A range of people, old, young, black and white gather at the Body & Soul Healing Arts Center in Milwaukee’s Sherman Park neighborhood. The walls are bare and colorless as the place is in the process of being renovated. “The House I Live In” documentary keeps everyone glued to the small TV on an old stand that sits in the corner. Garbled mumbles of displeasure are heard as the documentary mentions U.S. drug policy.
The film sheds light on what it calls the mass incarceration of Americans as a result of the drug war. The people gathered at the arts center believe this especially has created a dire impact on Black America, and that discriminatory drug laws are only part of the problem.
One person who is fed up is Eyon Biddle, Sr. He says that African Americans need to step it up and find answers to their own problems. “Black people need to do things for themselves. The American government has systematically dismantled black people through the war on drugs and mass incarceration,” says Biddle. “In a situation where you have a government who is not being responsive to your needs and to your problems and not offering you any solutions, it’s time for people to offer their own analysis to their own problems and their own solutions to their problems.”
It’s not a fad but a movement. At least that is how the members of All Black Everything would describe the organization they created last year. Biddle and Monique Liston created ABE because they believe that African Americans need to do things for themselves through leadership. The ABE movement focuses on three elements: The Sankofa study circle: to learn about African American history, the Buy Black program: to support black-owned businesses, and The Feed the People program: to promote healthy eating for African Americans.
Liston is an advanced opportunity fellow at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and enjoys showcasing African culture through her clothing. She says that the time was right for change. “All the right people who were interested in the right issues were ready to come together and kind of say, well what do we do next?” she says. Everybody was around and noticed it was a time for a change and said this is the time for us to do this. So, it was perfect timing with perfect people!”
Biddle says that people need to take action to be powerful within their own community. He wants community members to find ways to empower themselves to solve their own problems and not be followers. “I want to figure out ways to employ our people, I want to figure out ways to educate our children;” says Biddle. “I want to figure out ways to protect our children from police brutality. What can I do myself and not wait for someone else to do it for me?”
The organization is designed for members of the Black community to be independent and determined to make changes. ABE encourages the community to come together to restore Black culture and get rid of economic oppression. It is committed to the reclamation and progression of Black power as well as Black people.
Go and Get it
Sankofa is a word from the Akan people of Ghana. It translates to, “Go and Get it.” The All Black Everything members who attend the study circle live by the seven virtues of Ma’at: truth, justice, harmony, balance, order, reciprocity, and righteousness. They also live by the seven principles of Kwanzaa: umoja (unity), kujichaguila (self-determination), ujima (collective work and responsibility), ujamaa (cooperative economics), nia (purpose), kuumba (creativity), and imani (faith).
Sankofa study circle coordinator Supreme Allah says that black liberation groups such as the ABE movement can be beneficial for neighborhoods. “They definitely help the community,” says Allah. “To go back to certain traditions that were theirs before we came over here as captives and therefore we learn certain things as opposed to the things we learned traditionally.”
ABE member Melissa Marthol says black liberating groups are needed for people to have conversations and debates, and to critically think, assess, analyze, and act. “We always talk about being warrior scholars,” says Marthol. “Because not only do we need to fight but we need to study and we need to do the work.”
Marthol is a sales marketing manager at UWM. Conversations in class with Liston brought on her interest in ABE, where she began getting involved with the development of the organization. She says the group encourages members to become better people, and figure out their role in black liberation.
“It’s to see how our community can be better,” says Marthol. “So if it’s influencing 20, 30, 40, 50 people that is a win.”
While it seems that the ABE movement can be very positive and helpful for the community, independent farmer Miguel Lewis thinks otherwise. Lewis says that ABE is a great organization because he is able to connect with the community and try to help out. But, he says that ABE cannot help the community when it comes to being completely free from a European structure. “If it will work to organize “African Americans” then yes, but if you’re talking about sustainable change and like sustainable independence from the system of Eurocentric slavery, then no,” he says.
Buy Black Program
All Black Everything co-founder Monique Liston explains that the Buy Black program promotes more than just supporting local black owned businesses. She says residents need to know where black businesses are, how they’re doing, frequent them, and make sure that there is an understanding of their relationship to the rest of the community. “It’s more than just shopping at black stores,” says Liston. “It’s understanding where we can build black stores, black stores that have been in existence, how do we connect them, how do we show people to make sure they work with them, all those type of things.”
Bradley Thurman the owner of Coffee Makes You Black on Teutonia Avenuesays minority-owned businesses definitely need community support. “I feel that probably the failure rate is due to not having adequate working capital and not having a community with a conscious to buy into black businesses to go out of their way and watch where and how they spend their dollar,” says Thurman. “And, I think that’s basically the real challenge of black businesses in Milwaukee.”
All Black Everything co-founder Eyon Biddle, Sr. says African Americans must use their massive consuming power and turn it into purchasing power and then into ownership. A big goal for him is to circulate more black dollars into Milwaukee communities.
Executive director of Local Initiatives Support Corporation Leo Ries, agrees that people
need to take ownership. “The answer is not going to come from elsewhere,” says Ries. “People have to take the initiative and we have to figure out how do we look at the situation we’re in. I really believe in the importance of people coming together.”
Ries came to LISC 14 years ago to network and be a supporter in neighborhood development efforts. He says that residents can forget about the importance of coming together and making a bigger, more significant impact through collective action.
Ries says groups such as ABE are important for neighborhoods. “I think just that whole process of getting people engaged helping them believe that change is possible and then working with them to implement that change, I think is what a lot of these groups are about,” says Ries. “Those are exactly the types of groups we love to work with because they’re groups that have a certain passion and a vision and so then what we can do is then work with them and say, how can we help you implement that vision.”
Still, some people believe that many black businesses are just simply dying. Lucky Anderson is the owner of Anderson Income Tax Services on Center Street and says that black businesses are on the decline. “I see so many black-owned corner stores and there’s no more. Everyone is going. We are not going to own anything,” says Anderson. “We owned businesses, but now I’m not so sure about that. It’s going the other way.” He thought an African American guy owned a radio station he frequently listened to because that is what was implied. Anderson later found out that the guy only owned a portion.
Anderson even says some black businesspeople are dishonest. “I think with the black businesses, I hate to say this, but quite often they’re not truthful. Okay, it’s a shame to say,” says Anderson. “They cheat. People don’t trust them.”
Anderson says that there are black businesspeople that only do it for the dollar, and not because they like what they are doing. He says that if African Americans work together then they can become one of the strongest ethnic groups in America but there is not enough care.
Feed the People Program
All Black Everything’s Feed the People program is designed to promote healthy eating options. The group is currently in the process of creating a local co-op. “Right now we are really in the planning stage of understanding what do we want it to look like,” said Liston. “But the interest is very high. Every week more people are like, what is this? What do you mean? And they are adding their skills and talents so then we keep changing and try to reform what we actually want to do with that.” Biddle said that ABE is already doing certifications for food trainers because they want to cultivate their own community gardens.
The organization is also creating summer youth programs including a Sankofa Saturday School that will focus on projects to develop the cultural awareness of youth. Freedom Camp will be a five-day camp that will focus on freedom movements throughout the United States, the Caribbean, and Africa. Selected students will have the opportunity to showcase what they have learned at the citywide Underground Railroad celebration with the Johnson Park Neighborhood Association and a community garden.
There will also be a Sankofa camp, where the focus will be on reading and writing skills. The students will learn about African dance, poetry, and art. At the end of the camp, a showcase will allow students to perform in front of students, parents, and the community.
The last program is the P.R.E.P. school (people ready for excellence), a back-to-school camp. This five-day camp will help to prepare students to transition from the lazy days of summer into school mode. The focus will be on reading, math, history, and social skills. ABE’s goal is to raise $5,000 for all of these programs by June 1.
“We need to return back to the traditional set of viewpoints. It actually helps many people in this community that are of African descent get back to those roots,” says Supreme Allah.