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It’s going to take all of us to better the community — meet advocate Cheri Fuqua of Sherman Park

Cheri Fuqua in front of her Sherman Park neighborhood home located just across the street from the Metcalfe Park neighborhood.
Susan Bence
This orchard on 38th off of Wright Street is one of the bridge-building initiatives created to bring Sherman Park and Metcalfe Park neighbors together.

I was wrapping up interviews at Unity Orchard Park on 38th off Wright Street when a woman greeted me from across the street.

She wore a warm smile and an orange sweatshirt bearing the phrase “today a reader, tomorrow a leader.” I was about to learn what a quiet force for good Cheri Fuqua has become here – she played a key role in bringing the orchard to life.

"We have a group of peach, cherry, elderberry, chestnuts and a group of gala apple trees," Fuqua says.

It’s not just about food; Fuqua says the orchard has become a neighborhood gathering space.

"We meet in the summer. We do art in the park. Then we have our back-to-school bash here. We do grilling. We do our community meetings all in this spot," Fuqua says. "Only eight years ago, it was four lots sitting here doing nothing. I saw this in my mind, but bringing it to fruition needed some help."

Fuqua has cultivated support from the City and lasting partnerships, including with UW-Milwaukee, Milwaukee School of Engineering and Milwaukee Water Commons.

Milwaukee has been Fuqua’s home for 30 years. That’s when she moved from Chicago with her young children to improve their lives.

Fuqua studied early childhood education at MATC and then served in the city’s Washington Park neighborhood through the national service organization AmeriCorps. Early on, she bought a duplex just down the street on 38th and rehabbed it but says, "This block just left something to be desired. I mean, year after year of memorials and deaths and shootings and things."

She rented out her duplex and moved her family to a safer area.

Cheri Fuqua's Sherman home is just across the street from the Metcalfe Park neighborhood and Unity Orchard.  It's one of the places she and others are working to build community.
Sussan Bence
This orchard on 38th off of Wright Street is one of the bridges created to bring Sherman Park and Metcalfe Park neighbors together.

Ten years ago, Fuqua says she was drawn back. She wanted to help make a difference.

"This street divides two communities. This east side of the street that we’re on is Metcalfe Park. The west side of the street is Sherman Park. It was so divided that it don’t even make no sense," she says.

Milwaukee Water Commons Arbor Day in Unity Orchard Park April 26, 2024.
Milwaukee Water Commons Branch Out Milwaukee Program

April 26, 2024 Arbor Day — neighborhood children planted 42 fruit trees and bushes in Unity Orchard Park.

Fuqua started walking the neighborhood, picking up trash, talking with neighbors.

"I could tell you who lived in each house. I can tell you my neighbors. I can tell you their names; I can tell you their children. And actually, I did a survey. One through five, tell me what’s important to you. And I was asking about community, schools, safety, beautification. And then I started working from there, started having community meetings," she says.

Fuqua founded a nonprofit called The MiddleGround. It focuses on the 14 blocks that straddle the Sherman and Metcalfe Park neighborhoods. Fuqua says the work is about continuously reaching out to youth, being there for neighbors, introducing pathways for training and sustainable employment.

"This is just exposing our youth and our community to what it can look like. So, you come to the corner and you see Scholar’s Park. You might pull up and you just see somebody sitting there reading a book. Then, if you go around the corner you have Antoine’s Garden. You hear the birds singing. You saw none of that at first when it was just a vision," Fuqua says.

Fuqua’s spirit and desire for change rises above her own pain.

She mentioned Antoine’s Garden. It’s named to honor her son who was killed nearby three years ago.

"If we’re trying to better the community, it’s going to take all of us as a whole. It’s so much work out here, that how can we not work together. That’s my vision of it — we have to work together," Fuqua says.

Last weekend on June 1, despite rain, several dozen people gathered in the garden.

Susan Bence
Cheri Fuqua (yellow t-shirt) at June 1 Gardeners Summit. To her left, stands longtime community partner Arijit Sen who leads UWM's Buildings-Landscapes-Cultures Field School.

There was lots of sharing, followed by attendees calling out a single word to to encapsulate their feelings. Cheri Fuqua stood, drinking it all in. She appeared moved beyond words.

Camille Mays, Cheri Fuqua and Tremerell Robinson - neighbors and fellow community advocates.
Susan Bence
Camille Mays, Cheri Fuqua and Tremerell Robinson - neighbors and fellow community advocates.

Camille Mays was there. She works closely with Fuqua.

"My son also was lost to gun violence here in the neighborhood. Last time we came here last week there was a little bit of rainbow, just a little bit of a glimmer in the sky. And I said that’s Antoine and Booka like waving hi to us. And just like the fact that people came from Chicago and different neighbors even in the rain. It just fills my heart just from a thought me and Cheri had," Mays says.

This past Saturday, more than 50 people — neighbors and community partners — gathered in this space.

Cheri Fuqua says it marked End Gun Violence weekend by celebrating life in Antoine’s Garden.

Susan is WUWM's environmental reporter.
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