The Little Urban Group That Could
Urban Anthropology, Inc. has become a go-to organization for Milwaukee ethnic history
Rarely has a a low budget, little-known group accomplished so much as Urban Anthropology, Inc.
UrbAn, as its website and members shorten the name, is a Milwaukee-based non-profit that runs a small “Old South Side Settlement” museum, has published 14 books on Milwaukee ethnic history and culture, has produced 14 documentaries, many of which have aired on local public television and publishes two bimonthly newsletters, Milwaukee Ethnic News and Milwaukee Neighborhood Forum. And those are just the highlights.
And so Lackey, in 1998, set about to create the group Urban Anthropology, which gained its tax exempt status in 1999, attracted some 200 members who joined the group, and began researching and developing materials on Milwaukee’s ethnic heritage under her leadership. Lackey has a doctorate in urban cultural anthropology, and was an anthropology instructor for years at Marquette University, but also had an early history as a theology major (BA from Marquette) who was the founder and executive director of Repairers of the Breach, the non-profit that helps the homeless. “My only goal is to leave this planet a better place than when I was born,” she says on her LlnkedIn profile.
Once launched, UrbAn began doing oral histories, interviewing local residents about neighborhoods (more than 600 interviews to date) and ethnic groups (more than 500 interviews). “Between 2000 and 2012,” its website notes, “over 70 anthropologists and anthropology interns at Urban Anthropology, Inc. conducted a study of 65 Greater Milwaukee ethnic groups.” The study’s findings “resulted in seven documentaries, a college-level textbook entitled American Ethnic Practices in the Twenty-First Century–The Milwaukee Study,” a “Milwaukee’s Cultural Connect” program that was presented in 20 schools and the creation of an online program of teacher aids. The study also led to the publication of the book Strolling through Milwaukee’s Ethnic History, co-written by Lackey and Rick Petrie. Petrie, also an anthropologist, who has worked with several museums in Milwaukee and served on the staff of the Milwaukee County Historical Society, joined UrbAn in 2005 and became its executive director in 2010. Both Petrie and Lackey are unpaid, but have overseen many different projects.
The list of documentaries produced is even more varied, including films on the many ethnic groups that came to Milwaukee, including the Irish, Poles, African Americans, Latinos and Hmongs, as well as topics like Milwaukee’s socialists, the Sherman Park neighborhood, Riverwest and stories of the homeless.
The bimonthly Milwaukee Ethnic News is a colorful online newsletter with 18 pages of content in the most recent edition, centered around an extensive calendar of ethnic events, along with sections based on past UrbAn research: a story on diversity in Milwaukee’s neighborhoods, five pages describing ethnic activities (stories, games, meals) for families to do at home and capsule descriptions of ethnic Wisconsin books, including many published by UrbAn.
Indeed, UrbAn also its own publishing operation, MECAH Publishing, which has published nine of the group’s 14 books to date, including a series of mystery novels set in historic Milwaukee neighborhoods written by Sienna Jacks, including The Fabled Theft at Kozy Park and The Shop on King Drive.
And all of this is done on the tiniest of budgets. In years past UrbAn got some grant money but decided the pursuit of grants distorted its goals. So it has for years operated with little money and lots of volunteer hours. “Our budget is less than $300 a year,” Lackey says.
In the age of Trump, when immigration has become controversial and ethnic tensions are often exploited, Lackey remains an optimist about Milwaukee’s diverse community. “You don’t see the kind of ethnic and racial tensions you once saw in Milwaukee,” she says.” It’s much better today as far as attitudes toward diversity and our research shows it.”
Her hope is that UrbAn is helping break down divisions by educating people about the many cultures of Milwaukee. “Until you know what a culture is about,” she says, “I don’t think you can make an informed decision whether you approve of them.”
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