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The power of experience

On June 4, 2014, I published the first post on milwaukeestories.org. The result of a short conversation, that headline largely encapsulates the hope that has driven this work.

Since that day, I have shared the personal stories of more than 160 people, across more than 55 of Milwaukee’s many neighborhoods. I covered the aftermath of the 2014 shooting of Dontre Hamilton and the decision not to charge the officer involved, incidents involving youth in the Sherman Park area prior to the August 13 police shooting of Sylville Smith, and citizen efforts calling on the City of Milwaukee to address concerns about the effects of lead water pipes on impoverished central city communities. Most recently, I launched an interview podcast with community leaders who are doing hands-on work in some of Milwaukee’s most challenged neighborhoods.

Milwaukee is, in many ways, at the center of a national conversation around violence, poverty and mass incarceration. Within the last few years, it has been named the most segregated city in the country and Wisconsin has been called the worst state in which to raise a black child. But, while our challenges may be clear, the solutions are not. Some of our most significant challenges, such as segregation, are not ills, in and of themselves, but rather symptoms of inequities elsewhere. Other issues, such as income inequality, exacerbate these conditions, further entrenching us in a self-perpetuating cycle.

In order to ask, “where do we go?” we must, first, determine how it is that we got here. It is my belief that the issues we face stem from a single place — that they are the result of an inability, or unwillingness, to listen. A politics which does not include the voices of every citizen is a politics that has failed.

So, I set out to listen. In doing so, I have found many people willing to talk, willing to open up and share their experiences — the hurt, triumph and questions that accompany this life. Everyone has a story; we just have to be courageous enough to seek it, vulnerable enough to draw it out.

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A drawing by Sarah Gail Luther, displayed in a window near S. 33rd St. and W. National Ave. (Photo by Jabril Faraj)

A drawing by Sarah Gail Luther, displayed in a window near S. 33rd St. and W. National Ave. (Photo by Jabril Faraj)

The many interactions I have shared with people of infinitely different origins and creeds have fostered in me an understanding of the inalienable value of human life. I have found that, regardless of ethnicity, social status and the confluence of other factors that make every person unique, in the end, everyone’s wants and needs are largely the same: love, a sense of purpose and a better world for their children.

I have told many that the most important and rewarding part of this work is the conversations themselves.

And, that is what I hope to illuminate through sharing these stories. That, though we may think of cities as buildings — houses, apartments, sports arenas, city hall — they are, in fact, created and sustained by individuals. Individuals whose experiences are vastly different, yet sometimes strikingly similar.

No two lives are alike, yet no two lives are wholly unconnected. It is this truth which I believe affirms the value of each.

For this reason, it is important that we share our experiences, and listen to the experiences of others. Whether my experience is something you have no knowledge of, and can understand more through me; or whether our experiences mirror each other, and you can find solidarity and acceptance, the act of sharing is, itself, important.

It allows us to confront our own humanity, to learn, to grow in love and community and, in doing so, to recognize the humanity of others. ⬩

Milwaukee Stories is a nonprofit organization that brings you the real stories of regular people. This work is supported by small, individual monthly contributions from people just like you; we need your help.

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