The Power of Being Seen (with Tracey Robertson)

This episode spotlights Tracey Robertson, a nonprofit leader and community organizer who was tired of hearing her neighbors repeat stereotypes she knew were not true. She figured that to change the narrative, people needed to be able to see each other more clearly, as complex individuals each with a story to share. In this episode, we learn about a project called Color-Brave that evolved from conversations in a coffee shop to a traveling exhibit and book. You’ll meet Mushe and Shawn, featured in Color-Brave, and the photographer and museum curator who made it possible.

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Color-Brave at the Paine Art Center & Gardens

The Color-Brave Photo Project: Black and Brown Faces, A New Narrative was created to shift some common stereotypes about people of color in Oshkosh, to explore the negative impacts these false narratives have on the entire community, and to celebrate black and brown residents.

Above, photographer Colleen Bies stands with Aaron Sherer, the executive director of the Paine Art Center and Gardens in front of the Color-Brave exhibit. It opened in 2018 at the Paine before traveling to locations in Oshkosh, Appleton, and Fond du Lac. The Color-Brave photo gallery can be found here. Click on each photo to read the narrative.

For the project, each person was interviewed. Wherever the exhibit went, hosts organized community conversations with humanities experts and FIT Oshkosh facilitators. This project was funded in part with a grant from Wisconsin Humanities.  

Buy a copy of the Color-Brave book here!  All proceeds go to support social justice work done by Wisconsin non-profits.

Read Tracey’s featured Love Wisconsin Story

The Color-Brave project was organized by Tracey Robertson and Fit Oshkosh.

From Tracey’s Love Wisconsin story: “One of the biggest fears that some people had starting out is that they were going to be called racist. And so we’d say to people, ‘These are new conversations. We know you’ve been told not to have them, to not ask, to not see color, to be Midwest-nice. No one gets up in the morning, looks in the mirror and says, ‘Okay, who can I oppress today?’ It doesn’t happen like that. It’s more based on what we’ve seen, what’s been normalized, and most of it is unconscious. So what we’re going to ask you to do is to be brave, and engage.’ We told the folks at our conversations, ‘It’s okay when we mess up. We all do. Just dust yourself off and try again.’ To really step out and have those tough conversations—that’s the work to make this a better place for all of us.” 

Tracey first heard the term Color-Brave come in a TED talk given by Mellody Hobson in 2014. Mellody says conversations about race can be very touchy, but that’s exactly why we need to start talking about it. Watch the talk here.

Mushe Subulwa’s Color-Brave Story

“I am African, from Zambia. I first came to the US in 2006 to join my wife Angela at the University of Kansas, where she was finishing her PhD. I come from a place where I am in the majority, and where the beliefs of what it means to be an African—“ubuntu,” meaning “I am who I am because of us”—is instilled in us from the beginning. That’s very different from the individualistic society of America. It has taken me some time to fit in here, where it is not understood we all support each other.

We moved to Oshkosh in 2008. Before I even got a chance to know where black people live in the city, law enforcement visited me at my home. And it was not really nice. I was sitting on the porch, talking on the phone to my nephews and my mom back home, when police cruisers arrived. The police start yelling at me, “Put the phone down!” and “Do you have an ID?” After my wife calmed them down, they told us our neighbors called to say there was a black person here. It was that stereotype that all black people come to Oshkosh for drugs or to commit crimes.

My wife and I have two boys. In our neighborhood, there are lots of kids. They play. They leave their toys on the sidewalk. One day we hear this parent call her son to come home, and she tells him, “You better pick up all your stuff out there before those n-word kids steal it.” My son does not understand this. He is asking me what she is trying to say. I am having a hard time trying to explain to my son that he is perceived to be a thief because he is black.

Why should it be only our responsibility—us as people of color—to teach our children and our friends how to behave?

Photo by Colleen Bies Photography

Read Colleen’s featured Love Wisconsin Story

“Photography was something that I loved in high school. I actually took two classes in high school because I loved it so much. It was one of those things that was a privilege that my family couldn’t afford, we couldn’t afford a camera. Growing up being a poor family, a poor immigrant refugee family, I didn’t really know if I would be successful here. I felt like things were against me. I thought, ‘If I don’t have money for college, then how am I going to pay my bills? If I go to college and I end up having to work a lot, that might make my grades suffer, and then I might drop out.’ I had this whole picture that I had painted in my mind that I would not be successful because I was poor. That is why joining the military was one of the best decisions of my lifeit helped pay for my college. I went to school for finance and worked in that field for a number of years until my second deployment to Iraq. 

When I realized I would prefer to go to war, then go to work, I knew I wasn’t doing what I wanted to do. During my time in Iraq, I did my work. I was pretty confident in what I was doing and a little fearful of what I would do when I came back to Oshkosh. When I came back, I had this idea that since I really had enjoyed photography, I should start doing that again, even if it was just a creative outlet. Eventually, that escalated to the point where I ended up taking my photography business full time.”

Tracey bio for web


Tracey Robertson co-founded and directed Fit Oshkosh, Inc from 2014-2020. Fit Oshkosh, Inc. was a non-profit social justice organization with the mission to promote social transformation, race equity, and justice through Color-Brave conversations, education, advocacy, and research. Tracey specializes in anti-racist curriculum development and has delivered workshops to clients across the United States and Canada. Her 2017 TedX Oshkosh Talk, “Black Girls Aren’t Magic,” received a standing ovation and has been viewed worldwide. She is currently a trainer with Quad Consulting DEI Consultants.

Colleen bio for web


Colleen Bies was born and raised in Wisconsin. Prior to her role as Regional Project Director for Wisconsin Women’s Business Initiative Corporation (WWBIC), Colleen served in the Army National Guard, worked in finance, and created 2 businesses as an entrepreneur. Married for 14 years and a big believer in community, her work is dedicated to servicing her community and supporting her family. You can find Colleen’s 2019 TEDxOshkosh talk on Why Children of Immigrants Work so Hard here and her photography here 

Mushe bio for web


Mushe Subulwa is the Director of SEPO Zambia, a non-profit dedicated to sustainability, education, and progress in western Zambia. Subulwa received the Daisy Frazier Social Justice Award in 2019 for his work with SEPO Zambia.

Shawn bio for web


Shawn Anthony Robinson, Ph.D. is a leading scholar on African American boys with dyslexia. Dr. Robinson has over 40 publications and is a public speaker, consultant, and educator. He is affiliated with Wisconsin’s Equity & Inclusion Laboratory at the University of Wisconsin Madison, Madison Area Technical College, American University, and an active Board member with the International Dyslexia Association. His goal is to change the narrative around dyslexia. His website can be found here.

Aaron bio for web


Aaron Sherer has served as the Executive Director of the Paine Art Center and Gardens since 2002. Sherer leads a varied exhibitions program, including shows by artists such as Dale Chihuly, Normal Rockwell, and Ansel Adams, as well as lamps by Louis Comfort Tiffany and costumes from the television show Downton Abbey. Sherer also initiated the annual Nutcracker in the Castle holiday presentation, now preparing for its 15th year, and he has overseen more than $10 million of historic preservation and capital improvements to the historic estate. Sherer lives in Oshkosh with his husband and four sons

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