"An art program is helping Milwaukee teens see themselves in their own light, rather than the narratives that surround them." - The Guardian, written by Mario Karan

Amir Williams pictured himself as an African king, supported by his family’s ancestors. Miguel Rivera imagined holding a Rubik’s cube, layered with infinite possibilities. DeMarcus Staples saw himself as a hero, confident and steady while saving lives.

The students, all 16, recently completed a year-long art program that helps students in Milwaukee explore their identity through video, photography and oral histories. The project, which is run by New York based non-profit Art Start, culminates with the youths staging a portrait that represents how they see themselves.

The program counters the popular narratives young men of color in Milwaukee receive from the state around them, one that produces the highest incarceration rate for Black men in the nation.

More than half of all Black men in Milwaukee have spent time in prison before they turn 40, one study found in 2013. In the public school system, Black, male students are treated more harshly and punished more often than their white classmates.


Reggie Jackson, a Milwaukee historian, traces the disparity to a hyper-segregated school system, an overwhelmingly white teaching force, and punitive, zero-tolerance policies that emerged nationwide following the 1999 Columbine school shooting.

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“It creates a perfect storm of inequality within the schools,” Jackson said. “The incarceration machine starts early, and it swallows opportunity in Milwaukee.”

Since 2017, more than 40 Milwaukee public school students have taken part in the program, imagining themselves as fashion designers, freedom fighters, music producers and superheroes. “This project allows them the opportunity to be children, to be human, and for people to see them as such,” said Johanna De Los Santos, Art Start’s executive director.