnic is the south side and there’s the Latino poor neighborhoods, and then the Milwaukee River, like the free-flowing, dam-free part is the east side where the white people live,” she explains.

MORE ON DAVITA FLOWERS-SHANKLIN: A Homegrown Environmental Justice Advocate

When it comes to appreciating the area’s green spaces, Flowers-Shanklin says she isn’t sure how comfortable city kids feel.

She grew up in Milwaukee and considered Washington Park her oasis. Now as an educator at the Urban Ecology Center there, it’s her job to break down barriers that have developed.

“When I started, we had a new group of kids start coming to the center. And one of my earliest memories is taking them through the park and when we say park they think playground. So we’d say we’re going to the park, and they’d say we’re going to swing. And we said we’re going outside on the grass, go to the prairie – and they said what, that’s not the park. We think that this is a natural beautiful place but to them it reminds them of vacant lots or a place that could be a safe, or that someone might be hiding,” Flowers-Shanklin says.

She ays there are layers upon layers of environmental challenges and disconnects to heal in segregated Milwaukee. Flowers-Shanklin believes tackling them will require one-on-one relationships.

For more on this topic, explore our Project Milwaukee: Segregation Matters series.

Have a question about segregation? Submit your queries below.


Susan is WUWM's environmental reporter.
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