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Passing the Baton to Milwaukee Youth

Off the Cuff with Urban Underground’s Sharlen Moore

May. 9, 2017
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Sherman Elementary, Morse Middle School, Rufus King High School and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. That was Sharlen Moore’s educational track. Clearly, she knows Milwaukee. So, it only fits that she co-founded and is currently the executive director of one of Milwaukee’s tenured community organizations, Urban Underground.

Sharlen Moore caught the civic engagement bug early in her life working for the YMCA on North and Teutonia avenues where she and her friends started Teen Achievers, a program run by teens for teens.

That is where she discovered the satisfaction of helping others and working with her peers and young people. Once she graduated high school, she and her now husband, Reggie Moore, co-founded Urban Underground. Founded on a bold premise that young people have the power and the talents to change this world—all they need is a platform and the guidance to do so. As Moore explains, “as adults, it is our job to give them support and guidance and to love and nurture their development so they can grow into the gifts they were meant to be.”

What was the process like starting Urban Underground?

A lot of the elders in our community remember Capital Court, which had a movie theater, a bowling alley and skating rinks—things for young people to do. No one had to drive far out to the suburbs to get to any of these things. Everything was here in the community.

During that late-’90s period when those things were being pulled away is when we decided to start Urban Underground. As creative as our young people are, they said if the city is going to give us anything to do we are going to figure it out ourselves. That’s when the cruising controversy really sparked. That was our first initial big campaign. Addressing publicly what young people needed.

Any challenges?

We were two young adults looking to start this organization, and we had much opposition starting out. Even when it came to our name, people told us no one would even fund us with the name Urban Underground. Many organizations viewed us as a threat that would mess with their funding and things like that. A lot of them didn’t want to partner or collaborate with us. There are more nonprofits in Milwaukee than many other cities in the country, and it is a dog eat dog world with nonprofits here.

Eventually, we got a grant from Potawatomi Community Foundation to help start the organization. At the time, we did not have full nonprofit status though, so Paul Schmitz, who was the CEO of Public Allies at the time, graciously agreed to be our fiscal sponsor. Him sponsoring us allowed us to get that grant and provided the necessary support that helped us build our infrastructure for the first five years before we moved out on our own.

Explain the need for UU.

Many times, the people that are the most impacted in communities are the ones typically left out of those conversations, and that is what’s happening to young people.

We talk about nurturing and providing mentorship and guidance for youth that have a vision and the heart to say “I want to do something.” Few adults immediately reach out and say, “I got you, what do you need? What can I show you? What can I teach you?”

When people are teenagers is when they need more intense services and more leadership opportunities. Much of the time the funding tends to slack off, people want to put money into early adolescents, which is fantastic because we need that, but we also need a multilayered approach. We are also funneling funding into programs that are going to meet the needs of teens because they need a little bit more.

What we see right now, the violence, the crime—that is because we are not meeting the needs of our young people. Simply, when we begin on a large scale to meet young people’s needs, you will see a shift in how they behave and how they act.

What’s one thing you want to tell the readers of the Shepherd Express?

Don’t write young people off. People hear a lot of things in the media and how the media portrays youth is unfair. They focus on all the deficits going on in our community, and we hear all the negative stuff, but those are only a few. We do not hear the hundreds of stories about young people who are stepping up in their communities, that are going to college, that have written books and are looking to change the world. Or even young people who are volunteering for their communities, helping their families, working and studying. Those are the stories that we do not hear because it does not sell papers.

Also, think about where they [the Shepherd’s readers] fit in all of this. What role can they play? Can they volunteer for an organization? Can they provide any monetary resources? Do they have specific talents to teach the young people? Their time, their talent and their resources are the things I want them to think about.


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