Inner-City Milwaukee Teens Reflect on Life Among Crime, Poverty

Apr 22, 2014

In the final phase of our Project Milwaukee series on black men in prison, we’re examining efforts to reduce the numbers.

WUWM and MPTV held a panel discussion in Milwaukee on the state's high rate of black male incarceration.
Credit Susan Bence

Wisconsin incarcerates African American men at a higher rate than any other state.

WUWM and MPTV hosted a panel discussion on  the topic on Milwaukee's north side.

A group of North Division High School students attended the event, and told us about life in the 53206 zip code. 

It’s one of the poorest parts of the city. A third of the adults are unemployed and violence is rampant. Nearly 4,000 black men there are either incarcerated or ex-offenders.

Fifteen-year-old Angelo Meneese says he understands why people call the place where he lives, the “zoo.”  He says he sees murders, shootings and fights regularly.

“It’s not scary. Well, not to me. You don’t want to be soft. You want to show people that you got it, too, you can survive. Not show them that you’re weak so you won’t get picked on,” Meneese says.

Damond Rogers, 15, also uses the word survival, to describe his community.

“Some people ain’t got, you know, everything, cars and money so they do what they do to survive every day. You gotta be the hardest to survive. If you don’t, then you’ll probably roll over and die,” Rogers says.

Each of the teenagers knows someone who’s been in prison – a father, an uncle or a brother.  One student admits he has served time.

Another in the group, 16-year-old Delames Harris, says his cousin went to prison for selling drugs. Harris says it’s a way of life.

“Everybody do it. So I guess people think if they don’t have no money, they sell drugs, they can get money,” Harris says.

But unlike the other teenagers, Harris does not blame neighborhood pressure.

“The environment don’t affect how you act. It’s your own choice. If you decide to do something wrong, it’s your choice as a man. You can’t let nobody else make a decision for you. So all that other stuff they talking about, your environment. That don’t mean nothing to me. You choose to make your decision,” he says.

Harris says he goes to school every day, doesn’t smoke and plays sports to avoid falling into street life.

He, and most of the other teens, say they don’t have a father at home – someone to guide them in the right direction.

“No I don’t, but I still know my right and wrong from my mama. And I go to church. Well, I used to,” he says.

The teenagers take part in a program at North Division High School called “Young Men of Vision.” Demetrius Brown is their advisor.

“What we’re really trying to do is allow students to really gain their own spirit and their own vision for their lives and so we take them through a process called a rite of passage, where they begin to examine who they are and what their goals are and how they plan to achieve their goals,” Brown says.

Brown says he brought the students to the discussion on black male incarceration to broaden their view of life and, perhaps, ignite a new generation of leaders.

“I’m hoping that they can really be advocates for a better community, jobs and things that can really promote their careers as it relates to them becoming better human beings in this community,” Brown says.

Brown says the immediate goal is get the teenagers on a track toward higher education, so college degrees and careers take the place of crime in 53206.