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Let’s talk about immigration

Setting Expectations

Escuela Verde designs its courses around project-based and student-led learning.

Immigration is a salient–and sensitive–topic in our current political and social climate. It’s something that impacts many of us directly, as first- and second-generation immigrant families, as the members of families that include both documented and undocumented relatives. And while many people in the U.S. have been here for generations, the vast majority are the descendants of immigrants who also migrated in search of opportunities and a better life.

Together as staff and students, we set some expectations upfront to guide our conversations and concepts.

What we did not want:

  • a propagandistic campaign
  • a political agenda
  • too narrow of a focus or oversimplified viewpoint on an issue that impacts many different groups

What we did want:

  • to better understand the role that immigration and migration has played in human history
  • to educate ourselves on the patterns of history
  • to find the common ground in our stories
  • to show how in spite of the current conversations surrounding the Mexico-US border, immigration is not new, and neither are the problems we are currently trying to work through as a country
  • to use art as a tool to foster community conversations around this topic and the role immigration plays in shaping us, from the local level of our neighborhoods and cities to the national and global levels of how we all identify, interact, relate, and exchange with one another

Understanding the Role of Immigration

Immigration isn’t new, and it has always been necessary in the development and progress of human societies, culturally and economically. It isn’t unique to humans, either. It has always been a means for growth, development, and the renewal of the resources we depend on.

So if we know this, how can we write our policies to facilitate the benefits of immigration, rather than hinder our progress, or worse, divide us and further drive our inequities?

To better understand this subject matter, we spent some time talking about the different effects of immigration, and the positives and negatives that come with those effects.

Our brainstorm web on the concept of immigration.
Gabriela Riveros at the whiteboard during our discussion of the topics related to and influenced by immigration.

Storytelling as a Way of Finding Common Ground

For one of our workshops, we asked students to bring in immigrant stories. They could be stories from their own families or from their neighbors.

Here are two drawings that show some of the common themes that emerged from our story sharing.

A student’s depiction of his Irish ancestors being denied to enter the US. His family instead went to Canada and crossed the border illegally, settling in Montana.
A student’s illustration inspired by peaceful marches in the face of violence. The quote at the bottom of the drawing reads, “They tried to bury us, but they didn’t know we could grow.”

The Mural Site & Transforming Public Spaces

Our project started with a partnership between Escuela Verde and Artists Working in Education.

About the Organizations

Escuela Verde is a public charter school in Milwaukee that uses a project-based learning model to emphasize sustainability, student-led learning, and restorative justice. Artists Working in Education is a nonprofit that partners with artists and schools, to use the arts as a way to collaborate on community solutions that reflect the values, concerns, and cultures of the neighborhoods we are a part of.

Together with their instructors and facilitators, the students at Escuela Verde met to discuss the relevant issues of their neighborhood. Escuela Verde is located at 36th and Pierce Street in Milwaukee’s Silver City.

About the Neighborhood & Concept

Milwaukee has always been a city of immigrants. In the 1800s, most of the immigrants were from Germany and Ireland, and in 1844 it had twice as many newspapers in German as in English.

Silver City continues to be a neighborhood representative of the groups that have immigrated here. Many of the immigrants are Hispanic and Hmong, but the neighborhood is home to many different immigrant populations who have started their businesses and new lives here, much like the generations of immigrants before them.


About the Site

The wall for our mural is the eastern side of the Superior Salt building, under the viaduct. We chose this location for a few reasons. The location is isolated and as a result, has little activity or observation. Neighbors are concerned about the safety of this street; because of the seclusion and lack of use, oncoming drivers often speed through this part of the street, even though within blocks of this location are to homes, a school, and community-focused organizations like the Urban Ecology Center and Wisconsin Bike Federation. The owner of the building has also had tagging problems. As you can see in the last picture, the north side of the building is covered with graffiti tags and bombs. Because the north side of the building faces the railroad, the city sees these tags as a violation of public space, and the costs fall on the building owner to remove the graffiti.

So the question is, can we use a public artwork to get people to slow down, to deter tagging, and ultimately, to make people become aware and respectful of the space in a different way?

Will this artwork be a way to focus people’s attention on the concerns facing their neighborhood, and start the conversations and actions we need to have?

Superior Salt Building, east-facing wall under the 35th/Pierce Street viaduct
Some of the students in our workshop and project
The tagged north-facing wall of the building, facing the Hank Aaron State Trail and railroad

Further Information

Statistics for the neighborhood available on AreaVibes and Point2Homes

A brief synopsis of the Silver City neighborhood: Silver City District and Silver City and Immigration