A few months ago, Milwaukee joined four other cities in the Thriving Cities Project. Each explored “what it means and what it takes to thrive in” their city.
The University of Virginia Institute for Advanced Studies designed the project and over a five year period, hopes to distil their findings into a new method of community assessment.
In Milwaukee, the project brought together people on Milwaukee's northwest side on five consecutive Wednesdays. Participants shared insights and opinions about different facets of Milwaukee - from arts and architecture to environmental programs.
Katherine Wilson is director of the Zeidler Center for Public Discussion. It facilitated the conversations.
“We started with ‘The Beautiful' which is artists and architecture. The vibe of the room was wonderful," Wilson says. "Each group was like that; they had their own personality.”
Wilson says it was the job of the facilitator to keep the group on topic; that meant not swerving into what ails Milwaukee, but rather its strengths.
“People were able to dig deep into yes, these things are going well and are exciting about this city, despite the challenges that are going on,” Wilson says.
David Flowers is the local coordinator for the Thriving Cities Project. He compiled the results of the discussion series and will present them next week in Virginia.
“There will be about forty scholars from around the country presenting on these ideas of what does it look like to thrive in the city," Flowers says. "The goal is to create a model that mayors and community organizations can use to identify where to focus their energies."
This is year two, in what is expected to be a five year process to come up with the formula. Both Flowers and Catherine Wilson say people here in Milwaukee don’t want to wait that long.
“Because important things were brought up during these focus groups. So what we’re doing is having a next initiative. We’re holding a networking fair at Alice’s Garden,” Wilson says.
Wilson says the public is invited to attend from noon to 3 p.m. on Saturday, June 21.
The celebration also marks the kickoff of a new series, what Wilson hopes will be a community discussion about segregation. It’s an issue that came up over and over throughout the Thriving Cities Project discussions.
“So we will be holding small group community dialogues of 15 people across Milwaukee and across sectors; for example 15 nurses. 15 police officers, all summer long,” Wilson says.
The series will culminate with a citywide event on August 18.
“That will include initiatives that each of these smaller community dialogues thinks up. The Zeidler Center will circulate all of those ideas in advance of the large group dialogue,” Wilson says.
David Flowers says the key to the approach is that ever person has a voice and it heard.
“This is a unique opportunity to listen to one another and be listened to, which is another unique experience for so many people. To actually be able to talk without interruption about your true beliefs on something is a unique experience. It’s different than coming to a debate on a contentious subject,” Flowers says.
Willie Davis believes in the process. He participated in nearly every focus group in the Thriving Cities Project. Davis is a Milwaukee native and is pastor of Invisible Reality Ministries.
“I’ve seen a lot of the successes; I’ve also seen a lot of the terrors. But what we’re doing here has created so much momentum and energy, that I really believe that Milwaukee with time will be what we want it to be; a very positive welcoming city. People will want to stay here,” Davis says.
Catherine Wilson acknowledges this next step – taking on segregation – is an ambitious one; but insists, equally critical.
“If we end the series just says ‘segregation exists’ that would be a profound waste of time. But I think the potential of the initiatives that arise in the small group process can be a step forward for Milwaukee,” Wilson says.
Critical, she believes, to fashion a thriving city.