Milwaukee, WI – Northwest Side Stories is a social media project launched by Milwaukee non-profit African American Roundtable (AART) in May of this year. It was designed to highlight the work and experiences of people living, working, and spending time in Nikiya Dodd and Chantia Lewis’ aldermanic districts, where people are not often heard or engaged. AART launched this project to learn more about these residents’ experiences and empower them to let their voice be heard at local budget hearings.
As an AART community organizer, it’s my job to build relationships and organize people in the aforementioned districts. I met them in their offices, homes, and local coffee shops. I wanted them to describe “their” northwest side, share their definitions of safety, and find out what they needed from their neighbors and elected officials to thrive.
Though some residents highlighted programs for food access, green spaces, and overall health, they say basic needs are still not being met. Some believe Milwaukee’s Far Northwest side lacks resources and information necessary to meet them.
LaTonya Baker, CEO of Generations of Excellence Trendsetters, an agency providing prenatal care and child care coordination services, described the northwest side as lacking resources, education, training, funding and career opportunities.
Teona Hall, a mother of three, living and working at local stores on Milwaukee’s far northwest side, said the community as a whole needs more activities for the kids.
“Elderly people and people without transportation cannot go get healthy food,“ Sally Yeldell, community ambassador in the Westlawn Housing Development said. “There are other stores en masse that the community doesn’t need multiple of.”
Yeldell also said she didn’t want to “knock anyone who is doing what they need to do to feed their families,” but shared that “the community has outdated food, but has weave, gas stations, and car repair shops.”
This input informs AART’s LiberateMKE work, which seeks divestment from police, more investment in community programs that allow everyone to thrive. In 2021, when local communities have seen additional, federal funding through the American Rescue Plan Act signed by President Joe Biden, AART’s LiberateMKE campaign demands have expanded to include a participatory budgeting process.
Residents have already expressed a need for participatory budgeting, a process in which neighborhoods or other local communities are allowed to propose and vote on budget spending items for themselves. When asked what her community needs to thrive, community advocate Delicia Morris said, “The community needs money with no strings attached to [create] homes and communities to exercise, meditate, eat healthy, have safe spaces for children, etiquette classes, financial wellness and homeownership, pathways, from elementary to careers, that assess skills, knowledge and imagination…and they need Black-owned businesses to buy and sell goods and services.”
AART believes, and the mayor’s office indicated, that community input should also inform the City of Milwaukee’s budget priorities. Milwaukee residents are invited to these hearings to give input and inform the city’s budget. Residents of the northwest side and across the city continued to express a desire for participatory budgeting in Milwaukee at the Mayor Tom Barrett’s budget hearing, held on August 17th.
Paul Vang, Civic Engagement Director of the Hmong American Women’s Association (HAWA) testified at the mayor’s budget hearing. Vang said, HAWA supports Liberate MKE’s demand for participatory budgeting. The Southeast Asian community has virtually no political representation in the City of Milwaukee, and a participatory budgeting process would bring decision-making power into the community’s hands.
Some residents offered public testimonies that asked for the mayor’s budget proposal to reflect divestment from police. However, many residents across the city of Milwaukee expressed not feeling heard. Multiple residents criticized the mayor’s redirection of defund police comments toward conversations about curbing reckless driving. Markasa Tucker-Harris, Executive Director of the African American Roundtable said in her public comment, “According to Proverbs 29:2, when the uncompromisingly righteous are in authority, the people rejoice, but when the wicked man rules, the people will groan and sign. The people of Milwaukee are groaning and sighing…it’s time for the people to thrive and rejoice.”
Despite annual opportunities to testify at budget hearings, people like Baker still express a need to “create a platform for the community to have a voice so that they are heard,” something that she said she needs from elected officials. Baker also said she “needs to know how she can be more supportive of elected officials beyond voting.”
Teona Hall, a northwest side resident who works at local stores, said, “Elected officials need to be more involved…Come and speak to people and see what they need in their community…They just go downtown and speak, people like me, I don’t drive, so have something in walking distance [to] let people speak in their community”
Mayor Barett and the City Council will host a joint public hearing on Tuesday, October 4th. As with any public hearing, residents of Milwaukee, including those on the northwest side, can register to share public testimonies or simply email public comments to the offices of the public hearing hosts. These are opportunities for residents to let elected officials know where they would like to money in the city’s budget to be spent.
Derrick Shoates, former Senior Director of Programming at the Silver Spring Neighborhood Center, said “I need for residents of all ages and backgrounds to step up and have their voices heard so that they can be properly represented.”
There are no published details about how to attend the joint public hearing in October. Details tend to be published on the city’s website closer to the dates of public hearings.