Tag Archives: Milwaukee

meet chauntee and monique: milwaukee’s sistastrings

Monique and Chauntee, SistaStrings, People with Panache

Chauntee and Monique’s inspirations are Lianne La Havas, a soulful singer with an amazing voice; Monica Martin, the lead singer of PHOX; Erykah Badu – “If she could be my godmother, I would pass away and die,” Chauntee says; Lauryn Hill; classical violinist Hilary Hahn; and Kim Burrell, an amazing gospel singer on Frank Ocean’s latest album. Chauntee laughs — “It was funny, I grew up listening to Kim Burrell, and then I read this article ‘introducing’ her…are you kidding?!”

This Sunday at church, our priest spoke about being vigilant. Not for crime, or bad news, or others’ behavior—but for goodness.

Linking together the messages throughout the service, Father Bob did an artful job of highlighting the urgent need for all of us to be awake.

Be awake to the good things going on around us in our world.

Be awake to the fact that we can create that goodness ourselves, in moments both small and momentous each day.

Be awake to others’ challenges and victories, and lend a hand how you can.

It’s not news that those are effective ways to start making change. But the reminder is key: No matter our talents or situations, we have a little spark within us, ready and waiting to make a difference.

Chauntee and Monique Ross understand this so beautifully. These two are sisters, some of Milwaukee’s most gorgeously talented musicians, and incredibly authentic, inspiring humans—and they got their start in a church.

“We were Sisters of PraiZe,” says Chauntee, laughing with Monique about her sisters’ string quartet that toured the church circuit in the ‘90s. “I found a really heinous picture of the four of us with string instruments and our flutes just laying around—laying around!—wearing our little leather jackets.”

I wish I had access to the Ross family photo album for this gem, but instead I got a way better gift. Read on for the best parts of a few hours on the porch with SistaStrings—a violin-cello string duet making heartfelt music for expression, connection and social justice.

People with Panache: What was your first instrument?

Monique Ross: I started piano when I was 3. My parents saw I was picking up music quickly, through ear training—and so did my piano teacher. In lessons she would play the piece, and I would play it back to her. I got to a level where I should be able to sight-read the next piece, and she realized, “Oh! You can’t read music!”

Chauntee Ross: Mine was violin… I got mine when I was 3. It was the best Christmas ever. Our oldest sister was the ultimate coolest big sister in life. All of our sisters, all of our cousins, all of our friends thought she was amazing. She played violin, so I wanted to play, too.

Our mom grew up on the west side of Chicago. Her mom was an alcoholic, so she didn’t invest in her kids like she should’ve. So when my mom got older, she had a personal mission to invest in her children.

PWP: How did your parents support your music growing up? I want to be that kind of parent!

SistaStrings, peoplewithpanache.com

Monique [right] speaks so highly of Wendy Warner. “She spoke into my life so hard as a senior in high school and prepared me for college auditions. Her main focus was not technique—we’re going to work on musicality of your playing, how you feel, how you’re going to interpret this piece, how you’ll put yourself into the music. She is a very beautiful, professional solo cellist, which is so hard to do, and she saw something in me.”

Monique: Dad did IT at M&I Bank, and Mom home-schooled us. But they were also traveling street evangelists.

Chauntee: Growing up playing in churches was really good for our ears, which plays into how we play now. You go to a church and somebody will break into song, some old gospel spiritual, and you just pick up on it and go.

When we do string arrangements, playing with various hip hop groups and singer songwriters, it’s very easy to fall back into that. We also went to The String Academy of Wisconsin, are classically trained, went to college and did the whole conservatory life.

We started SistaStrings in 2014, and I moved to Milwaukee rather than grad school because I was kind burned out from the whole school scene and competitive aspect. Everyone wants an orchestra or chamber job.

PWP: A lot of my favorite songs I’ve heard of yours have a really deep message. How do you tie social justice in?

Monique: Growing up, we were home-schooled, and it was very important to our parents that we learned correct black history. You don’t hear about Stokely Carmichael in school, for example. History was very important to my parents. Obviously these things, like his work with civil rights, have been happening but you are more aware of it as you get older. We are the generation to do something—we can’t pass this up.

I have a daughter now. I can’t be like, I didn’t do anything to make this world better for you.

We start every show with “Lift Every Voice and Sing” and Chauntee does a great job explaining why.

Chauntee: Growing up, we were two of the only black kids playing classical music—in every class. There were maybe about five other black students in The Academy. Of course you notice a difference in how sometimes teachers treat you.

When Monique first started violin at the Conservatory of Music, there were a lot of great people, but the guy who was teaching her wouldn’t teach her because he said he didn’t teach ‘her kind.’

SistaStrings, People with Panache

“I know how blessed I was to have teachers who believed in me as a person,” Chauntee [right] says. “That’s what fed me and kept me going to where I am today.”

I would go to orchestra concerts, our parents would get us tickets, and we would be among the very few people of color in the audience, let alone on the stage. We would notice and carry on with our education because our parents are amazing people.

It became more prominent in how we produced music. How I relate to classical music might be different than how the next person who is white might. For example, when I hear Vivaldi, a very classical composer, he had really funky beats, kind of like hip-hop beats to me. I’m relating to it in a different way.

Now we combine “Passacaglia,” a famous classical duet, with Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good.” It just spills forth.

PWP: After your experiences, and teaching young people music yourselves, what lesson do you want to share with your students?

Monique: Put your pain into your music, your happiness, your hurt—all of that is so important. That’s what I want to give.

Chauntee: The most recent impactful music moment was when Philando Castile and Alton Sterling were killed. I had a new emotion going on; I was just feeling very helpless, and I hated how helpless I felt.

But that’s incorrect. Let me go back to what my parents taught me and what we’ve learned by talking with good people: We do matter, and we can make an impact, even a small one.

So we had a bunch of artists come together over dinner here. We laughed, we talked, we cried, we shared experiences. Now that we’re together, we asked, what can we do to make a difference in our community? Tarik Moody from 88.9, Jay Anderson, Johanna Rose, Airo Kwil, Bo Triplex, Zed Kenzo, Siren, a whole bunch of people were here—so we had a huge long dialogue. Obviously we’re all artists, and our form of protest is going to come through our music. We put together a music fest that came together the weekend of the Sherman Park situation. Then we started getting all these texts about what was going on: “You need to go home!” Actually, we were right in the middle of the right place right now, with all these beautiful people who understand. Music was the way to communicate that. Since then, it’s been a whole new mission for me.

SistaStrings stuck in laughter, PWP

What’s it like playing together as sisters? (Besides having trouble stopping laughing, like in this attempt at a photo…) “When you run into hard times with people who aren’t your siblings, you might end it,” Monique says. “With sisters, you work through it. For our Sofar session we played an original piece we’d done a million times before and since. It hasn’t happened since then, but we just vibed off each other in a different way, and when those moments happen it feels like it wouldn’t happen with anyone but my sister.”

Monique: It was a beautiful thing. Chauntee is the more vocal between us. For me personally, with everything that’s been going on recently, I realized I need to find my voice.

Chauntee: It’s sometimes very painful playing these songs. Like we have done the song “Strange Fruit” I think since the end of 2014, when Tamir Rice was killed.

I’d been to the art museum in Detroit and saw a quilt called Strange Fruit. The quilter had listed any name she could find of a person who had been lynched. And it was enormous. You know so many nobodies were not even represented. It was really heavy, and ever since then, that song meant a lot to me. There was no “Now we’re going to be social justice women.” But it was like this is what’s happening, and it’s reaching us on so many levels: our nephews, father, brother, friends.

The power of song and lyrics, the power of sound to pull on heartstrings…from there you can go and hopefully make some type of small difference in one person’s life.

Monique: The only way things change is if people make it happen. Hopefully it will spread and something will change.

PWP: When you play, your body, your heart, your soul is just so obviously part of your music.

Chauntee: I’m so glad that comes through. One of our teachers used to ask: What do you want to say when you play this? He showed us how to move our hands, our bodies, to share a feeling, get to the audience’s heart—it’s a whole different way to relate to students.

That’s why I’m so passionate about the future of musical education. So many kids are going to come up and do some shit because they have the right tools to get a message across to anyone who hears them. That’s the thing that keeps me from being down on myself, the community, the country and whatnot.

When I think about the possibilities of the future, what we can do in a feasible way makes me very, very happy.

Me, too.

Catch SistaStrings on December 10 at the VoodooHoney Unveiling Show, January 19 at FemFest, and watch their Facebook page for more.

[Photos by Alysse.]

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meet melissa: milwaukee compost entrepreneur

Melissa Tashjian - Compost Crusader

One of Melissa’s proudest moments was taking the kids from McKinley Elementary School on a field trip to Blue Ribbon Organics, where her food scraps and compostable materials turn into rich compost. The kids saw the mountains of compost in various stages, felt its warmth, got to touch it and play. ”They were so into it!” Melissa says.

“I’m not here to point the finger and tell people they have to change,” says Melissa Tashjian. “It has to be something they really desire.”

I appreciate Melissa’s perspective, as she scales up Milwaukee’s composting capabilities. Certainly I’d be fast to admit I wish there was a way to more quickly help people care. Composting, growing food, remaining on the cutting edge of true sustainability—and regenerativity—of our food system are several of the big things that drive my life and career, so I am especially grateful to get to share this week’s wisdom, Melissa Tashjian style.

Melissa, 35, launched Compost Crusader in April 2014 to give food waste and other residuals a higher purpose: creating compost that helps grow more food. She’s trying to close the loop!

Starting with five customers, Compost Crusader had 15 by end of its first year and 40 by the end of 2015. Now, Melissa helps more than 60 current customers—from local restaurants to national corporations including Harley Davidson, Kohl’s and Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin—turn “trash” into earthly treasure, keeping it out of our increasingly overstuffed landfills. Continue reading

lean in milwaukee: sharing stories and support

What would you do if you weren’t afraid?

The Empowerment Project asked us in their documentary, Sheryl Sandberg asked us in Lean In, and now we’re asking you.

Lean In Milwaukee

Kate R., on the left, started Milwaukee’s Lean In Chapter after reading Sheryl Sandberg’s book. Way to Lean In, Kate! In this picture, I am holding the group’s namesake book, and everyone else has a “You Inspire Me” PWP postcard.

But first let’s rewind a little to 3 years, 6 months, and six days ago: January 20, 2013, the day before Kate and I launched our favorite little corner of the Internet—People with Panache!

Back then, Kate and I found reasons and ways to see each other in Milwaukee, Chicago, and the best rest stops in between just about every other week. In our professional lives, we were securely situated in jobs that fit well with our paths so far, but we weren’t quite satisfied. Sound familiar? Continue reading

meet sarah: making milwaukee sweeter—and nuttier

Sarah’s favorite way to toast nuts: “I prefer the oven, but still watch it: They’re good, almost there, almost there—burned.”

Sarah’s favorite way to toast nuts: “I prefer the oven, but still watch it: They’re good, almost there, almost there—burned.”

My boyfriend gently suggested on Sunday that maybe—even just for a day—I take a Facebook break. (One more poorly fact-checked meme and I’m going over the edge, people!)

But for real. There is so much anger, divisiveness and aggressive misinformation batting back and forth across the intellectual wasteland that is Facebook—from all sides of any issue, mind you. If we’re playing pickle in the middle, I am feeling sort of like the pickle, and sort of overwhelmed, and more than sort of mad. I need a break.

So this week, can we all agree on something?

Gun laws? Women’s rights? Nah. We’re talking self care and treatin’ yo-self in the most deliciously scented way imaginable: SPICED NUTS.

Meet Sarah Marx Feldner of Treat Bake Shop, and then take a break from that smartphone bossing you around and visit her Milwaukee shop—or any of these (very astute) retailers across the country. Continue reading

meet emily: radio producer sharing milwaukee’s stories

Emily Forman's producer-phones, People with Panache

What does Emily’s job entail? Producing a radio story each week. That means she pitches ideas, does interviews, writes a script, collects the tape, mixes it together in audio software and delivers the complete radio package to the radio station.

I’m still waiting for Orlando being the “largest mass shooting in American history” to sink in. Filling my mind instead are images of the individual people: mothers texting their children to no replies, police officers listening to the haunting rings of owner-less cellphones, survivors wondering why they were spared.

This week, we’re featuring Emily Forman, producer of Precious Lives, a two-year, 100-part radio series about young people and gun violence in Milwaukee. Each week, Emily and her team weave together living snapshots of survivors, neighborhoods, families—of resilience. They’re 73 episodes in. With many episodes about healing and peace—rather than shootings and funerals—they frequently focus on the helpers, the people working to create positive change.

Milwaukee, Orlando, and so many cities in between remind us constantly that life can change in an instant. So with each story Emily brings to light, we share the same hope that listeners grow in compassion, acknowledge the very different lives of others in their own city, and recognize just how precious every life is. Continue reading

meet sarah: using hip-hop to empower youth in milwaukee

TRUE Skool purchased all the pieces produced through the Art of Coping program.

TRUE Skool purchased all the pieces produced through the Art of Coping program. This piece is by Lasha Bradley.

“Your life becomes so enriched by being around differences,” says Sarah Dollhausen. “It doesn’t take anything away from you.”

Sarah, director, founder and trailblazer at TRUE Skool, is just the kind of woman you wish you had in your life when you were younger. She created TRUE Skool, a Milwaukee nonprofit and after-school program that uses hip-hop’s core elements—DJing, breakdance, emceeing, graffiti and knowledge—to empower youth, teach about social justice, encourage community service, and create a pipeline of opportunity for Milwaukee’s young people. Now 11 years old, much of TRUE Skool’s work comes to life via after-school programming including classes such as the Art of Emceeing, DJing, Video Production, Band (not the kind that was in my high school…) and more. (Seriously, how freaking cool is that?)

Besides the fact that she has shepherded the growth of this organization whose programs will now hopefully expand nation-wide, Sarah has one particularly beautiful gift that stood out to me: She has a clear, deep passion for bringing people together to work on co-creating the future. Competition doesn’t have much of a place. Jealousy? Nope. These students, the team of working artists, and every person involved has a safe space to share, learn, grow and collaborate to create the community they want to live within.
Continue reading

meet angela: social architect in milwaukee

Last time we had a Leap Day, I was a copy editor at Reader’s Digest. And since then—even without a day dedicated to jumping—I have leapt and landed in the urban ag world, and oh my gosh has it been worth it.

After I wrote this post, Kate encouraged me to find these little maps that I made in March 2012. So many parts of them have come true in ways I never anticipated. Minus the $10,000. Good goal, though, 23-year-old me!

After I wrote this post, Kate encouraged me to find these little maps that I made in March 2012. So many parts of them have come true in ways I never anticipated. Minus the $10,000. Good goal, though, 23-year-old me!

All over this blog, week after week, we watch women leaping toward their dreams. We see some going for it fast and laying the bricks of their path as they go. Others experiment, test and explore before making moves that alter their lives…and careers…and bank accounts. And no matter the preparation, each woman learns about herself, the world, and her vast potential as she dreams big and turns her ideas into reality.

I can be spontaneous, but career-wise I’m pretty firmly in the latter camp. Before I left my stable gig for what started as a part-time job at my beloved Victory Garden Initiative, I took classes, saved money, drew out all sorts of little maps about my potential professional path, read a lot, researched and discerned what might happen if this turned out to not be the right fit. So when I got a call actually offering me a job at my dream nonprofit, it all coalesced into a YES.

Now if only we could use some of that happy energy to also make the case that we all get Leap Day off and/or get paid a little extra for working that one bonus day. Or, you know, get some free yoga or something. But I digress. Continue reading

people with panache turned three!

Panache Parties

Our 2015 People with Panache parties! The top is the whole crew in Milwaukee at the Ruby Tap. Bottom is the Panache women in Chicago at Beauty and Brawn Art Gallery and Think Space.

People with Panache just celebrated our third birthday! So we looked back on our year, and some themes popped out: Courage. Creativity. Commitment. And, of course, compassion.

The women we’ve met through this adventure traversing the Midwest aren’t doing what our culture would consider “realistic.” If there are rules related to what they’re doing, they’re breaking them. They’re setting their own paths, sticking to them and making plans that become reality. Beyoncé’s not the only one, ladies.

Whether your dream is to have a solid job so you can take your two weeks at the turquoise-iest beach a plane can reach, or you will not stop until you start the business that puts your values out into the world, we are with you.
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 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