A few years ago, my wife and I were walking downtown after having gone out to dinner and she asked me how I imagined our lives in the future. She wanted details - like where we would be living, what our jobs would be, so on and so forth.
I thought for a bit and said that while I didn’t know exactly what I would be doing, I did know that I wanted my days to be spent having interesting and exciting conversations with people committed to making Milwaukee a more connected, engaged, and vibrant city, and working with them to make it happen.
Needless to say that this job at Imagine MKE has made this vision come true. However, after that conversation, I didn’t make a personal goal or plan to make this happen, it just sort of happened. I’ve often wondered to my wife how it happened and she tells that it doesn’t matter - what mattered was that I was were able to imagine and see it. That’s all that mattered.
I was reminded of this last year when I traveled our state conducting focus groups with people visiting food banks to learn more about their challenges and how the emergency food providers could better serve them. We asked the respondents where they saw themselves in five years and almost no one could answer the question. The ability to see the future and imagine possibilities shriveled under the grinding daily demands of poverty.
This is why - after the gut-wrenching tragedy of Tay’s death earlier this week - when Johanna De Los Santos, one of the Executive Directors at Art Start, dropped into my office on Wednesday and gave me the opportunity to learn about their work, my inspiration was re-fired.
Through the Art Start Portrait Project, boys and young men in Milwaukee and New York City have the opportunity to imagine what they can be. They work with the project’s team to tell the world how they want to be seen, and to develop their voices and get connected to their own stories.
This is really transformative stuff. These are boys from historically marginalized communities whose stories, due to the color of their skin or neighborhoods in which they live, have largely already been written, told, and internalized before they were even born.
By participating in the project, not only are they are able develop tools to imagine what they want to be but they can actually see what their story can look like in the future.
Some of the portraits that are produced are literal, like the boy who wants to become a brain surgeon. Others are more abstract - a boy stands in the middle of the street holding the hands of people in his community, another is portrayed in what feels like an explosion of possibility. Yet, another boy is portrayed as Spider Man.
You can’t get there without being able to see it first and Art Start is giving these boys the gift of being able to see themselves in the future. This is priceless because it gives them the opportunity to imagine what could be possible, which creates the potential for them to become a version of what they have seen.
Art Start’s 2019 Portrait Project public reception and opening will be on October 1 from 5-8 at Kenilworth Gallery East. In the meantime, get excited by checking out their 2018 project video: