"My motto is 'Only connect.' It's a really simple call to action."
Dominic | Milwaukee, WI
“I grew up in Seattle. Neither of my parents finished college, though my dad went to a trade school. I think that is what fueled my parents' desire for my sister and me to take advantage of everything we had available to us and do our best.
It was wonderful to grow up with a lot of love and support from my family, especially educationally. I remember my parents being intimately involved with everything related to schoolwork. If I needed help on an assignment, like math or language arts, they’d sit down with me. When I did a spelling bee, my dad would drill me, even though he couldn’t pronounce or spell many of the words.
They both worked hard so we could have what we needed, and they always found the time to help me.
We were all very crafty, as well. I remember my fourth-grade class made papier-mâché masks, and everyone came in with small, flat masks. But I worked on mine with my dad, and brought in a gigantic, four-foot-long Pacific Northwest Raven made of multilayered poster board. It was hinged so it could open. I could put it on over my head and we put a headrest inside so it was comfortable. I’d always felt like I had this cool advantage, having parents who wanted to help be a part of all of that and yet give me the freedom to learn on my own and push myself.
At one point, my dad was working as an auto body rebuilder, working at the Metro Bus Company and also working another job doing janitorial work. He would get home around 11:30 or midnight. When he’d get home, I would be up studying and we’d spend a little time together over pots of coffee and warmed-up spaghetti before he went to bed. He was quiet and unassuming—not a very conversational dad. But he was there to support what I wanted to do, even if he didn’t always understand it.
My dad was born in Tokyo and was pretty non-religious for most of his life, as far as I know. I’d grown up with a liberal Catholicism from my mom’s side, focused more on love and praise than fire and brimstone. But over the years, my mom went through different stages of her faith, and eventually her religion got more restrictive and constrictive, more and more rule-bound.
My mom and I were both religious, but we started to diverge onto different paths. In high school, I became a more of an Evangelical Catholic. I started carrying my Bible around school, doing Bible studies with a group of about 20 kids and sneaking out of the house to go to my friends’ non-Catholic churches. I didn’t want to be confrontational. I wanted to have a dialogue with my mom about this.
One day I told her I wasn’t going to pray the rosary after dinner with her, like we did every single day for years of my life, my sister and I flanking her, on our knees, in front of her bedroom dresser. I told her I didn’t have to pray to Mary because I have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. It was like pulling her heart out. After trying to convince me otherwise, eventually she accepted it."
“Even though I was still living in my parents’ house during college, there was a sense of freedom and exploration for me when I went to Seattle University, which is a Jesuit school. Suddenly, I was reading Plato, Aristotle, and the Odyssey for the first time. I’m learning Hebrew; I’m learning different types of theology and talking history with incredible professors who made it come alive for me.
High school came pretty easy for me, I always had a 4.0, I was the valedictorian. But when I got to college, I started to have all of these uncomfortable moments where I felt truly humbled by what I didn’t know. For the first time, I recognized that I didn’t always know what I was talking about. I started learning all kinds of stuff, not just academically, but spiritually, too.
My Catholicism became more meditative and contemplative. I spent five days at a silent retreat at a Benedictine abbey in Canada, and it was incredible. It was so inward and silent, unlike the outward praise I had been so used to. It bestowed a quieter, more mystical sense of what God is.
There was a priest there who was also a physics teacher and a theology teacher. I would go to his masses in a small, beautiful, intimate chapel and listen him talk about the Trinity in terms of quantum physics. This gave me a sense of a bigger universality of knowledge, of experience, of connections.
College helped me figure out who I was as a person, as a student, as a thinker, and as a leader. Learning about all these big ideas, sitting on a beautiful campus in the middle of the city, reading Plato under a tree—it was kind of ideal in my head. I remember wanting to be Mr. Keating in 'Dead Poets Society.' That was my dream, to sit in my office with a library of books behind me, heels kicked up and smoking a pipe, with kids lined up at the door to talk to me. So I applied to graduate school to get my Master’s in English.
I was accepted to great schools all over the country, but Marquette in Milwaukee was the only school that offered me a full ride and gave me the opportunity to teach for a stipend. So, without knowing anything about Wisconsin, I packed up and got ready to drive to Marquette with my dad.
I was focused on academics in college, but I did date some. I dated girls, but I always felt pulled in a different direction. In fact, ever since my Bible study days in high school I felt that tension. Back then it wasn’t a specific crush, but I felt attracted to men.
I think it was good that I had the faith that I did during high school, because at that point it literally saved me. I thought back then if I’d start having those thoughts, I could pray and they’d go away. I had this belief in my head that I could pray things away. Looking back now, it was pretty unhealthy, but I also know that if I decided to come out back then I would been all alone, like a lot of kids are. I wouldn't have had any support or acceptance.
The month before I left for graduate school in Milwaukee, I was ready to deal with it, and I went on my first date with a man. After so many years of ignoring my feelings, it felt good to finally realize that there’s someone else attracted to me, too. He was this guy I would always see at the bank near campus, and I would always make sure I was in his line. He had a kind, gentle voice. I looked him up in the phone book and left him a message asking him out on a date. Just before I left for grad school, I ended up bringing him to a wedding reception with all of my friends and my former girlfriend. She was like, ‘Oh yeah, we all knew.’ Oh, great.
So now, some of my friends now knew, but considering how hard my mom took it when I told her that I didn’t want to pray the rosary, I knew I would never tell my parents that I was gay.”
“When I left for Marquette and moved out of my parent’s house for the first time, I knew I wanted to connect with people in the gay community in Milwaukee. I was ready to start dating.
I was also taking classes and teaching freshman classes, so I was always walking around in my khaki pants, button-down shirt, tweed jacket, a tie, and a little shoulder bag. I was a bit of a nerd, but it turns out some people were into that—or thought it was cute and innocent.
My sister knew that I was gay and was supportive of me. But later, when she was in the middle of yet another argument with our parents, she outed me to them. She was on a call with them and basically blurted out, 'Well, Dominic's going on a date with somebody named Christopher.' That was awkward. I knew she didn’t really mean to tell them, it just came out.
Things blew up. My mom and I started a 10-year saga, writing letters back and forth trying to reason with each other and convert each other to what was right. Was it morally okay for me to be gay, or was it against God’s plan? My mom had a love of literature growing up and always instilled that in me. So I’d sling some E.M. Forster at her, and she’d sling me some John Donne, or I’d throw her some Buddhist philosophy and she’d give me Thomas Aquinas. Over time, her letters started to be become more and more apocalyptic.
I think we eventually just wore each other out. I put a lot of emotion and thought into every letter, I was trying to win them over, but it just became so repetitive and exhausting. Even though the letters were so painful to receive, I didn't want to stop trying. I would think, ‘I’ve just got to write back again. I can convince them.’ I think that the whole time I was hoping my dad would come to his senses and be like, ‘Okay, I don’t understand, but that’s fine,’ just like he used to. But she ventriloquized him and he signed a couple of letters telling me not to contact them ever again unless I’d changed my mind about being gay. So, the letters stopped.
I haven’t seen my parents in over 12 years. I’m not even completely sure where they’re living now, or if they’re even still alive.
Despite all the support they’d given to me my entire life, and pushing me to be the best that I could be socially, career-wise, and health-wise, all of which I did, this was somehow the last straw for them. They always had high hopes for me and wanted me to be the best person I could be—so why would I choose to just throw it all away? That’s how they saw my sexuality…as a choice to throw everything away. It turns out that it was they who threw me away. They've missed half my life, and I've missed theirs.
I know when my relationship with my parents ended, but I can’t pinpoint the exact day that I left the church. My faith has slowly transformed into a faith in humanity. For me, it became more about what I see in front of me. That is enough, and by God we know it needs help. When I realized that, it was like, wow, there's so much in front of us and in our world that needs our reverence now, that needs attention. Although it is not a traditional form of faith, reverence for humanity can be profound and humbling. For me, it’s a call to action to be of service in our society and to do what I can to help others.”
“My first year teaching at Marquette was a full-blown trial by fire, which was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. I had one month of training to learn about grammar and rhetoric and how to work with Marquette students. I had one or two classes a semester. I had office hours at the coffee shop; I could hang at the library. I went to class and met kids after.
I was on my own for the first time, and it was great. On top of teaching, I was also working at a few different places around town, like Schwartz Book Shop and Stone Creek Coffee. I was meeting people and expanding my perspectives in all kinds of different ways.
A friend of mine invited me and a bunch of people down to Chicago to go to a play, and that’s where I met Scott. At some point that night, we were at a restaurant under the L and we got to talking; he found me to be a kind of relief. We were with people who were very into material things, and neither of us was very interested in their conversations. We hit it off immediately.
We continued to talk and built a friendship. It just felt so good, so natural. Eventually, I asked him out for a coffee, and then soon after he had to leave town for work but sent me postcards from the Loretto Chapel in Santa Fe, which he found ‘terribly romantic.’
He introduced me to his family, and I became part of it from the moment we met. I was involved and accepted and even became an uncle right away. Over the years, I got to watch his brother's and sister’s kids grow up, go through college, and get careers.
My ostracism from my own family made Scott angry and sad. He was always a supportive presence during the years of relentless letter exchanges with my mother. He is such a kind soul, and I knew he was the man I wanted to be with for the rest of my life.
Last November, after 20 years together, we got engaged, and then married the next month.”
“I was still teaching freshman English at Marquette when one of my friends called me up from her school, Pius XI, and said, ‘Hey, do you want a job?’ ‘Sure.’ It was that simple. I went in for an interview, got hired, and started teaching high-schoolers.
Teaching high-schoolers was a whole new world. I came in to Pius mid-semester, and the sophomores were reading Jean Anouilh’s Antigone. These kids wanted none of it. We used a demerit system to keep them under control, but they talked and talked while we were trying to do things.
I would get frustrated a lot when I first started, and I came up with ridiculous consequences. Like after three demerits, you had to go measure the hall with a tiny ruler. We had long hallways, and six floors of them. I realized—you know what? Some of these kids probably would rather go measure the hallway with a tiny ruler than sit here and read Antigone. So I got rid of that.
It was a lot of trial and error to figure out how to effectively teach and manage. The world kind of opened up when I realized I really didn't have to have a worksheet for everything or study questions for every chapter. This kind of busy work can have a point, but there’s more to learn in other ways.
For instance, when I started teaching the Hero’s Journey, the narrative arc we study in mythology and literature, I had the students travel through all six floors of the school to physically map the Hero’s Journey. We spread out and got our exercise and bugged the math teachers down the hall.
After I started using the classroom more fluidly, using art to learn, and playing around with discussion models, I realized this is who I am. This is who my students and colleagues need me to be. I took more ownership of my teaching style. It became, ‘Oh yeah, that's a Dominic thing to do.’
I continued to push the envelope through teaching for the next 17 years. I always tried to encourage my students to explore issues in their communities or the world and to have honest conversations, even about difficult topics, to find their own voices. High school students often feel forced to choose something—choose a college, choose a direction, figure their lives out right away. But I reminded them: Whatever you do, it’s okay if you change.
In the spring of 2016, I was at home anticipating re-signing my teaching contract. I had been thinking about it for a while but it suddenly hit me like an epiphany: ‘Maybe I, too, am ready for a change.’
I had already been testing the waters to see what might be out there for me outside of teaching, and applied to and was chosen as the ninth 'Pfister Narrator' for the Pfister Hotel in Milwaukee. I was excited to interview people and further develop my own writing style for the first time in a really long time.
I also had some other ideas I wanted to pursue, but they needed my time and dedication. It took a fair bit of convincing, but I got Scott’s support. I left a pretty nice-paying job, but had a whole future of possibilities ahead of me. Bless him for supporting my new venture. My headmaster tried convincing me to do just one more year, but I was just like, ‘No, I need to see where this new path leads.’”
“After quitting teaching, I had a whole summer ahead of me to fill however I wanted. For 22 years my passion had been focused on helping my students find their own voices through writing. Now was my chance to find my own.
In addition to my new opportunity as the Pfister Narrator, I also created a blog called Relevant Milwaukee. I was drawn to the idea of sharing stories about relevance. I wanted each story to celebrate our capacity for lifting each other up, for releasing each other from the forces that make us seem or feel irrelevant, which is what the word "relevant" literally means.
The blog focused on a lot of different topics, including community events and artists, people or things that lift us up and bring us together. I was planning to continue my work on Relevant Milwaukee when the police shooting and subsequent uprising in Sherman Park happened.
Scott and I were at a music festival on the East Side. Around 10 o’clock, there was an announcement that someone had been shot by a police officer in Sherman Park, a Milwaukee neighborhood. We found out later he was Sylville Smith, a young black man. For days and weeks, even months after, the only talk I heard about Sherman Park was about ‘those’ people, the violence in the city, the destruction. There was this talk, especially on social media, that divided the city in a very negative way. Suddenly, people felt they had the license to say whatever the hell they wanted to say about anybody.
That’s when my wheels started turning. At the heart of the systemic racism and segregation in Milwaukee is the fact that we philosophically, physically, and emotionally don’t see each other. That makes it a lot easier for us to be prejudiced, to hate, to even kill somebody. How many parts of this city—and the people in them—have we not really seen?
So out of this, I decided to start a new project called ZIP MKE, a reference to the many ZIP Codes in the city and an homage to the people and the places that go unseen by many in Milwaukee. I gathered some photographers and designers together to collaborate, and we met at a coffee shop near Marquette one rainy night. We put together a website right away. We wanted to create a space online to gather and feature photos from every one of Milwaukee’s ZIP Codes.
The vision is to create the most comprehensive photo album of the city, not just its buildings and landmarks and beautiful professional shots, but its people, its everyday moments. And we want people from all over the city to participate and engage in the process.
We started collecting photos all over the city. Within three months, we had 900 images. We chose 300 for our first big exhibit at the Central Library downtown.
From there, the project has grown. We’ve done community events in different neighborhoods, pop-up galleries with the photos, and other exhibits. This summer, we went to a community festival in Sherman Park and displayed some of the photos there. It reached people on a different level than our other exhibits. We had the opportunity to talk about the people and places in the pictures with a diverse group of people who were exhilarated to see people like them represented.
Through ZIP MKE we want to show people not something new, but something that’s already there. Something more of the city than they normally see. We want them to think about the concept of ‘despite’. As in: despite segregation, for instance, look at these beautiful examples of humanity in Milwaukee. We’re only just getting started. It has been joyful for me to work on a collaborative project that gives back to my community.
Personally, I feel like I have a stronger focus than I ever did. In college, I adopted one of my mottos from E.M. Forster. The motto is, 'Only connect.' It's a really simple call to action. And I'm living that out as much as I can. To connect, to understand, to empathize—if I can do that in this city as much as possible, then I'm doing what I'm supposed to be doing.”
-Dominic | Milwaukee, WI