Youth Impacting Milwaukee: Four Young Activists Making a Difference

A little over 60 years ago, nine brave black students, known as the Little Rock Nine, enrolled at their city’s formerly all-white Central High School. At the time, much of society looked at these youth as foolish individuals who couldn’t make a difference. On their first day of school, the National Guard was called to block them from entering the school, yet these students were persistent on receiving a good education. Their willingness to never give up influenced President Dwight D. Eisenhower to send in federal troops so that the students could get into the school safely.

The youngest out of the nine was only 14 years old, and her and the other eight students dealt with overt racism and discrimination to receive knowledge that they should have been given in the first place.

The Little Rock Nine didn’t let their age interfere with their actions and that speaks volumes.

Although schools still aren’t fully fair to all students in 2018, the situation is not what it used to be. Those nine students changed American society, and now the youth of today are doing the same.

March for Our Lives is only one of the many movements today’s youth have organized and ran to show the adults around the country—and world—how we all should be treating each other, and how to make a positive difference that not only impacts ourselves but others.

Here in Milwaukee, our youth are doing things most individuals weren’t even thinking of at their age. There are so many youths making a difference in our city that it’s impossible to name them all, so this article will give only a small glimpse.

Bria Smith, 17

In her younger days Bria Smith she didn’t speak up much. Smith had been attending predominantly white schools most of her life, and because of this she used to try her best to not be the stereotypical black girl.

Smith wanted to avoid being labeled as loud or ghetto because she knew it would in turn be blamed on her race. She always felt her white peers looked at her as the spokesperson for the black community, but it wasn’t until after attending a black college tour trip that she understood how important it was that she spoke out against injustices not just her towards race, but for all people of color.

“Growing up, I really never had a conversation with my black friends saying, ‘why is this happening’ because it (injustice) is normalized and it shouldn’t be,” she said.

Her freshman year is when she started to fall in love with black culture. During the college tour trip, she visited multiple HBCU’s (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) and that’s when she realized she didn’t know much about her culture.

“It’s OK to feel like you’re lost within yourself,” said Smith. “It’s hope to understand who you are, it takes time.”

And through her finding herself, Smith has become an advocate for black and brown youth. During the March for Our Lives upsurge, Smith organized a school walk out back in March, and she’s also a part of multiple organizations that are improving the city, such as LIT (Leaders Igniting Transformation), PEARLS for Teen Girls and more.

She’s a part of so much that she can’t remember it all. Smith currently attends Franklin High School through the Chapter 220 voucher program, which allows inner-city children to attend suburban schools.

She’s recently been named Prom Queen, which is ironic because Smith has and still is receiving backlash from her peers for her advocacy work. “Social justice work is mentally tiring,” said Smith, but she knows someone has to do it.

One of her peers created a snapchat account to say racial and discriminatory things against Smith and others working toward change, such as being called liberal scum. Smith said she didn’t tell Franklin’s administration because they don’t do much for these types of situations. Despite the negatives, Smith has been featured on the news, spoken at marches and has been fighting to fix MPS, plus more, and she isn’t even considered a legal adult yet.

Antonio Holmes, 24

Antonio Holmes doesn’t see himself an as advocate, but more so as a role model who provides positive outlets for the city. “I want a better future for not only just my daughter but for everybody with kids,” he said.

He comes from a small family with his grandmother being a big presence in his life. Holmes was raised on the North Side of Milwaukee, so he knows what it means to struggle. “No matter what you’ve been through in life,” said Holmes, “never give up on what you believe in.”

Last year, to honor his grandmother, Holmes gave away free Thanksgiving dinners to North Side residents, with the goal of serving at least 100 families. Holmes says this will be another one of his annual events, along with TDM Fest and his charity basketball game.

Holmes is also a rapper known as Tone Da’Man (TDM), and two years ago he decided to mix his love for music and providing platforms for others together to create TDM Fest,

a Milwaukee music festival meant to give local artists a platform to showcase their talent in front of a diverse crowd. Along with the festival, Holmes hosts a charity basketball game to raise money for different causes.

The events are usually held in March, close to his birthday, but due to the Miramar Theatre’s licensing issues, TDM Fest 2018 was rescheduled to the end of May.

Holmes says there are so many negative things in Milwaukee like police shootings and the stollie (stolen car) epidemic, and through his efforts to change the city, he wants the inner-city youth to know that “you don’t have to be a criminal.”

One of his goals is to open a youth center that’s revolved around the arts. With MPS’s budget cuts, Holmes sees a need to reintroduce arts into the inner-city. “It’s not a lot of arts for kids to express themselves,” said Holmes. “It’s always the inner-city that ends up short handed.”

And, this lack of expressions leads to the youth acting out in ways such as stealing cars or robbing others because it’s their only source of entertainment, he said. But more funding to put towards creative initiatives could turn the city around, and Holmes is making sure he’s a part of that change.

“Milwaukee has the potential to be a great city with the right leadership,” he said. “Milwaukee has a lot of different talent. It’s like an unfound gold mine.”

Emma Widmar, 19

She was born in 1999, the same year the Columbine High School shooting occurred. Her mother always thought that could’ve been her daughter, so she taught Widmar how to be safe. Yet, Widmar had no idea that she would be speaking out against school shootings years later.

Somehow, Widmar was added to Milwaukee’s March for Our Lives Facebook event page and saw that they were looking for speakers from area high schools. Although she’s in college, she still “applied” for the position by recording a video of herself saying why she wanted to be a speaker. She was selected to speak at the event where she captured thousands of people’s minds with her words.

“If a person with a gun can do this much damage...if he can make a change negatively then all of these people can make a positive change,” said Widmar about the people who attended the march.

She’s been asked to speak at other events like Moms Demand Action at their Racine Wear Orange Event in June. Participants will plant 600 orange flags on Sam Johnson Parkway over three days to symbolize the 600 victims of gun violence in Wisconsin each year, according to their Facebook event page.

Widmar says she’s an advocate for the entire state, not just Racine or Milwaukee. “I’m trying to not only protect myself, but other people,” said Widmar. “Gun violence shouldn’t be like a car accident happened.”

Although Widmar likes to fight for others, she doesn’t always physically have the strength to do so. Female bodies produce different hormones throughout the month, and Widmar is allergic to those hormones. One second she’s fine and then the next she’s bedridden. She experiences an allergic reaction that makes her body go into anaphylaxis shock. During this shock, her airways become restricted, she’s unable to eat and her heart rate goes haywire.

Widmar has spent the last four years working at RADD (Recreational Activities for the Developmentally Disable), a nonprofit that supports individuals and their family’s disabilities.

“People who you think don’t have a voice have the strongest voice,” said Widmar about people who are considered a minority.

Widmar is pursuing a degree in journalism because with her frequent visits to the hospital, she can work from home and still make a positive difference.

She hopes people read her story and become inspired to take action. “It can be anyone and I think that’s what people don’t understand,” she said. “Go out and become involved and make a change.”

Dakota Hall, 24

He grew up on Burleigh Street, and though he is only 24 he’s seen multiple things disappear from his neighborhood like the YMCA that was on Holton and Burleigh. Hall saw that place as a safe haven and now that it’s gone inner-city children have to find other ways to occupy their time in a city that doesn’t offer them much.

“It showed me that our community is vulnerable and not valuable,” said Hall. “If it was valuable then the building would still be there.”

As the executive director of LIT, Hall is teaching those younger than him how to fight for racial equality because he knows what it feels like to be mistreated. In 2013, he left UW-Milwaukee after experiencing racial discrimination while running for president of the UWM Student Association. At the time, he was the president of the American Indian Student Association, and him and others were discussing and fighting for equality for minorities on campus. Then, at the last minute, UWM changed its requirements for running for president.

Hall and his team were kicked off the ballet because the person running had to be senator for at least six months. The entire situation was iffy and led to an investigation. After that incident, Hall couldn’t take the mistreatment and left. He eventually returned and switched his major from finance to social justice.

“I don’t want any student to experience racism in a violent way,” said Hall. “I want to set the path, so no one has to experience that level of pain like I did.”

While away from UWM, he spent a year working for Public Allies where he was assigned to work as a youth organizer at MICAH (Milwaukee Inner City Congregations Allied for Hope).

All of his past social work has lead him to LIT where he’s open and honest with black and brown youth about the world they live in.

“I think it’s time for new leadership,” he said, “and I think LIT is going to develop that.”

Hall says social media has been amplifying the youth’s voice, and by molding their talent he believes that they are and will be the change that’s needed. With everything that’s going wrong in society, he believes the youth’s fear is what’s driving them to speak out.

Instead of investing in a $50 million parking structure for the Bucks arena, Hall said the city should be focusing on more important issues such as lead in the water and MPS’s budget cuts. “I’m just trying to make Milwaukee a better place for black and brown kids,” said Hall.