Vaun Mayes talks about growing up in the South, the importance of empathy and the forces — including racism, profiteering and crime — at work in Milwaukee.
Despite a daunting childhood experience, Denise Malone is turning over a new leaf.
Leonard Gage Jr. has lived through challenges some could not even imagine. In the process, he learned from past failures and found a reason for hope.
Helen LeFlore relaxes in the passenger seat of a large, red-colored truck on a quiet street in McGovern Park. The door sits open. Helen, who was born in Detroit, seems comfortable here — at home even. “I’ve been in Milwaukee off and on all my life, due to the point my mom is here, my dad is there, so it’s been a back-and-forth thing,” she says. “Once I got old and was able to make my own decisions, I stayed here in Milwaukee with my mom, ‘cause there was more family here.”
Brian crouches in his yard, gloves on, peering through his glasses at the undesirables inhabiting the small strip of dirt that surrounds his house in Southgate; a basket of already liberated weeds and brush sit next to him on the ground. As of this mid-Spring day, no flowers have bloomed yet. Brian has lived in the Milwaukee area for almost 40 years, but he was born and grew up in Sheboygan Falls, Wisconsin. “Good place, like any small town, to raise a family,” he says. “But, uh … I’m glad I don’t live there anymore because there’s a lot of — at least when I grew up — there was a lot of prejudiced people.”
Annie Davis sits in a swath of shade on the lowly set sill of a window near the corner of 41st and North gazing out into the sunlight while she waits. The 61-year-old Davis grew up in Greenwood, Miss., the daughter of a sharecropper. Life was not easy. “We didn’t have no money so we had to help our mother, you know. We had to chop cotton, pick cotton … so I didn’t get a chance to go to school,” says Davis. “My mother, she grew up doin’ the same thing, almost like slavery.”
Joe Guentner leans against what might as well be a white picket fence in front of his home on South 21st Street. The 64-year-old Guentner, who was the oldest of eight, spent the majority of his childhood in Racine, where his mother was from. “I lived on Lake Michigan … literally on the beach,” says Guentner of the place they lived in Racine. “We lived at that place for a number of years before we had to vacate and they tore it down.”
Alex Rodriguez walks down a street in Sunset Heights as dusk sets in. The 19-year-old is in his first year at MATC for welding. “I wanted to be a ceramics teacher,” he says. “But [the] arts are dying in schools.”
Charity Harvey unlocks her small studio at 231 E. Buffalo. She opens the door to a surprisingly spacious, pristine space. Walls hung with more-than-a-few full-length mirrors end at the finished wood floor, whose only interruption is a shiny fireman’s pole, skewering one side of the room, otherwise-empty except for a modest bookshelf and a handful of accoutrements. A copy of The Unteathered Soul sits unassumingly on the shelf. She says the book, which focuses on “the inner journey,” has really helped her come to terms with some of the external challenges she’s had to face. “I used to not be able to talk about my mom without getting those really tight feelings in my chest and feeling like I wanted to cry … You know, even though you wouldn’t cry, [I’d] still feel that when I’d start talking about her.”
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.