Precious Lives: Making Gun Violence in Milwaukee 'Our' Problem

Jul 15, 2015

Yesterday’s installment of Precious Lives centered on the story of four people who had been in the crowd just feet from where 14 year old Tariq Akbar was shot and killed following Milwaukee’s Independence Day fireworks along the lakefront.

But the shooting touched more than the victim and those four people in the crowd. And the ways its impacts differ says a lot about the situation that has yielded Milwaukee’s difficult summer of gun violence.

Precious Lives Executive Producer Brad Lichenstein of 371 Productions sat down in the studio with Josh Del Colle, Jarrett English, Lise Neuendorf Sadagopan, Megan Holbrook and Shateria Wiley – all of whom were within a few block radius of the shooting.

The shooting took place near where North Avenue meets the lakefront – it’s a part of town whose residents are mainly white, but is within walking distance of where many African-American teenagers live. Brad wanted to know how the guests view the mix of race and violence in Milwaukee.

"We know that violence is a public health issue and it occurs from systematic inequalities," Josh Del Colle says. 

Jarrett English says that violence is more prevalent among people who are poor and people do violence to people who they live near. "If you happen to live in a city where it's hyper segregated as Milwaukee is and you happen to live by lots of other poor and possibly traumatized, because of other violence, people, that is who you are going to lash out against," he says. "We need to be careful when relating color with violence. It's not that at all, it's environment with violence."

"It's a lottery of birth and I got lucky that in this city, I am white. It is completely unjust. I have no power to change it. I feel like it makes our city sick." - Lise Neuendorf Sadagopan

Lise Neuendorf Sadagopan expresses her profound sadness for the children who are born into trauma. "They see (violence) acted upon their family members and the people around them and they enact it upon the people around them as they grow up. It's a lottery of birth and I got lucky that in this city, I am white," she says. "It is completely unjust. I have no power to change it. I feel like it makes our city sick."

Josh says that white people do have power to change the violence seen in Milwaukee and it starts with talking about it with their friends and being aware of their privilege.

"When all you see is the key to solving violence is using a gun...then you think it's ok," Shateria Wiley says. She says that she was blessed to grow up in a family where violence wasn't around and it wasn't used to solve problems. "But me being black, I'm probably looked at as a violent person," she says. "I'm thinking about bettering my community, but when you don't really have your voice heard...when you really can't do much, what can be done?"

Jarrett says there's been an attitude prevalent in Milwaukee for a very long time that people believe they can't do anything when it comes to violence. "I think there's enough fault that goes on both sides and all sides of the political spectrum in this city where there's been failure," he says.

Is Milwaukee A City That Is United Around Ending Violence?

"There are lots and lots of groups (dedicated to ending violence), but they are all in their own little silo," Jarrett says. "It's kind of like somebody falling off a building, if you want to have a net that's going to catch them, it's got to be connected. It's not a net if it's not weaved together."

"So we have all of these anti-violence prevention things, marches, city initiatives, but nothing has an affect because...a whole lot of young people, I'd say 99% of young black folks feel that they are absolutely disconnected from everything politically, economically and socially in this city," he says.

Jarrett says people need to be present. "Folks don't even think about the other side of town in this city, and it goes vice versa, you can have a child in the Amani neighborhood who has never seen the lake. You can have someone who lives on Prospect or Lake Drive and they watch the news and say'that's a shame...that's 'their' problem.' No it's 'our' problem."

What Does It Take To Make Violence 'Our' Problem?

"What do you need when you are hurt? It may not be the same kind of traumatic situation, but everybody's had something. What did it take for you to recover? Everyone might be different colors, but we are all human beings." - Jarrett English

"The 'our' is the basis of everything, what we are doing now - communication," Jarrett says. "Seriously..people from wherever (you) are in Milwaukee find the place that (you) are absolutely least likely to go and go there and do something. That's literally it."

Megan Holbrook is a member of the Downtown Rotary Club and she says that organization takes gun violence in Milwaukee very seriously. "They get into schools, get into various efforts and tries to make a difference," she says. "I was at the Brown Street Academy for a 'Done In A Day' project...unfortunately there was a shooting that afternoon and one of things that was very troubling and telling was that, I would say, everyone who was African American knew exactly what that sound was and ran, basically, for cover and there were a lot of people who don't hear gunfire very often kind of standing around..."

"And I think that that is very telling that there's an experience in certain areas of the city that are predominantly African American where I think it is a form of warfare, a form trauma," Megan says. "There is constant exposure to guns and gun violence and I think part of that comes from our culture of making guns easier to obtain than a driver's license."

Shateria says Milwaukee teens need healthy ways to express themselves, but because of lack of money and opportunities, they end up expressing themselves in negative ways. She would like to see more people come together to help solve this. "Opening up opportunities will give (teens)  the insight that they can be something," Shateria says.

"I think increasing the budget of youth development programs like Urban Underground, like Pathfinders...there is a myriad of really amazing youth development programs in the city that work with youth who are in neighborhoods where there is a high level of trauma that understand trauma is a huge propellant when it comes to more violence," Josh says.

What Do You Do To Heal The Trauma People in Our Community Face?

Pathfinders offers programs for young women who were victims of sexual violence. Josh used to work there and says, "It takes years of therapy for people to work through issues of trauma, whether it is sexual violence or physical violence. There needs to be a huge investment into mental health resources and trauma resources."

"And then, you know, just basic humanity. What do you need when you are hurt?...It may not be the same kind of traumatic situation, but everybody's had something," Jarrett says. "What did it take for you to recover? Everyone might be different colors, but we are all human beings. The equation is not that much different."