By Ana Martinez-Ortiz
The heroes of today aren’t the ones who save the whole world but the ones who save their little part of it. Mother-and-daughter duo, Danell Cross and Melody McCurtis, are two such heroes.
The two have been working to improve the neighborhood of Metcalfe Park through the community engagement group Metcalfe Park Community Bridges, where Cross serves as executive director and McCurtis as deputy director of priorities. Although the group officially began in 2012, Cross’ efforts began shortly after she moved her family into the neighborhood.
Cross, was born and raised in the suburbs of Chicago. It was a thriving Black neighborhood, she said, everybody knew everybody; the resources were plentiful and the relationships were strong.
“That’s what I was used to,” Cross said. “Being around Black people that were thriving. What I’m seeing now is totally different than what I knew growing up.”
After the death of her father and with a growing family of her own, Cross moved to Milwaukee – where rent was more affordable and jobs more plentiful.
“Everything was going well, but I started seeing things that I wasn’t used to,” she said. “I wasn’t used to the fact that Black people didn’t share even simple things like information.”
People seemed unaware of the silos they built around themselves, but nevertheless Cross continued living the way she had been raised.
She settled into a low-income home in the Harambee neighborhood through Scattered Sites Homes. While the community reminded her of her childhood neighborhood, the house’s foundation was damaged, and the family had to relocate to a house in Metcalfe Park.
It was there Cross saw the juxtaposition between her childhood community and her current one. It seemed that nobody, not even the neighbors cared about Metcalfe Park. It was like someone had thrown a glass of cold water in her face, Cross said. The family structure wasn’t there, she said, and everybody was minding their own business.
In small ways, Cross began working to improve the neighborhood. When she saw a female neighbor, being harassed by a man, she confronted him. When her children said the house was ugly, she worked on it.
Someone needed to get in the middle and for Metcalfe Park, Cross was that someone.
If a neighbor needed clothes, food, advice or prayers, they turned to Cross and eventually, other people started doing it too.
In short, Cross built the community she wanted to live in, a community that feels like family.
But it wasn’t until a neighborhood movie night in 2012 did Cross’ efforts become official.
“The movie night brought everybody together,” Cross said.
The group officially formed under the name Metcalfe Park Community Action Team, which it later changed to Metcalfe Park Community Bridges.
Since the start, Cross has made sure that the organization’s efforts are decided by the residents. They’re the ones who chose the group’s priorities which include health and wellness, civic engagement, safety, intergenerational wealth and more.
“I tell people all the time to listen to the community because they know what’s going on,” Cross said. “The reason we look so good is because we listen to the community and do what they say needs to happen and they are the experts.”
For her part, McCurtis first joined the group as a volunteer nearly five years ago. It was an eye-opening experience, McCurtis said. Eventually, McCurtis began asking Cross for a job. When that didn’t work, McCurtis organized the community to ask on her behalf.
Cross hired her part-time, and while she was temporarily fired for six months, McCurtis proved her worth and was hired full-time.
A large part of what makes the group a success is that Cross and McCurtis understand the struggles the residents are going through.
“I think what we bring to this work is that we share these experiences with the community, we’ve lived through it,” McCurtis said.
It’s their vulnerability and willingness to share not only resources and information but their own personal histories that make Cross and McCurtis not only leaders but successful leaders at that.
While it took her awhile to accept the role of leader, Cross is now leading the way on several Milwaukee issues including development and displacement. In the months to come, the group is planning to continue its COVID-19 efforts, work on a neighborhood art park, create a group for moms and more.
“I see Metcalfe Community Bridges as leader in what people frame as community engagement,” Cross said. “I believe we are the best at it, and I think the reason is because of the passion and the value we have for the people we serve.”