Corey Kirkwood unlocks the door to Reformation Church of Holiness on a Saturday afternoon. The building, located on 21st and Chambers, is empty today but Kirkwood, who is a youth minister there, says Pastor Henry Kilpatrick allows him to use the space for meetings.
“He’s a very community-based person. A lot of people know him — he used to be a city bus driver for 30 years. He helps his community out in this area very well.”
Kirkwood, who graduated from Bay View High School, has been involved in community work his entire adult life working, first, as a teacher at Malcolm X Academy, then as a drill sergeant at Right Step Boot Camp Military School and, later, as a disciplinary administrator at Texas Bufkin Christian Academy.
“That’s my calling,” he says, “you know, workin’ with the youth — lettin’ ‘em know it’s okay, the things that they’re goin’ through, that there’s people out here who actually really care about what’s goin’ on, that will help them out.”
This life-long passion has led Kirkwood to where he is now, “fighting for justice.” “I have a non-profit organization; it’s called IAM Coalition,” he says, “The organization, basically, is fighting for justice in all aspects. It’s identifying yourself as who you are, breakin’ the barriers — so, like, I Am Black, I Am Caucasian, I Am Asian, I Am Latino, I Am Mentally Ill, I Am A Veteran, I Am A Senior Citizen. And, basically, you know … we’re all in one fight.”
“I usually think of Martin Luther King when he spoke about that we should be treated equally — there should be no race — and that’s where he left off at so I always said to myself, ‘That’s where I have to pick up at,’” says Kirkwood. “Milwaukee is divided, it’s segregated, and I feel like it’s my duty, it’s my calling, to help bring unity back to the city of Milwaukee. So, it has brought me to the point of me doin’ protests and civil disobedience — bein’ arrested for what’s right.”
But it’s not just Kirkwood’s passion that allows him to do the work he does; it’s also a deep understanding of what many of Milwaukee’s urban youth have experienced in their lives.
“When I was younger, I used to ask those case managers, social workers, ‘Have you ever been through what I’m goin’ through? Have you ever been in the foster care system?’ And I always used to say, when they’d say ‘no,’ ‘Well, you don’t know my experience.’ I feel that a person who’s been through what they’re goin’ through, that’s the best person to help ‘em out. So, by me goin’ through the things that I’ve been through in my lifetime, I feel that I’m able to help out a young person because I know how it is.”
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“Pathfinders was a life-saver”
Kirkwood spent most of his high school years near 23rd and Center, not far from his current home on Milwaukee’s north side, but security’s been hard to come by for the 29-year-year old.
Separated from his biological parents as an infant, Kirkwood found himself bouncing around a lot; from the age of 8 months until he was 18, Kirkwood lived in 55 different foster and group homes. During this time, he became acclimated with the northern portion of the state, spending stints in Eau Claire, Prairie du Chien and a longer stay in Viroqua, Wisconsin.
“It was kinda rough because I didn’t know my biological parents until I was 18 so me going from place-to-place, place-to-place, place-to-place it was kind of rough up on me cause I felt like nobody loved me, at the time,” says Kirkwood.
“From the age of 8 months to 4 (years) I was in 12 foster homes. Then, I got adopted and I was in the rest of the 55 after the age of 12.”
Kirkwood’s adoption served to stem the tide of uncertainty that had been so prevalent in his young life but the security he’d found wouldn’t last long. “It was a happy home,” he says, “until my adoptive mom passed away — then I started getting abused, physically abused, by my adoptive father.”
The abuse caused Kirkwood to run away and he ended up at Pathfinders Emergency Youth Shelter. “Pathfinders was a life-saver, to me,” says Kirkwood. “I started volunteering there on-and-off from the age of 12 to 18. One minute, I’d be here in Milwaukee; next minute, they’d put me up north; next minute, I’d be back in Milwaukee. So, I volunteered at Pathfinders [for] two weeks — you can stay there for two weeks.”
Kirkwood described the Youth Shelter Program, which serves, annually, more than 200 runaway and homeless youth, as an opportunity for young people who “haven’t had a chance.” Kirkwood, himself, went back more than once, which he says isn’t out of the norm. “Sometimes, if a foster parent needs breaks or whatnot, I’d go to Pathfinders — lot of youth do that when they need breaks from the homes like that … It was like a safe haven.”
It was here that Kirkwood began to find some direction, citing the positive influence of a man name Joseph Stanley and a budding involvement in the organization, itself. “We started—I was one of the original people that started what they call YAP — Youth Advisory Panel — where young people come together, you know what I’m sayin’, and have different suggestions, things they want to do in the community and at Pathfinders, which also eventually started the drop-in center they have on Richardson and Capitol, now.”
“It’s like my second home,” he says. “I always told them that I was gonna open up my own youth shelter, one day — it was gonna be called Pathfinders, No. 2. So, every Thanksgiving I go back and help them out with cookin’ their food for Thanksgiving.”
“You couldn’t come to the neighborhood if you wasn’t from the neighborhood”
Though Kirkwood has been in Milwaukee for quite a while, at this point, he says when he first came here from northern Wisconsin, as a child, it took some time for him to adjust.
“Me growin’ up in Viroqua, Wisconsin, and other areas, our schooling was different — we had free cappuccino for breakfast, we had a salad bar, we had a variety of foods for lunch, we were able to eat off campus. Comin’ to the inner city, we didn’t have all of that,” he says.
“It was rough, the area,” Kirkwood says of his Milwaukee neighborhood. “Lot of drugs and, um, lot of different cliques, rivals [that] didn’t like each other.”
But, for Kirkwood, the experience was priceless. “I was the only African-American male that was inside the school (up north) so, when I was in school during Black History Month, they would expect me to answer questions when I really didn’t know about my own race. So when I came to Milwaukee it was an experience being able to know my urban city and people.”
Once he got to know Milwaukee, Kirkwood couldn’t turn away. The more he worked in and had experiences in the community, the more the needs of urban youth became apparent — particularly the need for role models.
“I don’t believe in a ‘bad’ child, first of all — they just have bad ways. We take these young people in the inner city and group up with these young people and show ‘em, okay, there’s people here that can help you out; now, let’s do it. I’m gonna check up on you at school — make sure you have school. I’m gonna check up on you at home — you know, make sure you’re doin’ good at home, make sure you’re respecting you mom, make sure you’re respecting your brothers and sisters, make sure you’re respecting your neighborhood, that you’re not goin’ through the neighborhood sellin’ drugs.”
“I feel that it’s time to go back to some of the old ways of how things was bein’ done, you know, with gettin’ the community back where you can have peaceful block parties and the kids and the elderly ain’t gotta be afraid to go off their porch. I was inside Milele Coggs’ district — I did a walkthrough there — and there was a 90-year-old man that’s been in that same neighborhood on 24th and Keefe and he was afraid to go off his porch. He’s been there for 60 years; he shouldn’t have to be afraid to go off his porch.”
Kirkwood also says we don’t get the whole picture when we simply blame “the younger generation” for problems in the community. “Well, my thing is that it comes from the older people — they used to call ‘em ‘Big Mommas.’ They don’t have Big Mommas no more,” he says. “So, I blame it more on the adults not training the young kids they way they should go.”
“Parents, nowadays, wanna be their kid’s friends. So, they wanna kick it with their kids like they kick it with their adult friends. You have to put a barrier between that.”
He characterizes that “barrier” in this way: “To me, it’s love. And, I say that because the fact is, like, I believe if you show the young people that there’s someone — a big brother figure or whatnot — you can save ‘em from goin’ to prison, goin’ to the detention center, things like that.”
“I just cling on to young people … I just let ‘em know that I’m there, you know? So, they can call me any time; if they need help, I’m there. If they find themselves in a bad situation, I’ll be there. So … just gettin’ their trust.”
“We’re all in one fight”
“When I hear that black lives matter, yes, black lives do matter but all lives matter. Black wages matter, all wages matter; we all are one.”
Kirkwood’s stated focus for his organization in 2015 are the issues of mental health and incarceration — two issues that heavily affect the black community in Milwaukee.
“Mental health is important to me because I feel that me, personally, growin’ up in the foster care system, I was diagnosed with everything that I just said. And, I took the same medications as a child, which made me obese, made me feel like a zombie. I’ve been through it so I know there’s a need for help, there.”
In his experience Kirkwood has seen a system that allows for people to be serially diagnosed and medicated but doesn’t provide them with the opportunity to get the help they really need. “Definitely bein’ in the foster care system, they’ll put a label on you quick,” says Kirkwood.
“I think it’s a money system, money game — that’s how [the doctors] get paid.”
In fact, Kirkwood says, there is a high correlation between those who are diagnosed with mental health problems and those who end up in the prison system. “There’s a high rate of black men that’re in prison that …were in the [foster care] system as a child,” he says.
State and national statistics show those with mental illness and time in foster care are proportionally much more likely to be incarcerated. A mental health diagnosis can also put additional burdens on an individual, including making it more difficult to find employment and, as a result, more likely that they will be homeless at some point in their lives.
“They were bein’ diagnosed with all these different disorders and, then … at age 18, they didn’t get no help. So, what they saw fit was to hit the streets … and, now, they end up in prison,” says Kirkwood.
He says that, too often, people with mental health or other issues simply get lumped in with everybody else. “If you’re a person with a learning disability, why would you put this person inside a program with people that don’t have a learning disability? They should be in a different kind of program where they can cope the right way.”
Kirkwood believes that if we aren’t seeing the results we’re looking for — if people are ending up back in prison — then we need to find alternative solutions that will actually address the issue. “Why aren’t we opening up some treatment centers for adults? That’s what needs to be taking place,” he says.
However, despite his focus on these issues — ones that profoundly affect the African-American community — Kirkwood stresses that IAM Coalition is not a race-based organization. Instead, he hopes to acknowledge and embrace difference while, at the same time, realizing that “we’re all in this together.”
“That’s my main focus,” he says. “It’s real powerful.”
When it comes to working with other organizations, Kirkwood says he’d like nothing more than to work with other people; he wants to know you really care about the community, though. “I wanna know where you at. Lot of times I talk to people who have organizations and I ask them: ‘What have you done for this community?’ I ask them, ‘What are your accomplishments?’ … I don’t care what organization you are, I’ll ask you that cause that tells me a lot.”
“Do we see ‘em out here? That’s the thing. Do we see ‘em out here actually tackling these issues?”
If it’s just a matter of a particular organization not having enough resources, though, Kirkwood says IAM Coalition is “willing to do the footwork.” “I wanna know ‘What have you done for this community?’ Or, if you haven’t … that’s when I come in like, ‘Okay, let my organization help your organization out to fulfill your mission and your vision.’”
How does Kirkwood plan to go about the business of vetting potential partners? “I’m planning on having a meetin’ … with these different organizations, different organizers, different leaders in the community and we come together on an agenda.”
“I won’t work with an organization that targets one race — point blank, period,” he says. “All races matter, to me. So, if I’m working with an organization, they’re gonna have to see it that way or I can’t work with them.”
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“I don’t want the next person to have to experience it cause it’s not a good experience”
Kirkwood also spoke with Milwaukee Stories about a particular protest he was involved in — a demonstration near 27th and Burleigh on December 26th that was not covered by local media. Milwaukee Police were, reportedly, looking for Kirkwood and another organizer in relation to the event, though no charges have been filed.
Police have described a crowd that “quickly devolved from a so-called protest into a disorderly congregation.” Kirkwood tells a different story.
“Me, personally, [I] was at Sherman Park at a Boys & Girls Club — there was about five young gentlemen playin’ basketball — and I had my pad and paper out. I asked them, I said, ‘What’s the score?’ They said, ‘Two to one.’ I said, ‘I’m writin’ the score down; I want y’all to put this in your back pocket — remember y’all score.’ I said, ‘Why don’t take 10 minutes out your day, come march with us to Sherman and Burleigh?’ I asked ‘em, I said, ‘Have you lost anybody from the neighborhood that’s been killed by guns, been locked up by incarceration?’ things like that. And this one gentleman — you could see it in his face — it touched him. It took the youngest one out the whole crowd to grab all the rest of them and they followed us. One gentleman had his dog out there — he took his dog home and came back and met up with us. Don’t you know these young gentlemen didn’t even think about their basketball game the rest of the day? They actually went from there all the way around to Sherman and Center, all the way down to 35th and Center, back to Fond du Lac and Burleigh, down to 27th and Burleigh with us. That’s showin’ brotherly love.”
“There was a bus driver, for instance, she got off her bus — her bus was not in service — got off her bus, parked her bus on 35th and Center, got out, filmed what was goin’ on, shook our hands. Then, later at night, [that] lady let me on the bus for free … she said, ‘I like what you guys are doin’.’”
“We get to 27th and Burleigh, a gentleman jumped out of his car — not even with our protest — jumped on top of his car, had nothin’ to do with us; the cop addressed it and he got back inside his car — it, still, was peaceful.”
The incident in question, Kirkwood says, was when the protesters — who were, at that point, standing in the intersection of 27th and Burleigh — circled up to pray. Police came and asked them to move but, Kirkwood says, the officers misconstrued the motives of the standing motorists. “Ninety-five percent of those cars didn’t want to move,” he says. “They were actually honkin’ their horns, givin’ us, you know, the fist up as: ‘Y’all doin’ something good out here.’”
“Then, shortly after that [police] wanted to speak to another gentleman,” says Kirkwood. “[They] said, ‘It’s your last time for doin’ this.’ That was it; we left. Twenty minutes later, they hit his house first.”
Kirkwood says police sent a special task force that “picks up criminals, high profile criminals — people that commit murders, rapists and stuff like that” to apprehend the other organizer. He received a call that Sunday and talked to an officer over the phone. Together, they decided to turn themselves in but, pending any actual charges, police decided to not take the two into custody.
“As of now, I haven’t heard anything back from the police department about any charges, goin’ forward — they said there’s still an investigation,” he says.
Kirkwood has been arrested two other times in the last month — with 73 other protesters on December 19th and while attempting to enter City Hall for a meeting in relation to the Dontre Hamilton case on December 10th.
“Basically what happened was I was pounding on the door. Captain Jackson from District 7, who has been the person, the head person … for the protests and demonstrations, he, personally, targeted me. Out of everybody that was outside, he came up to me and said, ‘Arrest him.’ So, they put me inside of a paddy wagon for three hours.”
“They, purposely, shut City Hall down early so we couldn’t get inside,” says Kirkwood, adding that he believes his arrest was the result of racial profiling.
“If I’m breaking the law and there’s four or five other people breaking the law — the same law — everybody is supposed to be taken to jail.”
Kirkwood, who works as an independent travel agent, hasn’t been able to pay for maintenance of his personal website and lost his car, as well, as a result of transporting supporters and his involvement in recent events.
“I’m at risk of bein’ homeless again — not able to pay my rent. And there’s other people that’s been affected by this, as well; I talk to them on a daily basis. I have like $900 worth of tickets, right now. [I] haven’t gotten a call from the ACLU, still, about how we’re gonna handle those tickets — I got court dates comin’ up for those, as well,” he says.
He says the issue is that grassroots movements and organizations often don’t have the resources available to support people who are involved. “You need funds. People think you don’t need funds — you need funds to run an organization.”
“I don’t wanna put nobody at risk for going to jail; I don’t think that’s the way to go about it,” says Kirkwood, while, at the same time, admitting that might be a possibility, sometimes. “There are times where you do do civil disobedience. But, if you do civil disobedience, I wanna be able to have the funds there so, if I have 10 people … and I know they’re actually gonna get arrested on this day and they’re takin’ a stand to get arrested for this cause, that there should be funds already set in place so we don’t have to be raisin’ money at the last minute — there should be funds already there.”
“That’s just like, if I do protests and rallies and whatnot, and a person comes to the rally, you know, they — a lot of people in the community — have jobs, have families to take care of, you know? Some people are doin’ it because they have the heart to do this so what they’re actually doin’ is probably leavin’ their job early or even [requesting] off work … how are we gonna be able to help them out? We’re gonna need funds. I wanna be able to set in my budget, my agenda, that there’s funds set aside, if a person loses their job, that I’m able to actually fund them for a month to give them time to find a job.”
In the end, Kirkwood says, his community just wants to be heard, calling everyone who has been involved in demonstrations, thus far, “leaders.” “My organization will follow the laws of the land but we want to be heard, we want to be heard as a people, as a citizen of Milwaukee that pays taxes. So, my thing is this: I’m not gonna say that there won’t be rallies, protests, with my organization — ‘cause there will be. I will have police escorts — I will do that. I will tell you my routes, where I go,” he says, but adds, “I’m not gonna sit down and not be heard.”
That’s one of Kirkwood’s passions and a main goal of his organization: to be a mouthpiece for the community. In that same vein, he’s seriously considering a run for alderman in 2016, as well — he declined to say which district and says he’d rather not have to but will if it’s necessary. “This person knows that I’m gonna run against them if they don’t straighten up,” says Kirkwood. “I won’t run if that person straightens up and actually does something for that community. That’s the type of person I am. But we need elected officials who’re gonna do something for this community.”
“My mission is to bring the love back to the city, to bring leniency back to the city, to identify who we are, to address the issues that are at hand.”
One of the ways he plans on accomplishing this mission is to begin to rebuild the trust between police and Milwaukee’s urban communities. Kirkwood cited the past practice of officers handing out baseball cards to kids. “I think that needs to come back. We used to trust the police officers back in the 90s — they used to come through the alleys. We used to stop them, get baseball cards — we used to know they were in the community,” he says. “You’ve gotta get the trust back of the community that you’re here to serve and protect … so, that’s one way.”
But, in the meantime, largely because of what’s happened to him personally, Kirkwood wants to make sure that anyone who lends support to the community will receive support, as well. “That’s the reason why I say, with IAM Coalition, I don’t want that to happen to a person [who’s] a part of my organization. If I experienced it already I don’t want the next person to have to experience it cause it’s not a good experience.”
And, in spite of his current situation, Kirkwood says the emotional support from people has been huge. “I have felt a lot of support — I mean, a lot. Wherever I walk, if I’m on the bus, you know, I get people tellin’ me, ‘Keep it up, you’re doin’ the right thing. Even though the police say you’re not, you’re doin’ the right thing for this community.’”
And, that’s what continues to drive him. But that isn’t enough, he says; for anything substantial to happen, those who are in a position to make change need to come to the table. “We need to call on our elected officials, though … to help change some of this stuff, as well. We can talk so much but, you know, now we need you guys to hear us and do something about it.”
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