Dasha Kelly Hamilton Helps Milwaukee Youth Find their Voice

“We need each other.” Those are Dasha Kelly Hamilton’s words describing what she’s learned from young people she has worked with for the past 18 years. Our country and our city are changing because more people are speaking up, but the voices we need to hear the most are those of the youth in this country. For them to speak louder, they need a support system and the confidence that their voice matters.

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Still Waters Collective (SWC), founded by Kelly Hamilton, is one of many organizations in Milwaukee working with local youth to help them find their voice. It is an outreach organization that uses creative writing and performance art to build community. The organization started as an adult open mic but has since grown to predominantly serve youth by partnering with public schools to teach poetry workshops. Words have power when we speak our truth, but the real power happens when an audience listens to those words and is affected by them.

The organization first transitioned to work with youth when Kelly Hamilton was asked to teach a workshop at a Milwaukee high school. Her world changed when she asked the class a simple question: “How many of you think your voice matters?” Less than a third of the class raised their hands, which surprised her. They were so young, she thought, but not excited by their ideas, thoughts and imaginations. “I was never there to teach them but to show them that they are important,” says Kelly Hamilton. At the end of all her workshops, she has each student write a poem because it “requires the young person to consider all the possible ideas in the universe… Recognize that you’re creative, and your voice matters. Magic happens by the time we get to that poem.”

Words Have Power

Kelly Hamilton reiterates one point to every one of her students before they perform their poems: “Every time you speak your truth in front of an audience, there’s someone who needs to hear it.” That statement is why poetry is so important. We all relate to one another and through words, we can come together to a common understanding. Listening can be just as powerful as speaking, and having active listeners shows these young people that their words have power.

Words touch our lives in many ways, and SWC wants to make sure that words are also being used to connect the people across our city. One of their core programs is the SWC Fellowship in which students from ages 18 to 25 complete course work and connect with local community members to build relationships. The intention is to cross the lines in Milwaukee’s different neighborhoods and show the participants of the program that they are welcome in any part of the city.

“These are young people who have figured out that their voices matter,” says Kelly Hamilton, but, as she explains, this is also a time in their lives when they could lose that confidence. Still Waters Collective ensures that they have a time and place to share that voice.

We all have stories hidden away where the still waters run deep. Telling those stories helps the listeners better understand their community and allows the storytellers to speak their truths to the community. The people of this city can empower each other by listening; by listening we can open a conversation.

 

View the article on the Shepherd Express website, part of my regular Hero of the Week column. 

Maudwella Kirkendoll

Maudwella Kirkendoll grew up in Milwaukee’s 53206 neighborhood, which gave him a perspective of people who work long, hard hours to support their families but still need some help to get by. It’s that perspective that drove Kirkendoll to become the devoted community worker that he is today. “I know there is some point when you can move people from needing help to the people that are helping,” he says.

Kirkendoll loved growing up on the North Side because of the sense of community, but it was also a rough part of town because of crime and poverty. The deaths of friends due to violence and lower economic status in the neighborhood were simply circumstances he had to navigate through. Once he learned how to overcome those challenges, though, he found a way to help others do the same.

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When he was a child, Kirkendoll describes standing in endless lines with his mother, waiting to receive government assistance. He remembers feeling embarrassed and treated poorly at the time—two things that motivated him to change the system to make it easier for people with similar situations. In 2000, Kirkendoll was hired as a caseworker at Community Advocates (CA) and has since worked his way up to become the company’s chief operating officer. The reason he was drawn to the organization was its passion for helping people, a characteristic that has persisted for the past 18 years.

CA is a social service agency that is composed of four divisions: Basic Needs, Milwaukee Women’s Center, Behavior Health and Public Policy. People come to CA’s Basic Needs Division for assistance with issues including housing, landlord issues and tenant training. The Milwaukee Women’s Center Division provides a family shelter, domestic violence shelter, drug treatment programs and more. The Behavior Health Division aims to relocate people living on the street into permanent housing. Simultaneously, CA works on changing public policies that will help reduce poverty and transition people into regular jobs. This only touches on the many programs CA implements, but they impact the lives of community members in so many more ways.

One program that drastically affected Kirkendoll’s life—and the lives of the participants of this particular program—is the mentoring of young men at the Racine Youthful Offender Correctional Facility. Kirkendoll and other mentors go into the prison matched with young incarcerated men in hopes of steering them onto the right path for their lives post-incarceration.

Kirkendoll strongly connects with these men because, as he says to them, “I’ve been where you’ve been. I grew up in the same area, had some of the same experiences, and you guys can make it. Stay focused.” These men need someone to understand what they’ve been through and someone to guide them to the right choices at times of weakness.

Connecting with one another and taking the time to listen is what makes a difference for so many people looking for a safe haven when they walk through the doors of Community Advocates. Our community is hurting in so many ways, and it’s time for us to follow this model—and Maudwella Kirkendoll’s personal example—and listen to those that are speaking the loudest.

 

View the article on the Shepherd Express website, part of my regular Hero of the Week column. 

CORE El Centro

Our current health care system is complex, difficult to navigate, and inaccessible to people with limited funds and recourses. Especially for people from different cultural backgrounds, these challenges can feel impossible to overcome. But CORE El Centro understands health differently.  To them, health is an elaborate web of pieces that we must tie together to be our best selves and that starts with a safe space to practice healing.  When co-founders Jayne Ader and Madeline Gianforte started CORE El Centro 16 years ago, they saw a need for an understanding of healing and access to health services in the community.  “People have this innate wisdom about their path and each path is different. So how do we help you find that,” says Ader.  Their goal is to inspire individuals and families to achieve optimal health by offering affordable services in both English and Spanish.

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Co-founders Jayne Ader and Madeline Gianforte

CORE El Centro treats members of the community that have limited access to health care due to low income, language barriers, cultural barriers and other factors. Most of the organization’s clients are Latino, but anyone is welcome for treatment.  Their ability to connect with clients through language and culture is what makes CORE El Centro unique.  When a client first visits the building, they meet with a staff member called a health navigator, who discusses their health concerns, problems at home, and general troubles to truly understand the factors impacting their health.  “They can really connect with what you are going through,” says Carla Del Pozo, director of the Integrative Health and Wellness program.  These health navigators are able place the client with the best possible practitioners because they are trained community health workers and people from the community.  In order to heal someone, CORE believes you must first get to know them and understand where their pain originated from.

The organization is built with four main programs: Integrated Health and Wellness, Gardening and Nutrition, Children’s Wellness and Volunteers.  They offer one-on-one sessions in therapies such as acupuncture and massage, as well as courses like reiki, yoga, gardening and nutrition.  CORE El Centro has also built strong relationships over years with their partners, such as Aurora Walker’s Point Clinic, The Healing Center and others.  These close relationships allow CORE to confidently refer clients who are in need of different healing services than what they offer.  “Part of the mission is building community,” explains Ader. “By building community, you also heal.”  When people are given access to health care through language, cost and community members that understand their needs, people are able to better themselves and give back to their community.

 

View the article on the Shepherd Express website, part of my regular Hero of the Week column. 

Dr. Kyana Young and the Marquette University Strategic Innovation Fund

Dr. Kyana Young, a postdoctoral fellow at Marquette University, began working in the Global Water Center in 2016.  With a background in environmental engineering, Young’s passion is finding solutions for safe water to improve global and public health.  Soon after she arrived, it occurred to her that there was a lack of diverse groups of people represented in the building.  But it didn’t take her long to do something about that.

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She spoke with staff at Marshall High School and Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS), including Larry Farris, Toby Hairston, Rochelle Sandrin, Jan Haven, and Megan Sun, who helped her come up with an idea for a program that would provide opportunities to demographics that are underrepresented in scientific fields relating to water research.  She applied for a grant from Marquette University with the support of the group at MPS, and was awarded the Marquette University Strategic Innovation Fund Grant.  The grant made it possible for her to provide internships to students at Milwaukee’s Marshall High School and bring them to the labs of the Global Water Center to do hands-on research. When working in the classroom at Marshall High School, the youth learn how to write lab reports and do data analysis with their teacher Megan Sun.  The students are taught how to apply their newly learned scientific knowledge to solve real world problems.

Each student is assigned a project for the semester by participating companies and universities.  Young asked these organizations to host and mentor the youth, including Stonehouse Water Technologies, Youth Rising Up, Solar Water Works, DRM International Inc., Sun Yat-Sen University, Grand Valley State University, Assembly of God and Marquette University.  Dr. Young knew that the students needed more than community partners, they needed mentors like Dr. Moe Mukiibi, the chief technology officer at Stonehouse Water Technologies (the company with the most interns in the program), to make the program a success.  The program is meant to “create a path for them that could be life changing, so that they can see why they are working in a lab and see what this can become,” says Mukiibi.

“When you provide an opportunity and you back that up with resources, this is what can happen,” says Young as she describes how the students have excelled far beyond the expectations of the program. “This impacts the global community.”  Thanks to Young and the team at MPS, these students have a chance to explore their interests and realize career paths that can make a major difference in their lives.

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View the article on the Shepherd Express website, part of my regular Hero of the Week column.