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Milwaukee Hope: A hometown meme series designed to inspire optimism during the coronavirus crisis

The Milwaukee Hope project combines illustrated Knezelisms with location photography of landmarks around the city, to produce a series of creative memes for the local community. While Milwaukee has had reason to be PROUD and STRONG during other recent hardships, the coronavirus situation requires something more – HOPE.

With all of Wisconsin under a “Safer at Home” order that began on March 25, and Milwaukee residents processing many different life issues at different speeds – as a result of COVID-19, Sherrill Knezel and Lee Matz knew that people would need to overcome their anxiety and find things to help pull them through the crisis.

“I am a teacher, graphic recorder, artist, spouse, mother, sister, daughter, and friend. Despite all of the lived experience and skills I have gained from these roles, I was not prepared for the feeling of groundlessness that has caught me off guard during this time of a growing pandemic,” said Knezel. “How could I help? What could I contribute in a small way to bring comfort, create connection, and build community?”

Knezel and Matz have both earned awards in visual journalism for their work with the Milwaukee Independent. The stylish illustrations by Knezel, known as Knezelisms, have positive and inspiring messages, and the immersive photojournalism by Matz expresses emotional stories in images. Having reported on issues of gun violence in Milwaukee, with the vigils to help victims and neighbors cope with the trauma, both journalists were looking for a simple way to offer messages of healing that could be easily shared across social media.

“When Lee told me he had an idea about a way we could collaborate, my interest was piqued. Platforms like Facebook and Twitter continue to be spaces where people look for support during this troubling time, so he thought we could produce an inspirational campaign to help encourage others in our hometown,” said Knezel.

From educators to healthcare workers and corporate workers, from hospitality staff and grocery store clerks to marginalized citizens, all of America is being forced to change our individual perspective to one of our shared wellbeing. Individual actions or inactions can benefit or harm others more than ever before. During these times of isolation and physical distancing, we can decide instead to creatively bring together our unique skills.

“Lee had all these images of places around town that normally would be bustling with people, but are now deserted because of social distancing and the Governor’s directive to stay home,” added Knezel. “Since he couldn’t photograph people and events, Lee’s creative vision was this: what if we take photos of environmental spaces in Milwaukee and combine them with illustrated people in place of those who are missing? What if we combine our unique skills; a photographer’s keen sense of compositional storytelling and an illustrator’s synthesis of the essence of quotes through images to create something new and optimistic?”

This pandemic has forced residents of Milwaukee and all over to acknowledge a vulnerability and an interconnectedness as humans. The uncertainty has pushed many outside of our comfort zones. This creative collaboration underscores realization that nothing new can be created without the willingness to be vulnerable and affirm how much we need each other.

“Instead of sitting at home and dwelling on the loneliness, it’s more healthy to be creative and courageous,” said Pardeep Kaleka, executive director of the Interfaith Conference of Greater Milwaukee and a Milwaukee Independent columnist. “We should be exploring possibility and potential. I have no doubt that we are living through both a physical and spiritual ailment, and now is the time that humanity will sow the seeds of hope. The hope that future generations will be better than the generation before.”

Love can be as simple as looking fear in the eye and saying, hi. You, too, are welcome here.
– Marta Catanicic

When all has gone quiet, surrender to the waiting and stay open to what wants to emerge.
– S. Knezel

Stars hold the dark by being light.
– Mark Nepo

All great changes are preceded by chaos.
– Deepak Chopra

The most beautiful and terrible fact is that life refuses to stay the same.
– S. Knezel

Rest is a growth strategy.
– Kate Northrup

There is magic in the unexpected. Stay open to the stuff you can’t control.
– Brett Culp

May you experience the quiet and abundant joy of simple pleasures today.
– S. Knezel

You can do this hard thing.
– Carrie Newcomer

No relationship is all sunshine, but two people can share one umbrella and survive the storm together.
– Unknown

If peace comes from seeing the whole, misery comes from a loss of perspective.
– Mark Nepo

What gives me hope is that life unfailingly responds to the advances of love.
– Nipun Mehta

I feel no need to moderate my optimism. The world has plenty of negativity to balance me out.
– Brett Culp

When we change the story we tell ourselves about others, we create openings for connection and belonging.
– S. Knezel

Make generosity a part of your growth strategy.
– Danielle LaPorte

In every community, there is work to be done. In every nation, there are wounds to heal. In every heart, there is the power to do it.
– Marianne Williamson

Anyone can find the darkness in others. Be the one who finds the light.
– Brett Culp

Anyone who takes the time to be kind is beautiful.
– Brett Culp

There are some things we can only learn in a storm.
– Unknown

Being resilient is not synonymous with not needing support.
– Alex Elle

To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.
– Mary Oliver

Reminder: the world needs the gifts that you have. Share away!
– S. Knezel

Am I projecting my thoughts and opinions onto something I simply don’t know yet?
– S. Knezel

How am I applying the deep resources of my heart and spirit in ways that connect and heal?
– S. Knezel

Some days my best is simply to be the best possible mess I can be in any given moment.
– S. Knezel

Stop acting small. You are the universe in ecstatic motion.
– Rumi

Watch carefully the magic that happens when you give a person just enough comfort to be themselves.
– Atticus Finch

May the flowers remind us why the rain was so necessary.
– Xan Oku

I forgive myself for shrinking to fit into boxes that do not belong to me.
– Alex Elle

Speaking the words “I see you” is a powerful way to love another right where they are.
– S. Knezel

Deep in their roots all flowers keep the light.
– Theodore Roethke

Never trust your fears. They don’t know your strengths.
– Athena Singh

Whatever you’re meant to do, do it now. The conditions are always impossible.
– Doris Lessing

Sometimes the weight you need to lose isn’t on your body.
– Unknown

Receiving a question asks me to truly open and embrace the learning that comes with it.
– S. Knezel

I will inhabit my day with love and compassion. I will decorate my being with kindness and joy.
– Xan Oku

Our first teacher is our own heart.
– Cheyenne Proverb

There is strength in the differences between us and I know there is comfort where we overlap.
– Ani DiFranco

Gifts are the consequence of authenticity; when we are being our true natures, the gifts can emerge.
– Francis Weller

Your task is not to seek for love, but merely seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.
– Rumi

The function of freedom is to free someone else.
– Toni Morrison

This is our work: to feel the truth of love and hope in darkness.
– S. Knezel

© Milwaukee Hope: A Creative Meme Series

illustrations by Sherrill Knezel • photography by Lee Matz

The Milwaukee Independent began reporting on what was then referred to as the mysterious “Wuhan Virus” in January. Other local media did not picked-up on the story until many weeks later. Our early features focused on the economic impact, social issues, and health concerns long before other Milwaukee news organizations even mentioned the coronavirus. Over the following months, we have published more than 500 articles about the pandemic and how it has affected the lives of Milwaukee residents. This extensive body of work can be found on our COVID-19 Special Report page, a chronological index of links by month. Our editorial voice remains dedicated to informing the public about this health crisis for as long as it persists.
For medical resources, please visit the CDC’s COVID-19 page or the Wisconsin Department of Health Services. All editorial content published by Milwaukee Independent can be found at mkeind.com/COVID19. With a mission of transformative journalism, our staff is free from commercial bias and are not influenced by corporate interests, political affiliations, or a public preferences that rewards clicks with revenue. As an influential publication that provides Milwaukee with quality journalism, our award-winning photojournalism and features have helped to achieve a range of positive social impact that enriches our community. Please join our effort by entrusting us with your contribution. Your Support Matters - Donate Now

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