It was 11:30 a.m. Dense clouds loomed over the city skyline, and a large, white boat bobbed up and down in the murky, blue water of the Milwaukee Harbor.
The Neeskay is the primary research vessel for the UW-Milwaukee School of Freshwater Sciences, according to tour guide Lindsay Frost, but students on the MKE Eco Tour were apprehensive to climb aboard. They slowly walked, one by one, across the threshold, while Frost explained projects beginning to take shape in the Harbor District of Milwaukee.
The MKE Eco Tour, which was organized by UWM Student Involvement, took students around the city of Milwaukee to learn more about the organizations working to protect the city’s lake, harbor and rivers.
Twenty five students gathered for the tour at the UW-Milwaukee Union Concourse on March 21, just one day before Earth Day.
“Where Milwaukee is, is because of the water,” said tour guide Adam Carr, dressed in a button up shirt covered in waves and a Milwaukee Brewers baseball cap. Having lived in Milwaukee for his entire life, Carr’s anecdotes throughout the day drew on his personal experience as well as his work with the Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service.
Carr gave a brief history of Milwaukee during the bus ride to the first destination of the tour. Then the bus came to a halt, and the students filed out onto the side walk. A large building covered in glass panels, in nearly every shade of blue, rose up in front of them.
Inside, Lindsay Frost welcomed the students to the UW-Milwaukee School of Freshwater Sciences. Frost previously worked in graduate and career services at the UW-Milwaukee school, and now she is working as the Water Projects Manager at Harbor Districts Inc.
Frost lead students around the School of Freshwater Sciences’ building and aboard The Neeskay, where she explained the mission behind Harbor District Inc. and the company’s work with the UWM.
“The whole idea is to figure out creative ways to bring back those habitats for the fish and also for the enjoyment of the people who live here,” said Frost.
She noted the School of Freshwater Sciences’ work with natural spawning, genomics and beach monitoring, and though there was a lot more the students could’ve learned from Frost, the tour had to keep moving.
What was up next on the agenda? Lunch.
The group of UW-Milwaukee staff and students enjoyed a vegetarian or vegan meal at the Fuel Café in Walker’s Point. The environmentally-conscious meal was accompanied by an assorted collection of organic sodas called Wisco Pop.
After lunch, the tour moved to the Kinnickinnic River Neighborhood, which is currently known as “the south side” or “polonia,” according to Kevin Engstrom the Director of Environmental Health at Sixteenth Street Community Health Centers.
Engstrom, with the Sixteenth Street Clinics, has been working with the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District (MMSD) to revitalize the Kinnickinnic (KK) River. The students on the tour saw the portion of the river that has been returned back to a natural river basin, where they then met up with local artist Melanie Ariens.
A cluster of mirrors, sugar skulls and many other random items sat on a small table near the edge of the riverbank. Ariens said that she had constructed the shrine earlier that morning, while standing barefoot in the KK River.
“The real way to capture people’s interest in an issue is art,” said Ariens.
The tour group’s final stop along the KK River was Pulaski Park.
The students were introduced to a few members of the KK River Neighbors in Action, who also work with Engstrom, the Sixteenth Street Clinics and MMSD in revitalizing the KK River and the KK River Neighborhood.
“We want everybody to come to the park and to come to the neighborhood,” said Travis Hope the President of the KK River Neighbors in Action.
A cleanup was held at Pulaski Park, among multiple other locations, the following day to celebrate Earth Day. Many of the students who were on the MKE Eco Tour said they would be taking part in the cleanup.
For the next stop, the staff and students ventured indoors at Escuela Verde.
“You’re going to wish you went to this high school,” said Adam Carr as the tour group entered the building.
Escuela Verde is public charter, project-based learning school, which emphasizes environmental and social justice issues. They currently have 110 students, according to co-founder and advisor Joey Zocher, who took the UW – Milwaukee staff and students on a tour around the building.
Open concept classrooms and distressed hardwood floors made up the majority of the school, but the group also found out that Escuela Verde has their own recording studio and backyard, where they have built a small greenhouse.
“People who are fighting climate change never had to stand in the face of aversion like my students,” said Zocher.
Many of the students weren’t able to fit in in public school, said Zocher. This is why they came to Escuela Verde.
The next destination on the tour was the Global Water Center.
Colin Flanner, intern and student liaison at The Water Council, lead the group through the levels of the building, which houses companies such as Veolia.
“Water was not always considered an industry,” said Flanner.
Now, however, there are at least 250 water-related businesses in Milwaukee, and the Global Water Center wants to make Milwaukee into an international water hub, according to Flanner.
The MKE Eco Tour concluded at Purple Door Ice Cream. The group enjoyed ice cream flavors such as: espresso, salted caramel and – even – beer and pretzels, then, on the bus ride back to the UW – Milwaukee campus, staff and students talked anxiously about their plans for Earth Day.