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Share Your Voice: Milwaukee (Islamic Resource Center)

Asian American residents discuss immigration struggles, how life in Milwaukee has improved, and ideas for a new Wisconsin history museum

Share Your Voice: Milwaukee (Islamic Resource Center) | Wisconsin Historical Society
Ping Lee, left, and Mohan Singh Dhariwal enjoy a laugh during the Wisconsin Historical Society's "Share Your Voice" new museum multicultural listening session May 15, 2019 at the Islamic Resource Center in the suburb of Greenfield.

Ping Lee, left, and Mohan Singh Dhariwal enjoy a laugh during the Wisconsin Historical Society's "Share Your Voice" new museum multicultural listening session for the Asian American community of Milwaukee on May 15, 2019 at the Islamic Resource Center in the suburb of Greenfield.


Story and photos by Dean Witter
Wisconsin Historical Foundation

GREENFIELD — The challenges of living in predominantly white Milwaukee, misconceptions people have about their beliefs, and the changes in the city over decades were among many important topics discussed May 15, 2019, during the Wisconsin Historical Society’s “Share Your Voice” new museum multicultural listening session at the Islamic Resource Center in this near-southwest Milwaukee suburb.

Residents of Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Palestinian, and Hmong heritage were among guests who participated in robust discussions at the event, which was one of eight multicultural sessions the Society is holding around the state to make sure all communities have an opportunity to share their personal stories, offer ideas and provide feedback on early plans for a new $120 million Wisconsin history museum that the Society hopes to build and open on the state’s Capitol Square in 2024 or 2025. 

EnlargeAlaa Mohammad makes a comment during the "Share Your Voice" session at the Islamic Resource Center in Greenfield. "I think it's very important ... that you confirm that your information is accurate," she said.


Alaa Mohammad makes a comment during the "Share Your Voice" session at the Islamic Resource Center in Greenfield. "I think it's very important ... that you confirm that your information is accurate," she said. "In today's society, Islamophobia is really exacerbated by the media and inaccurate information."

Alaa Mohammad, a guest at the session, said a new museum could go a long way toward informing the public and shattering misconceptions — if exhibits are done well.

“I feel like it’s very important, if you are representing individuals in the new museum, that you confirm that your information is accurate,” she said. “In today’s society, Islamophobia is really kind of exacerbated by the media and inaccurate information. … We want to be represented, but [by showing] how we’re living our day-to-day life and making sure the information is accurate.”

Informing white Americans with accurate portrayals of her community has been a longtime struggle, Mohammad said.

“I remember being in fourth grade in my social studies class and being very insulted by some of the information that was being taught in my textbook,” she said. “That inspired me to get into history to help rewrite the story and the history.”

The host Islamic Resource Center (IRC) is trying to help that cause. It is operated by the Milwaukee Muslim Women’s Coalition and has been located for the past nine years on Greenfield’s eastern border with Milwaukee, on South 27th Street. 

Enlarge“Our purpose is to help dispel a lot of the stereotypes that are out there and to offer opportunities for the community to come together and build bridges of understanding,” Islamic Resource Center Director Janan Nanjeeb said.


“Our purpose is to help dispel a lot of the stereotypes that are out there and to offer opportunities for the community to come together and build bridges of understanding,” Islamic Resource Center Director Janan Nanjeeb said in her welcoming remarks at the Wisconsin Historical Society's "Share Your Voice" new museum multicultural listening session for Asian American community on May 15, 2019.

“Our purpose is to help dispel a lot of the stereotypes that are out there and to offer opportunities for the community to come together and build bridges of understanding,” IRC Director Janan Nanjeeb said in her welcoming remarks.  “Kind of like the same mission of a museum, the idea was to be an educational facility for the public, so we really get more visitors from the broader community than we do from the Muslim community.”

The Society is conducting more than 40 “Share Your Voice” community listening sessions around the state, including all 12 American Indian nations of Wisconsin, as well as other multicultural focus groups with African Americans in Madison and Milwaukee, Latinx communities in Milwaukee and Wautoma and the Hmong community in Eau Claire. In addition, the Society is gathering feedback from PK-12 and teen students to incorporate their ideas into museum planning.

Chia Vang, a UW-Milwaukee professor and member of the Society’s Board of Curators, welcomed guests to this Asian American event and noted how it is the Society’s goal to create a new museum in which all Wisconsinites will see themselves reflected in the stories being told.

“In the midst of all the hate around the world, it’s wonderful that we can come together to do something very positive, to contribute to this exciting new museum that will be here for generations to come,” she said. “I think Asian Americans participating in these multicultural conversations is very important.” 

EnlargeChia Vang, a UW-Milwaukee professor and member of the Society’s Board of Curators, also welcomed guests. “I think Asian Americans participating in these multicultural conversations is very important," she said.


Chia Vang, a UW-Milwaukee professor and member of the Society’s Board of Curators, also welcomed guests to the Society's Asian American listening session. “In the midst of all the hate around the world, it’s wonderful that we can come together to do something very positive, to contribute to this exciting new museum that will be here for generations to come,” she said.

“Personally, as a board member,” Vang added, “I can say our organization is committed to making sure that when we walk into that new museum, we feel accepted and we feel that it is our museum.”

The diverse group on hand at the IRC was exciting to both Vang and Nanjeeb.

“When we come to the U.S., we’re from different countries, but here we’re all Asians,” said Vang. “It’s not often that we meet in the same room.”

“This is just wonderful,” Nanjeeb added later in the session. “I think on a regular basis we should get together and just chat.”

That was the tone of the entire session, as guests first went around the U-shaped tables and introduced themselves, then shared in multiple enlightening discussions. The first followed a Society video about the new museum project and its central storytelling theme, “What Makes Wisconsin, Wisconsin?” 

EnlargeChristian Øverland, the Ruth & Hartley Barker Director of the Wisconsin Historical Society, leads listening session guests in an activity. "We want this to be the people’s museum, designed by the people for the people,” Øverland said.


Christian Øverland, the Ruth & Hartley Barker Director of the Wisconsin Historical Society, leads guests in an activity during the Society's "Share Your Voice" new museum multicultural listening session May 15, 2019 in Greenfield. "We want this to be the people’s museum, designed by the people for the people,” Øverland said. “So this process is very important to us.”

Christian Øverland, the Ruth & Hartley Barker Director of the Wisconsin Historical Society, led guests in an activity related to that theme, asking them to write on Post-It notes several things that they feel should be included in the new museum or that they feel the rest of the state should know about Milwaukee or their culture.

“As Chia talked about, we want this to be the people’s museum, designed by the people for the people,” Øverland said. “So this process is very important to us.”

One person spoke about how the Baptist community brought Chinese Americans to Sheboygan and about the generosity of Wisconsinites.

A woman compared Milwaukee to places like Hong Kong and Chicago and talked about how in Milwaukee, “it’s slow, not fast. It’s green with nature. … It’s a very inviting place” and “not a busy lifestyle.”

“A lot of guests who come to visit me tell me that it’s a healing place,” she added.

A Punjabi American man of the Sikh faith talked about how Wisconsin, and Milwaukee in particular, has changed over the past 50 years.

“It was a not-accepting area that has changed into a lot more accepting area,” he said. “… When I came here, you didn’t really see anybody like me here. But now it’s a large population. It’s very accepting. That’s a very big plus about Wisconsin.”

He spoke about problems of the past, saying that “a wall” was already in place for non-Caucasians and mentioning a 1943 Supreme Court decision that revoked Indian citizenship in the U.S.

Daniel Lee talked about a 1922 Supreme Court decision that revoked white Americans’ citizenship if they married Asians, then related his experience growing up in the late 1960s and early ’70s in Milwaukee.

“Milwaukee had the smallest Asian American population of the 15 largest cities before 1970,” he said. “… Out of a school of 600 students, I was the sole Asian American. … My parents were the first minorities in their subdivision.”

As the Sikh man noted, many things have improved for immigrants in Milwaukee. A Hmong man had a similar feeling.

“I have lived here 33 years,” he said. “When I first came here, if you need to buy some Asian foods, you had to drive to Chicago. … It has changed a lot in the last 20, 30 years. Many of the ingredients that we could not find back then … and many of the foods are [plentiful].”

He encouraged the Society to gather a wide variety of responses from his community, though.

“What we say here today may not represent everybody,” he said. “[Others’] journey to America may be” different. “If the museum is going to be a place that tells [the truth], it needs to be inclusive. Maybe their story is much better than mine.”

Including stories of how things have improved is important, too, the man added.

“You have to paint a picture moving forward,” he said, “… to entice more Asian Americans to come to this community.”

One person spoke of an anti-Chinese riot in Milwaukee in 1889, “the only riot east of the Mississippi River;” lamented the fact that Milwaukee “never had a Chinatown;” and wondered what the Chinese population would have been without that riot.

Later, a woman noted that Milwaukee did, in fact, have a Chinatown area at one time; but, in a decision familiar to other communities of color, she said the area was “demolished for a sports arena.”

“So [in a museum], I’d like to see the uncovering of the land under the land” and an explanation of the evolution of certain areas, such as where sports arenas and stadiums are located.

“We’re hearing that at other sessions, in terms of what has been displaced by development and what has changed,” Øverland said. “People feel that in different cultures, like the highway coming in [and displacing African American neighborhoods in Milwaukee].”

“Even though we’re a minority,” the woman added, “Chinese have been in Wisconsin since the early 1900s. As a result, they contributed to the community. … They formed their own businesses so they wouldn’t be at the will of the majority. There has been a tradition of small businesses.”

Nanjeeb, the IRC director, said she felt “it would be interesting to include stories of the route of some of the first immigrants who now have large families” in Wisconsin.

She talked of her grandfather, who first came from the Middle East in 1911 to sell rugs and silk. He and so many others like him eventually settled in America and built families that have remained.

“They sort of found a common community,” she said. “I think it would be a really interesting thing to highlight … what became of their descendants. You find now that there are entire families that came as a result of one of those individuals” visiting Wisconsin.

Another man offered the perspective of someone who came to Milwaukee only 10 years ago.

“I’m kind of a newbie,” he said. “But from my perspective, I’ve seen some of these situations from a different lens perhaps. … The first thing that struck me about Milwaukee was not only the diversity but also the celebration of diversity that we have.”

“In summertime, you have a festival every week. And it’s not just a Wisconsin festival. It’s a German Fest, it’s Italian Fest or Polish Fest. I think it’s a great celebration” of the city’s cultural diversity.

“Yes, we’ve had struggles, but we’ve risen above them and we’re at a point where we can grow and flourish into a harmonious society.” 

EnlargeCybelle Jones of museum exhibit design firm Gallagher & Associates discusses concept exhibit design renderings at the listening session. "Listening to all of your stories becomes that fuel that we take to bring this vision to life," she said.


Cybelle Jones, of museum exhibit design firm Gallagher & Associates, discusses concept exhibit design renderings with guests at the Wisconsin Historical Society's "Share Your Voice" listening session in Greenfield on May 15, 2019. "Listening to all of your stories becomes that fuel that we take to bring this vision to life," she said.

Øverland then introduced Cybelle Jones — the Principal and Executive Director of Gallagher & Associates, a Washington-based, internationally renowned museum exhibit design firm — to lead guests through a series of early concept exhibit design renderings for the new museum.

Jones talked about how people outside Wisconsin may not see it as a diverse state, but it really is, and these sessions around the state will help her colleagues develop exhibits that will speak to all communities.

“As a designer, we really are the listeners, we’re the gatherers,” Jones said. “We’re thinking about those young children [who come to the museum] and what’s going to be in their minds. Are they going to be inspired and feel impassioned to make a difference? Listening to all of your stories becomes that fuel that we take to bring this vision to life.”

Guests examined and discussed an Introduction and Orientation Area rendering and liked how it could be used to connect people and students across the state in real time, including perhaps broadcasting from the room in which the session was being held in the IRC.

Like at other “Share Your Voice” sessions, a rendering of an art installation of a giant cow made up of items from all 72 counties drew mixed reviews.

While one man laughed and said, “I really like the cow,” a younger guest named Nick Lee — who attended with his father, Ping Lee, and said he was a Chinese American and fourth-generation German American — hoped for a different delivery method for the 72-county idea.

“I like the concept of bringing the state together,” Lee said. “Especially the food. For example, my dad will do fried rice, but he’ll do brat fried rice. That’s a very Wisconsin thing.”

But please, no cow, he said with a smile.

“I know we’re the Dairy State, but … no one in my family has touched a cow, and we get represented by cows all the time,” Lee said. “And as an urbanite … it would be better if there were just some other Wisconsin-encompassing shape, something that’s just … not a cow.”

After examining all of the renderings, Ping Lee said he was having trouble understanding what “the main dish” of the museum would be, and wondered if there was a danger of trying to fit too much in the museum and, as a result, ending up with too little of substance.

“I like to look at designing a museum as kind of a film or novel,” Jones explained. “An action film can’t be all action. There have to be some quiet scenes, too. … I think what you will see and what you will read … are personal anecdotes and personal stories [built] around a particular thing [like an object or theme].”

Øverland noted that the renderings represent “only 1/50th of the museum” and that the depictions in them probably won’t even end up in the final design.

“These are just sketches,” he said. “This is where we’re getting the feedback that will be included in the next level of design. Then, at that point, we actually do begin to design the galleries and begin making choices about stories. …

“But right now, it’s conceptualized. I understand that you may not see it (right now), but that gives me a challenge to make it happen.”

Near the end of the session, Lorna Young talked about her hope that a new museum could bring citizens together through their common love of Wisconsin.

“This state is so divided,” she said. “On a political scale, [it’s disappointing] what’s happening at our State Capitol right now, where the urban and rural are like this (opposing fists).”

Young said she feels the urban vs. rural divide is fed by “not knowing the context of other people.”

A new museum that shares all stories, she said, could change that.

“[The museum] has got to be something where we don’t just think, ‘That’s kind of cool,’” Young added. “But we really need to get a feeling for the communities so that people can relate to each other as people.”

 

Word Cloud from the Milwaukee (Islamic Resource Center) listening session

Suggestions made on Post-It notes during the May 15, 2019 "Share Your Voice" new museum multicultural listening session at the Islamic Resource Center were turned into this word cloud, with the most suggested words in the biggest type.

 

Suggestions made on Post-It notes during the May 15, 2019 "Share Your Voice" new museum multicultural listening session at the Islamic Resource Center were turned into this word cloud, with the most suggested words in the biggest type.


Photos from the Milwaukee (Islamic Resource Center) listening session

Alaa Mohammed smiles as she shares a comment during the Wisconsin Historical Society's "Share Your Voice" multicultural listening session.

Alaa Mohammad smiles as she shares a comment during the Wisconsin Historical Society's "Share Your Voice" multicultural listening session. “I remember being in fourth grade in my social studies class and being very insulted by some of the information that was being taught in my textbook,” she said. “That inspired me to get into history to help rewrite the story and the history.”

 Zongcheng Moua shares a personal story during the Society's "Share Your Voice" new museum multicultural listening session for the Milwaukee area's Asian American community May 15, 2019 at the Islamic Resource Center in Greenfield.

Zongcheng Moua shares a personal story during the Society's "Share Your Voice" new museum multicultural listening session for the Milwaukee area's Asian American community May 15, 2019 at the Islamic Resource Center in Greenfield.

Swarnjit S. Arora laughs as he shares a story during the Wisconsin Historical Society's "Share Your Voice" new museum multicultural listening session May 15, 2019 at the Islamic Resource Center in the Milwaukee suburb of Greenfield.

Swarnjit S. Arora laughs as he shares a story during the Wisconsin Historical Society's "Share Your Voice" new museum multicultural listening session May 15, 2019 at the Islamic Resource Center in the Milwaukee suburb of Greenfield.

 
Adrian Chan shares a story during the Wisconsin Historical Society's "Share Your Voice" new museum multicultural listening session May 15, 2019 in Greenfield.

Adrian Chan shares a story during the Wisconsin Historical Society's "Share Your Voice" new museum multicultural listening session May 15, 2019 in Greenfield.

 
Banh Danowski talks about her experiences in Milwaukee during the Wisconsin Historical Society's "Share Your Voice" new museum multicultural listening session for the Asian American community of Milwaukee.

Banh Danowski talks about her experiences in Milwaukee during the Wisconsin Historical Society's "Share Your Voice" new museum multicultural listening session for the Asian American community of Milwaukee on May 15, 2019 at the Islamic Resource Center in Greenfield.

 
Kyonng Ae Cho makes a comment during the "Share Your Voice" new museum multicultural listening session May 15, 2019 in Greenfield.

Kyonng Ae Cho makes a comment during the "Share Your Voice" new museum multicultural listening session May 15, 2019 in Greenfield.

 
Tony Lam enjoys a laugh as he tells a story of his time in Milwaukee during the Society's "Share Your Voice" new museum multicultural listening session May 15, 2019 in Greenfield.

Tony Lam enjoys a laugh as he tells a story of his time in Milwaukee during the Society's "Share Your Voice" new museum multicultural listening session May 15, 2019 in Greenfield.

 
Daniel Lee talks about his experiences growing up in Milwaukee. "Out of a school of 600 students, I was the sole Asian American," he said. "… My parents were the first minorities in their subdivision.”

Daniel Lee talks about his experiences growing up in Milwaukee during the "Share Your Voice" multicultural listening session in Greenfield. "Out of a school of 600 students, I was the sole Asian American," he said. "… My parents were the first minorities in their subdivision.”

 
Susa Sij makes a comment during the Wisconsin Historical Society's "Share Your Voice" new museum multicultural listening session May 15, 2019 in Greenfield.

Susa Sij makes a comment during the Wisconsin Historical Society's "Share Your Voice" new museum multicultural listening session May 15, 2019 in Greenfield.

 
A guest shares his thoughts during the Wisconsin Historical Society's "Share Your Voice" new museum multicultural listening session May 15, 2019 at the Islamic Resource Center in Greenfield.

Anup Singh shares his thoughts during the Wisconsin Historical Society's "Share Your Voice" new museum multicultural listening session May 15, 2019 at the Islamic Resource Center in Greenfield.

 
Islamic Resource Center Director Janan Nanjeeb, center, shares an idea for a new Wisconsin history museum: “It would be interesting to include stories of the route of some of the first immigrants who now have large families” in Wisconsin," she said.

Islamic Resource Center Director Janan Nanjeeb, center, shares an idea for a new Wisconsin history museum: “It would be interesting to include stories of the route of some of the first immigrants who now have large families” in Wisconsin," Nanjeeb said. She talked of her grandfather, who first came from the Middle East in 1911 to sell rugs and silk.

Guests examine new museum exhibit design concept renderings during the Society's "Share Your Voice" multicultural listening session May 15, 2019 at the Islamic Resource Center in Greenfield.

Guests examine new museum exhibit design concept renderings during the Society's "Share Your Voice" multicultural listening session May 15, 2019 at the Islamic Resource Center in Greenfield.

 
Gurcheran Grewal, left, and Joyce Tang Boyland enjoy a laugh during a discussion at the Wisconsin Historical Society's "Share Your Voice" new museum multicultural listening session May 15, 2019 at the Islamic Resource Center in Greenfield.

Gurcheran Grewal, left, and Joyce Tang Boyland enjoy a laugh during a discussion at the Wisconsin Historical Society's "Share Your Voice" new museum multicultural listening session May 15, 2019 at the Islamic Resource Center in Greenfield.

Nan Kim, of the UW-Milwaukee Department of History, examines new museum concept exhibit design renderings during the Wisconsin Historical Society's "Share Your Voice" multicultural listening session May 15, 2019 in Greenfield.

Dr. Nan Kim, Associate Professor and Director of Public History at UW-Milwaukee, examines a booklet of new museum concept exhibit design renderings during the Wisconsin Historical Society's "Share Your Voice" multicultural listening session May 15, 2019 in Greenfield.

 
Lorna Yang shares her thoughts during the Wisconsin Historical Society's "Share Your Voice" new museum multicultural listening session May 15, 2019 in Greenfield.

Lorna Young shares her thoughts during the Wisconsin Historical Society's "Share Your Voice" new museum multicultural listening session May 15, 2019 in Greenfield.

Guests enjoy a laugh while discussing ideas during the Wisconsin Historical Society's "Share Your Voice" new museum multicultural listening session May 15, 2019 at the Islamic Resource Center in the Milwaukee suburb of Greenfield.

Guests enjoy a laugh while discussing ideas during the Wisconsin Historical Society's "Share Your Voice" new museum multicultural listening session May 15, 2019 at the Islamic Resource Center in the Milwaukee suburb of Greenfield.

  
Ping Lee, left, and Anup Singh share a laugh as they chat following the Wisconsin Historical Society's "Share Your Voice" new museum multicultural listening session at the Islamic Resource Center in Greenfield.

Ping Lee, left, and Anup Singh share a laugh as they chat following the Wisconsin Historical Society's "Share Your Voice" new museum multicultural listening session at the Islamic Resource Center in Greenfield.