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Choosing to Fight in Milwaukee

The city’s complicated, deep-rooted issues will not easily be solved. For these locals, that makes the challenge even more worth the taking.

October 11, 2017

Leah Fabel

Leah Fabel

Levi Lovang (Milwaukee ’14) earned his master’s degree in education at Alverno College in Milwaukee. When it came time for his graduation ceremony, he hoped to wear traditional Hmong dress as a show of pride for his cultural heritage and a sign of respect for his parents, who starved and sacrificed to make it from war-torn Laos, their birthplace, to refugee camps in Thailand before arriving in Milwaukee. 

College administrators denied Lovang’s requests. But when graduation day came, he fastened a deep red silk sash around his waist, carefully adjusting it to display its intricate needlework. He put on his black vest decorated with hundreds of silver coins hanging from pink, embroidered sashes crossing his chest. The coins jingled as he walked across the stage to accept his diploma. 

“I share that story with all of my students,” says Lovang, who teaches third grade at Milwaukee Academy of Science, where all of his students are black. “We teach qualities like perseverance, but we need to teach dignity first,” he says. “I want them to know they can change the narrative if they appreciate who they are and where they come from.”

"I grew up neglecting my culture and heritage," says Levi Lovang. He workds with his third graders to instill a dignity he wishes he had understood sooner in life. SALLY RYAN

Changing the narrative is an uphill battle in Milwaukee, where Teach For America has placed corps members for eight years. After protesters took to the streets following last summer’s fatal shooting by a police officer of 23-year-old Sylville Smith, media outlets including CNN and the Chicago Tribune deemed the city one of the most oppressive in America for its legacy of racism. Nearly 40 percent of black residents live below the poverty line, compared to 9 percent of white residents and 16 percent of the city overall. In 2013, researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Employment and Training Institute found that the state incarcerates 13 percent of its black males—the highest rate in the nation and double the national average. The research suggested that in Milwaukee County, about half of all black men had spent time in a state correctional facility by the time they reached their early 40s. 

About 20 percent of Milwaukee Public Schools students tested on statewide exams are proficient in language arts, according to 2015-16 data from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. In math, only 15 percent meet the bar. Additionally, the results of the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress revealed the state of Wisconsin had the widest black-white achievement gap in the nation.

Milwaukee is also one of the most segregated cities in the United States. It’s not for lack of diversity: about 39 percent of residents identify as black; 37 percent as white; 18 percent as Latino; and about 4 percent as Asian American Pacific Islander, with people of Hmong heritage making up the largest subgroup. But that diversity virtually disappears within rigid geographical divisions, as documented by a 2017 report published by the Urban Institute, a Washington, D.C., think tank. The study’s composite measure, looking at divisions by race and socioeconomic status, placed Milwaukee as the fourth most segregated city in the U.S. behind Philadelphia; Bridgeport, Connecticut; and New York. 

Milwaukee’s segregation was deliberate and effective. Of the city’s 18 nearby suburbs, 16 used restrictive covenants prohibiting African Americans from buying or renting homes in certain areas—some into the 1970s. Where covenants didn’t exist, zoning regulations requiring large lot sizes or barring multi-family dwellings all but ensured the absence of affordable suburban housing.

At the same time that black Milwaukeeans were unable to purchase homes outside the city, factory jobs in the city that once supported a thriving working class disappeared. Others moved to the outskirts of the metro area, beyond the reach of city residents.

As whites left, Latinos moved to the city, and refugees from Southeast Asia began arriving in the late 1970s. Today, Latino residents mainly populate the city’s south side, dotted with church spires built by Polish and German immigrants. Wealthier white residents and young professionals congregate on the east side, along Lake Michigan, as they have since the mid-1800s. Milwaukeeans who are black have deep roots on the city’s north side, and residents of Hmong heritage live in scattered pockets, mostly on the city’s west side. 

Segregation and social outcomes, including educational attainment, evolve together in complex ways. But the result for cities like Milwaukee has been toxic. Many of Lovang’s students dream of leaving. “I was like that, too,” he says. “I wanted to grow up, go to college, make a lot of money, and leave the city. I felt there was nothing here for me.”

This creates a conundrum for teachers and school leaders, says Walter Bond (D.C. Region ’09), a Milwaukee native and the executive director of Teach For America Milwaukee. Unless Milwaukee can find a way to become a more equitable and inviting place for people of color to live, schools will continue to graduate students who feel forced to take their talents and leadership to cities like Chicago and Atlanta, he says. In this way, he suggests, Milwaukee and other urban pockets where opportunities have dwindled have more in common with rural America than with boom cities like Washington, D.C.

“If you raise your children in community, they can’t help but think of community as family.”

Clara Fleming

Bond, who cut his teeth helping to turn around D.C.’s long-struggling Anacostia High School, can’t assume that the nation’s brightest young leaders will make Milwaukee part of their job hunt. So he’s trying to build the troops who will fight for systemic change from his base of corps members and alumni—and their students. “It’s easier to build strong children than to repair broken men,” he says, quoting Frederick Douglass. “It’s easier to build the next generation of leaders than convince this one to do something differently.” 

With three years of experience as a teacher, Lovang is a part of that generation of leaders. He led a successful effort at his school for teachers to receive professional development on culturally relevant pedagogy. It’s one fight in a much larger battle, Lovang says. “When you see the statistics in Milwaukee, you can flee or you can choose to fight them.”

Fellow alums share a similar mindset, like Amanda Merkwae (Milwaukee ’11), who is employing a prestigious legal fellowship to interrupt the school-to-prison pipeline, and community organizer Rashidah Butler-Jackson (Houston ’14). When a fire breaks out, they’re the kind of people who run toward it. 

Each day, they encounter students facing challenges so mighty as to beat back even a hint of optimism. But there’s a difference between optimism and hope, says Harvard University philosopher Cornel West. Optimism “is a notion that there’s sufficient evidence that would allow us to infer that if we keep doing what we’re doing, things will get better,” he says. But hope cuts a different path. It is “the courage to act when doubt is warranted,” going “beyond the evidence to create new possibilities.” 

In Milwaukee, the hopeful ones are leading new schools and improving older ones, building programs to empower communities, and advocating for families who have few advocates. And they’re telling their stories.

As a teacher in Milwaukee, Amanda Merkwae was shocked by what she saw as the lack of due process afforded to some students. As a lawyer, she's doing something about it. SALLY RYAN

Amanda Merkwae (Milwaukee ’11) 

From a cramped office in a dusty downtown high rise, eight floors above an abandoned Subway sandwich shop, Amanda Merkwae is, as far as she can tell, one of the only lawyers in Milwaukee going to bat for students who face expulsion from school. Over her beige metal desk, across from a poster of Malcolm X, hangs a handwritten note: “Hard Things are Hard.” 

In the past year, through her Skadden Fellowship for law school graduates who pursue public service, Merkwae has served 58 clients, all of them students, most of them black males. Of the 28 who required disciplinary hearings, 26 received a less severe outcome, with Merkwae’s help, than administrators initially recommended. Typically, that meant school transfers rather than expulsion.

In Wisconsin, which has some of the nation’s more regressive laws regarding the removal of students from school, the difference between a transfer and an expulsion often is the difference between a free education and none at all. When a district expels a student, it is not required to provide an education (except to special education students) during the term of expulsion. Some districts, like Milwaukee Public Schools, offer “post-expulsion services” like credit recovery and counseling. Statewide, no other district must accept the expelled student.

“It’s mind-boggling,” Merkwae says.

That was the scenario faced by Ada (her name has been changed), who was 12 years old when she met Merkwae in May. Sitting together in Merkwae’s office, Ada and her mother recounted how the family had recently lost their home in a nearby town, so they moved to be with relatives in Milwaukee. Ada had excelled academically at her previous school but faced a rocky transition at her new one. 

An incident in one of her classes led to a disciplinary proceeding and ultimately her arrest, though Ada denied any involvement. The sixth grader and her mother say officers took her from her home and held for four hours at a local police station, where she fell asleep handcuffed to a table. “I was scared, but I wouldn’t let myself cry,” she says. 

The expulsion process can coincide with steps toward criminal or delinquency prosecution. Merkwae sees her role as keeping kids like Ada not only in school but also off the path to prison. To that end, she has built relationships with counterparts in the juvenile justice system to prevent charges from being filed or to help students receive due process by presenting strong defenses. 

At MPS pre-expulsion hearings, a district hearing officer talks to the student about the incident and often about his or her school experience, says MPS spokesperson Denise Callaway. The intent, she says, is to provide the student a safe and fair space to determine appropriate next steps. The officer also reads aloud a packet of teacher reports on each student’s performance. Merkwae notes that of the 46 check boxes on each report (including “lacks depth of thought and perception” and “cannot take criticism”), only four describe a student’s positive qualities. 

Merkwae says she attends hearings with her student clients and watches as they slouch inch by inch upon hearing each check against them. On the occasion that a teacher writes one positive thing in an optional comments section, she says, “their faces light up.” 

Wisconsin’s statute states that expulsion must be in the best interest of the school community. When 42 out of 46 checkboxes are designed to show a student’s negative qualities, that tends to be a simple task, Merkwae says. But to paint a fuller picture of each student, she gathers letters of support from other teachers, relatives, and friends, and she has kids write personal statements about their goals and what school means to them. If Merkwae hadn’t advocated for Ada, it’s easy to see how the hearing officer could have missed knowing, for example, that Ada loves forensics club and her most recent speech was a polemic against childhood beauty pageants. 

At the end of her pre-expulsion hearing, the hearing officer decided the district would not move forward with Ada’s expulsion. Because Merkwae had taught in Milwaukee, she could also advise Ada and her mother about enrolling at a school with better academic outcomes and programs suited to Ada’s interests. A month later, a notice arrived stating no delinquency charges would be pressed. 

Ada and her mother caught up with Merkwae over the summer. Typically, Ada’s mother said, she’s not a trusting person. But she put her faith in Merkwae because Merkwae had been a teacher who had seen the damage done by punitive discipline. “And you’re helping to fix that problem,” the mother said to Merkwae. “Even if it’s one family at a time, you’re fixing it.” 

(L-R) Mimi Perez, Franz Meyer, and Clintel Hasan tackle issues like lead levels in school water as leaders of Milwaukee's young guard of grassroots political activists. SALLY RYAN

Franz Meyer (Milwaukee ’09), Clintel Hasan (Milwaukee ’12), and Mimi Perez 

Franz Meyer is a convert to Milwaukee by way of St. Louis. And as with converts of all types, it’s tough to find someone more fervently devoted. He keeps Milwaukee facts at his fingertips—like the fact that among sizeable American cities, Milwaukee still has the second-highest percentage of workers employed in manufacturing. And this fact: water from 6 percent of all drinking fountains in Milwaukee Public Schools had lead levels in December above Environmental Protection Agency standards. (Callaway says schools have been provided with filtered water and fixtures have been replaced.)

In 2016, Meyer, a teacher coach for Teach For America Milwaukee, ran for a seat on the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors, which explains his comfort dropping local knowledge. But his history with political activism goes back to 2011, following his second year as a science teacher in Milwaukee Public Schools. That summer, Meyer interned at Common Ground, a consortium of neighborhood groups, religious congregations, nonprofits, unions, and others who come together to advocate for changes to benefit the Milwaukee community. (Milwaukeean Mark Fraley, who was a corps member in 1992 in South Louisiana, helped launch Common Ground.)

Meyer spent that summer poring over the Milwaukee Public Schools budget to figure out how so many millions of dollars could produce such unacceptable outcomes. He met with the city’s deputy comptroller. He met with school district administrators. Here’s what emerged from his research: Millions of dollars in federal funds for tutoring services at failing schools were spent ineffectively or not at all on tutoring.

Common Ground, a 40,000-member organization with four full-time staff members, organized actions to demand the money be used to serve more students. About 600 people attended a meeting at a church on the city’s north side, home to many of the city’s lowest-performing schools. A citizen asked the superintendent, who was onstage, if he would do something to steer that money back to kids. He promised he would.

“That was the first time I understood what people power was,” Meyer says.

A federal investigation resulted in the owner of one of the tutoring companies pleading guilty to submitting invoices to the district for services never provided. In 2012, MPS overhauled the program to ensure greater oversight of providers and more opportunities for students to receive services.

Another Common Ground campaign called on Milwaukee to withhold taxpayer funding for a new arena for the city’s NBA team, the Bucks. The group celebrated when Nationstar Mortgage, then chaired by the co-owner of the Bucks, agreed to give the city up to $30 million over three years to support mortgage restructuring. That money would directly serve families in neighborhoods hit hardest by the housing crash, Meyer says.

In July 2016, Common Ground started a 40-Under-40 group to galvanize the city’s younger adults to collective action. Meyer sits on its four-person steering committee along with Teach For America Milwaukee colleagues Clintel Hasan and Mimi Perez. They’ve spent several months researching two topics: lead levels in water at MPS schools and the possible effects on children, and the impact of training teachers to work with students who have histories of trauma, with the objective of more schools becoming “trauma-sensitive.” The 40-Under-40 team is organizing actions and research, including attending board meetings, starting this winter.

“People who don’t see the possibility in Milwaukee are missing a whole lot,” Meyer says. “There are huge amounts of hope and belief that we can set the city up to succeed.” 

Rashidah Butler-Jackson (Houston ’14)

Rashidah Butler-Jackson is a hometown community organizer because she is the product of a proud community. She grew up on Milwaukee’s north side, alongside poor, working-class, and affluent black families, where she attended Khamit Institute, an Afrocentric charter school founded by the Ausar Auset Society, a pan-African religious organization. Black teachers taught every class. Natural hair was the norm. “I was wearing dashikis before they became popular again,” Butler-Jackson says.

Rashidah Butler-Jackson at a Heal the Hood block party organized by her brother on the city's north side. SALLY RYAN

Her father owns a small, Afrocentric art and accessories shop called Pursenality in a strip mall on the city’s far north side. Shelves are lined with wooden carvings of African deities. A rack near the checkout counter holds books by black radicals and intellectuals like Malcolm X and James Baldwin. Butler-Jackson read Angela Davis: An Autobiography as one of her first chapter books.

As kids, if she and her brother weren’t at Pursenality, they were at home, where their mother kept an open-door policy for the neighborhood. “If you raise your children in community, they can’t help but think of community as family,” says Clara Fleming, Butler-Jackson’s mother. “And we are obligated to our family.”

Butler-Jackson attended college in Milwaukee before moving to Houston, where she taught eighth and ninth grade with the corps. She moved back and took a job with a nonprofit, Community Advocates. While there, she organized a July event she called Pulling Together for Peace and Solutions, designed to be a question-and-answer session with city council members combined with a resource fair featuring representatives from nonprofits and city agencies.

Just before the start of the morning event, she learned the city council members wouldn’t be attending. Butler-Jackson, toting a tall cup of iced chai with soymilk, was discouraged but undeterred. “We’ll hold our own mini town hall,” she said. And she did, shuffling the schedule to allow nonprofits to present their services to attendees and answer questions.

She started a new job in July as a program manager for SecureFutures, a nonprofit teaching financial literacy to teens. “It’s incredibly empowering for young people to hear they don’t need to pass on this cycle of poverty,” she says.” I’m not talking about being rich, but taking pride in the things you have and investing in things that will benefit you and the world around you. Nobody is talking to them about that.”

Butler-Jackson’s dedication to empowering her community, block by block and individual by individual, flows seamlessly between her career and her home life. She volunteers with Heal the Hood, a nonprofit organization founded by her brother to host block parties on the city’s north side and mentor youth. She drives a Lyft to earn extra money, but also to widen her network. And while Butler-Jackson’s sister battles personal challenges, Butler-Jackson and her new husband are on-again-off-again caretakers for their 7-year-old niece.

Her niece’s frequent presence makes Butler’s activism feel urgent. “What do I want the world to look like for her? When she wakes up and says, ‘Good morning,’ what can I do to make sure this is a good morning for her, and a good day, and a safe day?” she says. “This work is every single day.” 

Ashley Lee (Milwaukee ’11) and David Castillo (Milwaukee ’14) 

Ashley Lee is the special assistant to the superintendent of Milwaukee Public Schools. She grew up in Milwaukee and graduated from MPS before becoming the first in her family to graduate from college. She knows hundreds of students in city classrooms: cousins, second cousins, children of close friends, her own niece and nephew.

Ashley Lee David Castillo

Left: Until students and families have real say in the district's efforts, "no amount of money will change anything," says Ashley Lee.

Right: David Castillo and Ashley Lee focus their work on bringing student and family voice into district-level decisions.


If there’s one thing that bothers her, it’s when people say families and students don’t care about education. “That’s just not true,” she says. Those in power might just be failing to hear their voices. Over the past year, she has mentored and collaborated with a 2016 MPS graduate who is now an AmeriCorps Public Ally working for the school district. Assuming Milwaukee students would speak more openly with someone nearly their own age, Lee supported him in leading student focus groups to inform the high-profile projects she manages for the district.

One of those was developing the Black and Latino Male Achievement Department, officially launched in August. Over the past five years, MPS’s four-year graduation rate for black males has declined to about 55 percent. The rate for Latino males has remained stuck at about 59 percent.

Lee, who worked on staffing the initiative, encouraged David Castillo to apply for a job in the department. Castillo had been teaching special education at Milwaukee’s Pulaski High School, running its freshman academy and coordinating positive behavior intervention support services. Lee, who chairs Milwaukee’s chapter of The Collective, Teach For America’s alumni of color association, met Castillo at the monthly meetings.

Castillo impressed Lee with a commitment to activism that began as a student growing up in Los Angeles. He had joined a gang in ninth grade, but left in part because those in his support circle—friends, family, teachers—convinced him his talents would be better served bringing people together, not furthering divides. A mentor exposed him to the writings of Che Guevara and Angela Davis. While his peers raced through the latest Harry Potter book, Castillo read Rules for Radicals, Saul Alinsky’s seminal text on grassroots organizing. 

In college at the University of California, Riverside, Castillo led a lobbying arm of the student government advocating for legislation including the DREAM Act for undocumented students. And he helped found a group working closely with gang members in Riverside to help them reconcile with rivals, just as his friends had predicted. 

In August, Castillo got the job with MPS. In his role, he designs culturally responsive curriculum for four pilot schools. He also goes into the community to build partnerships with people and organizations who want to be a part of his department’s work. 

“There is hope,” Castillo says. “You need empowered communities. It can’t be just us speaking on their behalf.” 

Lee adds, “There is a ton of energy right now” focused on young men of color in Milwaukee schools. “I think the right people are where they need to be.” 

Ryan Samz (G.N.O.–LAD ’09) and Nathan Carlberg (Baltimore ’07)

In August, Ryan Samz started his third year as the principal of HOPE Semper, a private Christian school on the north side of Milwaukee. Almost all students at Semper and throughout HOPE’s network of six schools participate in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, a much-debated approach to school choice offering families with low incomes publicly funded vouchers of about $7,500 for use toward private school tuition.

HOPE Semper principal Ryan Samz is one of 56 Teach For America alumni who are leaders in Milwaukee, up from 30 in the 2014-15 school year. SALLY RYAN

In Samz’s first year as a principal, he turned his faith toward revamping what he viewed as exclusionary discipline policies in his school and its network of nearly 3,000 students. Private schools, subject to different regulations than public schools, have a reputation in Milwaukee for dumping challenging students back into the public system. When Samz pulled the data following his first year as principal, he saw that between September and June, nearly 41 percent of Semper students had been expelled or suspended at least once. Of that 41 percent, only 44 percent persisted until the end of the school year. “We were losing kids hand over fist,” Samz says.

HOPE’s motto decorates school walls, folders, even students’ uniforms: “Christ. College. Character.” But, Samz says, “We were talking a lot about college and character, but not a whole lot about Christ… If we’re thinking about this in a Christ-like way, we need to keep these kids and make sure we’re doing everything possible to meet their needs.”

Samz says he is a “messy Christian” whose doubts and mistakes constantly lead him back to one thing he believes to be true: that God loves each person wholly and unconditionally. He wanted Semper to reflect that belief in practice, from discipline strategies to classes offered. So Samz and his team set about instituting an approach centered on values of grace and honoring each student’s unique path.

Today, Samz says, Semper is the first school in the HOPE network to fully embrace “responsive discipline,” which includes helping students determine disciplinary consequences that allow them to remain in school. Samz built a partnership with a nonprofit offering onsite half-day and full-day therapeutic programs for students with mental health challenges. Teachers at Semper receive extensive training in culturally responsive teaching practices. Samz shuffled his budget to make space for a fulltime art teacher, hoping the class taps kids’ creativity and joy.

Semper retained about 75 percent of students in Samz’s first year as principal. Last year, that rose to 88 percent. Student suspension rates are down by 67 percent, expulsion rates by 60 percent. HOPE leaders took notice of the shift, and Samz is now sharing his retention strategies with principals across the network.

At the same time measures of school culture improved, Semper’s academics suffered—the school had some of the lowest outcomes in the network last year. But Samz is hopeful that a more positive culture is the groundwork required for academic success, his focus this year.

"It's not punishment that changes hearts, it's relationships," says St. Augustine Preparatory Academy founding principal Nathan Carlberg. SALLY RYAN

On the opposite side of the city, nearly 600 students attend the newly opened St. Augustine Preparatory Academy, a Christian school led by Samz’s close friend Nathan Carlberg. The men’s approaches are similar, prioritizing teaching, grace, and acceptance, over discipline. 

St. Augustine has received much local media attention for its brand-new, nearly $60 million facility housing a health clinic, an Olympic-size swimming pool, and a soccer field with stadium lights. For Carlberg, the amenities allow for opportunities often lacking for urban students, while amplifying the school’s religious mission by making plans to open the facilities to community members. “Jesus tells us to love the sick and serve the poor,” he says. “I think he meant that literally.” 

Growing up in the suburbs of Chicago, Carlberg received a fundamentally different Christian education from the one he aims to provide. Faith was taught as rules to be followed, not “a relationship with Jesus that calls people to action.” At St. Augustine, culturally responsive practices guide classroom instruction. Discipline is less about punishment and more about helping kids understand why they made a mistake and how to avoid it in the future. He, like Samz, asks his staff to see students the way he believes God sees everyone: messy, imperfect, yet fully deserving of radical, accepting love.

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