As Black babies die at a higher rate, it’s time to listen to Black mothers

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Data doesn’t just reflect numbers and facts. It fuels discovery. It creates knowledge. It helps us navigate common problems. Data reflects the state of our community and tells a story — sometimes, a painful one.

An abysmal and growing number is our city’s infant mortality rate, which measures how many infants die before their first birthday for every 1,000 live births. In Milwaukee, that number is three times higher for Black babies.

“In Milwaukee, between 2018 and 2020, the number was two 10.2, which means about 10 babies die for every thousand live births,” said Erica Olivier, deputy commissioner of community health with the city of Milwaukee.

It’s no surprise our healthcare system treats them differently; this pattern is longstanding in history. A study published in the National Library of Medicine shows that white patients are more likely than Blacks to be prescribed strong pain medications for equivalent illnesses.

We can reduce this number, but only if we start listening to Black mothers. On this episode of Uniquely Milwaukee, I spoke with Olivier to talk about medical accountability and how to reverse the staggeringly high death rates.

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Cultures and Communities Festival left Milwaukee wanting more

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Milwaukee has culture and community to back our city. That’s exactly what Milwaukee Film and Black Lens highlight with the Cultures and Communities Festival (CCF), giving traditionally marginalized communities a platform to share their stories with their voices. 

The 2022 Cultures and Communities Festival ran Sept. 14-18, showcasing an abundance of films, intentional community events and workout classes that go beyond the body. This week for Uniquely Milwaukee, I teamed up with Kim Shine from our sister station, HYFIN, to discuss our experiences with the festival.

LeVar Burton in “Butterfly in the Sky,” a documentary film featured at the Cultures and Communities Festival.

Salam Fatayer’s festival takeaway

I’ll be honest: Some Mondays, I face the work week with sluggish optimism. But this week I felt inspired and empowered to tackle the unexpected. I have an inkling that the change in attitude had to do with packing my previous week and weekend with CCF.

Although the festival was packed with diverse events, the one I connected with most was attending a Black-owned mind, body and soul spin class with Spinn Mke. I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve felt alien to my body this year. But being in an intentional atmosphere that’s welcoming and endorses wellness beyond physicality, I came out feeling stronger, grateful for being able-bodied and more connected to Milwaukee.

Kim Shine’s festival takeaway

As usual, CCF did not disappoint. Each year, the festival returns with deeper cultural perspectives, new views on historical people/dates and amazing events. I went to more movies than events this time and walked away with new insights on topics both familiar and foreign.

For instance, before seeing Takeover, I’d never heard of The Young Lords’ 1970s fight for civil and healthcare rights when they took over Lincoln Hospital in South Bronx, N.Y. And while I knew of Black Panthers Founder Huey P. Newton, watching American Justice on Trial revealed the significant role his Oakland murder trial had on diversity within the jury-selection process.

This year’s festival was also exciting because the HYFIN team talked with two Black women from Milwaukee who either directed or co-produced two of the films shown:

Both films were quite impactful and showcased the breadth of Milwaukee’s creative community. It’s also worth noting that When Claude Got Shot is now an Emmy-award-winning documentary. 

Listen to the full episode below to hear more about our experiences at the festival. Then head over to for in-depth interviews with the local filmmakers who premiered their documentaries at CCF.

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We celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month. But what should we call it?

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In 1968, President Lyndon B. Johnson issued a proclamation “designating the week including September 15 and 16 as National Hispanic Heritage Week.” Twenty years later, in 1988, President Ronald Regan made it a full 31 days, resulting in what the federal government officially calls Hispanic Heritage Month.

However, 54 years after its establishment and 34 years after its extension, the way we refer to this time of recognition and celebration is very much up for debate.

Many people have adopted “Latinx” as a more inclusive term — both from a gender perspective, and to account for indigenous Brazilian and other non-Spanish speaking people. But there’s a divide surrounding that term as well, especially along generational lines.

It’s often a very personal issue, so that’s where we start this week’s episode of Uniquely Milwaukee: with a personal conversation to get some perspective from Barbara and Valeria Cerda, the sister duo behind La Revo Books. They share their thoughts on identity, along with some recommendations on books to read this month. We included their picks below and encourage you to visit La Revo’s website if you’re interested in getting your hands on any of them.

You’ll also hear from Radio Milwaukee Director of Gifts and Advancements Alma Velez, who describes the journey that brought her to Milwaukee, as well as how to support the city’s Latinx businesses (see her helpful list below) and find fulfillment in the month ahead.

Food & beverage

Shopping & retail 

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Esports help Milwaukee students level up in ways you might not expect

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Students returning to Milwaukee Public Schools for the new school year had a new activity waiting for them: esports.

Just like football or soccer, kids at around 30 schools will have the opportunity to join, practice and compete on teams that take on other squads from around the state. For this episode of Uniquely Milwaukee, host Salam Fatayer was nice enough to let me join her team and talk to people at every level of involvement with the esports initiative.

We start with Mike Dahle, president of the Wisconsin High School Esports Association, business education teacher at Elkhorn Area High School and a member of the Milwaukee Esports Alliance advisory board. This guy is a tireless advocate for esports and has been there for every stage of its very rapid growth in the state.

Milwaukee Rec Program Director Gabi Olemdo was up next to lend a more localized viewpoint. We caught him at Ronald Reagan High School — just one of the sites he’s helping set up with the gear they need to build a solid esports program. While we were there, we also got some time with sophomore Max Rzepka, whose very polished interview was concrete proof of the confidence and quick thinking that esports helps build in students.

The new esports initiative at Milwaukee Public Schools outfits participants with the gear they need to compete, including gaming chairs like these at Ronald Reagan High School. (Photo courtesy: Erin Bagatta)

Also, a quick shout to Davon Reed, the esports advisor at Reagan H.S. As a Uniquely Milwaukee rookie, my overeagerness resulted in a LOT of material to squeeze into 20 minutes, and we couldn’t quite fit him in. But you’ll hear Max talk about the welcoming atmosphere he’s created around the school’s esports program.

As a non-online gamer (or PvE, a term I learned while doing these interviews), there was plenty I didn’t know about competing online. So talking to these people who have esports in the very marrow of their being was incredibly illuminating. Whether you’re a gaming skeptic or ardent supporter, there’s something in this episode for you.

Listen below or wherever you get your podcasts. And make sure to subscribe, share, rate, review and all that good stuff that helps us tell more stories like these.

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With shelters at capacity, adopting a senior animal is an especially sweet reward

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Milwaukee’s short summer season brings out our best assets, from live music festivals to a gorgeous parks system offering summer activities like tennis, golf and hiking.

But summer is also peak season for the city’s animal shelters. Warmer months bring about new litters of animals, often packing shelters beyond capacity and forcing them to find short-term foster placement. At any given time, according to the Wisconsin Humane Society (WHS), between 10 and 15 percent of its animals eligible for adoption are senior animals — a group that’s also the hardest to place.

(Photo courtesy: Bjorn Nassett)

Prospective adopters tend to gravitate toward younger animals and pass up senior animals due to age or possible medical expenses, says Angela Speed, WHS vice president of communications.

“So far this calendar year in 2022, we’ve adopted out somewhere between 400 and 500 senior animals. That includes cats and dogs, and that senior age is typically around seven years or older,” she said. “It’s just so rewarding to have an animal in their golden years and be able to give them the best life possible. And you’re saving a life.”

On this week’s “Uniquely Milwaukee” episode, we continue our conversation with Speed to understand the scale of the need, the distinct and rewarding opportunities senior animals offer, and how you can join the WHS foster program to provide temporary homes for animals in need.

Then we speak with Bjorn Nasett, who you may know as Miss BJ Daniels — an iconic Milwaukee drag performer who has opened his home to more than 20 dogs in as many years. He invites us to Riverwest to meet his family of five dogs — each in their golden years — and shares his experience partnering with Albert’s Dog Lounge Dog Rescue.

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Shrinking budgets force Milwaukee County Parks to do more with less

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The first time Milwaukee had any semblance of a park was back in the 1850s, and it was very on brand: beer gardens brought to the city by German immigrants.

It wasn’t until 1907 that Milwaukee’s Socialist Party formed the Milwaukee County Parks Commission led by Charles Whitnall. The first land purchases included County Park (now Grant Park); from there, the park system grew to 15,000 acres by 1980. But a growing budget crisis resulted in the abolishment of the commission, and the county government created the Department of Parks, Recreation & Culture.

This outdoor all-terrain wheelchair enhances accessibility for people who want to enjoy nature trails. | (Photo courtesy: Wehr Nature Center)

The park system’s growth continued into the 1990s, with 76 bike trails officially renamed the Oak Leaf Trail in 1996. Recent history has proven more challenging.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Milwaukee County closed park venues and canceled events, dramatically impacting the park system’s budget — a budget that hasn’t changed in more than 30 years. The Milwaukee County Parks Twitter account hasn’t been shy about letting the public know about it.

In this “Uniquely Milwaukee” episode, we follow Nate Imig in pursuit of his summer goal to spend more time outdoors in Milwaukee County Parks and learn what they offer amid a shrinking budget. 

Then you’ll hear my conversation with Milwaukee County Parks Director of Administration and Planning Jeremy Lucas to learn why funding hasn’t changed since 1989, and Wehr Nature Center Director Carly Hintz to understand changes that have made the parks more accessible.

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‘Milwaukee’s other mayor’ and Habitat for Humanity help build up Harambee

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A house isn’t just a house. The place where you live can leave as lasting an impact as who you live with.

For children and adolescents, living in unsafe or unsanitary homes can be related to greater emotional and behavioral problems. And moving frequently has a detrimental effect on their well-being.

Milwaukee Habitat for Humanity knows this as well as anyone, which is one of the reasons behind its important work: helping families build and improve places to call home. 

Two participants at the recent “Women Build” event. (Photo courtesy: Milwaukee Habitat for Humanity)

Beyond that, affordable housing makes a positive impact on the surrounding communities. It delivers economic benefits and encourages diversity by creating an environment where people of different cultural, socioeconomic and educational backgrounds can unite.

Again, a house isn’t just a house. It’s a home.

Milwaukee Habitat for Humanity recently hosted “Women Build,” an empowering experience that invited participants to take proactive steps in serving their communities. At this event and all others, the organization encourages volunteers to sign up for the chance to build and construct a home — no prior experience necessary.

Under the guidance of skilled construction professionals, everyone does their part to improve communities one swing of the hammer at a time.

At “Women Build” in the Harambee neighborhood, Milwaukee Habitat for Humanity Donor Relations Manager Kelly Schlicht explained why the organization committed to build 80 new homes over four years in the area: “Right now, the majority of the homes in this community were built in the 1930s. Only about 28% of the homes are owner-occupied.”

To learn more about the need for homes in the neighborhood, I spoke with a Harambee expert: Reuben Harpole. He grew up there and — along with his late wife, Mildred Harpole — has spent more than six decades founding dozens of community centers that serve the community in a variety of ways, from education to community service. Often referred to as “Milwaukee’s other mayor,” he’s driven by the betterment of Milwaukee’s Black community. 

I was fortunate enough to get some time with him for an exclusive interview, which you can listen to below. You’ll also hear conversations with Schlicht — amid a fair amount of construction noise — and volunteer Grace Sherer, who talk about how Milwaukee Habitat for Humanity addresses the need for affordable housing, building up our community and the people in it.

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‘Like cutting off a piece of your body’: a refugee reflects on fleeing Syria for Milwaukee

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For a while, I knew I wanted to share a story about the refugee community here in Milwaukee. In July, I attended an event organized by Tables Across Borders, a global food collaboration highlighting the cuisines of refugee chefs in Milwaukee. The intended audio story was meant to center around community and food — until I met Tahani.

A Syrian refugee and mother, Tahani spoke to me over WhatsApp and, after a few exchanges, agreed to an interview. All of our interactions were in Arabic, so for the final audio product, I translated and transcribed our conversation, turning it into a monologue voiced by me.

However, this is not a fabricated story. This is Tahani’s story.

You can get a feel for our conversation in the following transcribed portions. Then listen to the full story below, which also features a conversation with Ali Aleiou, a Syrian American who shared his personal experiences and perspective.

The Great Mosque of Aleppo is the largest and one of the oldest mosques in the city of Aleppo, Syria. (Photo courtesy: Ali Aleiou)

Please be advised that this episode of “Uniquely Milwaukee” contains content involving war themes, dead bodies and military violence.

Tahani, how would you introduce yourself?

My name is Tahani, and I am from Syria, specifically the Daraa district. I am now living here in Milwaukee due to the circumstances in Syria, which is the war. I left Syria in the first month of 2013. My family and I first went to Jordan.

Where did you go in Jordan?

I was in a refugee camp, Za’atari, based in the desert.  They were taking in the Syrian families in tents and then — if you stayed long enough — in caravans, and now I am living here in America because the United States of America called upon the families to bring asylum seekers to America. And I was one of the families chosen.

For the people that don’t know much about Syria and the war, how would you describe it?

The war in Syria was very scary and terrifying — not only for the parents, but for the kids. No peace comes with war. In general, I want everyone to experience peace, for kids to live in peace. Our kids are the future generation. I want a bright future for them and for them to evolve into a better generation. 

What was life like before the war?

We had a simple life. My husband was a laborer. I am a mother to seven children. It was a simple life, but we were happy, Alhamdulillah (“Praise be to God”).

Did you escape Syria with your children? 


Who else came with you?

Just myself, my husband and kids.

How old were your kids when you left Syria?

My eldest is now 22 years old, and when we left Syria he was 12 years old.

Did you leave anyone behind back in Syria? 

Of course. I left my parents and my siblings. Eventually, my mother and a few of my siblings came to the refugee camp in Jordan. But our entire family is broken and displaced. We have family in Syria and Jordan. Some have died, and I am here. 

How did it feel to leave your family behind? 

It was very difficult. It’s like cutting off a piece of your body and abandoning it. One of these days, you’re going to need that body part, and it’s no longer with you. You need family. There’s a lot of distance between us. My mom is currently sick, and I long to be near her. 

Why did you ultimately decide to leave?

Daraa was getting dangerous, where there was no peace and safety. When we were sleeping, they would attack at night. As a mom, I can’t see my kids suffer. I found the only solution is to leave Syria. The nation I loved no longer had security. That was the reason: to give our kids safety, so I wouldn’t bury any one of my children. 

What do you remember of the night you escaped Syria?

It was a chilling night. My youngest was a toddler at the time. I remember one of the volunteers that helped us escape told me that if my baby cried, then I would have to put rocks in its mouth so that the noise from the crying wouldn’t reveal our location. 

What did you bring with you? 

I brought a bit of food — labneh and olive oil — some clothes and our house key. 

Did you bring with you any photos? 

That’s a good question. When we left Syria, we said we would leave for four months and return when the war ended. It’s been 10 years. 

You first arrived in Milwaukee in 2016. What was that like? 

I found it hard to transition. The moment you open the door, you’re in another world. It’s a country that has a different language, culture and lifestyle different than my own. The hardest part was communicating. Because of the language barrier, I felt that even though I was talking, I was forced to be silent and mute. 

Where did you first go in Milwaukee?

The organizers placed us on the North Side. The apartment was pretty run down. The house was filled with insects, so that was a difficult thing to go through. At the time, I wished I would go back to the plane and go back. It felt impossible, and I felt alone. My children were all young. My eldest was 15 years old at the time, and school was difficult. Their education was interrupted, not only because of the war, but because of the discrimination we faced in Jordan as refugees. Within a year, they began to understand the language, and things started to get easier. We started to know the neighborhood, and the people were kind. We also saw other Arabs here, and the first time I heard “assalamu alaikum,” I was filled with joy. Life started to bloom again. It means that they found safety and community here, which means I would find safety and community here. 

What is the greatest joy for you and your family?

That we are safe. That every day, when we leave in the morning, we reunite together under one roof. You put your head on the pillow, and you sleep safely.

What do you wish for your family?

I wish that they respect this country that saved them from war. I want them to focus on their education so they are not a burden to this city. It welcomed them. The Syrian community suffered; Syria didn’t protect its people. Syrians found safety by leaving. 

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Did the Mafia control Wisconsin’s earliest gay bars?

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It’s an oft-repeated rumor spouted across generations: Organized crime was involved in financing and protecting Wisconsin’s earliest gay bars.

But it’s not entirely true. And it’s also not entirely false, either.

On this “Be Seen” bonus episode, co-host Michail Takach and I dive into this topic to definitively answer the question: “Was the Mafia involved in Wisconsin’s earliest gay bars?”

In an exclusive interview with Gavin Schmitt, author of “Milwaukee Mafia (Images of America),” we discuss his years of research poring over unsealed FBI files that mention specific locations and people in Milwaukee.

We also learn about Takach’s favorite story in all of Wisconsin’s LGBTQ history, which centers on a mob-run business called the Ad Lib.

The former Ad Lib near 4th and Wells. (Photo courtesy: the Wisconsin LGBTQ History Project)

“Although multiple people were eventually licensed as the bar’s legal owner, the Ad Lib was always part of Frank Balistrieri’s nightlife syndicate,” according to the Wisconsin LGBTQ History Project’s website. “Balistrieri, his family and associates had deep involvement in almost a dozen bars between the 1950s and 1980s. By 1966, Balistrieri was truly one of the most powerful men in Milwaukee, and 4th and Wells was the heart of a growing empire.”

As the years went on and entertainment costs rose, the Ad Lib switched over from hiring the best jazz entertainers in the world to a more risqué model that swapped musicians for stripping female impersonators. Somehow, the fact these performers were mostly genetic men was lost on the audience of straight sailors often in attendance, according to Takach.

Listen to this week’s bonus episode above, and be sure to catch all six episodes from the original series.

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Meet the Milwaukee Flugtag’ers who took a flying leap into Lake Michigan

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Something in the air drew 50,000 spectators to Veterans Park earlier this month — actually, more than 30 somethings. That’s how many teams joined in when Red Bull picked Milwaukee to host its annual Flugtag event in which competitors construct homemade, human-powered flying machines and launch themselves off a pier about nine meters high into the sea or body of water.

Flugtag is German for “flying day,” and Red Bull has organized days like the one in Milwaukee every year since the inaugural 1992 event in Vienna, Austria. More than 35 cities worldwide have welcomed intrepid aviators as part of the Red Bull competition. But its roots go a bit deeper than the first Vienna installment — back to 1971, when folks in the small seaside town of Selsey in the south of England invented the format under the name “Birdman Rally.”

Anyone is eligible to apply for the Flugtag event. But they can’t start crafting until their mechanism meets the criteria set forth by Red Bull. Because the aircraft will end up in the water, it must be unsinkable and made from lightweight materials. But the real driving force behind Flugtag is creativity and imagination. Here in Milwaukee, our competitors showed off the culture with contraptions inspired by cheese, a Bucks basketball and even Ian’s Pizza. 

Seeing one handcrafted creation crash into the water after another, I found myself wondering who would do this? Who would take a leap of faith knowing that while “Red Bull gives you wings,” it doesn’t give you landing gear?

Listen to the latest episode of “Uniquely Milwaukee” to find out, and check out the gallery below for team photos from the aptly named “Cheddar Than the Rest.”

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