Season 1, Episode 1 Transcript
The connection to community is a personal search. I went away from where I grew up, I never grew up in one place to begin with. And I didn't have a place which I called home. I had people who I called home.
And for a long time, I used to wonder, why is it that I'm not connected to a place, you know. What I realized over time is people, places, activities, memories is place, not just the physicality of it. So really doing this is not that difficult and different for me. It's basically me trying to find a place.
Arijit Sen is an architecture professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. In total, he’s lived in 12 different cities… everywhere from Mumbai, India to Muncie, Indiana. But, for the last 8 years, he has been in Milwaukee, directing the field school in UW-M’s Buildings / Landscapes / Cultures program.
Almost every architecture program has a field school—it’s where students travel around Europe or study famous buildings and get inspired for their own work. But in Arijit’s version, students stay in Milwaukee and build something else: community.
I’m Jimmy Gutierrez, and this is Human Powered, a new podcast from Wisconsin Humanities, Love Wisconsin, and Field Noise Soundworks about how people make places better.
Now I am from Milwaukee, but I’ve been visiting all corners of Wisconsin my whole life. And something I’ve noticed, from Rhinelander to La Crosse to Oshkosh, is just how folks in Wisconsin make a place a home. And they do this by bringing their whole selves and their passions to their community, wherever it is they are.
Together, through this podcast, we’ll explore this state with six in-depth stories about people who are doing that work.
Today, we’re in Milwaukee with Arijit, at the corner of 33rd and Lisbon.
This is a map of Washington Park itself, the neighborhood. But the City of Milwaukee has a very similar map. And in that map, the city has identified empty buildings, vacant lots, as useless spaces, spaces that are bereft of value. These people in this neighborhood took over those places and turned them into various kinds of gardens right here standing in front of where we are, you have a productive garden food garden, you have a space where people gather for Friday night events, and music, and movies.
So what they did in this map is they noted all these gardens and really the variety of gardens that they have, and so you have the same image that the city has, but this time is replete with human values.
This community map says a lot about what places matter. While some city officials might say these lots are worthless, this is where the good stuff happens: community in action, people showing up to help each other, hang out, and just make a place a home.
For the last six years or so, Arijit’s been a regular presence in Washington Park, as well as Sherman Park, Thurston Woods, and other north side neighborhoods. Through the Field School, he’s built up a network of residents and students who work together—building functional pieces that people can actually use… like fire pits and sheds. But most of the time, their work is unseen: slowing down, having conversations, making connections, and sharing resources.
It was a process that was new to Arijit.
So when I moved to Milwaukee, I don’t think I always…I’m not always very comfortable with academics.
And I also realized that all our lives in academia, it's always a struggle, you're not good enough till you finish your exam. You're not good enough till you do this. You're not good enough till you write a paper. And I wanted that to end. I didn’t want to have this "you're not good enough" behind every action. So this was a thing that I did for myself. I was finding community.
The neighborhoods Arijit was visiting were the same ones that the city had been historically and systemically disinvesting in. Predominantly black neighborhoods. Neighborhoods where residents had seen outsiders come with big ideas all the time — only to leave before anything actually gets done. So people were skeptical when Arijit started showing up.
In Washington Park, I walked into Muneer Bahauddeen's office, he was an artist, a very well known local artist. And he looked at me and he said, "Are you one of those intellectual carpetbaggers? Who come in, collect all the stuff and disappear?" And I didn't know what a carpetbagger was, but I went back and I looked and I said like, “Listen Muneer, I don't know.” But the main story there for him, and he was pretty clear about it, is if you want to do something with us, you got to stay.
Arijit. He came into the neighborhood and pretty much people will be like “Who are they? Why are they coming over here?” You know what I'm saying?
This is Camille Mays, a community organizer and founder of the Peace Garden Project MKE.
Some people will be mad. Some people will be happy and appreciate it. But a lot of people don't like when people come into their neighborhood, and just do stuff and don't include the people in a community. And so it might come off as like ungrateful, but it's more like “Why didn't you include us?” If you really cared about the community and you really want to get involved in the community? Why didn't you get involved with people in the community, then? You just really came in to do like a photo op, or whatever to look good. And then you leave out.
Arijit knew that for this to work he had to do two things: commit to be in the community, and also involve the community. What he didn’t know is that every step would be… a learning opportunity.
In 2012, the very first year of the Field School, Arijit was working in the Thurston Woods neighborhood. One day, he was talking to people about “social justice,” and that’s when Mavis McCollum, a resident there, stopped him...
And she said, “You know, that's not what you should be looking at. We care for each other.” So caring became a central thing. Social Justice is an individualized term, it's about an individual's right to resources and access to resources. Caring is collective and relational, right? That was taught to us by the people in the neighborhood.
A lot of this, as you will realize, is what people taught us. And because we didn't have a hypothesis or a point of going, we learned as we went and it became more successful, you know, which also later on, I realized is that’s what humanities should be: it's just listening carefully.
This changed the whole project! Deep listening. And in some ways, it became the project.
In summer, we usually go and just talk. And that’s actually very important—we don’t act. It's a very important lesson for architecture students is not to rush into action, rush into judgment, rush into solutions, because I think that's what school teaches—that you got to solve problems, right? So you have to really hold back.
Instead of coming in with solutions, students came in with audio recorders to record conversations they had with residents.
There was a lawyer that I interviewed a few years ago named Roy Evans.
This is Chelsea Wait, a graduate student in The Field School who’s been with the program since the beginning.
He gave a really powerful interview, a really hard hitting perspective of the city. But one of the things that he said that really stuck with me was that his grandmother taught him to say hello to everybody who passes by. And he always does. And he always offers his help.
There were six houses between my grandmother's and, you know, a mile and a half to the store, a mile and a half, there and back. So that’s three miles to go to the store. And I had to speak to each one of those people in those houses as I passed. “How you doing, Miss, Miss Daisy, good morning, to you. ” I'd speak to as part of a custom. This is why I speak to everybody now. You see me we speak. And one time I went to the store and came back. And she charged me up. I'm saying, well, what's the matter? I spoke to everybody. But you didn't ask Miss Johnson? How does she feel? Because if you'd asked her how she felt she could have told you she was a little sick, you could have brought that back to me and I could have took something up there. So when I see people now, “how are you feeling”? You know, I mean, those are lessons that you want to learn and instill because, you know, speaking to each other and recognizing each other's humanity through communication and at least greeting, you know, is critically important.
It's fascinating and heartwarming to know that his story now guides me as well and how I say hello to my neighbors while I'm walking my dog. Not that I didn't before. But now I carry his story too.
These actions are so much more than individual people doing nice things, or having pride in their community. In black and brown neighborhoods that have been shaped by generations of racist policy, where access to resources is limited, this kind of care is essential.
if you think of geographies of care, networks of care, not just an individual, nice little person who's caring, not just that, but that person is related to a system of caring, which because we are architectural historians, cultural landscape people, we also look at system of geographies of care. But we approach care as a political act. Care produces actions.
I would say many of the people that we work with, if you were to ask them why they care, it would probably be because their communities aren't cared for by the city. And when I say the city, I'm talking about yes, city government. I'm also talking about, you know, the social structure, especially with Milwaukee being one of the most segregated cities in the US, if not the most segregated based on the 2010 census. So when people like Camille take up this care work, it's because they see nobody else doing it.
A lot of times we have conversations about these politicians and laws and things and the city is messed up and this that and the other, but who's doing something about it? And so I started looking more into things. I started going out to neighborhood meetings. I mean, any meeting--it was a meeting, I tried to go. Like there was a public meeting, any neighborhood, block meetings...and people would be like, “Oh you’re everywhere!” And I would just go.
I started, like, thinking about all of these different things...there’s so many things I want to do and touch, but it’s like, “What can I do? What can I be impactful in?” I can’t do everything. And so I started centering in more on how it look in our neighborhood.
This is Camille Mays again, and she started something called the Peace Garden Project MKE—which replaces makeshift memorials to victims of gun violence with perennial flowers and other kinds of landscaping. Now, we could spend the rest of the time here talking about Camille and her work, but what you need to know is that she is a firm believer that care is contagious—and also, that’s it’s really difficult to find financial support.
There’s enough funds out there for everybody, all the organizers, all the organizations. One thing that I talk about all the time is how the people doing the work don't get paid to do the work. Especially when a lot of us who do the work, a lot of times people in the community are like, "well, if you're doing the work, you're just doing it out of the goodness in your heart." But it's a whole job when you do it good, because you have city officials calling, organizations calling, actual community members calling you. And then you want to be impactful. And you are organizing. Pay people who are doing the work. You know, it's real easy.
Hearing these stories made Arijit realize something else.... to make the impact he envisioned, he and his students had to go to phase two — not just talking to folks like Camille, but actively working together with them.
Arijit did not want to be the school to come in and look at us like a exhibit and then go take off with all the data and not work to impact and improve stuff. So what happened is me and him started kind of realizing the power of what we could do together.
That included them working on Camille’s Peace Gardens. They also dreamed up and drew plans for a community kitchen. This year, during the pandemic, they partnered with some of Milwaukee’s urban farms to deliver food along with information on food justice and the history of civil rights in the area. They connected folks with resources, and did wellness checks to see how folks in the community were doing.
And, of course, they talked to each other.
I think that from talking to the students, I've changed some of their perspectives, even some of their stigmas, stereotypes that they've had. We've had discussions about race. And I think that it has allowed a lot of difficult, or conversations that would have been normally difficult, to not be difficult. And for us to wrap our head around solutions with taking all of these things and breaking down these stereotypes.
What I find compelling about this work is that I learn so much from other people. And it's not that I wasn't learning before, or wasn't listening. It's that I learned to listen on a deeper level.
I can come out here and I can start putting flowers out and water my grass and cutting my grass and then it's a…it's a ripple effect.
Cheri Fuqua has owned her home in this neighborhood for almost two decades now. She left for a while, with no plans of returning, but found herself back in Milwaukee.
I purchased this home in 1999. And they told me that the community's gonna change. Hmm. They didn't tell me I was gonna be the change. You know, I was gonna bring in this change. I didn't know that.
But something happened and it brought me right back to this space. And a young boy, he asked me this when I came back then when I came back, started a block club. And I've just going, and I was doing, I was just asking four questions on the block. I did a survey. When I did the survey, as I was walking, and he said, Miss. Cheri, "Why are you come back?" And threw me off for minute, and I looked up, I say "you know," I say "evidently there's something for me to do here. Something I gotta do." And then he looked at me and said "that's what's up."
Cheri’s block is right on the border of the Metcalfe Park and Sherman Park neighborhoods. It’s just a line on a map—but that divide was real.
The west side of the street is Sherman Park. On the other side of the street is Metcalfe Park. And so it was so underserved by both Sherman Park and Metcalfe Park. And then it was so territorial that if some things was going on across the street in Metcalfe Park, that they wouldn't even come and flyer this part of the street. And I just felt like, I don't care, I just want to see my community as a whole, I just want to see it healthy. It's all about community, that's the bottom line. It actually really just focused me to connect communities.
Across the street from Cheri’s house are four vacant lots in a row, a pretty big piece of land. After years of work, Cheri, with help from the city, transformed it into a park. She wants this park to connect Metcalfe and Sherman Park—so she ended up calling it Unity Orchard— fully equipped with apple and pear trees.
It’s just ideal because you'll just see people just come over and see just talk or have lunch or the kids over there playing. And other than that and would just be just vacant, with paper and bottles, just you know... But then it's a space like this that you'll actually, they'll respect the place. If they see we building on it.
So here's a story. There's some guy thats be on the block, and you know, they do what they do on a block, you know. And who am I to say what you do? But you know, it's a respect thing. They'll see us cleaning up and, you know, this just blankly just throw things down. Now I approach them, like, well he's like, "Well, you know, this our community, too." It's true. And you go home at night, and we stay here, and you know, and we just want our community clean. You can come hang out on a block, but at the same time, you know, it's a respect thing, it goes two ways. And he was, he was bucking, he was kicking hard. Okay, I'm like, Okay. I'm like “You walk past.” I'm a pray-er, I pray. I’m just like, I prayed for him, "I'm like, okay, and keep on moving." Because every time I saw him it made my little blood boil. And I'm like huh... The next summer, the next summer, he was one of the ones that grabbed, first ones to grab, "Man, pick that up! Get the picker." You know what I'm saying. You know, and we be wanting things when we want it. We want things when we want it, but we never know what an individual is going through or what's on their mind at the time. Anything, it could have been anything, it could have been something happening in his household, but then the conversation I struck. it just wasn't time for it.
Arijit’s students have done two projects now with Cheri to help develop Unity Orchard even more. First, they made a bunch of planters that doubled as benches, and that’s where the community chess club usually meets.
They also built a shed—or, maybe it’s a trellis, maybe it’s a pergola— the idea was that it could collect rainwater for the plants and trees, and provide a little shelter. But then the project ran into reality.
This time we fundraised. We had $1,000, we bought materials for that, they did an incredible amount of work. They cut it. They even put the foundation, and then someone got killed in the neighborhood. And out of respect, we didn't really work on that. So we were hoping that it will be taken over by another person, but then pandemic started. So it sat there in the extension, all these pieces of wood, and I was like, okay, it's gone. Thousand dollars down the drain. Nothing's gonna happen. Well, two months ago, three of the students came back. They had graduated, they had gone. They just called me up and said, "Can you give me Cheri's number?" And that's all they said.
It was sitting in their office, just in their space, over the year. And he actually just call me out of the blue, him like, "Miss Cheri, how are y'all doing over there? Do you think we could come and put the rain catcher up?" I'm like, "really?" Like, “I know we don't have to and I know school is out and we’re not doing anything but me and my guys would love to come and do that for you," you know what I'm saying? I almost cried, real talk. So I'm like, really? Because see, it wasn't just his class and his credits that he was looking for. This is beyond. And he, they've came over here and actually forged relationship with the guys, they know the guys, and actually the guys come out and they help them put it up. and they….(pause) This is the realness that you look for, a genuine connection. You will know it. And everybody's intentions is not genuine like that. But you will know it. You will know.
So like what is special about Arijit? He really listens...
Camille Mays again...
He has got a passion, he still does it, and he still brings light instead of blight to focus. You know, the good—he uplifts the work. And he really, really, really listens and cares.
What it is, is kind of a moment where every one of us found something that we all gain from. It's that kind of sweet spot. It's a long term conversation around objects where you keep fine tuning what's important, and you bring it back to the community, have more conversations, and the students are part of it. And ultimately, I personally, as an individual am growing, you know, it's like a class for me. So it's very different, what the students get, what I get, what Cheri gets, what the community gets, what Camille gets. But it's a sweet spot where everyone gets something.
How we value places in our community is all about perspective. Cheri and Camille saw vacant lots and they saw potential. They saw value. Arijit and the Field School tapped into that… to the care networks, to community organizing, human connections—and ended up building something tangible.
It’s not just a new model for architecture programs—though, it very well could be—it’s also a new model for anyone who wants to make places better.
Wisconsin Humanities and Love Wisconsin have teamed up to make six monthly episodes of Human Powered because we believe that sharing stories about people making their communities better helps us all imagine what is possible.
Human Powered is a new podcast and we would love your help. If you enjoyed this story, please share it with at least one friend who would also love to hear it.
Human Powered was produced by Craig Eley at Field Noise Soundworks, along with Jessica Becker. Story editing by Jen Rubin. Production assistance from Jade Iseri -Ramos.
Dena Wortzel and Brijetta Waller are Executive Producers. Additional reporting in this episode from Jessie Garcia. The show is mixed by Rob Byers, Johnny Vince Evans, and Michael Raphael of Final Final Vee Two. I’m your host, Jimmy Gutierrez.
Thanks also to Lena Jensen, who made an audio documentary about her experience in the Field School. You can hear it and see more of the field school’s work at thefieldschool.weebly.com. Thanks also to our voice recording engineer, Ian Olvera at Wire & Vice Studios. Music in our episode comes from Blue Dot Sessions and the band Kinfolk, find them on Facebook or search Kinfolk soul music Madison.