From Lost Decade to Last Decade: Grad’s long path to Alumni Award

Geraud Blanks headshot

Geraud Blanks is the co-founder of Black Lens and the Chief Innovation Officer at Milwaukee Film. He’s an app developer, a former social worker, a history lover, and a film buff. He was also just announced a winner of UW-Milwaukee’s Alumni Association’s “Graduate of the Last Decade” award.

“What’s ironic about that is, for a lot of people who know my journey, I have this thing I call ‘The Lost Decade,’” Blanks said. “I’ve been working my (tail) off for the last 10-plus years to make up for that gap.”

The first try

Blanks grew up in Milwaukee and started college at UWM in the late 1990s. He had a track scholarship, a major in mass communication, and a love of film. Outside of class, with the help of his then-girlfriend and another good friend, Blanks co-founded the student organization SCOPE (Student Creative Outreach Providing Education/Entertainment), which provided sociocultural programming for students and even brought Maya Angelou to visit campus.

“For better or worse, SCOPE ended up taking all of my time,” Blanks said. He stopped attending class to focus on the organization, to the detriment of his grades. UWM sent him a cordial letter – “basically a break-up letter,” Blanks joked – informing him of his precarious academic standing. In 2001, Blanks left UWM without a degree.

So began the Lost Decade.

The hustle

After he left UWM, Blanks landed in Milwaukee’s music scene. He worked as a promoter and manager for local hip-hop bands, and founded the hip-hop group Black Elephant. The band ended up on several Milwaukee “best of” lists and played gigs like Summerfest, in addition to touring on the road.

“It was cool, but it was a constant hustle,” Blanks recalled.

Along the way, he earned his associate’s degree, founded a family business called Kairo Communications, and worked as a freelance journalist for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Tired of the grind, Blanks left the music scene in 2009 and turned to social work instead. He did stints at the nonprofit organizations Public Allies and Safe and Sound before landing at Sojourner Peace Center, a domestic violence shelter.

And though he learned a lot and gained invaluable experience, Blanks always regretted leaving UWM. So, in 2012, he went back.

“I made a pledge to myself: I’m going to do it right this time,” he said. “I have this issue where, when I get locked into a thing, I get locked into a thing. I was obsessed. I wanted an A in every course.”

Now he found himself in a different sort of hustle: Many of Blanks’ credits hadn’t transferred and he needed 51 credits to graduate. And so he did, finishing his journalism, advertising, and media studies major, and adding a major in African and African Diaspora Studies as well.

He was so dedicated to his work that he even finished his math homework at the Clark County Public Library in Las Vegas on his honeymoon.

Blanks graduated in 2014 and immediately began work on his Master’s degree in Media Studies at UWM, finishing in a year and a half so that he could apply for his doctoral studies at Northwestern University in time to start the fall semester. Now there’s only a dissertation standing between Blanks and his PhD.

Making up for lost time

Since graduating from UWM, Blanks has been trying to catch up.

“There’s so much I learned from that 10 years grinding, and social services really shaped me. … But I look at where I think I could have been if I had just come to this maturity sooner,” he said.

Even so, Blanks has already made an indelible mark on Milwaukee. The Black Lens film program has been a boon to emerging Black directors and filmmakers, and it’s given rise to other programs like the Cultures & Communities Initiative and Cine Sin Fronteras. In 2021, he won the Chris Abele Catalyst Award, and he was just named the 2022 Chief Marketing Officer of the Year by the Milwaukee Business Journal.

When his accomplishments are highlighted, Blanks smiles. He’s worked hard and he’s grateful for his success. But he still feels a sense of urgency.

“I’m making up for lost time,” he said.

By Sarah Vickery, College of Letters & Science