Adam Carr | Milwaukee, WI
I grew up in the abundance of the city, and that includes a fair measure of privilege. I went to great public schools. I played soccer, so we’d go out to play games all over the region at great public parks. I’m a product of the busing era, which meant that the schools that I went to had kids from around the city. In a city as segregated as Milwaukee, and a state as segregated as Wisconsin, I got something that I think is rare. And it’s what I mean by abundance, I grew up in a genuinely multicultural, genuinely diverse community where I had friends all over town.
My fourth-grade teacher made a big impact on my life. Mr. Horowitz was a really ambitious and incredible guy and used to take classes to Denmark every year. He also took us on field trips all around Milwaukee, which is something I still feel in my life today. He’d take us to restaurants where we’d get to eat food of a specific culture. We would get to talk to the restaurant owners and learn their family stories. And that was often accompanied by some sort of connected cultural excursion. One time we went to Grant’s Soul Food restaurant. Beforehand, we had conversations about what soul food is, and chitlins, and all these other things. And then we went to Grant’s and ate. Grant shared the story of his family coming to Milwaukee, and about how he started his restaurant. I know these class trips were perspective changing for me and are a large part of why I lead community tours throughout the city today. I saw that the best way to learn history is from people who lived that history and that it is powerful learning.
At college, I studied math and philosophy. I really didn’t know what I wanted to do. I spent a year abroad and worked on a farm and learned a tremendous amount. I really enjoyed doing that. And then I came back to Milwaukee in 2008. It was kind of a scary time to be coming into adulthood–it felt like the economy was turning into dust in that moment. I got a job canvassing, and that was the beginning of a really important shift in my relationship to Milwaukee. On any given day, I might be sent to a subdivision where I’d have to walk up a half-mile driveway to get to someone’s front door, then to neighborhoods near the South Side of Milwaukee, and then the north. I got to engage with the many personalities of this city. I got to know the city in a totally different way.
At the same time, I applied for a job at a radio station in Milwaukee named 88Nine. In my letter I probably wrote, ‘I’m not really qualified for this.’ They didn’t give it to me, but they did offer me an internship. The program director at the time had formerly been the production manager of NPR’s This American Life. He said, ‘Listen, I need help doing audio storytelling, are you interested?’ I didn’t really know what I was doing, but I said, ‘Sure.’ Those were a couple of really intense months. I was editing in the mornings, canvassing in the afternoons and evenings. Eventually, they said, ‘We need to hire someone to do what you’re doing.’ So, they hired me.
I spent a couple of years at 88Nine and got good at meeting strangers and really listening to them. Since I had this microphone and a radio broadcast signal, people had a motivation to talk to me. It wasn’t just, ‘Hey, I’m this young guy that wants to know your story.’ It was like, ‘Hey, I kind of stand between you and an audience. What do you think?’ I was interviewing people and getting my fingerprints on their stories. I always hoped I was doing it in such a way that they’d hear the story and it would feel even more like their story than if they just listened to the raw interview tape.
The work was just thrilling. It was thrilling to learn how little I knew about the city that I was raised in and to learn more about the world around me. We don’t learn local history in school, so we tend to think there must not be important people here, that this must not be a place where important things can happen.
I started feeling the richness and abundance of the city. Not monetary wealth, but just what an incredible place this is. In the years since then, I’ve added layers to my understanding of the city and the story only gets better and more complex. I actually think I could be tremendously fascinated by any place, but Milwaukee is where I am from and that’s the thing that makes the difference. Milwaukee is my place.
I took it really seriously since I was inviting people into vulnerability by asking them to share a story with me. I never wanted anyone to hear their story and feel let down. The bar I set for myself wasn’t just getting the story right, it’s doing it justice. And that stressed me out because I was doing a high volume of stories. In about three years I created more than 800 stories.
We did this thing called ‘The First Summer of the Rest of Your Life,’ talking to high school graduates who were going into college. This allowed me to engage with how we tell stories about Black and Brown youth who were succeeding in Milwaukee. The common narrative of a first-generation college student is that they’re ‘One in a million,’ ‘A diamond in the rough,’ or that they ‘overcame their community.’ People hear this every day. The problem is that if you’re saying, ‘They’re one in a million,’ then you are indicting 999,999 people. What I wanted to do in this campaign was to tell their incredible stories of overcoming, but to get to know them as people first. A lot of times the radio-listening audience might see high schoolers outside at the bus stop and think they’re up to no good, or whatever. So I made radio pieces about kids doing Sudoku. I just kind of wanted to tell some boring stories with pizazz, and not have it be all stories where kids would say, ‘My friend got shot and that motivates me.’ I wanted to paint a fuller picture of a person’s humanity and allow them to decide how they want to present themselves.
I was very interested in combining the past with the present and bringing forward the stories of everyday Milwaukeeans. I feel like the everyday stories that governed the city in which I grew up, those stories weren’t published. They are not on the bookshelf. I want to help fill the gaps in our archives, to collect the oral histories that shape the city I live in. These stories reside in people. They reside at kitchen tables. They reside at diner counters. They reside in community and group spaces. Oftentimes, that really important stuff just hasn’t been written down or at least written down in a way that persists, that’s durable. And now some of the people I interviewed in that era of my life have passed away, and I kind of see how fragile some of these really critical stories are.
I was in my mid-20s at that time and had this cool job that came out of nowhere. I was learning a tremendous amount and I felt I was having a kind of impact in the world I hadn’t even ever conceived of. Not that it was massive or anything, but the work was being recognized in my community. By this point, I was working regularly 60-hour weeks, though sometimes it was closer to a hundred hours. One night I was talking to my mentor, the one who had hired me, about how I was just feeling the weight of everything. It was just a lot. He said, ‘What if I told you you could quit?’ Immediately I felt a weight removed from my body. And I said, ‘Well, that would be cool.’ And he said, ‘Then just quit.’ So I did. I didn’t have a plan.
After that, I started making public art, collaborating with artists, which opened doors for me. This led to all kinds of different things—writing projects, short films, photography, developing walking and bus tours of Milwaukee, and the chance to write a children’s book about the city of Milwaukee with five third-grade classrooms. It was just a lot of community expression. I was a freelancer for about ten years and people would say, ‘Oh, Adam does interesting, weird stuff. Maybe he could do X, Y, Z.’ And maybe I’ve done it before, maybe not, but I just decided always to say, ‘Yes, I will try.’ I just grew to where the opportunities were.
There’s this term, ‘unbound imagination.’ Naturally, I actually have a pretty bounded imagination. I think as a Midwesterner in Milwaukee, I’ve been taught not to think beyond my means. What I’ve gained through all this creative work is an unbound imagination for the world in which I live. And I think in Milwaukee we’re very bound in—and I’ll say this for Wisconsin—we’re very bound about our imagination for our neighbor. We’re very bound in our imagination for our own communities sometimes. And I’m still learning how to unbind my imagination.
He would share the building he worked in downtown and introduce people to the guys working in the kitchen. That’s what he thought was most important. I learned to have a fascination with the world outside myself from my father. My mom’s LA-Chinese and an art therapist. She taught me to explore the world inside of myself. I’m the youngest, so when she was establishing her therapy practice, which was very community-oriented, I was kind of her experiment. My life is a synthesis of those two different influences.
When I was first asked to give a bus tour my first thought was ‘no.’ In my mind, tours were like post-Katrina, New Orleans, kind of the poverty gawking kind of tours. In Milwaukee, certainly, because it’s so segregated, a tour can have that sort of feeling. But after I thought about it for a little while, I felt there were people in Milwaukee that would want to hear stories of people in their own city and learn about new places. Even in a place as segregated as Milwaukee, I wondered that if the story is good would it compel someone to go somewhere new? I began to fall in love with the idea of having a host and an invitation everywhere we go. That way it is collaborative, not extractive.
I’ve done a wide variety of tours. I viewed them as a place to share some of what I know about the city, but also to challenge myself to extend beyond what I know. I’ve done tours looking at the manufacturing industry as it exists in Milwaukee today, or about looking at public art in different neighborhoods around the city. I’ve also done tours that are centered around food. One of my favorite tours I’ve ever done was around the idea of ‘pockets of food,’ which included dumplings and pierogies, and tamales.
Doing so many different types of tours, I’m always seeking opportunities to learn and to be surprised, and to find the extraordinary in the ordinary. One tour on the South Side of Milwaukee is a good example of this. Milwaukee’s South Side is the Ellis Island of the city. It’s predominantly Latino today, but 100 years ago it was all Eastern and Central European. Over the past couple generations, we’ve welcomed Hmong folks, Burmese folks, Middle Eastern folks, African folks, and more. So on this tour, we’re on Mitchell Street, the historic downtown of the South Side, and we are passing a theater that’s beloved. Someone asked me, ‘Do you know what’s going on with the Modjeska Theatre? It closed.’ And I said, ‘You know what? That’s a great question. Why don’t we go find out? Driver, can you stop?’
And we pull over and the person who asked the question says, ‘The theater’s closed.’ So we go to the theater, pull on the handle and I say, ‘Oh, it’s open.’ We go in, it’s all dark and I hear someone’s voice say, ‘Adam, is that you?’ And I say, ‘Oh, hey, Jesus. Thank God you’re here, man. I got this tour.’
So he invites us in, turns on the lights, and gives us a tour of the renovations that they’re planning. We go down towards the front by the stage, and he says, ‘You know what? I want to show you the roof. Hold on a second.’ He unplugs the lights, and it goes totally dark in the space. Then he plugs another light in, and there’s a spotlight on a little balcony thing off the stage. And the theater is named The Modjeska, after a Shakespearean actress. So the ghost of Helena Modjeska is now on the balcony, and she recites to us a Shakespearean style sonnet about the theater in the history of Mitchell Street.
I had lines, because this whole thing was completely staged, but I totally forgot mine. So we were bantering with the ghost. And then I said, ‘Thank you. That’s the Modjeska. Let’s go back on the bus.’ Those 12 minutes were just like an acid trip, no one knew what was happening. Jesus and I had thought of it just a few days before because people love things like that. Part of what I like about these tours is people in communities invite me to do all sorts of creative things with them. On tours, I do not underestimate the power of silly jokes. We are doing really serious stuff about understanding Milwaukee, but I will always give myself permission to indulge in play.
What I learned from leading so many tours is that experiences last longer than ideas. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard a great idea and thought, ‘Oh, I’m going to remember that’ and then can’t remember it 10 minutes later. On the other hand, you remember a really good experience. For instance, if you were standing on the sidewalk in a neighborhood that you only knew negative things about, but in the moment you’re just feeling the breeze and looking around, you would think, ‘Oh, this is a great place.’ Those feelings last.
What I have found working in Milwaukee, is the media has created these narratives about communities, especially black and brown communities. People are often satisfied with little to no information about those places or the people in them and then they’ll think they understand the whole thing. They’ll kind of feel like, ‘Oh, I heard one thing about one place, one time and now…’ Or, ‘I heard this thing on the news, so I totally understand that place. I totally understand that neighborhood.’ A lot of times people within a community will start being saturated with those messages too and start believing them in the same way, even if their day-to-day life provides counter examples to it.
I have felt overwhelmed thinking about how many untold stories there are. I would constantly think, ‘Well, someone should be doing a project on this or that’ and there are so many worthy projects. It actually can be paralyzing. Once I made a commitment to live the rest of my life in Milwaukee those thoughts sorta calmed down. As a jack of all trades or a generalist, there are a few specialties I’ve built over the years from different projects I’ve done that have brought into focus certain topics, but I haven’t done a lot of work with incarcerated populations. One thing that I did was a bus tour with Theresa Tobin. She’s the Director of the Education Preparedness Program at Marquette University, which will be featured in one of our Human Powered episodes.
So I did a tour with Teresa, for the class she teaches focusing on the carceral system in Wisconsin. There were a lot of things I could do on the tour that were directly connected to history that then manifested in mass incarceration in Milwaukee. I could talk about the hollowing out of Milwaukee’s industrial corridors, that during the same time period that Milwaukee lost 80,00 manufacturing jobs, the suburban counties surrounding Milwaukee gained around 30,000 manufacturing jobs. I could talk about the Great Migration of Black people from the rural South to the Midwest and the North and the barriers to employment and all that. But Teresa challenged me to think about how we experience absence.
In Milwaukee, we’re experiencing the absence of things all the time. But because they’re absent, it’s hard to know what they are. An incarcerated population is literally absent from the landscape in which I live, but they are felt. It’s something that shapes the narrative of the city. So this opportunity to find some of the narratives that come from that population, not just the general topic of how has incarceration impacted Milwaukee, but rather getting to know some people who have experienced incarceration, not just in Milwaukee but around the state, that interested me. It was sort of a no brainer to say I want to do this
And as the podcast host, I got to interview people about how they think about their own humanity, and keep their curiosity and creativity alive in a space that is not designed with their humanity as a priority.
I’ve spent a lot of time editing community voices so I was particularly interested in interviewing Robert Taliaferro and Shannon Ross for the podcast, they both edited prison newspapers. Robert in the 1980s and Shannon much more recently. I saw the connection between how they told stories to how I tell stories, to what I have been trying to do with my bus and walking tours. I have always tried in my work to show the full picture of a person’s humanity and allow them to decide how they want to present themselves. Robert and Shannon put human dignity at the center of their newspapers. It may sound simple – but this isn’t how people who are incarcerated are usually presented by the media.
I think sometimes people say humbled when they mean honored. I was both honored and humbled to be in their presence because as we were talking I knew that I was just accessing a sliver of the reality of their experience.
I am interested in stories of people creating their own freedom in Milwaukee and Wisconsin, whether those be in history, the present, or those working towards a better future. When someone insists on their own freedom, it’s always worth listening, and that’s what we’re aiming for this season.