In addition to his studies in Educational Policy and Community Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Cruz is engaged in his south side neighborhood as a block captain and a community activist with Layton Boulevard West Neighborhood Association.
Cruz, who was born and raised in Milwaukee, has lived on the south side all of his life, and on his block for 15 years. His focus at UWM is on community organizing and working with youth, and he’s found what he’s learning in the classroom can be often put into practice. “I’ve had a lot of support from my professors here at UWM. I think what is special is that I am part of the neighborhood and I’m bringing the knowledge I get from the university back to the neighborhood.”
He’s learned to work with the neighborhood associations, his alderman, Robert G. Donovan, and city officials to make improvements on his block. It started with flower planting and clean-ups; then a water conservation project with the city. Last summer the group got a small grant from the city to help pay for the cost of installing alley lighting on garages.
“A lot of neighbors didn’t feel safe,” Cruz explained, so were happy to join in the effort to brighten dark corners. Next up is a block party this summer. Residents who once rarely spoke to each other now chat, and often mow lawns or shovel snow for elderly neighbors.
The people in his area have gotten used to seeing Cruz going door-to-door. “Some of them ask me ‘what’s a young guy like you doing this for?’ I told them, ‘this is my neighborhood. I want it to be a great place to live, and part of that is environment.’”
His neighborhood is a mix of young and old, families and singles, Hispanic and Caucasian. “Where I live it’s more Hispanic, but long-time residents are primarily Caucasian so there’s sometimes a language barrier. Being bilingual, I can reach both sides. Going into isolation mode isn’t good for the well being of the community. We all live in the area so we should all take care of it.”
Cruz’s interest in his community comes from both his family and his education. His mother is co-captain of the block with him, and his high school, Pius XI, encouraged volunteer work and commitment to the community. Through UWM, he’s learned more about the different community organizations, and through his own activism, he’s made contacts with local officials and City Hall.
He’s been asked to do presentations at the neighborhood association and the Common Council.
During the spring semester, he’s planning to start a work-study job as a mentor and adviser to young people at Hope House of Milwaukee. That’s a cause that is important to him. He’s constantly encouraging his younger brother and sister, and tries to reach out with information about higher education resources to other students in his neighborhood.
“Not a lot of young people in my neighborhood graduate from high school, my neighborhood being zip code 53215. I feel I can make a difference by reaching out to them. If they do graduate from high school, they feel that things are stacked against them and they can’t afford to go to college.” He tells them about the scholarships and grants he’s benefited from, and the need to keep their high school grades up and be involved in sports or any extracurricular that interests them.
“I tell them if I can do it, you can do it. The information is there. You just need to tap into it.”
While he will continue to juggle college classes, work and neighborhood activism, Cruz is taking some time to enlarge his own horizons beyond the neighborhood in the fall semester. He’s planning to head to Buenos Aires, Argentina on a study abroad program.
And when he comes back, he’d like to start organizing more blocks around his area. And then there are all those empty storefronts on National Avenue where there used to be a vibrant business corridor. “Neighbors, city leaders, and activists need to be advocates to bring more businesses into the area to create decent paying jobs and attract needed investment into the neighborhood, not just on the jobs front, but also in infrastructure, crime and safety and house sales.“
Cruz has plenty of ideas. “Eventually I want to expand out, block by block, but right now it’s just my block.”
He said he feels his neighborhood, with its historic Polish buildings and culture and infusions of new immigrants, has a lot going for it. Local churches and schools help hold the fabric of the community together. He cites a few examples: Ascension Lutheran Church has Thanksgiving Dinners and holds neighborhood safety meetings; the School Sisters of St. Francis open up their Sacred Heart Center for neighborhood gatherings; Doerfler School works with parents in the neighborhood and holds movie nights.
“I like where I live. I like the community. It’s different from any other part of the city. People are more engaged, the schools and the churches play a big part as well and have a long history here.”
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