words by Eric Mata
Dasha Kelly is a writer, poet, actor, and community leader with a heart as large as our city and an even bigger spirit. I had a chance to speak to her over the phone during my commute home from work by train. This is a small peek into her life.
Dasha is the founder of the Stillwaters Collective. What started as one workshop being done at the request of a high school has turned into a full-fledged program that engages and interacts with thousands of young people throughout the city of Milwaukee.
Responding To The Call
It started with a teacher asking Dasha to come in to do a workshop for one of her classes. That one class became multiple workshops for that same teacher; which turned into multiple workshops in that same school; which became workshops in several schools across the city. In order to fulfill the need, she pulled in folks from across the city who do this kind of youth engagement work and found ways to bring them in. As Dasha puts it, she was just “responding to the call.”
Over the years, the Stillwaters Collective evolved into its current form: from a collective of teaching artists going into schools, in to a youth empowerment and engagement initiative that seeks to help young people find their voice and encourage their leadership.
In its current iteration, Stillwaters is an artistic platform for youth that helps them understand what their voice needs to sound like. One way that this manifests itself is through the Milwaukee Slam League. The league pits local schools against each other in a competition style poetry slam. But just like most youth-centered poetry slams, the points are not the point of the competition. The point of the Milwaukee Slam League is about the space it creates for young people to find their voice, and to share their stories.
But the opportunities for youth do not end once they finish high school. Once a student has graduated, they are eligible to serve as interns/facilitators for the Collective. This opportunity provides a space for this age group to serve as mentors and leaders for other young people. they learn how to run an organization and/or coordinate programs. For Dasha, this is an entryway for young people to engage in “excellence in art, leadership and community development.” But more importantly, Dasha sees it as an opportunity to find their selves, to shape their thoughts, and to be engaged listeners.
Milwaukee’s Biggest Challenge
According to Dasha, one of Milwaukee’s biggest challenges is that we operate in silos that are oftentimes rooted in our history of segregation. We are divided by class, by age, by race, by affinity. In a sense, these silos dictate where one is allowed or not allowed based on how they identify. But for Dasha, it’s not just that. She feels like “there is complacency in the water.” Almost as if there is an acceptance of the complacency. For Dasha, this is what’s disheartening. There’s almost a sense that to question or even consider that things could/should be different is too much of a challenge of the status quo. Dasha believes that we should be able to consider what the city needs to be, in order to move forward.
“The city needs an injection of fresh, a reaching across borders, an asking of [critical] questions out loud,” says Dasha. And this takes the encouragement and applauding of coalitions, of cross partnerships and a “celebration of the new and fresh.”
What Makes Milwaukee Beautiful
Recently, Dasha was leading a writing workshop for young people that centered around personification. She asked the students to give their neighborhood a persona and to write as if they were their respective neighborhoods. As any good facilitator would do, she had prepared her own example.
Dasha lives near the Johnson Park neighborhood on the city’s northside. She shared with the students that her neighborhood is “like a good student in a bad class.” Dasha went on to share that “the two block radius around her house is an oasis” where she is able to walk around her neighborhood without a worry, but that the outer ring is a struggling community and is “reminded of the work that needs to be done.”
But what makes Milwaukee beautiful to her is that the city is full of surprises. The the city is constantly reminding her of what it is capable of. Dasha on more than one occasion has found herself thinking “once you feel like you know [the city], you meet someone new” who is doing some outstanding work. And of course, “the lake.”
This notion of constantly being reminded of the good people emerging from the bellows of this city, doing amazing work is really at the center of this website. It is what we hope to do through these stories and profiles.