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Milwaukee celebrates 5th annual African American environmental pioneers

The February 19 gathering was a celebration filled with music, dance and pride.
The February 19 gathering was a celebration filled with music, dance and pride.

The environmental and conservation movements stretch across generations. But historically, diversity was absent — especially in celebrating people who have played roles in those movements.

A local group is working to set the story straight. Feb. 19 marked the 5th annual celebration of African American environmental pioneers and rising stars in Milwaukee.

We learn a bit about three of the nine honorees.

Hassan Richardson holding Butler's garter snakes during his summer internship.
Courtesy of Nearby Nature Milwaukee
Hassan Richardson holding Butler's garter snakes during his summer internship.

Hassan Richardson

His passion for the natural world began with dinosaurs.

“As a kid, I was always interested in paleontology. So as a six-year-old, five-year-old, I would read dinosaur books, dinosaur documentaries,” Richardson says.

His favorite? “Allosaurus – so shout out to the allosaurus,” Richardson says.

Richardson’s interests have expanded to the wildlife and landscapes that surround him. Now a college senior, Richardson is about to complete a conservation and environmental science degree at UW-Milwaukee. “You never know how much wildlife is right in your own backyard because the area we’re working in is right in the middle of Milwaukee, and you wouldn’t expect there would be snakes going about their daily life," he says.

That’s what Richardson learned last summer when he interned with Nearby Nature Milwaukee. It’s working to rehabilitate habitat bordering what for decades was a channelized creek on the city’s north side.

“My favorite part was snake surveys,” Richardson says, along with sharing the experience with young kids from the neighborhood.“Eleven or 12 kids, where I kind of initiated and led them to how we did snake surveys. They seemed interested,” he says.

Right now Richardson aims to soak up knowledge and experience wherever he can. He’ll be assisting a UWM researcher focused on a Caribbean creature. “I’ll be studying the environmental conditions deciding the presence of the Grenada frog. It’s an endangered species in the island of Grenada,” Richardson says.

Much closer to home, Richardson and three classmates will develop a land restoration plan for a parcel within the Aldo Leopold Foundation outside of Baraboo, Wisconsin.

“My goal is to obtain the most experience, the most knowledge I can possible and then, down the line, bring that to the communities. In my opinion, if you have a lot of knowledge, it’s useless if you don’t share it with anybody,” Richardson says.

Alexander Hagler in 2018 while working with Groundwork Milwaukee
Courtesy of Alexander Hagler
Alexander Hagler in 2018 while working with Groundwork Milwaukee

Alexander Hagler

Milwaukee native Alexander Hagler has worked with multiple local organizations since graduating from UW-Milwaukee about a decade ago. “More so focusing in on food systems. I learned about food deserts. My start in urban agriculture didn’t start with soil but with fish and water,” Hagler says.

Hagler helped construct aquaponics systems in MPS schools. Later, he built raised garden beds and managed compost systems and the list goes on.

Today, Hagler enjoys wilderness camping, quiet time in nature, but says he wasn’t born a “tree hugger."

“I remember as a young kid I would litter, I would break windows in abandoned buildings,” Hagler says.

But that began to change when he got his first bike. “As soon as I got a bike, I didn’t stay in my own neighborhood. I was riding across the city just trying to find outdoor spaces to have fun in,” Hagler says.

Hagler was part of a youth stewardship program at Growing Power and remembers meeting its founder, Will Allen.

“Big, big, big guy and he just takes his hands and he digs into this pile of compost and he tells me, you have to feel the soil breathing. And at that time, I did not share an enthusiasm for compost and chicken coops,” Hagler says.

Obviously that changed. Today, Hagler grows specialty chili peppers and cooks up Flavor Forward Hot Sauces with a friend. “Pretty soon we probably will start making our own sauces here,” Hagler says.

“Here” is a coffee and juice bar that Hagler and two other friends just opened in the Harambee neighborhood. They hope it becomes a community gathering and brainstorming space.

“We hope to host many of our own events, but also other groups that are looking for spaces to connect people,” Hagler says.

But Hagler is not just adult-focused, he recently joined the Nearby Nature staff — the group fellow rising star Hassan Patterson interned with last summer.

“Growing up on 35th Street on the north side, I’ve had friends on my block who had barely ever seen the lake. So, if we can break down those racial boundaries and increase funding so that young people can have those experiences, I think that’s where you’re going to see a shift in culture in Milwaukee," says Hagler—more equity within the environmental movement.

Dr. Sandra E. Jones in Victory Garden Initiative's farm in the Harambee neighborhood.
courtesy S. E. Jones
Dr. Sandra E. Jones in Victory Garden Initiative's farm in the Harambee neighborhood.
Conversation with Victory Garden Initiative executive director Dr. Sandra E. Jones.

Dr. Sandra E. Jones

Dr. Sandra E. Jones' path to lead the Victory Garden Initiative was not a culmination of years in the environmental or conservation fields. She taught for over three decades in UW-Milwaukee’s Department of African and African Diaspora Studies.

“I teach African American literature, women’s literature, but I also teach history and sociology, and even when I teach literature, I always incorporate it or embed it in the history out of which it grew,” Jones says.“I’ve been teaching a long time, and I love it; I love being in the classroom.”

Since retiring in 2015, Jones continued to teach as an adjunct professor.

But Jones said yes when asked to help with the Victory Garden Initiative based in Milwaukee’s Harambee neighborhood regain its footing.

“It was really not integrated into the neighborhood. The neighborhood really saw it as a space for white people,” Jones says.

Jones sees progress.

“We had at the end of last year what we called a season wrap up. This room here, it was full with people and there was music and food and the diversity was just beautiful,” Jones says.

The Victory Garden Initiative has its own 1.5-acre farm located in the middle of a food desert.

“Everything we grow here is organic, and more importantly, what we grow here is free. In one way or another … It’s open 24/7. People can come and pick what they want. We have the weekly farm sand during the growing season, and we want to make these things available because it does address such an important issue,” Jones says.

Jones wants anyone listening to know, “We’re resilient people, and things change when we put our minds and bodies to work at changing them," Jones says.

Susan is WUWM's environmental reporter.
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