meet atieno: detroit community organizer, farmer and sangoma-griot

Sometimes it feels like we are powerless.

  • Families in Flint, Mich., reach for bottled water, now painfully aware that they have already, unknowingly, poisoned themselves and their children with one of life’s basic necessities.
  • Refugees, now in the press less, still struggle to redefine home, reconnect family and find some semblance of stability.
  • People of all colors, genders, religions and cultures check the calendar to confirm that yes, it is actually 2016, and yes, we are actually still as a country pushing forth a presidential candidate that unabashedly and loudly discriminates against a wide and beautiful part of our population.
“Some of these foraged foods I’m talking about tend to grow where the soil isn’t so rich—they’re hardy, less intensive,” Atieno says. “My position when it comes to this farming movement is to advocate for the inclusion of these other greens and vegetables and flowers into our diets. They are indigenous, Native American, culinary heritage crops. For many of us in different parts of world, you see so much more continuity in our diet over generations.”

“Some of these foraged foods I’m talking about tend to grow where the soil isn’t so rich—they’re hardy, less intensive,” Atieno says. “My position when it comes to this farming movement is to advocate for the inclusion of these other greens and vegetables and flowers into our diets. They are indigenous, Native American, culinary heritage crops. For many of us in different parts of world, you see so much more continuity in our diet over generations.”

Holy mother of pearl, this is dire. It truly is no time to give up—so bowing to perceived powerlessness just can’t be a thing. We all have different levels of resources and connections, but we also each have a voice, a heart, a purpose.

Atieno Nyar Kasagam, 25, shows us that we can rise above our situations and come together with others for a common goal. Our leaders can only put their political gains ahead of the public good for so long; people like Atieno are bringing their voices together to be louder, to be challenging, to be visionaries.

Atieno is changing the world by changing her world, starting in Detroit’s local food scene. I met her this fall at her home and urban farm. While we talked and spent time with her sharp and funny little girl, my boyfriend, James, helped her husband, Lorenzo, install the next section of their roof. Nothing cures powerlessness like picking up a hammer.

People with Panache: How long have you been growing food?

Atieno Nyar Kasagam: I’ve been gardening for three years: two in Detroit, one in East Lansing at Michigan State, where I went to school. They have a project connected to the food bank where you can sign up for land to garden for free if you like.

Most gardeners there are immigrants. It’s a great opportunity to grow things from our home countries that we can’t get in the grocery stores. So I extend that here to the degree that I can. A lot of the greens I would’ve eaten back home are Native American varieties that grow here naturally. So I forage now and I allow the edible weeds to grow: huckleberry leaves, violets, sunberry leaves.

PWP: It’s clear this home, this homestead, is really a family effort.

"Rather than sitting and chilling and watching cartoons all day, we recognize the power of interaction," Atieno says. "We see that as the power of education."

“Rather than sitting and chilling and watching cartoons all day, we recognize the power of interaction,” Atieno says. “We see that as the power of education.”

ANK: This journey started when I met Lorenzo in the most unexpected way you can imagine. He was a senior agricultural business management major from Detroit; I was a freshman majoring in political philosophy and came from Kenya for college. I was headed to, at best, somewhere corporate globally. I was always interested in some type of entrepreneurship.

He applied for that land in Lansing for himself, but a few weeks after he got in, he got an opportunity and had to leave—so I dove in. That was the beginning of the end. I had to cover for him, water the plants, plant more stuff…I took over and redesigned it. I was there every evening. I went to school and worked by day, and at night I’d be at the farm. There would be an Indian guy next to me, a Chinese guy over there, different folks growing their stuff.

When we were in there, we saw each other as equal. Everyone was open. If you wanted anything from my lot, you could come get it. It was such a different dynamic in that space.

PWP: So I know in many ways, in several projects across different media, you’re working to organize Detroit growers to advocate for needs. What does that look like?

ANK: It’s not on my own. I kind of took the baton from other farmers trying to organize farmers in the city. It hadn’t been very successful in the past, but it’s on now. We just had our third monthly Detroit Urban Farmers meeting. We’re trying to build what we’ve agreed to call a network and build social capital among the farmers.

We are creating intentional space for farmers to socialize, share resources and to organize for political reform in urban agriculture in Detroit. As you can see, my policy thing is creeping out. I grow, but I’m not going to be a farmer in my obituary. I’m not trying to go scientific with this work; I’m trying to go political.

“Music is a powerful tool that shapes who I am,” Atieno says. “I want to harness it as part of the ways I communicate. I’ve been a student of music for a long time, formally and informally. I do a lot of poetry, writing, improvised speaking. I’ve got the words—they come to me easily. Music for me is this wild dragon I’m trying to get on and ride.”

“Music is a powerful tool that shapes who I am,” Atieno says. “I want to harness it as part of the ways I communicate. I’ve been a student of music for a long time, formally and informally. I do a lot of poetry, writing, improvised speaking. I’ve got the words—they come to me easily. Music for me is this wild dragon I’m trying to get on and ride.”

PWP: I like it. We need people like you representing the reality and the future of urban agriculture—but also communities, resources and equality.

ANK: I’m aggregating resources from all these organizations in Detroit, so if they’re not affiliated to one or another you can come to a central place where you can find a listing of all of them.

You’d think that thing would exist, because there’s a lot of coverage of urban farmers of Detroit, but it fades away. We must produce our own media by ourselves of the narrative we want to project. A lot of media isn’t targeted locally; it’s targeted to show off: “This is revitalization.” The people coming to get these stories want to get the “positive” story, but the kinds of stories we want to tell on the ground are the struggles to, for example, get land to farm. There’s so much land—and so much red tape around the land redistribution process, especially if you’re poorer and can’t afford to pay $5,000 to bid on property. There is underlying politics in these challenges that are real, that are not going to be addressed by focusing on the gloss of farming. Those of us making this our living have some real shit to say.

PWP: Wow, right. It seems counterproductive that so much of the media features just the shiniest farming stories when the people who really want to farm can’t.

ANK: One of the top managers of this big urban agriculture organization in Detroit described Detroit as the capital of urban ag in the US, maybe the world. That’s an oxymoron; Detroit should reflect that with progressive and revolutionary policies. If that was the case, there would be a lot of work toward even the most basic resources, like allowing spaces for composting.

And the river is one block away from my home, with a nice park—and signs listing all the contaminated fish you should not eat because the river is filled with toxins. We live next to a water source, by the Great Lakes, yet we’re having a water crisis. If we don’t see all of these things as connected, we’re doing nothing. Everything within these systems of oppression is connected and feeding off each other, and when we alienate ourselves into factions ­only interested in water or food waste, we’re being very myopic.

Look at Detroit Urban Farmers. You can see I’m trying to be so intentional listing all people’s platforms, activities, websites. Right now it takes two forms: a list of resources and editorials by farmers. It’s still building up.

PWP: What’s it like doing this work and being a mother?

Atieno’s husband’s parents live across the street in the house he grew up in. His parents bought their house for $4,000 five years ago, and it hadn’t been inhabited for awhile. It needed a lot of work, and Atieno and Lorenzo been working to rehabilitate it from uninhabitable house to home and farm. Here's her little girl in their hoophouse.

Atieno’s husband’s parents live across the street in the house he grew up in. His parents bought their house for $4,000 five years ago, and it hadn’t been inhabited for awhile. It needed a lot of work, and Atieno and Lorenzo been working to rehabilitate it from uninhabitable house to home and farm. Here’s her little girl in their hoophouse.

ANK: I have so many things I’m trying to do and it’s really difficult. I’m struggling with the fact that motherhood slows things down, which is the truth, especially if you are the primary caregiver of your child.

It has really opened my eyes to the significance of feminism. I think younger women who speak of feminism, women who have not experienced motherhood closely, might be not be very aware of how roles start to change because of the biological differences, the way in which a child desires and depends on a mother. It makes you very aware of so many things. It makes you see society does not accommodate a woman with a child. Children are supposed to be institutionalized ASAP in society—right into daycare with a set routine. And if you are the type of mother who rejects institutionalization you are in for it.  

PWP: Atieno, with all your roles—mother, connector, filmmaker, webmaster and more—what do you think of yourself as?

ANK: I do have a way I define it, but it’s not an English word. I define myself as sangoma-griot and farmer in Detroit.

I was looking for a word to identify with: Sangoma is a Zulu word from South Africa. It means literally “a person of the music.” It’s used for herbalists, healers, medicine makers, but the root of the word is music. Music is one of my strongest mediums for engagement. A sangoma is someone who is very very rooted in communities, very aware, a good point person in advocating for people.

A griot is sort of the same meaning from West Africa. A griot tends to be like a maestro— someone very, very proficient at music, not just music for music’s sake, an orator, an excellent communicator. Communication is political consciousness and activism, very rooted in people, humanity, society. I couldn’t find an English word that worked for me, so these all combine my deepest desires.

[Photos by Alysse.]

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femfest 2016: meet yessica, illustrator

“Art is how we decorate space; music is how we decorate time.”

Riverwest FemFest combined both. Atop Company Brewing on Saturday and Sunday of FemFest, 20+ artists and activists came together in a pop-up gallery space to share their heart-fueled and purposeful paintings, drawings, 3D works, video installations, and more.

Among them was Yessica Jimenez, the Milwaukee born and raised artist behind Xeroine Illustration. For FemFest, she created a series of five portraits featuring Milwaukee musicians Fivy, Siren, Zed Kenzo, Queen Tut, and Chakara Blu. We met up before FemFest began, and I can hardly believe after an empowering, love-filled, authentic, weird, wonderful weekend that it’s already over. The support and significant ripple effects will go on—especially since FemFest ended up raising $10,000 for Date Rape Awareness Milwaukee!

This piece was one of five in Yessica's FemFest series. Contact her to purchase a print, and check out our Q&A with Zed Kenzo here.

This piece was one of five in Yessica’s FemFest series. Contact her to purchase a print, and check out our Q&A with Zed Kenzo here.

People With Panache: How do you feel making your first FemFest series? What do you get out of this? Continue reading

femfest 2016: meet melissa, artist and poster creator

Melissa Johnson and I met at 88Nine/Stone Creek Coffee and were able to find a corner tucked away from the 414 Music Live session with Allen Coté. (After the interview, I stayed to hear Jack Garratt’s live recording in the 414 Room; it was incredible!) Today, Melissa had her “last first day” at Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design (MIAD). She’s in her final semester as an integrated studio arts major, which, I learned, means she isn’t limited to just one medium.Melissa Johnson

Here’s her little slice of Riverwest FemFest 2016: Continue reading

femfest 2016: meet zed kenzo, hip-hop artist

“FemFest is important to me because women are often undermined, ignored, ridiculed and insulted as both people and artists,” Zed Kenzo told 88Nine, Milwaukee’s local radio station that loves to lift up our homegrown artists. They caught up with 11 Riverwest FemFest performers to share what the Fest means to them—and everyone’s answers made it pretty clear that this powerhouse of a hip-hop artist isn’t alone. “We are way more under scrutiny and not given the opportunities that our male counterparts are given simply because we are female. FemFest gives us a platform to unite as artists, use our power combine our energy and take a stand that says, ‘Yes, we can do the same thing as you, we are talented, we are independent and we are not playing around.’ I’m simply grateful that it exists and feel honored to be a part of it.”

Zed Kenzo and I talked last night after she finished up an all-ages show at the Jazz Gallery in Riverwest, where Friday night’s FemFest shows will happen. It’s a meaningful effort to include more venues even for the non-21-year-olds in a music festival all about celebrating strong, diverse, inspiring women. I know teenage me would have l-o-v-e-d FemFest.

Suggestion: Hit play on this song and read a little more from Zed Kenzo before her show on Saturday night.

Zed Kenzo 02 People With Panache: How did you get involved in the Milwaukee music scene after coming back from LA?

Zed Kenzo: I was asked by my friend Kiran, a.k.a. Q the Sun, to join the bill for an all-womyn lineup for a show called “Festivale Fatale” where I met Queen Tut , Fivy and Cat Ries of NO/NO and Pleasure Thief (her solo artist name). From that point on, other individuals in the Milwaukee music scene kept asking me to join bills. Continue reading

femfest 2016: meet treccy, singer in mortgage freeman and ruth b8r ginsburg

There are few things more inspiring than a woman who recognizes her own power and individuality and wants to share them with the world.

Thank you to Treccy Marquardt-Thomas for being this woman—and the first to be featured in our Riverwest FemFest miniseries this week leading up to the Fest on January 21-24, 2016.

I’m Alysse’s roommate, Jessica. Alysse and I were at 88Nine Radio Milwaukee’s live FemFest music preview when we came up with the idea to do as many FemFest-focused interviews as we could the week of the event. Riverwest FemFest is Milwaukee’s four-day fundraiser and music festival “celebrating talented and strong women through music, art and poetry.” So tonight, I was honored to spend time with Treccy—a musician in both Mortgage Freeman and Ruth B8r Ginsburg—to talk about her music-making and kick off the series. Treccy is smart, warm and, like the rest of us, beyond excited for the weekend to get here.by Kelly Marquardt Continue reading

meet bethany: revolutionizing education in milwaukee (escuela verde series 03)

Bethany Vannest

“I’ve always felt the education system is unfair the way that we assess students,” Bethany says. “I’ve always worked in Milwaukee, and I wanted to teach here. It’s made me look at the education system and just say, ‘What’s “wrong” with MPS? What’s “wrong” with students in Milwaukee?’ Nothing inherently—a lot of students have been traumatized! Trauma totally affects the way brains take in learning, affects the ability to sit in a desk and feel like you can ace this test, affects the ability to sit in this chair and listen for 60 minutes.”

Today, we celebrate the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

In workplaces and churches, community centers and homes—blogs, too!—we all honor and continue his quest toward justice, equality and peace.

Just as I was writing this, I got a text from my boyfriend, James:

“I want to live in a world that is not controlled by money and greed; where kids can play in the streets and be safe; where individuals can work in collaboration and help one another rather than fighting over political, racial, religious and monetary differences; where we use resources given to us thoughtfully, rather than destroying the one planet we have.”

I want to live in that world with him. (Don’t you? We’re getting chickens!)

Well, this wasn’t random. Last night, I returned from a retreat for the Food Leader Certificate Program, in which I am a mentor. The weekend was about turning dreams into plans (and task lists), organizing communities to meet common goals, and servant leadership. And changing the world starting with changing ourselves. To me, it was bliss and filled my heart and mind with ideas and hope. It also seems like an effortless transition to MLK Day. Continue reading

meet nayla: revolutionizing education in milwaukee (escuela verde series 02)

Nayla Bezares 02

How Escuela Verde works: They have a lot of open project spaces in their schedule, and students complete projects to earn credit to advance from one grade to another. If you’re a student who wants to go to medical school, for example, there’s a medical workshop where they bring in professionals from the community.

Kate and I were so pumped to feature Joey Zocher and Escuela Verde, we decided to turn her story and others’ into a series. Please check back over the next few weeks for more Q&A’s with the advisers, educators and overall awesome humans who staff Escuela Verde.

Nayla Bezares, 28, has been an adviser at EV for 5 months.

“My dream was to work for the bad guys and change their perspective,” says Nayla. Born and raised in Puerto Rico, she always knew she wanted to save the world. Now, Nayla’s working with the Good Guys, I’d say, but she got there in a roundabout way.

Nayla and I met at one of our favorite places in Milwaukee—Outpost Natural Foods—to talk about dreams, education, and yes, trying to change the bad guys to change the world.  Continue reading

meet ruth b8r ginsburg: milwaukee musical activists

Ruth B8r Ginsburg

They picked the name Ruth B8r Ginsburg to promote female empowerment—and help people be a little more informed about politics. Notorious R.B.G. is a pretty fabulous role model!

“I feel like I dropped into the middle of this blossoming place, and it’s been amazing.”

“This is sort of therapeutic for me, a safe haven.”

“I feel like this is also a vehicle for messages. We can help!”

These uplifting thoughts bring to mind some of my favorite parts of life—activities that work toward my goals, within my passions, with people I love. While Ousia, Danielle and Johanna said them in the context of their melodically harmonizing, lyrically inspiring band, I feel like they could’ve been talking about anything. A new community, a calling, a group of friends.

That makes sense because Ruth B8r Ginsburg is all three. This week’s interview took me to a kitschy, cozy, eclectic third floor of a home in Milwaukee’s Riverwest neighborhood. It was filled with warm tones and temps, low light and laughter of a bunch of inspiring women. Plus community bottles of local mead and a round of Brie literally being nibbled on made it feel a little extra Wisconsin-y. I liked it a lot.

My friend Quinn Cory invited me to a rehearsal of Ruth B8r Ginsburg, a Milwaukee band known for its mesmerizing harmonies. (Check them out here!) Practice was at the home of Johanna Rose, upright bassist extraordinaire, and I sat on the floor with them and got a really special glimpse into the energy that flows between this stunning ensemble. I even got to be there for their very first recording session. Continue reading

meet erika: woman thriving fearlessly in chicago

Erika Gilchrist, WTF, People with Panache

Erika also started the WTF Institute, where coaches and speakers can license award-winning content (created by Erika of course!) for two to three years and present it. It has three modules in a nice progression. She wants women to understand that they’re not valuable because of what they DO, but because of who they are.

Erika Gilchrist is a woman of juxtapositions.

She grew up in a large family with a packed house—but is an introvert who needs a lot of alone time. She absolutely adores children—but has no desire to have any of her own. She’s been performing on stage practically since birth—but merely the thought of being squished in a large crowd makes her anxious. And she’s happiest when she’s helping other people—but also feels that it’s selfish (in a good way!).

As we sat in Erika’s favorite park on one of the last beautiful fall days in Chicago, we ruminated on many other aspects of Erika and spent a long time talking about communication and how people so often get it wrong.

“It’s a balance—understanding how other people operate so that you’ll know how to communicate with them, even if they’re the polar opposite of who you are,” she says. “That whole thing about treating people the way you want to be treated… I’m like, No. Treat people the way they want to be treated.”

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately: The tug of war between introverts and extroverts can be exhausting—one wanting to hang out all the time (E), the other always wanting a night at home to relax (I). With better quality communication, this struggle isn’t necessary. I opened with Erika’s quote because as you read the rest of our story about her, this notion permeates so much of her actions, thoughts and advice—finding success in any job or industry or business endeavor is about engaging and activating your human network. And that is what Erika loves to help people do. Continue reading

meet joey: revolutionizing education in milwaukee (escuela verde series 01)

Three years ago, I made a list of my personal heroes. I was on a quest to pave a path that melded my skills with my passions and my possibilities, and these people were true inspiration.

Joey, her mentor, and a group of teachers came together to start Escuela Verde as a team, under the umbrella created by the trailblazing TransCenter for Youth.

Joey, her mentor, and a group of teachers came together to start Escuela Verde as a team, under the umbrella created by the trailblazing TransCenter for Youth.

Then I made a list of my core values and drew little maps of potential professional paths I could create for myself, including things like starting a farm, going to grad school, moving to places I’ve never even visited, and—this is great!—working at Victory Garden Initiative! I just found the little notebook I wrote all my dreams and plans in, and I don’t really remember writing that, but it came true. I also researched the best educational programs and companies to work for, compared my strengths and weaknesses, and considered the characteristics and careers of those I looked up to most.

Now fast forward to today, and I really do feel like I’m living the values I listed while I take on the best parts of those paths I drew. (However, I laughed out loud when I found my weakness list and realized most of them hadn’t changed. Note to self: Work. On. Those!)

I also happen to work for one of the women on my hero list—and that dang list just won’t stop growing. Who would be on yours?

Settle in for a good one; Joey’s my newest addition. Continue reading