"We want our community to go past ‘Midwest Nice’ and talk about race."

Erica Turner

Photos by Stephanie Bartz

Erica Turner | Cedarburg, WI


“I was born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio. Where I lived, there weren't very many white people around. It felt really segregated. But I went to public school in the neighboring city, in Shaker Heights. That suburb was the complete opposite, but I had a diverse group of friends.

My parents used to tell me about how they used to own a business, they lived in the suburbs, things were so great, and I don't remember any of that. I remember the lean times. My mom got really sick at 35 or so—she had her first heart attack. So I remember food stamps, welfare, my mom getting so sick she was bedridden.

From about fifth grade I wanted to be Quincy, from the old TV show. Quincy was a coroner. But my dad said, ‘If you’re always working with dead bodies, there is nobody to talk to. They're not going to talk back.’ I was like, ‘Oh, my goodness. Who am I going to talk to? I may have to reconsider this.’ Because I talk a lot.

I decided not to become a coroner, but I was still going to go to med school. I graduated from high school and got into my first-choice college, which was Case Western University in Cleveland.

I met my future husband on a blind date. He was in ROTC by the time I was graduating high school. I was finishing my freshman year of college at Case Western, and he was getting stationed in Kentucky. I'm like, ‘I think I want to go with you.’ My dad was like, ‘Wait, you're at Case Western to be a doctor.’ I said, ‘I think nursing will be okay for me. I'll get back to school as soon as we get to Kentucky, and I'll do that.’

My husband and I got married and drove to Fort Campbell, Kentucky, to our first duty station. Each time we moved to another duty station, I would have another batch of training and nursing classes. Eventually I got my bachelor’s degree and became a registered nurse.

At the beginning of my husband’s Army career, we moved to a different duty station every three to five years. We did Kentucky, Georgia, Virginia, Texas, Michigan. There’s a saying: ‘Home is where the Army sends you.’ So as long as the five of us were together—me and my husband and our three children—it didn't matter where we were.

In 2008, we were assigned to Milwaukee as our last duty station."

Erica Turner

“When my husband and I were researching where to buy a house near Milwaukee, we found this beautiful, historic small town called Cedarburg. It had annual festivals, nice parks and good schools. It was mostly white, but I’m not fearful of people that don’t look like me. Why should I care that it’s mostly white? It didn’t matter. But my children were young, and I wanted to prepare them. I told them, ‘There will be people who will break their necks turning to look at you. They will turn all the way around as if to say, ‘Wait, are you supposed to be here?’

I tried to guide my children in giving people grace. I told them not to let people just outright disrespect them, but you’ve got to give a little bit of space to people who truly have never seen a black person up close before, or who have never had any kind of meaningful relationship or encounter with a black person. And I think that there are some of those people here. Because if you live here, and you do business, work, play, worship here, you don’t have to ever run into a black person. Ever.

Just because we’re in a nice suburb doesn’t mean there isn’t racial tension. For example, there’s an app we use called Neighbors by Ring that lets people in the community share crime and safety alerts with each other. The app is supposed to make us feel safer, but my family and I just feel targeted by it.

I’ll never forget when I was looking at the app one day and noticed a report about African Americans who were driving slowly through the neighborhood. Others even encouraged them to call the police about it. What if they were lost or distracted like any driver could have been? They didn’t seem to understand why it’s problematic to track people of color and link them to non-existent criminal activity. Our skin shouldn't be a cause for concern. We belong in this neighborhood, just like anybody else.

I've told my kids that even in situations where they feel targeted, they can’t explode. They can’t mouth off. They have to bottle up their emotions, then come back home and we'll talk about it. Because they won’t get the benefit of the doubt.

Who but black moms have to tell their children they will not get the benefit of the doubt? It causes so much anxiety and unnecessary stress.

A few years ago I met a friend, Heidi, at our church. Both of us noticed that there was a lot of sameness here. It felt really strange to us, but all the people who were born and raised here didn’t see it. So we commiserated about it. One day Heidi was like, ‘I’m writing articles for this little local magazine. What if I interviewed you?’

It gave me pause. If I started talking about race in Ozaukee County, how were people going to react towards me, my children, my husband? It could make things very uncomfortable. I didn’t know if I wanted to do that. When you start talking about racism, a lot of people are like, ‘Well, that doesn’t happen here. That’s in the South and the ‘60s.’ But Heidi encouraged me. She said, ‘Your voice has to be out there.’

So we sat and we talked about my experience living as a black woman in a mostly white town. She wrote an article, and it was well-received, I think. It seemed like a good time to say, ‘All right, I’m ready to talk about some stuff. I’m ready to tell people what I think. And I’m ready to work on some fixes, because people can’t imagine fixing something if they don’t even recognize it’s a problem.’”

Erica Turner

“In 2016, there was unrest in Milwaukee, in Sherman Park, after the fatal police shooting of a young black man, Sylville Smith. At the time, all my children were either living at home or close to home. Every day, we were talking about this. We were watching the news. I live in Cedarburg; Milwaukee is right there. It felt like my backyard was burning. The pain of our people bubbled up and bubbled over. It was so painful and so sad.

I would go to places in my community and talk about it, and the reaction was, ‘Well, it's not us.’ Sometimes it would be, ‘It’s not such a big deal,’ or, ‘People shouldn't be burning down their own neighborhoods.’ I was very surprised by the response. People were very disconnected. It was ‘over there.’

I would see hateful things on social media about it. Instead of believing that people were just hateful and ugly, I really wanted to believe they were reacting that way because they don’t know. They don’t understand what it’s like for black and brown people here. How can you hold somebody to a standard if they don't know? And if they don't know and you do know, then you have to tell them.

So I put out a Facebook post. ‘Hey, folks, stop throwing up ugly things on social media. We can disagree without being disagreeable. Let's have a conversation face-to-face. Who wants to come?’ Nobody said anything. Then I put it out again, and four people said, ‘Yeah, sure. Let's talk about this.’

A few local folks joined in, and we sat in my house and had a conversation. I talked about how black and brown people have a perspective and a lived experience that you may not know or understand, but that is absolutely true. We all talk about being followed around in the store. We talk about whose friends have been stopped by the police, and not for an infraction.

All the people in the room besides me were white. They said, ‘All right, what are we going to do?’ I'm like, ‘I don't have an answer. I don't have a plan. But here we are, let's figure it out.’

We decided these conversations are good, and we should keep doing this.

We met again a month or two later at a coffee shop in downtown Cedarburg. That time there were 15 people. At the next meeting, 32 people came. Shortly after that, someone from the library contacted me and said, ‘What if the library sponsored your program, and you had it here?’ I said, ‘Great, let’s do that.’ We couldn’t have a community program without a name, so we decided on Bridge the Divide.

Since then we’ve been hosting meetings at the library every month. Our mission is to be a forum for discussion and action around racial reconciliation. We provide an opportunity for people to listen and learn, but also for me to authentically say, ‘This is what this feels like to be a black person in Cedarburg. This is how it feels to be stared at when I’m walking in the grocery store. How do you think it feels when someone stares at you like that? Then imagine 50 people in a store, and in every aisle you walk down, they're staring at you.’

I cannot speak for all of Black America, because we are not a monolith. But I can share my perspective. This is an affluent community. Most of the people here are white. Everybody has a job. I grew up differently, so I can provide a different perspective. It's not that I'm going to walk around saying that you're wrong, but you don't have my perspective, so let me share it with you.”

Erica Turner

“We’ve been doing Bridge the Divide for two years now, and we’ve tried a lot of different things. Sometimes I talk, but we also bring other people in, like Reggie Jackson of Nurturing Diversity Partners, or community-cultivator Venice Williams of Alice’s Garden.

Heidi and I started doing a podcast where we discuss racial repair, reconstruction, and reconciliation. We interview people with different expertise and experience. Maybe in one episode we'll talk about race and faith, or race and the arts, or race and being a professional.

We want our community to go past ‘Midwest Nice’ and talk about race. I tell people it's going to be uncomfortable, but you're not going to get yelled at and called names because I don't do that, and because I don't want you calling me names. 

Our starting point was, let's have a safe place to talk. Let's make sure that you can ask questions and learn about issues. It's supposed to give people a launching pad.

After we talk about something at Bridge the Divide, I certainly hope that people will go back to their other small groups—their church group, their PTO, their family—and have those same conversations.

I say that our ultimate goal is racial reconciliation. I'm not sure I know what that looks like, but you have got to grow. You have got to learn the things you didn't know, and then you've got to actively change the laws, the policies, the hearts and minds. If you see some unfairness, some injustice—fix it. We should all work to be a part of the Beloved Community that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. envisioned, creating equity, applying justice, and loving each other well.

Maybe you're an artist and you’re like, ‘What can I do?’ Well, what kind of art do you display in your gallery if you have one? Or if you're an art teacher, do you feature black and brown artists in your class? One of the librarians who comes to Bridge the Divide said she took a class to learn about how to diversify the books they have available in the library collection.

Now there are people who are digging in and doing the work with me. I feel like I can stand up and tell my story a little bit more, because I know that I've got some support. It can be a struggle to fit all of this in while working full-time, but sometimes I forget because I'm so passionate about it.”

-Erica Turner | Cedarburg, WI