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Life's Voices: Sharon Adams Reflects on Building Community through Peace

S Bence
Sharon Adams calls her move from director of Walnut Way Conservation Corporation as a step forward.

Sharon Adams sips a Purple Haze, a beet infused drink, and marvels. She’s glancing out the window of The Juice Kitchen on North Avenue off 17th Street.

“We used to walk the streets that were trouble, it would be noisy. Now it’s peaceful out there and the noise is good in here,” Adams says.

The juice bar occupies one section of this renovated building. Next door, a once perpetually vacant lot sprouts a pocket park. “And it is so kept,” Adams adds. She uses that same word, ‘kept’ to describe the Walnut Way of her childhood.

Her parents moved here from Tennessee before she was born. Adams didn’t learn the full story until many years later. Before moving here, her father owned 200 acres on which he raised horses.

“In the 40s, after World War II, there were blacks who owned property who were killed. They thought Milwaukee would be kinder and safer environment, but what wasn’t plentiful was the ability to buy a house, even to get a telephone,” Adams says.

She describes her parents as survivors and thrivers. “My father never demonstrated any bitterness. One expression my father had was ‘you aren’t better than anyone’,” she says.

Adams says her dad meant she was as good as anyone.

Growing up, Adams says she felt rich. “(Our house) was a duplex. My aunt, uncle and cousin lived downstairs. So I thought we had one big wonderful home, and we did. And it wasn’t until I went to Madison,” she says.

She headed off to college at the University of Wisconsin. “It was then that I learned that in their view we were poor, because it felt so full,” Adams says.

One memory would ultimately fuse with Adams’ future life.

Credit S Bence
When growing season returns, Walnut Way's orchard produces both peaches and pears.

“My aunt would can and the house would be full of the smell of peaches and peach preserves,” she remembers.

However, further education, family and career propelled Adams east, first to Detroit. She remains astonished that she landed a job with Girl Scouts.

“You put on your uniform and everyone is green, you have a culture, everyone knows the Girl Scout promise, everyone likes to earn badges. I also learned that women can lead and direct and raise money, so it was phenomenal,” Adams says.

Years later, Adams decided to come home.

“My children were all on their pathways. And I have the tendency to journal and my journaling said ‘go home’,” she says.

She met her future husband and together they’ve poured nearly 20 years into helping nurture neighborhood back into Walnut Way.

The path has been filled with challenges - vacant lots, drugs and prostitution. Adams says the two weren’t afraid to roll up their sleeves, but first she had to come to terms with the blight devastating her old neighborhood.

Credit S Bence
Trees are again growing in the neighborhood.

“How did Milwaukee become the third or fourth city in the nation growing in poverty? How could you cut down all of the trees on the block and just totally disinvest in it. Those were the hard lessons because that meant that there was a disconnection or an intentionality. This neighborhood didn’t matter which mattered; its people didn’t matter. And coming to grips with that, lit a fire in my heart,” Adams says.

…a fire to create a community people desire and to cultivate change through peace.

“Being peaceful is a decision and not being peaceful is a decision, one that I chose not to embrace. My peacefulness has become more natural, but it is a practice,” Adams says.

Adams says today she draws inspiration from the next generation - those working in this juice bar and in Walnut Way’s gardens and its orchard – where PEACH trees flourish.

Adams says she’s not stepping down from working in her neighborhood. She’s stepping forward and listening for the next call.

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