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Wauwatosa committing to making city more welcoming to African Americans

Wauwatosa drone shot
Posted at 6:44 PM, Jan 15, 2021
and last updated 2021-01-15 19:44:17-05

WAUWATOSA — A new study commissioned by the City of Wauwatosa tells a harsh truth about the way people of color feel when they’re in its jurisdiction.

They don’t feel welcome.

Overwhelmingly, the report says nearly every aspect of the city lacks diversity. From community events, the city workers, business owners and vendors and the schools.

“Lack of diversity was seen as an issue, contributing to feelings of being unwelcomed and not truly belonging in Wauwatosa,” the report said.

Wauwatosa is overwhelmingly white
The City of Wauwatosa is overwhelmingly white, at 86.2 percent.

The statistics bear out the claims. The US Census shows the city is 86.2 percent white. In order to increase diversity, the city feels they need to foster a more welcoming environment in key areas like minority-owned businesses, school population and having more affordable housing.

The US Census shows the median value of homes is $242,800. The UWM study on the State of Black Milwaukee shows the median household income for African Americans is $31,052. The website says someone with that household income can only afford a house about half that price ($122,479.15).

There’s also a lack of African American owned businesses. Nikki’s Boutique on North Avenue closed down its storefront about a year ago, but had nothing to do with the pandemic.

Nikki's Boutique on North Ave.
The storefront of Nikki's Boutique on North Avenue sits empty in January; a year after she left due to racial treatment she received.

“One morning, I just woke up and said, I'm tired of fighting,” Nikki Burt, owner of Nikki’s Boutique said. “Tired of just being here and the lack of support with Wauwatosa. Then, my neighbors. I’m done with fighting. I said, 'I have to go. I have to move on beyond this location.'”

After eight years, she took her operation exclusively online, where she is thriving. The sign for her former storefront still hangs in front of the empty storefront; a symbol of lost revenue for the city.

But also, a symbol of being fed up. Burt says finances had nothing to do with her leaving. It was purely because of the treatment she received for being Black.

Nikki Burt, owner of Nikki's Boutique
Nikki Burt, owner of Nikki's Boutique

“Here’s a prime example,” Burt said. “I had a white man come into my store and said, 'if you had a white girl behind that counter, your business would be better.' I have had white women look in the window and I can see them with families, pointing at dresses, oohing and ahhing. Then they open the door and see a Black girl behind the counter and say, oh sorry and leave.”

Nikki’s experience isn’t the only one like it. The study shows 51.7 percent of respondents are highly concerned about the current state of equity in Wauwatosa being inclusive.

“Wauwatosa is a very special community,” Melissa Weiss, Director of Administrative Services for the City of Wauwatosa said. “We’ll always have opportunity for businesses to be successful and homeowners as well. We do have opportunity for change as well. We’ll focus on this and make it a priority in Wauwatosa for everybody's wellbeing and equity success in the future.”

Weiss feels this can be a turning point for the city but she knows more work needs to be done.

“We can always invite people to join us at the table but if it’s not a comfortable experience, they won’t stay,” Weiss said. “We’re focused on the things we can do there.”

“The feeling that was overwhelming in the study is not just the feeling of not being welcomed but the feeling of not belonging to a city,” Pardeep Kaleka, Executive Director of the Zeidler Group said. “That’s a deep feeling. How do you let your children know, I feel like I don’t belong to the city? You want to raise kids without the trauma of historical pasts but when that historical past comes up and slaps you in the face, you have to face it.”

The study surveyed 70 people about their feelings on the city. Kaleka helped run the study. He says, while a sample size of 70 isn’t enough to get a complete truth, it’s a point to start making change.

“At some point, the design you have to improve equity, reflect and bring people back to the table and see if that’s working,” Kaleka said. “See what is working and what is not working and continuously improve the way you’re directing services.”

Kaleka says it’s also about starting the conversation to make change.

“We have to be serious about having honest, open and heartful conversations about racism and the foundations of racism within this country and the foundations of racism in Wauwatosa,” Kaleka said. “I hope this study is the turning point for Wauwatosa.”

Now, the real work begins. Weiss says the Common Council will discuss next steps Tuesday.

“The city is working on a strategic planning process where equity is the primary focus for the city,” Weiss said. “We don’t have answers yet, but we think the first step is identifying concerns and we’ll work with the staff to turn things around.”

Weiss believes the city will create goals and benchmarks to achieve over the next five years.

This kind of change could have a big impact on the little boutique that used to inhabit a small space on North Ave.

“I would feel, as a Black woman, that Wauwatosa welcomes us,” Burt said. “The fact, I know people don’t want me there because of the color of my skin made me want to stay and succeed and just be the best I can be. I would do it again.”

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