By Dylan Deprey
The Milwaukee that Sharlen Moore heard about from her family was nothing compared to what she lived. Skating rinks and bowling alleys were the usual teen hangout spots. As the dynamics of Milwaukee changed, these hangouts moved outside the city and were replaced by cruising and blasting music. The Citgo gas station on Burleigh St. and Sherman Blvd. was swamped with teenagers just chilling.
“Being a young person in the city is not easy,” Moore, co-founder of Urban Underground, said.
In 2000, Moore and other local young adults banded together to share their thoughts. That year, they founded Urban Underground.
“We wanted to provide that platform where there was a space for young people to voice their opinion, and share their opinion about different issues that were going on in the community,” Moore said.
Urban Underground is a not-for-profit organization and a safe space that encourages students to fix critical issues they encounter daily in the community.
They reach out to students in poverty, those that have incarcerated parents or loved ones, or students that just need something to do after school.
Imani Ray is a three-year veteran of the program. She now works for Urban Underground.
“Being part of Urban Underground gave me a voice and made me a better leader,” Ray said. “It made me who I am today.”
As the summer heat dwindles, students are getting back into the swing of things and are going back to school. This is prime time for Urban Underground to recruit new students.
Imani Ray is one of many Urban Underground staff members to travel to the high schools of Milwaukee to recruit new members.
“As long as you stick through the application process, you will get in the program,” Ray said.
Urban Underground brings in college tutors to help the students every Monday and Wednesday.
This has lead to a 95 percent graduation rate. The students also work on resume building, communication skills, and go on retreats as well as college tours.
“Students just need to have some kind of goal after high school.” Sharlen Moore said. “We want them to be prepared.”
Students also work on projects to help out the community.
One of the more notable projects was Fresh Plates. This campaign promotes urban agriculture throughout the community. It also spreads awareness of more healthy food options.
Urban Underground doesn’t just operate during the school year.
It offers programs to students throughout the summer due to the limited options.
“I remember when I went to summer school because I wanted to learn how to type,” Moore said.
“Now it’s only an option if you are behind in school.”
The Earn and Learn program allowed students to work 20 hours a week.
It also gave the students the opportunity to visit different careers as well as working on community projects.
It was Imani Ray’s third year doing the Earn and Learn program.
“We got to take a college class, and it was impactful to see the projects the student’s came up with at the end.”
As the name implies, Earn and Learn gives the students the chance to earn some money in the slim job market, while furthering their education.
“A young person can’t just go into a fast food restaurant and get a call back within a week,” Sharlen Moore said.
Milwaukee had one of the most deadly summers it has seen in years.
Sharlen Moore advocates for a multilevel approach, from faith based organizations, to businesses, to law enforcement.
“We need an all hands on deck approach,” Moore said.
She also believes that the funds going to incarceration need to be reevaluated.
The hardest part is trying to figure out a way to have funds put into the youth and the positive programs in the community.
According to Sharlen Moore, the issue of violence is not about putting more police on the streets.
Instead, it’s about providing opportunities for employment in the adult population.
The Center for Youth Engagement — a group responsible for several Milwaukee nonprofits — runs Urban Underground but also has other initiatives.
The Behind the Bell program is working on a smartphone app to get students informed on the many opportunities.
“We’re trying to figure out how to put information in the hands of youth for them to be more engaged,” Moore said.