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.

People with Panache: If every child had something like TRUE Skool, it would change the world. Did I hear you’re about to take your programming and go on a national tour to share it with other cities?

Sarah Dollhausen: We’re looking at a 10-city tour from LA to New York and Miami to Dallas, not only expanding the work we do but launching a Teaching Artist Institute to get more adults interested in this type of work. We’re looking at the marriage of the urban arts with youth development and really understanding how to develop curriculum for that impact and that outcome.

For example, we designed a 12-week program around the need for our young people to have a healthy space to talk about mental health and wellness, suicide and depression. It was called the Art of Coping. Students had to apply as advanced artists, and they learned to meditate, learned the facts on suicide and depression, and created visual representations of what they learned.

PWP: I look at my own family and think about my cousins who did extracurricular activities versus those who didn’t and perhaps explored unhealthy coping behaviors—I feel like you can’t underestimate the impact of activities that give young people accountability and even meaning.

SD: My brother committed suicide because of dealing with bipolar disorder. That’s part of what prompted the Art of Coping: I was dealing with this personally—imagine how many of our young people are dealing with this.

The Grand Avenue Mall is home to many Milwaukee changemakers—like Sarah at TRUE Skool and Angela at Newaukee!

The Grand Avenue Mall is home to many Milwaukee change-making organizations—with Sarah at TRUE Skool and Angela at Newaukee.

PWP: Even as adults, there’s no point in your life when you are taught how to healthfully cope with loss, grief.

SD: It’s a lot of heaviness. A lot of what we’re teaching with the Teaching Artist Institute is about the trauma of youth workers and what they go through. We take that home a lot. We can’t help young people get through trauma if we bring that into the room as well.

PWP: What was TRUE Skool like when you first started?

SD: I was working at a community center on the South Side in the computer labs because I was in the IT field. I grew up in the hip-hop generation, so I started bringing friends to the center to do open mics. We also had our first block parties there that started TRUE Skool. We started developing curriculum using the urban arts to teach skills and used a fee for service model by doing things like teaching DJing and graffiti classes. (Editor’s note: TRUE Skool grew and morphed before it got to the youth-focused iteration of today.)

PWP: You said you grew up in the hip-hop generation. Have you done a lot of this performance, visual art—do you have a specific niche?

SD: When I was a teenager, you know, I had a female graffiti crew and we would tag stuff—it wasn’t too artistic. We called ourselves LVH—Ladies Voice in Hip-Hop.

Growing up in the culture, seeing my friends be breakers and DJs, then growing up and seeing those same friends are now mostly working in the community, I think it speaks volumes for the generation and culture we created amongst ourselves. We’re re-creating that now for young people who look to media for what’s hot instead of really putting themselves in power positions to create that media, create that culture. It’s exciting watching young people find their voice, find their talent, and really help us develop what TRUE Skool is. They’re the biggest part of what this has become.

TRUE Skool partnered with Sweetwater Organics and Milwaukee Water Commons to start a small aquaponics program last summer. One of the students was so into it he wrote a grant to keep growing more food with aquaponics at TRUE Skool. Now he’s building a new system out of an old fridge!

TRUE Skool partnered with Sweet Water Foundation and Milwaukee Water Commons to start a small aquaponics program last summer. One of the students was so into it he wrote a grant to keep growing more food with aquaponics at TRUE Skool. Now he’s building a new system out of an old fridge!

PWP: What do you think has changed in you as you’ve grown this organization? Did you ever picture yourself being an executive director?

SD: Over the years, working with young people, you’re able to learn so much about yourself even seeing what other people go through. My brother dealt with bipolar and depression, and it was really hard for us to understand what was wrong with him—for me, I can keep things to myself when it comes to my family, but it really helped me process what happened, talking to other young people who were extremely brave and showing me it’s ok to hurt, to grieve, to cry.

It affects me in real life, thinking about how I don’t see my parents enough, how I need to be more intentional with my son. I have a 20-year-old daughter who’s going through a lot of the stuff that I went through, and I don’t want her to end up pregnant at 17 like I was. How can I give her better advice now that I’m an adult, not a teenager raising a child? If I didn’t have my daughter and go this route, I wouldn’t be where I am today. This type of work fills my soul more than money would fill my pockets—ever.

The biggest lesson I’ve learned is to find your purpose. This is my purpose. I can say that freely and understand what that means. That’s the biggest lesson I want to pass on to the young people: When you find your purpose in life, life becomes so enriching. It becomes fun, a challenge worth fighting, nothing is petty anymore. And sometimes it’s hard to find that purpose. Like my brother was a published author, he went into the Navy, he graduated from University of Wisconsin Oshkosh and was working in the history department—he was an amazing human being and wouldn’t see that in himself. For him the mental illness created a brick wall that he couldn’t see past. If you can help someone find their purpose, that is the best thing in life to do for a living.

PWP: What do you find most fulfilling?

SD: Seeing a young person when they first come in; they’re quiet, in the back, and in a few weeks they’re on stage performing. To be able to watch someone find purpose, find their voice, just makes me tear up. At our showcases and events, I just stand in the back and wipe my face because it’s beautiful at any age to watch someone find a piece of themselves. That re-energizes my soul every time.

“It’s fun with a purpose—I would rather do this than any other job,” says Sarah. This is one of the many murals and art installations throughout the space.

“It’s fun with a purpose—I would rather do this than any other job,” says Sarah. This is one of the many murals and art installations throughout the space. It takes up an entire wall.

PWP: Did you have a moment like that, where you really felt like you found your purpose?

SD: Yes. I call it my turning point. I was working at Milwaukee Christian Center running their IT, teaching computer classes after school, and I started to create curriculum using hip-hop.

To see in 1998 that I could use the things I love, the urban arts, and tie that into something students needed to learn—like downloading hip-hop music to teach [technical] computer skills—helped me realize this could go somewhere. That was 1998, and even then, I put together a whole packet, talked about looking at a building to use for programming, and it progressed to where we are today.

PWP: How did you name TRUE Skool?

SD: My ex-husband and I came up with it. ‘True School’ is a general statement to describe a certain time in hip-hop. When we started it, it used to be an acronym: T.R.U.E. stood for Truth and Reality in Urban Education and the idea that we were schooling young people on what was really going on in the community but also finding creative responses and solutions.

I grew up in Mequon, which is predominantly white, and if someone was non-white, they were probably bused in. And I remember my history book: There were three paragraphs on Native Americans and like a page and a half around slavery—and that was IT! I found a series called Eyes on the Prize, a historical breakdown by PBS of the Civil Rights movement, MLK, Malcolm X—audio clips, video clips. Coupled with hip-hop, it exposed me to learning about other cultures. 

When I realized how much history and knowledge I wasn’t given, I got really pissed off. And I found it myself. There’s this whole freaking world out here and you’re only giving me this much of it? I wanted to become a cultural anthropologist, then I found myself pregnant and had to work through life in a whole different way. I’d say I’m a cultural anthropologist now through the work we do.

TRUE Skool is about creating together, not competing against each other, and that’s something I really enjoy.

Watch for TRUE Skool’s next event on their Facebook page—like Alumni Gallery Night on April 15. Featuring TRUE Skool grads that are now professionally recognized artists, entrepreneurs and more, it’ll be a showcase of music, visual art, and most importantly, the success and purpose so many TRUE Skool alumni find after the programming ends. Take a tour before you go!

[Photos by Alysse.]

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