A Homegrown Environmental Justice Advocate

Mar 9, 2017

Milwaukee native Davita Flowers-Shanklin brings a unique experience to the discussion of segregation, and its ripple effects.

Flowers-Shanklin with childhood friends.
Credit Davita Flowers-Shanklin

“I remember being in high school and being really into science and biology. I was the co-director of Camp Everytown, which is a diversity camp for teenagers," Flowers-Shanklin says. "So my work even as a teenager was around anti-oppression."

But, Flowers-Shanklin was just as passionate about science and the environment. “It seemed silly not to try and not do them together... So I had to figure out something I could do that was both nature and engaged people in these kind of issue."

After immersing herself in biology and environmental studies at Macalester College, she dove into ecological restoration and wrote her master’s thesis on environmental justice at the University of Oregon.

Today, Flowers-Shanklin  juggles two jobs at the Urban Ecology Center’s Washington Park site – as an educator and volunteer coordinator.

It just so happens growing up, this was her neighborhood park. “It always made sense to me that the people and nature were always connected. So it seemed silly to me that the air and water quality of the city wasn’t as important as the free flowing rivers."

Kids enjoying Washington Park lagoon with UEC staffer.
Credit Davita Flowers-Shanklin

From week to week, UEC shuttles kids from more than two dozen neighborhood schools to the center. They experience nature inside its walls and out. 

Flowers-Shanklin remembers her early days on the team, and kids’ reactions. To them the idea of a park meant playground, not exploring nature.

“We think that this is a natural beautiful place but to them it reminds them of vacant lots or a place that could be a safe, or that someone might be hiding. It’s really that they’re scared."

Flowers-Shanklin looks for ways to make nature more inviting, not just for kids, but also adults. “I as volunteer coordinator have to figure out why aren’t we getting the volunteers to come from this neighborhood in particular to come volunteer at the center. I can’t just assume they don’t care about volunteering. I have to think about people’s lives and their commitments….Whether working and being able to put food out on the table or hang on your kids is enough and there’s not any more room for volunteering. I have to understand the community I’m in."

Davita with her mom and dad.
Credit David Flowers

READ: Environmental Health & Justice Issues Figure Into Milwaukee’s Segregated Landscape

You’ve probably gathered by now, Flowers-Shanklin is a glass half full – maybe even 3/4s full – kind of person.

But there’s another contributor to her resilience and dedication to environmental justice. Flowers-Shanklin’s dad is white and her mom, who is black, specializes in diversity training.

“Seeing as my mom is a diversity trainer and chose to keep me in MPS and we lived here in the city, we just talked about it all the time. I knew the history of the segregation marches across the bridges with Father Groppi because that was her priest when she was little,” Flowers-Shanklin says.

With her fair skin and kinky hair, Flowers-Shanklin’s 29 years have been filled with people asking her “what are you." Growing up, she didn't feel she quite fit into the black or the white community.

Could all of that have contributed to her career path and passion for environmental justice?

“(That) really left me with nature and the city and the people and the environment being two very separate things, “ she says. “Well I’m product of two very different experiences, right? And I exist and I navigate this world, and I’m doing really great. So it seems to me that maybe my understanding that those two things don’t have to be separate is because I don’t have to be different two different people, I can be mixed girl and fit completely.”

Metro Milwaukee might be able to learn from Davita Flowers-Shanklin: “Actually seeing a person is a good way of fighting racism. There’s a black person, I see you, and I’m working with you. Acknowledging people who live in this community have a particular struggle is step one."

Davita Flowers-Shanklin embraced nature and lived diversity from an early age.
Credit David Flowers

For more on this topic, explore our Project Milwaukee: Segregation Matters series.

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