By Ana Martinez-Ortiz
It began with a phone call at 4 a.m. At the time, Jerel Ballard had an internship in Washington D.C. on Capitol Hill. As a college student at Columbia in Chicago, Ballard was figuring out how to afford tuition. It was then an idea struck and without much thought, he called his friend, Kalilah Ezell-Doyle, who was back home sleeping in Milwaukee.
The idea was simple: Ballard wanted to create a scholarship for underprivileged students who aspired to pursue higher education. Both Ballard and Ezell-Doyle were Milwaukee Public School graduates and proud of it. They knew the financial struggle first-hand, but they also recognized the potential of MPS students. And so together they took Ballard’s idea and created Milwaukee’s Finest, a scholarship program specifically for MPS graduates.
Ballard and Ezell-Doyle both attended Roosevelt Middle School of the Arts, before splitting ways for high school. While Ballard attended Riverside, Ezell- Doyle went to Rufus King. Throughout the years, they remained in contact before ultimately partnering up to run Milwaukee’s Finest.
At the time of that infamous phone call, Ezell-Doyle recalled being surprised and a bit confused, but she knew she was on board. When Ballard returned home, they camped out in his parent’s living room plotting how to make this dream into a reality. Together they started networking, creating the application and planning a fundraiser.
According to Ballard, at the time only a few people knew of his idea and every single individual supported it. Because they were starting from scratch, they didn’t have any money. Initially, when they began looking around for people to join the board they requested a financial donation. Eventually, their efforts came to fruition and in 2016, they awarded the first set of scholarships. Since then, they’ve given away $16,000 in scholarships.
“[The scholarship helps] the first year of college go a little smoother,” Ballard said. Recipients receive the scholarship after providing a class schedule and many use it to buy books, a laptop or tickets home for the holidays.
Each scholarship is $1,000 and the students who apply must have a 2.5 GPA and be involved in an extracurricular activity. They’re also asked to submit a letter of recommendation and write an essay explaining how Milwaukee has influenced them. Currently, Milwaukee’s Finest receives around 100 applications a year.
One of the first things Ezell-Doyle and Ballard did was reach out to MPS and arrange presentations where they could meet with potential recipients and explain the scholarship.
“We want to become a household name,” said Ezell-Doyle. “[We want to be] the scholarship of the city.”
People were impressed, Ezell-Doyle said. Everyone emphasized the fact that they were two MPS alums who were giving back, not to mention they’re young.
“You don’t have to be old,” to make a difference or want to make a change, said Ezell-Doyle. In many ways, their age helped them relate to the applicants. They could speak to them on a level they understood, not to mention they could utilize social media to connect with students.
This year, Milwaukee’s Finest plans to choose the final applicants a little differently. Normally, the board made up of politicians, activists and other influential community members, decide on the winner. People get really passionate about their choices, Ezell-Doyle said. This time, they’re expanding the decision making to include the community in their latest venture called Milwaukee’s Elite.
People want to get involved, but they don’t always have the time, Ballard said. This way, they can have a voice in choosing the people who will help shape Milwaukee in the years to come.
Since the scholarships initial distribution, Ezell- Doyle has already noticed some exciting data.
“There’s a smaller population of first-generation students,” she said. In other words, more and more people are pursuing higher education and it’s a trend Ezell-Doyle hopes to help continue.
“In order to change the narrative, they [the community] has to evolve,” said Ballard.
People like to complain, he said. Now, they’re complaining about tuition prices rising, but instead, they should be striving to make a change. When people make an effort to invoke a positive change, other people see that, and they want to help out.
“If there’s a problem be a part of the solution,” said Ezell-Doyle. “Don’t nag or condemn others because they don’t know. They don’t know another way of life.”
To learn more about the scholarship (the deadline is Feb. 1), how to donate (the fundraiser is April 6 or join Milwaukee’s Elite go to mfsf.org.