Too often, when you hear the words “youth” and “Milwaukee” in the same sentence, it’s followed by tales of dismay and disillusionment. It could be easy to let crime statistics or test scores overshadow the generation of young people coming up in our state’s biggest city.
It would be easy, unless, of course, you talked with someone like Imani Ray.
Imani, 19, has lived in just about every corner of Milwaukee County and finds inspiration from her neighbors and peers. After a youth spent bouncing around the city – and country – Imani has decided to use her perspective as a positive force for the future of Milwaukee. Contemplative and compassionate, Imani recognizes there are people and organizations both seen and a few steps removed who have given back to her in some way. Imani wants to invest her livelihood in ways she can give back to the city and community she’s come to feel empowered by.
“In Milwaukee, I feel nothing but greatness, despite all the issues. We’re asset-focused, and there are some amazing things about the community,” Imani said. “It can always get better, as long as everyone is doing their part. It starts with the individual.”
Imani’s family life was happy and supportive, though, like anyone’s, marked with its own challenges. Her family ran day care centers, giving her an early insight into the importance of teaching and youth, Imani said. At the same time, “typical struggles” like managing finances had Imani and her three older siblings moving to different houses almost annually, a trek that brought with it new schools, friends and neighbors.
Imani can track the years of her youth by the different schools she attended in Milwaukee, Wauwatosa, Glendale and Brown Deer. In her pre-teen years, the frequent moves made it “confusing” at first. Imani said she was timid, okay with blending into the background in class and in new surroundings.
“It was a completely new environment than I was used to,” she said. “Whether or not I liked it, I knew I had to get things done.”
So, a little older and wiser than her teen years may have let on, Imani got things done, her way. Starting her sophomore year at Messmer High School, she joined Urban Underground, a youth-led social justice campaign. Through Urban Underground and various other school groups, she was wowed by the power of teaching and the potential for social change. She said she opened up, and looked for ways she could learn and lead.