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WUWM's Susan Bence reports on Wisconsin environmental issues.

Black Environmental Pioneers Honored For Their Work In Milwaukee

Student Conservation Association
Sierra Talieferro (far right) in Grant Park during her tenure as a Student Conservation Association crew leader.

On Monday evening, Nearby Nature Milwaukee held their second Annual African American Environmental Pioneer Awards celebration to honor people in Milwaukee who are helping to create a healthier and more racially just environment.

Sylvia Wilson, program director of  Teens Grow Greens, was one of the honorees.

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Wilson said when she headed to college she planned to become a lawyer, but she found her passion in working with young people and helping them to flourish.

“Wanting to reach back and ensure that people have the resources, the access to knowledge and networks that will assist them into growing and developing into their best selves,” Wilson said.

That led Wilson to Teens Grow Greens. With north and south side branches, the nonprofits helps teens grow their organizational and leadership skills by learning the many facets of urban agriculture.

Credit Steven Hunter, Nearby Nature Milwaukee
Sylvia Wilson accepting the Environmental Pioneer Award for her work with Teens Grow Greens.

When she learned Nearby Nature Milwaukee selected her as an African American Environmental Pioneer, Wilson said she reflected more deeply on what being an environmental pioneer means to her.

“The first environment that I am most compelled to help is the individual human system, human beings, how do we grow and develop and become our best selves? And then understanding how that is intricately intertwined with other environmental issues and how it’s impacted by other environmental issues, and vis versa,” she said.    

Fellow honoree Richard Diaz came to environmentalism by way of community activism, which he said came out of his life experience growing up in Milwaukee.

“I’ve had cousins that are in prison, have committed very serious crimes. I have family members that are victims of crimes. How does all of that stop, you know, how do we do something to really heal the neighborhood, provide people with opportunities to make good choices?” Diaz said. “You are a reflection of what you’re around.”

Credit Hunger Task Force
Richard Diaz (right) helps an Amani neighborhood resident install a water filter. The USDA-funded projected was coordinated by Hunger Task Force

In 2018, Diaz worked in Milwaukee’s Amani neighborhood — its challenges include a high incidence of lead poisoning among young children. Diaz helped coordinate an effort to educate neighbors about sources of lead — old chipping paint and aging lead water pipes — and how to better protect their families.

“After we did that education campaign, we needed to think of a way to continue just building awareness,” said Diaz.

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Wanting to do more, including affecting local policy, Diaz co-founded the Coalition on Lead Emergency (COLE), which is composed of a broad range of community organizations. 

Diaz, who doesn’t shy from taking on challenges, said being recognized as an environmental pioneer nearly took his breath away.

“What this award means to me is that there is something within me that needs to be listened to, that needs to be able to contribute to solutions and resources. Black people are able; Black people are competent. I think it’s important for Black people to be seen in leadership,” said Diaz.

Milwaukee native Sierra Taliaferro applauds highlighting the work of Black environmental leaders like Richard Diaz. As important, though, she said is to welcome them into the conservation field.

“Those types of disparities, they're everywhere, it’s not just in Milwaukee. And it’s about highlighting the importance of having the organizations and jobs to reflect the communities they work in,” said Taliaferro.

Taliaferro was also recognized as a rising environmental star at Monday evening’s celebration.

She’s a naturalist and environmental educator who found her passion for the environment in a senior honors class at Rufus King High School.

Taliaferro said the experience shifted her life’s trajectory. "I really just found this nitch for myself, where I really connected to something that really mattered to me, in the same breath wanted to find a way to make people understand that this is also something you should care about to,” she said.

Taliaferro said she feels compelled to pass a healthier, more just environment on to generations that come after her.

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Susan Bence entered broadcasting in an untraditional way. After years of avid public radio listening, Susan returned to school and earned a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She interned for WUWM News and worked with the Lake Effect team, before being hired full-time as a WUWM News reporter / producer.
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