Thursday, December 9

Kings, designers, freedom fighters: students of color reinvent their future | Milwaukee

TOMir Williams imagined himself as an African king, supported by his family’s ancestors. Miguel Rivera imagined himself holding a Rubik’s cube, overlaid with infinite possibilities. DeMarcus Staples saw himself as a hero, confident and steadfast while saving lives.

The students, all 16 years old, recently completed a one-year art program that helps Milwaukee students explore their identity through videos, photographs and oral histories. The project, led by Art Start, a New York-based non-profit organization, culminates with young people staging a portrait depicting how they see themselves.

The program counters the popular narratives that young people of color in Milwaukee receive from the surrounding state, one that produces the highest incarceration rate of black men in the nation.

More than half of all black men in Milwaukee have spent time in prison before their 40th birthday. one study found in 2013. In the public school system, Black and male students are treated more harshly and punished more often than their white peers.

Reggie Jackson, a Milwaukee historian, attributes the disparity to a hyper-segregated school system, an overwhelmingly white teaching force, and zero-tolerance and punitive policies that emerged across the country after the Columbine school shooting in 1999.

“It creates a perfect storm of inequality within schools,” Jackson said. “The incarceration machine starts early and seizes the opportunities in Milwaukee.”

Since 2017, more than 40 Milwaukee public school students have participated in the program, imagining themselves as fashion designers, freedom fighters, music producers, and superheroes. “This project gives them the opportunity to be children, to be human and for people to see them as such,” said Johanna De Los Santos, executive director of Art Start.

“There are all these crises converging during the pandemic, and racial tension and hostility in the midst of it,” said David Castillo, a planning assistant for the school district’s office of black and Latino male achievement, which has partnered with Art Start. “Our guys are still navigating that in some way, while saying that the pandemic will not be an excuse for them not to get up and exercise every day. There is power in that. “

Amir williams

The desire to discover his roots attracted Amir Williams to the image of a king.
The desire to discover his roots attracted Amir Williams to the image of a king. Photography: Sara Stathas, Art Start Portrait Project, 2020

The desire to discover his roots attracted Amir Williams to the image of a king while creating his portrait. In the artwork, Williams is accompanied by a masked figure, a nod to those who came before him.

“My ancestors wake me up every day and tell me to keep fighting for greatness and to keep learning about my past and my history so I can teach others,” he said of his portrait. “A king is just. A king can always listen to the people. The most intelligent man in the world is capable of giving information, but always trying to assimilate it ”, he added.

Milwaukee schools have been virtual since Covid closed its doors in March. Williams misses going to school in person. “Screen time gives me a headache,” he said. “I am not a person who can just sit there. I need an in-person perspective. “

With his downtime, Williams has been boxing; hopes to become a professional boxer. Read books on African history and reflect on the connections between the past and the present. His perspective on the dynamics that shaped his city is historically informed and deeply personal, shaped by the pawn shops and liquor stores owned by people from outside his neighborhood. and family members who have been lost to the forces of mass incarceration, gun violence and the war on drugs.

“People think we are in the neighborhood selling drugs, but it goes deeper than that,” he said. “It goes back to white supremacy and the elimination of opportunity. It’s like we are trapped under a tightly fitting lid. “

What resources would help other youth of color? “Learnings,” he said. “We need access to jobs. When the factory jobs left Milwaukee, that’s when the black community fell. I can’t name 10 black people who own their own home.

Create economic opportunities for students of color. Because right now, it doesn’t seem tangible to us, ”Williams said.

Miguel rivera

Miguel Rivera plans to be an engineer, ideally for a company that makes Rubik's cubes.
Miguel Rivera plans to be an engineer, ideally for a company that makes Rubik’s cubes. Photography: Sara Stathas, Art Start Portrait Project, 2020

Rubik’s Cube is a window into the way Miguel Rivera sees the world. And it is a place of endless opportunities.

“I want people to see me with my bucket in hand,” he said. “The cube has an infinite world of algorithms.”

Soft-spoken and deliberate, Rivera is aware of the stereotypes surrounding Latino youth, but refuses to give them his time. You don’t like to focus on the negatives.

“Nobody disagrees with me when I have the bucket,” Rivera said. “People just say to me, ‘Oh, that’s good. That’s a good way to do it. ‘

Rivera plans to be an engineer, ideally for a company that makes Rubik’s cubes.

For most of a 45-minute Zoom interview with The Guardian, Rivera spoke with the camera off. But when questions were directed to the cube, the camera instantly went on for a spontaneous display of skills. With colored blocks spinning furiously, Rivera spoke of chains of memorized algorithms that help him solve the puzzle in less than 20 seconds.

“Everything is very simple,” Rivera said. When he doesn’t have a bucket, he plays on his head. He wants to have the world record.

Rivera, the oldest of six children, finds time to complete school work online when he is not caring for his younger siblings or helping his father with construction jobs. “It would be easier to focus on work in a classroom where there are no distractions,” he said.

His family has been very wary of the virus and does not receive many friends in their home. He draws strength from his grandmother, who teaches him to cook and has instilled in him a sense of right and wrong. If he could change something in the world, he says he would end the pandemic.

DeMarcus Staples

DeMarcus Staples's idea of ​​heroism led him to the image of a combat medic, a possible career.
DeMarcus Staples’s idea of ​​heroism led him to the image of a combat medic, a possible career. Photography: Nick Collura, Art Start Portrait Project, 2020

“Heroes are trustworthy. They can be counted on. You can be a hero on the battlefield or a hero to a child who needs a mentor, ”said DeMarcus Staples. “You don’t necessarily have to be a hero to be a man, but you have to be willing to be if someone needs you.”

Exploring the idea of ​​heroism interested Staples in the image of a combat medic, a possible career stoppage to become a surgeon.

The last year of online learning hasn’t changed Staples career plans, but it has been hard work at times. “I really hate online school,” he said. “As a practical learner, it’s really horrible. This is the worst my GPA has ever looked. “

Crushing news came when the football season was canceled. He got he worked hard to become the team’s starting quarterback, he said, in hopes of landing a college scholarship to help pay for school.

He is preparing for the next season, going to the gym when he is not in class. Some nights he works at DoorDash to earn money. But you won’t find it on the streets of 53206 – Staples house zip code that is known for staggeringly high incarceration rates. He spends most of his time outside the area.

Staples wastes no time worrying about your appearance or your neighborhood. gives others a preconceived notion of who he is.

“We cannot control what people see when they look at us. I can’t convince you that I’m not a criminal just because I’m black. But I can show you that I am not because of what I do. If you choose not to believe that after I show it to you, that’s up to you, ”he said. “If you constantly do the right thing, someone will notice.”

Staples has leadership qualities and he knows it. That confidence makes its way into a video that accompanies the portrait project and captures the moment you capture in your portrait for the first time.

“I’m the only one with the headphones,” he said of the image on the battlefield.

“You want to know why? Because I run it. I run this. “

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