If you grew up in southeastern Wisconsin you probably are well aware that Milwaukee is still one of the most segregated cities in the country. The deeply embedded racial divides that exist in this city feed into racial disparities across many lines, including poverty and incarceration rates. This long standing issue impacts people across Milwaukee in significant ways.
After reading Rhetorical Listening: Identification, Gender, Whiteness by Krista Ratcliffe, I was reminded that one important step in changing racial boundaries is to have meaningful conversations about them. Through strategies such as rhetorical listening, we, as Milwaukeeans, can work on being involved with and open to hearing about the experiences and beliefs of those who may exist in racial, ideological, or other social identifications different from our own. After all, “imagination alone is not enough when attempting to understand a person from a different tradition” (Ratcliffe 62) or background.
This is where Project Milwaukee comes in. The NPR-supported podcast was developed in 2007 in order to focus on “issues vital to Southeastern Wisconsin,” but a slew of recent episodes focus on issues of race and segregation within Milwaukee and surrounding areas. And, like Ratcliffe, Project Milwaukee aims to unpack the stories of others rather than continuing to allow a dysfunctional silence to exist. Through highlighting the repercussions of segregation and bringing in the experiences of Milwaukee-area residents, Project Milwaukee creates a dialogue that addresses uncomfortable material, offers a safe space for people to address privilege and inequity, and, by broaching topics often not talked about, encourages Milwaukeeans to continue exploring injustice in our city.
One organization that Project Milwaukee has brought to the forefront is Ex Fabula, a group that, according to their website, “celebrate[s] the power of true and personal stories to connect individuals through universal experiences.” In the Project Milwaukee episode from March 17, 2017, people brought together through Ex Fabula share their stories of uncomfortable racial encounters. Participants discuss everything from bizarre comments about music to dealing with police profiling in wealthy neighborhoods. Through story-telling, people are able to use language as a tool to change what may otherwise be unsettling, yet unaddressed social situations. On the segment, one woman was able to explain to primarily white listeners that her story “reminded me how exhausting it is to operate and navigate in white spaces.”
Although stories like hers can be jarring for those “from dominant cultures [who] often possess the unearned privilege to choose to learn about nondominant home places” (Ratcliffe 63) and cultures, they are stories that should be heard. Although many people feel awkward bringing up the subject of race, it’s important that those, particularly those who live with privilege, choose to learn about people who live their lives in nondominant spaces. Ex Fabula offers a place that is safe not only for the story tellers, but for those who hope to “learn by listening” (Ratcliffe 36) and become part of a larger conversation about inequity, privilege, and “the-past-that-is-always-present” (Ratcliffe 98). By providing spaces for people to come together and begin dialogues, programs like Project Milwaukee and Ex Fabula are changing how people address the social divides that currently exist in the city. Through an emphasis on listening to a person’s experiences both related to and independent of their identities, Milwaukee-area residents can begin to explore both the diversity and connectedness that exists through the city.