Cheri Fuqua is a strong advocate for her community. Before moving to Milwaukee, she lived in Chicago. After finishing college, she accepted a position with AmeriCorps. She had initially accepted the position for financial reasons— to pay off her student loans. But the experience with AmeriCorps transformed her. It helped her discover a greater purpose and passion for advocacy and community work — a passion that underpins her actions today.
One day as she was riding the bus, Ms. Fuqua overheard someone describe a city program that helped first time buyers acquire homes in Milwaukee. She investigated and then purchased an old home through this program and became a homeowner in Sherman Park. The building she bought used to be a crack house. Ms. Fuqua worked with contractors to redesign the interior. There might have been some initial hesitation, remembers Ms. Fuqua, but she soon realized that the neighborhood was changing, and her decision was a wise one. What she didn't realize then was that she was going to become that change that would transform her block.
Initially, after purchasing the building, she and her family made the decision to rent out her property. She bought another home on a safer and quieter street in Sherman Park. After 18 years, she and her husband moved back to the original property and committed themselves to being change agents on their street and in their neighborhood.
Ms. Fuqua collaborated with one of her tenants, Ms. Cynthia, to begin advocacy work in the community. Ms. Cynthia held a back-to-school bash for kids in the neighborhood. During this event, she organized volunteers and donations in efforts to gift backpacks full of school supplies and haircuts. Ms. Fuqua committed herself to working with Ms. Cynthia and eventually started a block group. Today, Ms. Fuqua believes that encouraging home ownership is a good way to improve Milwaukee’s neighborhoods and restore a sense of conviviality and community.
Ms. Fuqua leads by example. She has influenced others on her street through home beautification. She updated her porch and the landscaping around her home. Soon her neighbors followed, and they too started to care for their yards through landscaping. Although there is more work to be done in terms of improving the physical beauty of her neighborhood and street, Ms. Fuqua knows that change is happening and believes that eventually everyone on her street will get on board.
She believes that positive changes to her environment make her block safer. When property owners neglect their properties, or let their homes fall into disrepair and foreclosure, it affects the appearance of the neighborhood and makes the block unsafe. In order to eliminate some problems with abandoned structures, the city demolished three properties on her street. This action cleared plots of land on which Ms. Fuqua planted an orchard. In another instance, she raised funds in order to create a pocket park. Today, the neighborhood residents use and enjoy these open spaces. Work is constantly being done to enhance these spaces. Although most residents respect these common spaces, on July 3rd, 2017, someone set fireworks off and destroyed many plants and destroyed the little free library built by local children. Ms. Fuqua and teens from the Earn and Learn Program cleared the mess and planted the flowers they could salvage.
The safety and protection of the children in the neighborhood has also been a concern for Cheri Fuqua. She has developed a strong relationship with many children in the neighborhood, who call her "Aunt Cheri." After the second Back to School Bash organized by her neighbor Ms. Cynthia, Fuqua saw how neighborhood kids played outside all day long enjoying the neighborhood and each other’s company. She found that this even brought many residents out of their homes and engaged them with each other. There were people on the sidewalk, sharing stories and laughing. This event illustrated a sharp contrast from what she experienced on other days when kids stay indoors because it is too dangerous to play outside in the street. She realized that kids should be allowed to be kids and that the streets should be full of laughter, not bullets and drugs.
Ms. Fuqua realized that another related issue contributed to the lack of life on her street. The street lights turn off two or three times a month, leaving the street dark and unsafe. There should not be any reason for this to be happening, she argued. Ms. Fuqua strategized and submitted a grant proposal to combat this issue. The solution was twofold: one was that each resident on the street agreed to turn on their porch lights from dusk till dawn; second, the grant money paid for uniform, lit-up house numbers for homeowners and lights for tenants whose landlords did not provide for better outdoor lighting.
Ms. Fuqua and her husband remain dedicated to their goal of improving their neighborhood and they see themselves as change agents. A few months ago. Fuqua's husband was robbed and beaten by a group of kids at a local gas station. This event was a moment of pause to consider the cost of living in the neighborhood and their investments in improving and reviving the street. They did not leave. They decided to stay and continue their work. After all, they couldn't expect others to stay in the neighborhood if they themselves left!
Cheri Fuqua Interviewed by Joy Huntington, Sherman Park 2017
News article on Ms. Fuqua's work
A podcast series produced by Daniel Macias of Marquette University. In this podcast Macias examines Cheri Fuqua's community leadership around Unity Orchard.
Copyright: Daniel Macias, 2020