Up From 53206
New generation of leaders in their early 30's, Crowley, Nicholson, Johnson, all raised in poorest ZIP code.
It may be the most infamous ZIP code in America.
It was back in 2007 that researchers Lois Quinn and her late husband John Pawasarat did a report spotlighting the 53206 ZIP code as a “bellwether” of poverty and mass incarceration in Milwaukee, and in 2013 a follow-up study which found Wisconsin has the nation’s highest rate of black male incarceration, and the 53206 ZIP code was the very worst. That led to national infamy for this Milwaukee neighborhood, dramatized by the 2016 film Milwaukee 53206.
The gritty reality of that environment is something a new generation of Milwaukee leaders know first hand. Take newly elected Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley, whose biography notes he grew up in the 53206 neighborhood and “was no stranger to hardship. As a child, David’s family moved around frequently, often as a result of evictions. He lived in a home with multiple family members who suffered from mental illness and drug addiction.”
The new president of Milwaukee’s Common Council, Cavalier Johnson, offered this recollection to the media: “After living at more addresses than I can count, experiencing all of the love and the pain that 53206 and other distressed ZIP codes can muster — from substandard housing, familial violence, gun violence, food scarcity, eviction, theft and threat of death — I looked around myself at a young age and I said I want better for me…”
New Milwaukee County Board Chair, Supervisor Marcelia Nicholson, tells Urban Milwaukee she grew up on 12th and Burleigh, “birth to age 18” and “lost childhood friends to gun violence, or incarceration and was “witness to gun violence, drug and gang activities, all the social ills essentially.” Sup. Sequanna Taylor, who nominated Nicholson for the top board position, noted this fact, saying it shows, “regardless of what zip code you come from you can be successful and… overcome every barrier that’s thrown in your way.”
That’s an inspirational thought, but the reality is that growing up in such a distressed area makes it very hard for most people to succeed. Crowley, Johnson and Nicholson are the exceptions, three individuals who had the strength and smarts to overcome a tough upbringing. Together, they are a new generation of Milwaukee leaders, all Millennials in their early 30s: Nicholson just 31 and Crowley and Johnson both 33. They have many things in common.
All three are products of Milwaukee Public Schools. Johnson attended six different MPS elementary schools: Carlton, Honey Creek, Parkview, Dover, Fairview, Lincoln Avenue and then Daniel Webster Middle School. Nicholson attended Ben Franklin elementary and Morse Middle School, and Crowley attended Auer elementary school and Milwaukee Education Center. Johnson and Crowley both graduated from Bay View High School, Nicholson from the Milwaukee School of Languages.
All three went to a public university: Nicholson graduated from and Crowley attended UW-Milwaukee, Johnson graduated from UW-Madison.
Johnson and Crowley praised community organizations with helping them as youths. “David credits the Milwaukee youth organization Urban Underground for saving his life,” his bio notes. “He found a support network and a community of people that cared about him, which put him on the path to public service.” He served as a Community Justice Coordinator with Urban Underground, giving him a start in community organizing, then joined AmeriCorps when he turned 18, working with non-profits like Project Return, Safe & Sound Inc. and COA Youth and Family Centers.
As for Johnson, “At 14 years old, he was selected by the YMCA to participate in a pre-college program for low-income MPS students,” his bio notes. “That very same program, Sponsor-A-Scholar, solidified Chevy’s life commitment to community service.”
Nicholson says the Boys and Girls club and after school MPS programs at her neighborhood school helped her when growing up, but she also “spent a lot of time in church with grandma.” Both her parents had union jobs (her father worked 30 years with MPS), which meant the family had health care, she notes.
All three politicians are clearly ambitious and ran for a top position after very little time, just four years, in office. Crowley was elected to the state Assembly in 2016, the same year Johnson was elected an alderman and Nicholson a county supervisor.
Yet if they seem to have risen up from nowhere, all three clearly have prepared for a leadership post. Crowley worked as a legislative aide for both the Milwaukee County Board and the Wisconsin State Senate. Johnson worked for Milwaukee Area Workforce Investment Board and then as an aide in the administration of Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett. Nicholson worked for several years as an MPS teacher, at Pierce Street School, and then worked for the Milwaukee Area Service and Hospitality Workers union.
Crowley is the first African American ever elected to the Milwaukee County Executive post. Nicholson the first Latina and first African American woman to lead the county board (her father is African-American and her mother is Puerto Rican). Johnson can boost of no such first, but it’s a safe bet he’s one of the younger aldermen ever to win the post of president.
All three candidates have noted the impact that their upbringing will have on their world view. Crowley’s bio notes he saw “first hand” issues like evictions and drug abuse that plague the city’s more impoverished areas, Johnson noted his tough upbringing in his speech to the council when he was elected president and Nicholson once noted “Milwaukee’s racial wounds” and the need to “be on the right side of history as we re-write the text for what it means to grow up as a Milwaukeean.”
All three are a good news story about change finally coming to Milwaukee. In addition, Tearman Spencer became the first African American to serve as City Attorney, defeating longtime incumbent Grant Langley. This was a historic spring election, with strong black candidates running for numerous positions. One aspect of the Republican Legislature’s insistence on holding an in-person election that hasn’t been discussed is that it threatened candidates like Crowley and Spencer, as the turnout by black voters could have been depressed, given they are by far the most threatened by the COVID-19 epidemic.
Certainly the city’s turnout was lower than it might have been, but thousands of courageous voters and poll workers of all races risked their lives to vote. Their courage was an inspiration, as is the rise of young minority leaders like Johnson. Crowley and Nicholson. Milwaukee is clearly changing and they will help us arrive at that new destination.
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