Here and Now #1527 - Full Episode | Wisconsin Public Television

Here and Now #1527 - Full Episode

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Premiere Date: 
December 30, 2016

Here and Now #1527 - Full Episode

A roundtable talk about race in Wisconsin. One artist's Milwaukee mural sparked discussion in the city. Here and Now hosts another Milwaukee artist, Willie Weaver-Bey, CEO of Madison's YWCA Rachel Krinsky and co-founder of Fit Oshkosh Tracey Robertson.

Episode Transcript

Announcer:

Funding for "Here and Now" is provided, in part, by Friends of Wisconsin Public Television.

Frederica Freyberg:

I'm Frederica Freyberg. Tonight, a special edition of "Here and Now." We're going to explore how one piece of art helped -- and hindered -- conversations about race relations in Milwaukee. For one neighborhood, it raised questions how to even start a dialogue about that important topic. In the art world, murals have become a popular vehicle of expression. Instead of trying to persuade people into an art gallery, public murals can bring an artist's message to the masses. Now meet a Milwaukee man making his first foray in public art. He discovered that painting a mural can generate more questions than answers. There's a saying that conversation is an art form.

Adam Stoner:

Going up.

Frederica Freyberg:

For Milwaukee artist Adam Stoner, art is how he starts a conversation.

Adam Stoner:

It becomes a thing that allows me to contemplate issues that I think aren't being dealt with either in myself or in society as a whole.

Frederica Freyberg:

The issues closest to Stoner's heart involve mass incarceration. He spent a year working as a chaplain for incarcerated youth in Michigan. An experience that deeply affected him.

Adam Stoner:

I sort of saw the school-to-prison pipeline, as people call it, actually happening.

Frederica Freyberg:

In Wisconsin, the incarceration rate for African-American men is among the highest in the nation. According to the last U.S. census in 2010, Wisconsin was ranked first in the country at 12.8%. That's one in eight African-American men.

Adam Stoner:

We have to look critically at that system and think about why does this plague this one community so much.

Frederica Freyberg:

Stoner hoped to bring attention to that statistic with this mural for Black Cat Alley, an outdoor street art gallery on Milwaukee’s east side. The mural depicted an African-American man towering over the alley in an orange prison jumpsuit.

Adam Stoner:

I want to start this conversation especially in Milwaukee right now. It’s so important that we talk about this with all the things going on in Milwaukee as it involves race and class and segregation. I think it's so important that we honestly and candidly bring it up.

Frederica Freyberg:

Stoner would start a conversation, just not the one he intended. Less than a week after the mural was unveiled, Milwaukee artist Kari Garon posted a public statement on her Facebook page. It read, "The soaring black man in prison orange is nothing more than another symbol of oppression. Perhaps it was painted with the intent to generate discussion, to draw attention, to empathize with the human condition. But are such goodwill offerings of visibility enough? When I look at it, I see another aggression. Marginalized populations don't need a looming permanent mark to remind them of their struggles.” Garon called for the mural to be removed. Her message rippled through the Milwaukee art community. Others began to ask if the mural was appropriate.

Jeanette Wright-Claus:

As you know we have enough negative depiction of us African-Americans in the arts as it is, film, music, you know, so forth and so on. So for me, it was not an uplifting mural to be viewed.

Frederica Freyberg:

Jeanette Wright-Claus is a Milwaukee artist. She also has two sons in prison. She believes Stoner and Black Cat Alley organizers failed to convey the context of Stoner's message to the community.

Jeanette Wright-Claus:

You're going to do this subject matter, like African-American subject matter like this, it's a good thing to at least explain where you're coming from beforehand, I think.

Della Wells:

I think it's context, and I think a lot of people don't know Adam’s story.

Frederica Freyberg:

Della Wells is an artist who has spent decades in the Milwaukee art scene.

Della Wells:

I think that the story needed to be clearer, but, you know, but who’s responsible? Was that Adam’s responsibility or was it Black Cat Alley's responsibility?

Frederica Freyberg:

Stoner's mural was on private property, but it was meant to be viewed by the public. Wells says that can create diversion.

Della Wells:

I do believe artists have the right to create what they want, but I also feel that the public has a right not to like what the artist creates.

Frederica Freyberg:

Others argue that for issues like incarceration, artists should be stirring the pot.

Willie Weaver-Bey:

How do you get it to the forefront? You make controversial statements when you're someone who's voiceless through the medium that you have, which is art.

Frederica Freyberg:

Willie Weaver-Bey is an award-winning artist. He also spent 40 years in prison on drug charges before being released in 2015. He's a fan of Stoner's work.

Willie Weaver-Bey:

Who talks about black male incarceration? No one. They don't even care. You just a number. You stop even being a person. You become 6904-359. For decades. What Adam displayed in the mural is basically everyday life for many of us, you know?

Frederica Freyberg:

Some questioned whether Stoner was the right person to present this message. Milwaukee has a long history of racial tension. It's a fragile tightrope for any artist to cross.

Jeanette Wright-Claus:

I don't think there would have been as much of a controversy if it had of been coming from an African-American artist.

Della Wells:

I think there's a lot of history that -- that's come to light because of this mural.

Jeanette Wright-Claus:

But for me, regardless of what his race is, if he's speaking on this being a negative, hey, my hat's off to him. If he's speaking on this being the norm, you know, I have issue -- take issue with that.

Willie Weaver-Bey:

Really there's no black nor white. Black is not even a color. White isn't, either. You know? It's the labels that we as people put on things. And I think that people should take another look, try to ask some questions. Why would you do that? What was the statement you were trying to convey?

Frederica Freyberg:

Della Wells worries that society has become too polarized. The art of conversation has been lost.

Della Wells:

I think it's too easy to beat people on the head. You beat people on the head, you never get anything resolved. I'm more about having dialogue.

Frederica Freyberg:

Black Cat Alley organizers declined an interview request for this story. Adam Stoner set out to start a dialogue on his own. In mid-October he held a community meeting to encourage discussion of his work.

Willie Weaver-Bey:

The only way that we can create a dialogue about being whether it's black or white or race or whatever is to begin to have conversations.

Frederica Freyberg:

Some voiced support for the mural. Others believed it was a negative stereotype. Stoner says it was a learning experience.

Adam Stoner:

There’s a real difficulty in public art. As someone said in the meeting, it's a completely different beast than a gallery show and you're accountable for a lot more.

Frederica Freyberg:

What’s the best way to tackle these topics:  first amendment rights, mass incarceration, racial division? Adam Stoner's mural raised a number of complex questions, some that have been debated in this community for decades. They won't be solved in a single meeting and they weren't in this one. After two hours, there was no final decision on the mural's fate. There was a face-to-face conversation, though, and for Adam Stoner that's a success.

Adam Stoner:

I have hope that there is a way that we can tell this story, this story of mass incarceration in Wisconsin, and in America, that ends with some kind of real closure.

Frederica Freyberg:

That story was produced by Trevor Keller and Ryan Ward. They tell us the mural artist Adam Stoner plans to install a statement alongside his piece providing context. Stoner is also advocating for Black Cat Alley to invite a Milwaukee-based African-American artist to take his spot in the event next year. The mural story raises many questions. Perhaps at the top of the list is a point that Milwaukee artist Wille Weaver-Bey raised in that story: the need to start a conversation about race relations. Mr. Weaver-Bey is here in the studio tonight. He's joined by two others who work full-time on that question. They are Rachel Krinsky, CEO of the Madison YWCA, with its robust racial justice mission and Tracey Robertson, co-founder of Fit Oshkosh, a nonprofit with a mission to increase racial literacy in Winnebago County and across Wisconsin. And we welcome all of you here to our studios. Thanks for being here.

Wille Weaver-Bey, Rachel Krinsky, Tracey Robertson:

Thank you.

Frederica Freyberg:

I wanted to start with you, Willie, and in the story, again, you said that you feel like we need to have this conversation, a dialogue on issues of racial division. In your mind, where do we start?

Wille Weaver-Bey:

Well, first you start by being willing to talk to someone or anyone about how you feel about race relations. In America, no one wants to talk about race relations. If you see me walking down the street, I don't care if I’m dressed like this or if I just got on a jogging suit. Most white Americans will cross the street, cringe, grab their purse like I’m a pariah or something, like I’m going to attack you. You don't even know me and yet you've already stereotyped me and passed judgment because of what you see in the media.

Frederica Freyberg:

And so I want to ask Rachel that same question. Where do you think we start this conversation, this dialogue?

Rachel Krinsky:

It’s a huge question, Frederica. Because it's more than race relations. We do have to be able to talk to each other and get past stereotypes. But so much of what's happening around race is about policy, and the entire criminal justice system needs to be reexamined. There are so many places that we are set up. We're set up by the media. We're set up by old housing laws that created segregation. We're set up by the criminal justice system to be separate from one another and to not have these conversations back and forth. And all of those pieces connect to each other.

Frederica Freyberg:

Tracey Robertson, you focus on racial literacy in Winnebago County. What is it to be racially literate?

Tracey Robertson:

So being racially literate is to have the tools, context, history around race to be able to engage in that in a real and authentic way. And that's the work we do at Fit Oshkosh. We think it's critically important. And I think to Rachel's point when she was saying that the systems are problematic, she's absolutely right. We don't see people running around so much anymore in hoods, right? We see racism and systemic challenges in the policies and laws that help some people to have more opportunity than others. And so that's what we're talking about here. Not about individuals, but about policies and practices that have us where we are today.

Frederica Freyberg:

You know, Willie, your first response was that, you know, you want people to come together and speak to one another, but that you feel like as a black man if you're on the street and no matter how you look or what you're wearing, a white person would cross the street. Well, would you want that white person to come up to you and say, “Hey, how you doing?” I mean, what does that mean, that interaction?

Wille Weaver-Bey:

For me, it would be okay because you learn about things of the world by engaging in conversation about things of the world. I agree with both of them, that the policies, the systemic policies that have been created. The way that we are viewed as African-American males or Asiatic males is systematic. The way the police target us when we drive down the street is systematic.

Frederica Freyberg:

Okay. So if this is policy kind of based or generated, how do individual people get beyond the policies that you say, you know, embrace this?

Rachel Krinsky:

That's my favorite question, so I’m going to give my favorite answer, which I say all the time, which is that if every person in this country would try and make a difference in their own sphere of influence, meaning, yes, if you see Willie on the street, it would be real nice to say hi if you say hi to other people on the street, but also who do you hire? Who do you associate with? Where do you spend your money? We all have decisions we make every day about how we engage with the world. And particularly as white people, although this applies to everyone, if we don't have some of this literacy and we don't understand how our daily interactions can support existing systems, then we're not changing them. And one of my biggest concerns about well-meaning white people is that I think there are a lot of people who really do believe that if they're just nice to people of color, then everything is going to be fine.

Frederica Freyberg:

Tracey Robertson, on this racial literacy, how do people become racially literate?

Tracey Robertson:

So we do it at Fit Oshkosh through lots of mediums. Through books, videos, films. We would a take a clip like we saw today and invite a bunch of people in a room and say let's explore what we've seen here. What is the intent? What is the impact? How do we change the narrative? Why should we change the narrative? Who does this impact? What does this change? We would take a really deep dive into what we're seeing here because we're all getting messages all the time in everything we see, everything we read, there are messages about how we're supposed to engage as a culture, right? So what we ask people to do is dive in, have those really challenging conversations to look at things with a really critical eye and say where is this messaging coming from? What does it mean in all the places that I work, play and influence? Those conversations are really critical.

Frederica Freyberg:

Has that been successful for you?

Tracey Robertson:

We think so. Last year we did a community read of a book, of Ta-Nehisi Coates's book "Between the World and Me.” We had 339 people in Oshkosh, Wisconsin sit down and read this really challenging book about police engagement with black men. It's been really powerful. People are still having those conversations, still doing that reflection. And for me it's not about people's comfort. It's not about people need to be comfortable in these conversations. People need to have these conversations. That's where it all starts.

Frederica Freyberg:

Because these conversations very often must not be very comfortable.

Tracey Robertson:

Yes. I would say so. I would say for people who are not people of color, absolutely. You've had no practice. What we've been taught, is exactly what Rachel was eluding to which is the key is to be color-blind, right? The answer is to just pretend like race doesn't exist, that we don't see color. And in our work we're challenging people with that all the time. We're asking people to be color-brave. And that bravery means not always having the right answers or the words, but really stepping out and having the dialogue even though you don't feel equipped to do that.

Frederica Freyberg:

Willie, you were incarcerated for 40 years.

Wille Weaver-Bey:

Yes.

Frederica Freyberg:

Have things changed from when you went in to when you got out just last year?

Wille Weaver-Bey:

Not very much. I think education is a key in things that we do. When I went into prison, I was a functioning illiterate, but I taught myself because I found that the education I gave myself was far better than the education that was given to me. I became aware of who I was and what I was. Most people when you ask them "Who are you?" they give you their name. They don't give you who they are. So when you learn who you are, when you learn who your ancestors are and the trials and tribulations that they went through to allow you to stand on their shoulders to continue to evolve and exist, then that's a very powerful thing that happens in your life. So when I learned who I was and that I -- that prison would not be the defining moment for me, that that didn't define who I was, I taught myself how to really read because I didn't read. I just pronounced words, because I learned that comprehension is the real key to reading. Understanding what it is that you read. So when I taught myself these things and I began to become aware of who my ancestors were -- we had a name before we were called Negro, black, African-American, colored, all of these things. We were Moors. So when you understand what that means, when you understand how you evolve from one -- we're the only race of people in the country that has had a name change every 15 or 20 years or more.

Frederica Freyberg:

You know what? I want to bring this back. I appreciate your perspective. And I asked you about the difference between then and now. But I want to bring this back to the topic that was at hand in that story that Trevor and Ryan did. Some people took exception, as you know, to the idea of a white man representing a black man's plight. What is all of yours' perspective on who should speak to racial justice, racial issues, racism?

Tracey Robertson:

So I believe that the state of Wisconsin has a little over 6% African-American community, the entire state. And so if we waited until that 6% were the voice of these really important topics, we'd be pretty stuck. I think it's critical that non-people-of-color are having these conversations. That they're allies in this conversation. I think what tends to happen, though, is those allies don't vet the things that they're planning to do with the marginalized communities they're hoping to support. And I think that's oftentimes where these opportunities fall short.

Frederica Freyberg:

Rachel?

Rachel Krinsky:

I think that's huge. It really is important to vet. But I will also add to that that we have a fiction that all people of color think the same thing.

Tracey Robertson:

Absolutely.

Rachel Krinsky:

And clearly that's not true. And so to me the most interesting thing about this controversy actually is all the different ways that people can interpret the art. And one of my biggest concerns is that I think there is more publicity than there used to be and more understanding in the general public that we have very disproportionate incarceration of African-Americans and particularly men. But what most people don't understand is what are the causative factors of that. And so your average white person who doesn't have any connection to the topic and maybe doesn't know people of color at least very well, can begin to think -- although they won't say it out loud because it's not polite -- that something's wrong with black people and that's why they're all in jail.

Tracey Robertson:

That they have a propensity for crime.

Rachel Krinsky:

That they're more criminal, blah, blah, blah. And what you hope is that an art piece like this comes with some context or some explanation or some conversation to understand all the external factors that are making this happen.

Frederica Freyberg:

Willie, to that question about who's allowed to speak to these issues.

Wille Weaver-Bey:

I think that anyone who is conscious enough to realize that there's a need to have this conversation, to try to understand culturally what people go through. Because what happens with most people is their environment creates that individual. And a man's character is the real man. And if you grow up in an environment where you're stopped 30 times a month just because of the color of your skin, then you're going to start to feel some kind of weight. You're not going to trust. You're going to be mad and angry. And so when you don't have work, when you don't have education and you're trying to make it the best way that you can, you make mistakes like I did when I was a young man. I was making it the best way I knew how.

Frederica Freyberg:

I have a question. If a person cannot relate to another's experience as a person of color or a person of color cannot relate to a white person, how are we supposed to come together and gain this understanding? I mean, you're talking about your experience as a black man. That's probably very disparate from many white people's experience, right? So how are we supposed to learn about that experience and go forward and try to come together to have these kinds of conversations?

Tracey Robertson:

I think a more important question is why? Why should we engage in this work when our experiences are very different?

Frederica Freyberg:

Yeah?

Tracey Robertson:

And here's what I would say. So the nation is browning, right? The census bureau is predicting that within the next 30 years we'll have more people who identify as a person of color than people who identify as white. Which means the places we play, work, influence are going to look different. So it's really critical that people do this work. That they have this understanding so they can be successful in a 21st century world. So I think why is more important than how or equally as important as how.

Frederica Freyberg:

Okay. So why? Why do you think, Rachel, we should do this?

Rachel Krinsky:

I think there are a lot of different reasons. First of all, it's just the right thing to do. And for some people that's compelling enough. The second reason is whether you're a business person or you have kids in school or you're a parent, the change in world is going to impact you and your children and your workplace. So that's motivation. There was a great paper about the business case for racial equity that Kellogg came out with a couple years ago.

Tracey Robertson:

Yeah.

Rachel Krinsky:

And I always like to say this. It doesn't mean that you have to go find somebody different from you and make them their friend in some token way. There are lots of ways to do this. If you're serious about learning, then you start reading and you start watching films and you start asking questions and you start participating in workshops or education. People who want to get this education can quickly figure out how to do so.

Frederica Freyberg:

Willie, why do you think we need to work on this?

Wille Weaver-Bey:

I think we need to work on it for a lot of different reasons. I think the most important one is that if we don't change the way that we view one another and see the world, everybody else in the world is advancing and America is slipping. We're going to be left behind. Because the world stage is changing, like she said. People of color are going to be the major component in the world. We're not the minority anymore. We're becoming the majority.

Tracey Robertson:

Well, not only that. I think we want our kids to have advanced skills around everything. We want them to have advanced technology skills. We want them to have advanced math skills. But we want them to have very dated ideas and attitudes around race. It doesn't work in the 21st century model. It just doesn't. It doesn't work in a community, in a world, in a space where there are more people of color than there are white people. So I think we need to put white people on the hook. This whole idea of I grew up in Wisconsin so I don't know people who are of different cultures won't work. It doesn't apply.

Frederica Freyberg:

That's not an excuse.

Tracey Robertson:

It’s not an excuse.

Rachel Krinsky:

It's a starting place, but you don't stop there.

Frederica Freyberg:

All right.

Willie Weaver-Bey:

So the starting point is there. So how do we move forward? The question for me would be how do we move forward and advance this conversation? Because now that we began -- and I don't know how many thousands of people are going to watch this or how many thousands of people watch this show, but how do we advance and move forward from this point, from creating this dialogue. What do we do?

Frederica Freyberg:

Well, that is a good question, but we have to leave this dialogue here for this moment. And we will continue to pursue that question and move this forward, because that is part of what we do. And we really very much appreciate all of you being here today. Willie Weaver-Bey, Rachel Krinsky and Tracey Robertson, thank you very much for the work you do and thank you for your artistic expression as well.

Willie Weaver-Bey:

Thank you.

Tracey Robertson:

Thank you.

Rachel Krinsky:

Thank you very much.

Frederica Freyberg:

That is our program for tonight. Next week "Here and Now" in the new year. Look for a new format with the same mission of bringing you news of policy and politics. Next Friday, a political look ahead to 2017, including an interview with U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin. Until then, I’m Frederica Freyberg. Have a safe and happy new year.

Announcer:

Funding for "Here and Now" is provided, in part, by Friends of Wisconsin Public Television.

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