An Unusual Challenge ... Will You Raise Your Hand?

Written by Ken Leinbach
    Monday, 05 January 2015
An Unusual Challenge ... Will You Raise Your Hand?

“Wow! Did I really just say that? ... I sure hope I didn’t offend anyone,” I thought as I stepped from the podium and returned to my seat. It is always a little dicey when I’m asked to speak extemporaneously. Even I am never quite sure what I will say. In this case, I issued a personal challenge to all in attendance at an evening business awards ceremony organized by the Shepherd Express. Upon receiving much positive feedback afterward, I thought that perhaps I should offer this to you as well!

Before the event I was having what I call a triangle day. This is when, traveling by bicycle, I have meetings at all three of our branches in one day. My work day began at Riverside Park for my first meeting. I then biked from the east side to the largely African American community on Walnut for a lunch meeting at our Washington Park branch. After lunch I had to book it to 35th Street to get to our south side Menomonee Valley branch located in a largely Latino neighborhood for an afternoon presentation. Following this I took the Hank Aaron State Trail through the factories of the valley, past Potawatomi, the Harley Davidson Museum and then through downtown back to Riverside.

I love triangle days. They are a fantastic way to see the whole city. The ride takes me through some intense economic extremes and crosses the bounds of our culturally diverse and segregated neighborhoods. It also includes industrial zones, universities, impressive nature, sports complexes and museums. I’ve thought about offering this as a tour because I find it so interesting. And on a bike one can actually interact with folks along the way — it’s fun!

Now, back to the event. I loaded some jerk chicken onto my plate and struck up a conversation with the man serving the food. His name was Tex, a recently retired military man helping his family with their catering business. During our conversation I learned that jerk cooking is a way escaped slaves used to prepare meat in Jamaica where they’d bury the meat with wild herbs, spices, and hot coals under dirt so as to avoid tell-tale smoke giving their location away.

The event began and I was honored and surprised when the Urban Ecology Center won in the category of Community Champion! As I went up to accept the award, I chuckled to myself and thought, “What’s going to come out this time?” And what came out did, in fact, surprise me.

After thanking the event coordinators and fellow finalists, I paused a moment and looked out at the diverse audience. I think because of my triangle day bike ride, my learning something new from Tex, coupled with the divisiveness that election season seems to bring out (the event took place in October), I said something like the following:

“While I am quite honored to accept this award for our community work on behalf the Urban Ecology Center, I have some serious worries about our city.

Recently, I had separate conversations with two women — one white, one African-American, both middle aged. Curious about their views, I asked how they felt about Milwaukee. Their responses were like night and day.

The white woman spoke of how everything seemed to be moving in the right direction with a downtown renaissance, the museums on the lake, the arts and culture. She included the Urban Ecology Center as a part of the positive growth of the city.

The African-American woman’s answer was completely different. She spoke of how the streets were less safe for her children, the schools were in decline and how even the potholes in the streets were not fixed. She saw the Urban Ecology Center in Washington Park as an exception to the rule.

It was like these women were describing two completely different cities. On a triangle day (which I explained to the audience) I witness both of these “cities” and more.

I believe that in a true community there is some common ground; some unity. But how can there be unity when residents of the same city have such vastly different experiences? It is hard to take full pride in a city with this inequity and, because I do love this city, I desperately want it to be better.

There is no panacea for this problem. We at the Urban Ecology Center along with many other companies and individuals in this room tonight are doing what we can but it doesn’t seem to be enough. Tonight, however, I have a simple idea ... a challenge I would like to ask of you personally that collectively may actually help.

This idea just came to me as a result of a conversation I had a few minutes ago with someone I just met: Tex, over behind the food table.

Here it is:

I would like to challenge each and every one of you, no matter your background, to invite someone who is different from you over for dinner sometime over the next year. I mean actually invite someone into your home to make it meaningful and personal. Perhaps it is someone whom you know from work, your faith community, a sports team or some other familiar environment. However, I’d like this invitation to be slightly uncomfortable ... meaning you cross a barrier that you do not normally cross. Invite someone to dinner who is of a different race, or from a different economic standing, or a different political view or even a different age.

If each of us does this one act, I think it might just make a difference. Once we’ve crossed a barrier like this we might find that, not only did it not hurt us but we actually enjoy it! We may learn something new (like about jerk chicken!). Then perhaps, just perhaps, we might even want to do it again with someone else. What do you think?”

I offered the challenge and everyone in the room accepted by raising their hands. It was a beautiful thing and I hope they follow through. I know that I will.

So what about you? Are you willing to take up the challenge? Will you raise your hand?

Ken Leinbach

Ken Leinbach

Ken Leinbach is a nationally recognized science educator and leader in community-based environmental education. From a trailer in a high-crime city park, Ken has had fun facilitating the grassroots effort to create and grow the Urban Ecology Center which is the topic of his first book.

Striving to live with as little environmental impact as possible, Ken lives in the community in which he works and, not owning a car, commutes by bike, unicycle, roller blades, and occasionally even by kayak on the Milwaukee River.



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