Last night I heard the renowned Black Lives Matter activist Shaun King speak at my university. As expected when listening to the message of someone you greatly admire, it was an immensely powerful experience. The message of his talk was that it is important for us to recognize the true nature of the moment we are in in history in order for us to move forward, pointing out that oftentimes humans operate under the inaccurate perception that we are constantly improving and the world around us is constantly getting incrementally better. Rather, he said, the pattern is much more fluctuating and that we have "dips" in our history. He alluded to the fact that we are on our way down into a "dip" now, and that when people ask, "What is this, the 60s?" they are ignoring the fact that we could actually be living in such strenuous times in the year 2017.
His visual aids were telling and also inspiring for our ambitions of creating striking and illustrative data visualization, especially in regards to my area of research, the change in incarceration and how it has impacted people in Milwaukee depending on where they live.
Wisconsin, and Milwaukee in particular, incarcerates black men at a higher rate than anywhere else in the country. This has devastating effects on families, communities, economics, and the health of our local democracy for innumerable reasons.
As a jumping off point for our research, I found some information regarding how ZIP codes are disproportionately impacted by incarceration, how young people are affected by the juvenile justice system, how racial disparity manifests in incarceration, what this looks like in Wisconsin, how that affects the workforce and economic development (and this), how it impacts children, families and the community's wellbeing as a whole, and other important data around the incarceration of primarily black men in Milwaukee.
As NPR and other sources have investigated, this is one area where Milwaukee has gotten worse not better since the marches in 1967.
The Bridging Selma project created by students at Morgan State University and West Virginia University can serve as an example and inspiration to our project this year. They both seek to look at a city 50 years after its moment in the spotlight of Civil Rights history. (screen grab courtesy of Bridging Selma website)
Our third class marked the third day of brainstorming for our capstone data journalism project that is to honor the 50th anniversary of the open housing marches in Milwaukee. The three hour discussion left me feeling both excited and overwhelmed, but more than anything, it made me hyperaware that our capstone class definitely has our work cut out for us. We set out to narrow down our topic, and did so to some extent. However, rather than feeling more confident in what we know, I feel that I am approaching the stage of knowing enough to more fully recognize the extent of what we DON'T know yet. This is a fun yet daunting place to dwell in.
With the help of James Brust from the Wakerly Media Lab and our guest, Joe Yeado from the Public Policy Forum, our class was able to have a productive conversation where a lot of ideas were brought up and important concerns and considerations rose to the surface. We looked at the guiding document that Wisconsin Civil Rights leader Lloyd A. Barbee wrote in 1963 to see how we could use data to show the change over time in the five areas he addressed as major civil rights obstacles in Milwaukee: human relations, political action, welfare, unemployment, and internal difficulties. Yeado offered insightful advice from his experience doing research on education in Milwaukee for how our class can obtain data, what data is already available and where we can start looking. This knowledge will undoubtedly prove crucial as we begin to attempt to take on this ambitious project.
Professor Lowe also showed us several examples created by students and professional/amateur (pro-am) collaborations to inspire us and give us a better idea of what we're up against in pursuit of "a trophy." All of the projects were incredibly impressive, and there were shared commonalities among all of them that were key to their strength. Each of the projects had a clearly identifiable, straightforward central question. This allowed them to take something simple and laser-focused, and to do it really, really well. I think this is something we must keep in mind. It is much more powerful and effective to take a smaller, more manageable question and to explore it thoroughly and present it attractively rather than to bite off more than we can chew and present relatively sloppy, half-told pieces of a massive, complex story. Even the example projects that seemed to take on a broader scope had a very specific lens that allowed their work to make sense.
As far as having the skills required to accomplish something as excellent as these example projects, I have nothing but confidence in us. We are more than capable of collectively producing something to the same caliber as these exceptional projects using data interactives, text, photo, video and audio, but first, we must really zero in on our central question. The extent that we reasonably set ourselves up to be successful with the project we choose to take on will be a huge determining factor in our realized success.
Some questions we are tossing around right now are: What has changed in the past 50 years? What hasn't? What has prevented certain things from changing? Are Milwaukee's youth better off than young people were 50 years ago?
I am nervous about us going too broad in scope and therefore losing some of the power our stories could have with a clearer focus, but believe that this clarity will hopefully come in the next couple stages of our project's development. What we cannot do is attempt to tell the entire story of the city of Milwaukee over the past 50 years, because we will fail and not serve anyone well. In order to do these important stories justice, we need to all feel on the same page and that we have a clear idea of what the stories are.
We need to start to be realistic about what we're taking on and begin to think critically about all that is encompassed in each of Barbee's five points that we are hoping to explore, because they are each so dense and still not all-encompassing. For example, in the first point alone, there is a enough to explore to keep an entire class more than busy for an entire semester. The role that discrimination has played in housing and employment in the city over the years is fascinating and nuanced. The history of housing policy and anti-discrimination policy is as well.
"1. Human relations. Wisconsin's problems are discrimination in employment, housing, and some public accommodations. These problems could be solved by legislation, executive action, and more vigorous private initiative."
While we need to be focused, we also need to be thoughtful and careful of the perspectives we represent and exclude in the process. This will be our biggest challenge, zeroing in while not oversimplifying a complex situation too much. Since each of these five points is so broad, there is much room for our discretion, decision-making, and implicit bias. We need to be extremely conscious of how we tell these stories, and whose and what stories could be missing, in order to do our project justice. Even in all the points that the five areas touch on, there are areas that have been crucial in shaping Milwaukee over the past 50 years that were not touched on, including criminal justice, policing, mass incarceration, violence, poverty, access to opportunities and economic development. I'm not suggesting that we take on even more issues, but I just raise this point to heighten our awareness that no matter what we do, we will inherently be keeping important pieces out of the conversation, and we need to be thinking of the impact that will have when we tell our stories.
I really appreciated James's point that our project's focus should not be derived from our own interpretation of Barbee's letter, but rather from our community members who live in this city and feel firsthand what has changed and what has remained stagnant. I hope we continue on this train of thought and seriously consider how we can go about this. I am curious and excited to learn about the prospects of Julie conducting some kind of survey to gain community perspective in this process.
I think our goals now are to narrow our focus and select a singular guiding question, with the intention of telling a story that is driven by community members' perspectives and stories and backed up by data. We should aspire to hit that sweet spot of personal stories that appeal to readers and data that legitimizes and contextualizes those stories.
As with any good meeting, I left our last class with some ideas for action items, our next steps. I think we need to start to identify potential data points we could explore and include as well as start to brainstorm specific people we could feature and build up as "characters" in telling our story. Once we begin to identify more concrete things, I think we will gain a better, more realistic idea of what is possible for us to accomplish in the next few months.
1. Human relations. Wisconsin's problems are discrimination in employment, housing, and some public accommodations. These problems could be solved by legislation, executive action, and more vigorous private initiative.
Data points/relevant topics:
2. Political action. The Negro population of approximately 80,000 is small compared to the total state population. Therefore their problems appear to be undeserving of sufficient attention in the eyes of political leaders for immediate solution. Civil Rights is an issue that is inevitably "put off until later" in Wisconsin. The number of qualified Negroes registered and voting is shamefully small. Negro elected officials are few, and are lacking in patronage. Active Negro participation in both parties at all levels is negligible.
Data points/relevant topics:
3. Welfare. There is a swelling wave of opposition to welfare in Wisconsin. It began with one-year residence for relief law passed by the Legislature in 1957. It is presently manifested by a bill before the legislature to jail mothers of illegitimate children.
Data points/relevant topics:
4. Unemployment. Wisconsin has a high rate of Negro unemployment and a high school drop-out rate.
Data points/relevant topics:
5. Internal difficulties. Although there is general acceptance of human rights, there is not enough active promotion of effective human rights programs in Wisconsin. Young, new leadership is frustrated by old and impotent nominal leaders. Established reputed liberals and currently self-styled liberals dissipate energy by excessive talking.
Data points/relevant topics:
This is just a starting point to get our brains going. It is nowhere near exhaustive, and I'm sure that everyone else has a wealth of ideas as well. As a political science student, I could dig into and debate each of these topics for hours, but now it's time to crack down and do some journalism. I personally feel way in over my head, but I'm looking forward to working together with my peers to balance each other out, keep each other in check and on track, and to make this happen.
I am a senior studying journalism and international affairs at Marquette University. I am a Milwaukee-dweller and a storyteller passionate about exploring the intersection between community-building and communication. I'd love for you to learn alongside me!