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.
During her junior year, in addition to a busy school and community schedule, she participated in the Money Coach program at Make A Difference – Wisconsin. Imani had seen her parents and other neighbors struggle with money and wanted to use it as a tool instead of a strain. Through a financial goal-setting exercise in the Money Coach program, Imani saved enough to pay fees for online classes and the value of a sensibly priced laptop, which she gained through other volunteer work at the Boys and Girls Club. Money Coach lessons presented money as something with staying power, as a force that, when used wisely, could benefit individuals and a community.
“It brought awareness,” she said. “I now know what needs to take place to save my money and budget correctly. It was new to me, the whole idea of saving for something important, leaving that money there until you reach that goal.”
Then, as she approached her senior year of high school, there was more disruption. After her parents separated, Imani was on the move again, this time more than 1,700 miles away, to Tempe, Ariz. She closed out high school far from Milwaukee.
Rather than a stumbling block, Imani said that move to Arizona made her realize something deeper about her previous crosstown address changes: it was family, friends and community organizations in Milwaukee that mattered, that crackled with energy to her. Milwaukee was a place she felt support and love, despite its flaws. To give back in the way she wanted, Imani had to first move back home.
An Investment in Milwaukee
Imani (pictured at right) came back to Milwaukee not long after earning her high school diploma in Tempe. Imani had saved enough cash to rent a room from her aunt and get her first car, a 2003 Pontiac Grand Am, not to mention paying off “all the fixes and tune-ups from having that car,” she laughed.
Imani rejoined Urban Underground through another prominent social change organization, Public Allies, where she’s already been part of a team that has built an app to share community activities with students. She’s also investing in her peers with some of the most important capital you can share: time and compassion.
A fellow 19-year old was connected with Public Allies after some legal trouble. Imani didn’t know her beforehand, but talked to her about the crowd she was hanging out with and a family life that was far from easy. This wasn’t the same background Imani had, but it’s not hard to look around the city and hear this type of tough upbringing. So, Imani let her know she had a friend: “I said, ‘Even if you slip up, I’m here for you. I’ll support you.’” Imani has shared lessons she’s learned in listening, teaching, budgeting and camaraderie. The two are joined as friends in a larger movement toward a better Milwaukee.
As for her own future, Imani is packing away money from her year with Public Allies and Urban Underground toward college in 2016 and the start of an education degree.
“You start with a person, an individual, or there won’t be greater change,” Imani said about her mindset. “I want to help create positive change in the community, helping people see their full potential, so things can get better. We’re the new generation.”
On this #GivingTuesday, an international day for awareness and contribution to nonprofits, we wanted to focus on the power of giving back. We’re calling it “Giving Thanks on Tuesday” and sharing a story of Imani, one of the many powerful contributors to our community. Find out how you can empower a “new generation” of teens like Imani on this #GivingTuesday by clicking the button below.