Bill Sell: Bay View’s Conscience
Considered a voice of social justice and the civic leader who began the renaissance movement for Bay View, Bill Sell has spent his life as an activist and champion of building better communities in Milwaukee.
Q: How did you become an activist, and is that the correct term to describe your work?
A: Activism seems to have been in my blood since I grew up in a working class household. My Dad was a steward and became president of a local union, during which time faced a brutal strike against GE X-Ray. Fast forward to my years after school, I wanted to join Civil Rights protests and help support anti-war protests during Vietnam. My blood is the same these days, just shifting to other targets.
Q: Did you imagine that your life would be spent in the cause if social justice? Would you choose the same path if given a choice to do over?
A: Hard to imagine not being involved in social justice. I suppose had I grown up under different circumstances, that may have changed the course of my life. But my parents were sympathetic, and then supportive of Civil Rights. So I was very influenced by my white parents in segregated Hales Corners.
Q: Can you talk about your relationship with Father Groppi and his efforts to improve civil justice in Milwaukee during the 1960s?
A: I joined the Civil Rights marches, including one brutal march into the south side. I helped get Father Groppi involved in the anti-war movement, mixing Civil Rights and the growing antiwar movements. We became better acquaintances later on, after he left parish work. I can recall when he drove a bus and got elected president of the local drivers’ union.
Q: What is your view of race relations in Milwaukee today, compared to Father Groppi’s era?
A: It is worse today. Now the issue is about life and death at the hands of police. The problem is much more polarized. Housing eviction is an industry. Prison is an industry. Creating jobs distant from workers is an industry. Racism is becoming more institutionalized.
Q: How fast did you think social change would come, and are we any closer to reaching those goals now?
A: I think it is getting worse. We could be moving into a period of strong fascism, where the government and corporations want all the control over our lives. So we need to be careful what our goals are for society and the political candidates we cheer for.
Q: Should we as a society admit defeat and give-up hope in a better future for Milwaukee?
A: People can never give up hope, because when we give up hope we die. And we can’t do that for the sake of our children. Not only must we hold onto hope but imbue our children with hope. They too will have generations they feel responsible for.
Q: In the 1960s Milwaukee experienced white flight to the suburbs, do you see the same trend today with Waukesha’s expansion and shift of resources to the area?
A: I see it continuing today. The latest example came just recently when the Waukesha County Executive announced he was breaking away from the M7, which is a collection of seven counties that have pledged to build the region economically. Waukesha is standing against history. The short-term tragedies will mount on the backs of those who are most vulnerable. Waukesha wants water but fears an influx of African Americans into their community. It is unrealistic to manage an economy without considering talent and customers that are close to us.
Q: Many people have found it easier to abandon Milwaukee and leave, why have you stayed?
A: I had a choice to leave when my parents passed away, and their homestead became available. No other sibling wanted it. I considered the option, with its location in Hales Corners. After thinking of commuting to work in a car, I just felt the option was not me. My friends are now in the metro area. I love Bay View, even with its warts. I can choose to one day to live in Riverwest, or the East Side, or Walker’s Point. I love city life. I love being close to friends and the heart of our community. I love getting around in a bus or on a bike.
Q: The roles of personal faith and the Church were strong factors in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, but the modern Church seems to be more of an obstacle to equality today. Do you agree?
A: Yes and no. Catholicism is fluid. It can be an obstruction but also a point of connection. The new Pope is a breath of fresh air and offers hope, even with a conservative take on gay marriage. One of the saddest aspects of the past few decades has been the closing or consolidating of many inner city churches. The future of local Catholicism and worship locations for African Americans is bleak.
Q: Do you think modern Milwaukee culture is still affected by the legacy of its Roman Catholic roots?
A: Yes, just consider the huge period of migration from the middle of the Nineteenth Century. Milwaukee flourished with the arrival of liberal thinking Germans who were fleeing Kaiser Wilhelm’s need for wars. Over time and with each fresh wave of migration, these early arrivals turned conservative in their thinking, maybe out of insecurity of losing what they have. A hundred years ago Germans were persecuted and robbed of their history because they were associated with the enemy in Europe. Each generation fights these changes. Now its our neighbors from the Middle East.
Q: What lessons from Milwaukee’s past struggles with social equality do you think are forgotten or ignored today?
A: The Civil Rights struggle has disappeared from our social conscience and dialogue. The abolishing of newspapers that once supported equality, left media outlets that now only pander to the suburban narrative and their irrational fears. We have forgotten too much for our own good.
Q: Each generation agrees that Milwaukee is a segregated city and wants to see change, but things stay the same. What do you think is required to make real and lasting change, and is it even possible?
A: We need to overcome our fears and take it for granted that we can share each other’s neighborhoods, parks, stores, schools. Fear continues to hold us back from the great things we can be and accomplish.
Q: What would you say to folks who talk of wanting social change for Milwaukee but never put effort into making it happen?
A: Do you see any value in making social change? If you do not make any effort, you have to live how thing end up with no right to complain.
Q: Do you think the Milwaukee media is complacent in covering Civil Rights issues, and if so why?
A: The do leave out a lot of information. If things bubble up to a hearing on a city or county level, the media is almost forced to cover it. But I have known of quite large demonstrations downtown that were ignored. I don’t understand why? Are they afraid of this news, or afraid of how their audience will react?
Q: What is your opinion on the impact of the new Bucks stadium? Will it be the promised economic and equality boost the public has been promised?
A: I have my doubts. The County gave away $80 million and we will need to recover those millions of dollars before they can call it a success. I hope we don’t give up 4th street, that would be a huge mistake. What worries me the most is the Bucks plan to shape an entire downtown area to support their financial desires. They are owners of a basketball team, not urban planners, and they need to let go of that concept.
Q: You have seen Bay View change a lot over the years, what have been your most profound observations?
A: There is more activity by the neighbors, like with the Bay View Neighborhood Association, Bay View Bash, Chill on the Hill, bicycling opportunities, and more Friends of Parks. I distrust our current Alderman and hope that voters will replace him in April. He has become a career politician who is only looking out for his pension. I have witnessed that when an issue comes up, he rises to the occasion by dividing the community and pitting neighbors against each another.
Q: What was your goal in founding the Bay View Neighborhood Association?
A: It was to give the neighbors a voice in their neighborhood. To help people get out of their houses and gather together. It was too quiet here, and cars were moving too fast. The Kinnickinnic Avenue area was not and interesting destination for walking. So while adding a few more bars and restaurants are nice, it was not substantial change.
Q: What do you view as the biggest crisis today that Milwaukee faces in shaping its future?
A: Fear of other neighborhoods, fear of downtown, fear of change, fear of confronting police practices. Simply having too much fear.
Q: What small and tangible steps can individuals make to improve their local community?
A: Get outside, plant a garden, talk to neighbors, take a picnic to one of our lovely parks, visit classrooms. Put your mobile screens down. Walk, find companions to walk, hook up with a dog-walker. Leave a yard light on for people who have to walk home when the rest of us are asleep.
Q: What have you learned from your experience of helping others that you have been able to apply to improve your own life?
A: Others constantly teach me. I met a homeless woman near my office in the Third Ward. I helped her with food occasionally, though what she was looking for was a place to spend the night. Then she sat down next to me on the bus and talked about a boarding house. She needs $28 per week to get inside. Let’s not be afraid to meet folks, to be vulnerable by asking people how they are doing. You will not be robbed or threatened. The needy person will make you feel better. It’s a fantastic opportunity. Do no be afraid of the weak.
Q: What achievements are you personally most proud of?
A: Adopting my loving son whom I adore and love. Starting my own business, and keeping it going now 40 years. Leaving Catholicism behind, and having my fingerprints on a number of things in Milwaukee.
Watch the video series that was produced as a companion report for this Q&A interview with Bill Sell.