UWM student building up neighborhood block by block

Marcos A. Cruz is trying to change his city and the world – one block at a time.

He was born and raised on Milwaukee’s south side, and has lived on the same block for the last 15 of his 21 years. Moreover, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee junior is a block captain and community activist with the Layton Boulevard West Neighborhood Association.

So in many ways, he’s already using his lessons from the School of Education’s department of educational policy and community studies. “I am part of the neighborhood,” Cruz said, “and I’m bringing the knowledge I get from the university back to the neighborhood.”

He’s learned how to improve his block by working with neighborhood associations, city officials and his alderman. It started with flower planting and cleanups, then shifted to a water conservation project with the city. In summer 2015, the group used a small grant from the city to help pay for installing alley lighting on garages. “A lot of neighbors didn’t feel safe,” Cruz said.

That’s changing, and next up is a summer block party. Residents in his 53215 ZIP code who once rarely spoke to each other now chat, and often mow lawns or shovel snow for elderly neighbors. Meanwhile, people there 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?’” Cruz said. “I told them, ‘This is my neighborhood. I want it to be a great place to live, and part of that is environment.’”

It’s a mix of young and old, families and singles, Hispanic and Caucasian. A neighborhood of historic Polish buildings and culture is absorbing infusions of new immigrants and their culture. Sometimes, there’s a language barrier between newer Hispanic residents and longtime residents who are primarily Caucasian. “Being bilingual, I can reach both sides,” Cruz said. “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.”

That philosophy has roots in both his family and his education. He and his mother co-captain the block. His high school, Pius XI, encouraged volunteer work and commitment to the community. Now, he’s starting to take those lessons full-circle.

Cruz recently started a work-study job as a mentor and adviser to young people at Hope House of Milwaukee. He hopes it boosts the graduation rate among local high schoolers.

“I feel I can make a difference by reaching out to them,” Cruz said. “If they do graduate from high school, they feel that things are stacked against them and they can’t afford to go to college. I tell them if I can do it, you can do it.”

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