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Shepherd Express Social Visionaries 2010

Four outstanding Milwaukeeans shaping our community

Feb. 25, 2010
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We asked Shepherd Express readers to nominate “social visionaries” who are dedicated to improving our city. We received nominations of individuals who are building communities and transforming our city. From the many great individuals, we chose to highlight four of the nominees for their passion, creativity and generosity of spirit. They are our Social Visionaries for 2010.

Sharon Adams

President, Walnut Way Conservation Corp.

When Sharon and Larry Adams moved back to Milwaukee and resettled in the Lindsay Heights neighborhood in 1997, “it was such a confusing place to return to.” Once-tidy homes were being demolished and abandoned. Sharon had remembered lush trees lining the streets during her youth, but now no trees remained. Prostitution, drug sales and gun violence took place out in the open. People dumped junk on empty lots, filling them with “tires and trash and nonsense.”

So Sharon and Larry gathered their neighbors together in 1999 and wondered: If we make a junk-filled lot beautiful, maybe they’ll stop dumping on it. They planted a thousand tulip bulbs and waited for Mother Nature to work her magic. And once the snow melted, She did.

“All of those tulips popped up,” Sharon said. “It was a sign.”

The resulting organization, Walnut Way Conservation Corp., located in a renovated Victorian home at 2240 N. 17th St., has become a working garden that produces a wide variety of fruits and vegetables and honey “to live for, just to live for,” as Sharon puts it.

But Walnut Way has become much more than a community garden: It has become an advocate for its community—longtime residents and newcomers, kids eager to learn and make a positive contribution, small businesses that see the value in the neighborhood, lovely but aging housing stock and gardens and greenspace in the heart of Milwaukee’s near North Side.

The organization has become such a valued resource that it was chosen the lead agency in Lindsay Heights for the just-launched multimillion-dollar Zilber Neighborhood Initiative.

Sharon said the organization’s success is due to a communal effort of the neighborhood’s volunteers, who recognize that they’re all connected and share a purpose.

“Everything done here has been spirit-led and done collectively,” Sharon said.

Sharon Adams was nominated by Christopher R. Boston, director of sustainable communities for Local Initiatives Support Corp. (LISC), who wrote: “Her desire to transform her community is not based on what she wants to see. Rather, she listens to the stories of others about the abundance of opportunities that once was in her neighborhood, Lindsay Heights, and she works to create a path for others to live out their interests to make that community a better place.”

Jill Brown

Founder, Friends of MADACC’s Battle Against Dogfighting

Not many people would volunteer to help vicious dogs trained to attack. But Jill Brown has—and she loves it.

Brown has long been an animal lover, but when she adopted a pit bull three years ago and began to learn more about how fighting dogs are abused—shot up with steroids, tortured to make them mean, trained to fight to the death—she couldn’t stop thinking about them. Their scarred faces haunted her. So she learned more about how other cities are combating animal violence and decided to act locally.

In September, Brown launched Battle Against Dogfighting (BAD) as part of the nonprofit Milwaukee Area Domestic Animal Control Commission (MADACC) to boost awareness of the horrors of dogfighting and encourage involved owners—mostly teens and young adults—to stop the violence.

“Dogfighting is the city’s dirty little secret,” Brown said.

Dogfighting encompasses street-level, impromptu fights—where two owners decide to pit their dogs against each other in an alley or empty lot for bragging rights—as well as more organized fights in basements or abandoned buildings. These fights usually involve gambling, gangs and guns. Losing dogs are often abandoned and left loose in neighborhoods.

In some circles, tough dogs are a status symbol, a sign of manliness and power, glamorized on CD covers and in ads and videos. So Brown works to counter that by showing the horrific consequences of abusing animals—not only for the dog, but for the owner and spectator, too—by speaking to kids and changing their perceptions.

“Sometimes kids get that it’s wrong, but it depends on how desensitized they are,” Brown said.

Brown and BAD’s network of supporters are encouraging dog owners to find new ways to showcase their dog’s power and athleticism. Brown hopes to find a space for dog training and agility classes in the city, and she’s organizing fund-raisers (the Times Cinema will host a BAD benefit, featuring the Brew City Bombshells Burlesque and Crazy Rocket Fuel, on March 6) and continuing to partner with compatible organizations, like TRUE Skool and the Milwaukee Police Department.

Brown credits MADACC’s staff with helping her get the BAD program off the ground.

“They, and all the others in southeastern Wisconsin that deal with animal cruelty, have very hard jobs and are the epitome of under-appreciated heroes,” Brown said. “They come at these issues every day even though the cases are sometimes incredibly sad, emotionally draining, and quite often very frustrating.”

Jill Brown was nominated by BAD volunteer Tammy Neeb, who wrote: “Within minutes of meeting Jill it is apparent that she is an extraordinary visionary and absolutely worthy of being honored as an outstanding member of our community for the difference she has and will continue to make in Milwaukee.”

Michael Coleman

Founder, Futen Dojo and Utopian Fitness

The two core martial arts virtues Michael Coleman learned as a kid have remained central to his life’s work as an adult. Jin (compassion) “means that you have to think about the other person,” Coleman said. Gi (courage) is more difficult. “It’s finding the inner and outer strength to do the right thing,” he said.

Even though it may be difficult, Coleman is attempting to put those ancient virtues into practice by helping his community.

As the head of Futen Dojo (now with two studios, on Brady Street and on Kinnickinnic Avenue), Coleman teaches classical martial arts, which goes well beyond studio-based self-defense techniques. Coleman also reaches out to kids, women and the visually impaired to help them learn the benefits of martial arts training.

“I have to be a role model,” Coleman said.

Most recently, Coleman has launched Utopian Fitness (found at getfitgivehelp.com), an innovative link between personal fitness and community investment. Coleman has committed to donating membership fees to 10 carefully screened local nonprofit groups, such as CORE/El Centro, the Milwaukee Women’s Center, the Hunger Task Force, and more. He hopes to raise $10,000 for each organization. This year members can enroll in an online, holistic fitness program by signing up for the mailing list at getfitgivehelp.com, or they can become an elite member and receive in-person training.

Coleman thought that the steady commitment to fitness would be a good match for the steady support needed for service organizations.

“Fitness is about maintenance,” Coleman said. “It’s not just something you do on one day. If you give a little every month to an organization, not just make one payment at the end of the year, it’s like automatic giving.”

While Utopian Fitness is built on Coleman’s singular vision, it requires community support for its success.

“I hope this grows and will contribute to the community for years to come,” Coleman said.

Michael Coleman was nominated separately by Jeff Becker, Baard Titlestad and CORE/El Centro’s co-executive director, Sister Madeline Gianforte, who wrote: “The spirit of his martial arts teachings fits with our mission of inspiring individuals to wholeness and building community.”

Erik Lindberg

Owner, Community Building and Restoration; Urban Gardener, Co-founder, Transition Milwaukee

Erik Lindberg said he was always an “armchair environmentalist,” until he read Barbara Kingsolver’s book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle three years ago.

“I was wowed by the amount of energy used in our food system,” Lindberg said.

So he decided to bridge his knowledge of carpentry with his newfound awareness of food production by creating a garden on the flat roof of his carpentry shop in Riverwest. It was an experiment that succeeded wildly.

“It was an adventure,” Lindberg said. “That first year I didn’t know what to expect.”

Since then, Lindberg has gotten involved with the Victory Garden Initiative, which promotes the use of yards, roofs and patios for growing produce, and the year-old Transition Milwaukee, which is raising awareness of the peak oil crisis and its impact on our daily lives.

The heart of these efforts is to localize food production, reduce energy consumption and reuse vital assets in our community. But it also requires a change in perceptions, lifestyle and expectations.

“When people look to the future, it looks much like the present,” Lindberg said. “But our technologies and our economy are entirely dependent on oil. That oil is not going to be here much longer. We need to start being creative and not assume that there’s a technological fix for the problem.”

Lindberg stresses that his role is just as a “worker bee” in a community of energetic, committed friends and neighbors.

“It’s the collective genius of the group that makes it matter,” Lindberg said. “Community building is where the vision comes from.”

Erik Lindberg was nominated by Nicole Bickham, who wrote: “Erik is an unassuming, hard-working, thoughtful, modest person who seizes opportunities to improve his community and his world… Erik’s vision of Milwaukee’s future is both realistic and hopeful in the face of the immense challenges ahead.”


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