Artists Create Festival to Unite One of the Most Racially Segregated Cities in the U.S.

By 11 September, 2015

STITCH Milwaukee, a socially conscious arts organization, was born out of a group of women of color who saw a need in their community and responded through the arts. Milwaukee, one of the most racially segregated cities in the United States, is known for its breweries and sports. However, 4 out of 5 black children are living in poverty with the largest achievement gap between white and black students in the country. Between 2000-2013 alone poverty among Latino neighborhoods grew over 35%. With these statistics overwhelmingly affecting black and Latino communities, a group of organizers called STITCH Milwaukee attempt to bring the segregated communities together through poetry, visual art and music. This Saturday, they are hosting their first ever Festival del Barrio, a music arts festival to strengthen the community. Sounds and Colours was able to interview some of the organizers, Cynthia, Jeanette and Alida.

Tell us a little bit about the history of STITCH Milwaukee and its beginnings.

Jeanette: STITCH began in the summer of 2009 as an open mic.  It wasn’t just for the sake of having an open mic that we decided to have it, but the intention lives in the name STITCH. After coming back to Milwaukee that summer after a year away from college, Alida and I were having conversations around what we wanted to do that summer, and how it’s always been hard to find things that are free and enjoyable for youth. An idea of an open mic came from Alida, being a poet and all. Integrating visual artists, myself being one, was the way that we began bridging the ideas of having a space for all artists of all mediums. Alida grew up on the northside, and I was born on the Southside, this led to it’s own conversation on where we would have the open mic. Knowing that Milwaukee is the #1 racially segregated city in the nation, we didn’t want to stand by that statistic. That’s where we came up with the idea of having an open mic that would rotate it’s venues, to bring the city with poetry, art and community.

Alida: My exposure to Just Bust and involvement in First Wave really influenced me in wanting to see that space or a similar space grow in Milwaukee. We rotate venues weekly, creating a literal movement of stitching, something we carry as a tradition in all that we do.

What motivated STITCH Milwaukee to create Festival del Barrio?

Jeanette: Honestly, it came out of our collective outgrowing our capacity to put on an open mic in the way that we had been for the past 6 years. We know the impact the open mic has had on our community, but we also know that it takes a lot of organizing to make it what it is. We didn’t want to shy away from not being able to offer something to the community this summer, which led to [the] creation [of] a two-day festival.

Alida: We also had previously done the TIANGUIS Anti-Mall event and our Brown is Beautiful event, both [of] which we loved and were heavily supported/appreciated by community fam. We wanted to combine these spaces with an open mic and make it a two-day festival to be hosted on the north and south sides of Milwaukee. We wish to continue to support alternative, yet traditional (roots) forms of sustainable economies. We wish to uplift creators and makers, artists, and musicians, creative people and our many talents. We wish to involve our community in creative ways, sharing gifts and celebrating together with food and sun and color. We want to share space, we wish to bring our communities together from across our divides, across our bridges, across our neighborhoods and comfortability zones to share space, to engage with each other through storytelling via any art form.

What will the Festival del Barrio offer through the arts and music to strengthen community and race relations?

Cynthia: Like my sistas have already mentioned, Milwaukee has this history of being the most racially segregated city in the U.S. and through our open mics and other past events we have seen the transformative power of arts and music, and it’s ability to bring community together despite the statistics. We have vendors, performers and community organizations from across Milwaukee, representing all different kinds of backgrounds that will be present at the Festival del Barrio. With this festival, we have been very intentional about creating a space for radical community building that is about nourishing ourselves, healing ourselves and celebrating ourselves and our stories through different art forms.

What kind of circumstances influenced STITCH’s evolution from Summer Open Mic Series to now a two day music arts festival?

Cynthia: There was a lot of little factors that lead to the evolution of our open mics. As we all are growing older and our families are growing and new jobs are entering our lives we just realized that we didn’t have the same amount of energy to put into a weekly open mic series. But we also know the importance of these spaces for our community. We received so many emails, messages, and phones calls about the open mic this summer and knew we needed to organize something. So we thought, let’s just combine all the events we’ve done in the past and have a festival! But also as we evolve personally and individually, our collective vision of STITCH is also evolving and becoming something greater and bigger and I think that’s visible through the progression of our events. So this transition from an open mic to a festival is just another small step towards a larger dream for what STITCH can be. Or more importantly of what our community deserves.

Which artists should Milwaukee expect to see for the Festival del Barrio?

Alida: Milwaukee can expect voices across ages. Youth-heavy. People of color from across Milwaukee. Poetry, a slam team, DJs, Reggae en Espanol, Bboys (a group of three brothers), a capoeira roda and workshop, indie music, original sounds defining genres, hip hop and rap, and beautiful voices of amazing people.

Cynthia: As well as the work of visual artists and artisans, we have creators who will be vending their photography, prints, paintings, handmade jewelry, wearable crochet and knit art, and so much more.

What is the future of STITCH and will we see more Festivales around the city in the coming years?

Jeanette: We’ll see what the future holds for STITCH.

Alida: You will definitely see, if not from the STITCH collective as such then from organizers of it, continuing to create dope radical spaces that support movement towards the world we envision, a world for us all.

For more information, check out their website. And if you’re in Milwaukee or in the Midwest, check out their festival this weekend!

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