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PRC Oral Storytelling Project: Walnut Way Conservation Corp.


In this episode, listeners will hear from the Executive Director of Walnut Way Conservation Corp., Antonio Butts.

Walnut Way Conservation Corp. (Walnut Way), located in the Lindsay Heights neighborhood of Milwaukee, WI, is a resident-led organization committed to sustaining an economically diverse community through civic engagement, environmental stewardship, and creating venues for prosperity. Most African American residents have experienced years of disinvestment in the area. Like many other cities in the United States, Milwaukee has a history of systemic racism in neighborhood planning and design. The impact of redlining (or established policies to keep neighborhoods segregated), urban renewal projects, and the lack of recent infrastructure investment have increased the community’s vulnerability to high amounts of precipitation, resulting in run-off and flooding. Walnut Way has started engaging Lindsay Heights residents in planning and designing community-embedded street and stormwater run-off diversion projects to mitigate urban flooding in Milwaukee’s combined sewer system. The project aims to divert water from the combined sewer system and help infrastructure handle high precipitation levels. Walnut Way’s green job training program, Blue Skies Landscaping, creates jobs and improves water quality in Lake Michigan and the Milwaukee River. In addition, Walnut Way has developed the Innovations and Wellness Commons, a community resilience hub complete with a roof-top garden and permeable patio, as well as a Bioswale adjacent to the Commons’ parking lot.

Full Transcript

Antonio [00:00:01] My name is Antonio Butts I’m from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and I currently live in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The way that I got involved in this work, I grew up in the Midwest and more or less in the 80s. And I was pretty much grown in the 90s. And so I was growing up in the neighborhood, you know, when it was pretty much left without some sort of real economic engine or a way to sustain economic mobility overall. And so at the same time, you also had the big influx of drugs coming into the communities. And you know, it was just a very interesting time as I look back and think about, you know, sort of that dichotomy between the lack of opportunities for economic mobility and the things that were taking place again with the influx of drugs and the whole mass incarceration. But at the same time, also witnessing so many people who were, you know, who we call today, change makers trying to figure out how to do something different. You know, in the community, because of the things that you know, I just described in terms of lack of employment opportunities and…and again, this influx of drugs and this push to lock up all of these young people. And so at a young age 12 through 17, I really started to see friends disappear. You know, only later to find out when I was 19-20, that man so-and-so was locked up. He was locked up for five years. He was locked up for three years. And, you know, so growing up in that again, it was just this this that was the experience of…of…of…of like, wow, this is a really narrow path. And if you slip up and you make a mistake, it could really cost you everything. And no matter how good, how smart or how lucky you could be, you just really never know what could happen. You know, just based on the odds in general. I got scarred up a little bit along the way, but I made it out. Of several of my friends, so to speak, using that very loosely made it out, made it out as well. But a lot of us didn’t. One of the things that I knew, you know, by the time I did become 18 or 19 is that man, I’m not going to be able to finish school if I go to school in Milwaukee. There’s going to be too much peer pressure. I’m not going to be able to handle it. And so I I actually followed a friend who went to a small school in Nebraska, who was a pretty good basketball player. And so I went out there with him and I started, you know, in the small two year school. And then from there, I actually started a small two year school with him. And then from there I actually went and finished up at a small college in Minnesota called Morehead State University. And so when I when I came back home, you know, I came home, of course, with the intention to change the world and do big things. And so looking back on that, what I know now was more important was really to just change me and work on myself, more so than to actually try to change the world. But I came back with that. And so in the first sort of five years of my career, I really describe it as a tour of duty and youth development. So I was involved in foster care recruitment. I was involved in gang intervention. I was doing counseling in the home, in the house and in the school. I was involved in the adult education, housing and in job training opportunities and all of those sorts of things within organizations and then doing independent contracting with the county and stuff like that. Over the last 10 years of my work, though, I really started moving away from what I really considered that first five years to be, which was social work. And I started leaning into more, you know, economic development, social enterprises, things that provided a way that, you know, you could develop some dignity. You could…you could generate a way to be self-sufficient and you could deliver that in your community, in your neighborhoods in a way that you know, was visible, and…and people could track progress. And so I just think that, you know, my work was really been about removing barriers and it’s all really been about access and it’s been about really creating these spaces and ensuring that…that people have a place where their voice can be heard, regardless of their level of education, what they know or do not know, and that the rules of engagement are fair, especially for folks who have been left out of the conversations. 


Antonio [00:04:43] The name of the organization is Walnut Way Conservation Corporation, and the vision of our work is really to create a diverse and abundant community. But the mission is what we describe as sustained transformation, and we do that through three particular areas: community engagement, environmental stewardship and economic development. And so this year, our organization is 21 years old. And it started out like a little neighborhood watch group 21 years ago and has grown and evolved to become and operate more like a community development or economic development corporation. And so in the three pillars with community engagement, it’s always been important for us to know the needs and interests of residents, create spaces for them to prioritize their issues, but then also set the organization up in a way where they can leverage the infrastructure of the organization to see those priorities through. So creating spaces is a really, really important part of our work. We really, you know, have have been branded as a convener. Environmental stewardship has been the primary way that we, you know, catalyzed our work and…and used environmental stewardship for engagement. And where we do most of our work in this neighborhood, we call it a campus now because we’ve absorbed so much property in the area. And so we got about three acres of gardens and orchards in the area that we sustain and produce several thousand pounds of food every year. The largest open Farmers’ Market is less than three blocks away. So we have these youth development opportunities where they’ve come to learn and grow. But then they also get the entrepreneurial experience in terms of being able to take it straight to the market. So it’s a really cool program. And then we’ve also always believed that, you know, the built in environment has an impact on our health. So transforming those vacant lots to urban gardens being involved in rehabilitating dilapidated properties is really, really a big part of our story, a big part of our history in terms of just again, not only creating spaces for the conversation, but being implementers in terms of, you know, transforming the built environment.  And then economic development, and that’s all about right. How do we create more economic mobility not only for the organization, but the residents in the neighborhood, but then also make our commercial corridors more vibrant, give more foot traffic, bring more businesses into the space and just create the quality of life that people really deserve. 


Antonio [00:07:12] The main climate issues for us are…the biggest one is this alignment is shared meaning. There are a lot of groups doing a lot of individual work and they’re finding ways to to connect their silos. But this this is a real, huge opportunity to sort of categorize all of the issues that many communities of color are underserved communities face as environmental justice issues, that they’re not separate issues, they’re all environmental justice issues. So that’s the biggest issue from our perspective here today is the shared meaning.  What does all of this mean? And how is it all connected and sort of synonymous? But then as you as we get into the weeds of it and be more specifically, especially in terms of, you know, geographic location, the primary issues are stormwater management, it’s also the energy burden, but then in addition to that, it’s also air quality. And so when we think about stormwater management, Milwaukee itself has a variety of flooding issues that our combined sewer system, it just cannot handle. And so of course, in a lot of different communities where people of color are, these are actually the places where most of the flooding actually occurs. And so when we think about that, here, we have this opportunity to try to educate folks about where we live, the conditions in terms of where we live. But then also, of course, how to address it, how to mitigate it and really adapt to it. You know, which is what all of this environmental justice and climate resilience learning is all about. But, but but in connection to that storm water piece was really emerging. As importance for us is to say, Hey, if we remediate this stuff by having rain barrels and building rain gardens, then we’re taking the burden off of the municipality. There’s a cost associated with that. So what we’re trying to do is make sure that this is reflected as some form of currency that, that our communities should be able to account for just in terms of their contribution to managing the stormwater issues here in Milwaukee. And so that’s really important for us and it’s a learning journey. We really want to lean into helping people understand how to work with, deal with and be involved in proceedings that, that, you know, could impact and change the policies we need so that the energy burden isn’t as high and that there’s more equitable opportunities for, for underserved communities around what we’re doing in terms of infrastructure, renewal retrofits and all of that. So it’s a huge opportunity there for us all to grow. And so as we get into discussing unintended consequences and how we got here and what those things are all about is really cool because it’s not hard to understand what gets complicated is the politics in the process. And so what we try to do is, of course, build capacity, confidence and wherewithal in people so they can come to those tables in those conversations feeling as though that, you know, it’s not on them to prove anything. It’s the fact that we’re being engaged and present and looking for solutions to our problems that prevented us from having again the quality of life that we all deserve. 


Antonio [00:10:37] The role that I think people of color have to play in this work is primarily three areas. The first one is governance. We’re only going to be as strong as our institutions and organizations in the governance that that that leads those entities. And so we have to be willing to, to be part of governance structures, participate as board members, committee members, workgroup members. It has to become normalized in our community, to understand that these tables that we’re all always talking about, that nobody that’s at the table is special. You know, participation creates access. And so being at those tables, and learning at those tables, but then creating some sort of succession around those tables is critical to our work. The other one is just absorbability. Again, we cannot be afraid to manage money. We have to be ok with moving our organizations from one hundred thousand, to a half a million, from a half a million, to 1.5 from 1.5  to 5. from 5 to 10, so on and so forth. We cannot be afraid of the dollars, we have to be prepared and able to absorb this money. So in terms of our administrative abilities, our infrastructure within our organizations, it is critical that we do that because otherwise again, we’ll have to go to other tables where these things are deliberate and prescribed to us in a way that typically don’t align with how we would do things. The other one and the last one is taking control locally. Keep an eye on what’s happening around the world. That’s great. But locally, take control because in a lot of places, you know, America’s built on small towns more or less. And so in a lot of places, there’s really clear pathways to everybody you need to get to. The mayor’s a phone call away, to the older person a minute away, the school board member lives next door. Take control locally and be a part of the policymaking process. Who in these communities has time, you know, to to come to…to several meetings in a month when they’re competing with other issues related to an energy burden. Who has time to donate money when they’re competing with energy burden? And so that whole idea of disposable time and income is something that’s really, truly on our radar. And again, I just go back to participation still does create access. So at the so at whatever level that that you can be engaged in and tables you could sit at from the neighborhood watch to the neighborhood, clean up to what, what, whatever that might be, that that connects with you within your community and how you can help be a part of that improvement. You know, it’s whatever step you can take, quite honestly. As we’ve grown and evolved, your problems sort of grow and evolve with you, too. So the problems that we had 20 years ago are slightly different from today, although, you know the substance of those issues are the same. But more specifically, I would say again, here in Milwaukee, the lack of businesses of color to partner with formed strategic alliances with and address these issues and take advantage of these opportunities where, where there are openings around diversity and equity and more inclusion for businesses. But there’s not enough businesses to participate and so meeting that moment is is a very unique challenge. So we’re starting new programs like Community Wealth Building, where we are shifting the language. We’re not saying come to a small business seminar, we’re saying come to a side hustle workshop, you know, different things like that. And for those of us who are sort of locked in it because we’re tied to someplace where we where we’re tied to some land is some sacred involved and we’re just stuck. You know, all we can really focus on is taking care of ourselves in succession. And how do we build up the next generation of folks, sort of the people who come in here tomorrow because we know we’re going to be here regardless. And it doesn’t matter if we’re at Walnut Way or at the organization down the street, we’ll be doing this work. The successes have been, you know, really personal successes to the organization. And so we’ve been involved in a lot of small projects that are really scalable as we think about, you know, climate resilience. So when we first started out what ISC, I don’t think we had any solar in the neighborhood, you know? Well, right now we got, you know, close to 100 kilowatts in various places at various organizations, and we ourselves have roughly, I think we got about 30 kilowatts total on our buildings and properties. We just got battery storage in one of the locations. So we’re demonstrating that it can be done. And because we know that is scalable, we know that each step we make, we still have an opportunity to build on those things because of the scalability of this infrastructure. And the biggest one has been the completion of our first resilience hub. So two years ago, we just finished up last year, we put together one and a half story new construction building, which has all of the climate resilience features: the solar, the battery,  the storm water management features, the permeable green garden. It has all of the energy efficiency in it. But the most beautiful part in addition to that infrastructure, though, is that it has a host of tenants in it with programs and services that reflect the needs of this neighborhood. 


Antonio [00:16:13] What I would share based on what I would want someone to have shared with me is…is some really straight forward things more or less simple things. They are really personal. The first one is: sustain the tables that you put together, regardless of how they evolve or how they change. Holding these spaces is critical to the work. Sustaining them in a way that has continuity is…is the lifeblood of the work. More directly, I would say, to someone coming into work: be a congruent leader, keep your meetings, hold your meetings.  If you’re in a team find a way to to collectively hold these spaces. Do not let people down. Don’t let yourself down. And it’s not all glitz and glamor, as we all know, and a lot of meetings are tiring and boring and…but you got to stay there because the moments do come. And that also makes me think about some of the more seasoned folks in this work and their sense of urgency around it and the new appreciation that I’m having for them and their work in that urgency and thinking about all we have is time. So how we use it is really, really critical, especially as a tool. I think in this particular case, technology is probably our best one of our best friends in this work right now because I can go and put an air monitor on every building in this neighborhood. I can do certain things right now that allow us to collect, control the data and bring our arguments to the table that it just can’t be denied. And so what we do around technology is so critical because that will be our evidence in all of this work. And then just in terms of avoidance, I think that, you know, by and large, I think the primary thing to avoid is is self-doubt and in believing that you’re not worthy or believing that the people that you serve aren’t worth it. You know, this is all been by design. And so does the fish know it’s in a fish tank? And so in our work, what we try to do is keep the fish tank clean so everybody can see what’s going on. And don’t nobody have to choke off all of the dirt in the fish tank. That’s our work so that when folks come to the table, we’ve prepared a place for them, and so that’s what’s really important. 

PRC Oral Storytelling Project Production Credits and Attribution 

  • Project Producer, Felicia T Perez 
  • Sound Producer, Vanessa Vancour 
  • Sound Editing Assistant, Escenthio Marigny 
  • Transcriptions, Dr. Lydia Huerta 
  • Illustration and Music, graceuarts 

Additional music credits (credits do not imply endorsement): 

  • “Emergency Siren” by onderwish CC0 1.0
  • “Fire” by mmutua CC by NC 3.0 segment of original audio sample used
  • “Matchbox Strike and Light” by jaredgibb CC0 1.0
  • “Sewing Machine” by j1987 CC0 1.0
  • “Water Stream” by sterferny CC0 1.0
  • “Construction Soundscape” by ajexk CC0 1.0
  • “Neighborhood City Street” by rifualk CC0 1.0
  • “Street Protest Sound Effect” by spanac CC by 4.0 segment of original audio sample used 
  • “Royalty Free Mexican Mariachi Background Music No Copyright” by MFCC
  • “Car Horn” by keweldog CC0 1.0