Creating a safe space and offering a message of hope and love for the youth she mentors at the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Milwaukee, La’Ketta Caldwell dealt with her deepest personal tragedy at the same time she celebrated her greatest professional achievement.
Q&A with La’Ketta Caldwell
Milwaukee Independent: Why do you view life through an artistic lens?
La’Ketta Caldwell: The arts provide a safe outlook for individuals, and myself, to express emotions. Arts allows me to be creative, be hopeful, and cope with hard situations in life. When I write poetry, attend theatre, and dance, it also helps me shift perspectives.
Milwaukee Independent: What drives you to help others, and did you have a role model for this focus?
La’Ketta Caldwell: My mother and grandmother were my first teachers. My mom is always giving to individuals who are having a hard time in life. Her mom raised many children who were not her own. The passion and drive I have, to give youth the opportunity to live their purpose, was inspired by my mom. She did a great job fostering my imagination and creativity. She made me believe that I could do anything I set my mind to. I want to remind individuals that if they wake up in the morning they were given a second chance to get this thing called life right. Many people live daily believing they are a mistake, but that is simply not true. We all were created with purpose and on purpose.
Milwaukee Independent: How has Sheri Williams Pannell had an impact on your life?
La’Ketta Caldwell: Honestly, I do not know what I would have done without Sheri. She is a sister to me. Sheri’s belief in me came when I stopped believing in myself. She reminded me of my mother in ways because she gave and supported my visions. There are a lot of women and young girls that I work with who say they do not trust women. This is sad because we need each other. I have learned so much about faith, and the power of sisterhood from Sheri. She mirrors where I would like to be in life, and we simply work well together. I trust her, and that is why it works. When I have projects that God sends me I trust her completely with them. We work well together. It is awesome having somebody who gets it. Sheri and I don’t compete with each other, but we compliment each other. I moved to Milwaukee in 2001, I thank God for letting me meet Sheri and her husband Don.
Milwaukee Independent: How does faith play a role in your work?
La’Ketta Caldwell: Faith is everything to me. God has truly protected and given a country girl the opportunity to see and accomplish many amazing things. I do not know what I would do without my church family at Unity Gospel House of Prayer. Pastor Lock and his wife Kim Lock are beyond supportive. I need that to do the work I am called to do. I have been in church since I was a baby. Unity gives me the space to refuel for the week, and feel love from my family. Calvary Baptist Church was where I attended when I first moved to Milwaukee. I love them too. My church home is my sanctuary. I find peace and balance. Praise Dance ministry is where I show appreciation for the artistic expression gift.
Milwaukee Independent: What inspired your initiative to address Milwaukee’s central city violence with the youth program “Can You Hear Us Now?”
La’Ketta Caldwell: I attended a funeral for one of my students and a fight broke out. My body went into shock over the chaos and danger. I did not know if I was going to make it home. What hurt was the fact that one of my students didn’t get up. Weeks later I saw his Facebook page and there were signs we missed. I never wanted to miss the signs again. The whole situation grieved my heart.
Milwaukee Independent: Have you seen youth programs like “Can You hear Us Now” make a positive impact with at-risk youth?
La’Ketta Caldwell: Yes, there are many programs that give youth the opportunity to express what has been going on in their lives. So many youth who started the program have grown tremendously. I have a young lady who has a 3.5 GPA and is number 13 in her class. She used to be a fighter. They are working in their community and have hope that change can happen. In the beginning they did not believe they could do anything to make a difference.
Milwaukee Independent: What do you see as the biggest factors that create a climate of violence in Milwaukee? And are there solutions to resolve?
La’Ketta Caldwell: I believe poverty and lack of hope are the biggest factors that create a climate of violence. If you do not have the resources to support your family. If you think that there is nothing you can do to change your life, you don’t care about life. Yes, I believe programs like “We Got This” make a difference. Andre Lee Ellis saw a problem in his neighborhood and decided to do something. He gathered men from the community to help provide resources and mentor young men. I see the difference in the young men. They needed to have someone who cared and believed in them. It will not solve all our problems, but it is a start. A community member saw a problem and didn’t wait for funding. He did what he could by using his purpose. We have to start somewhere.
Milwaukee Independent: When you interviewed more than one hundred women for “Unclothed,” your play about sexual assault, what affect did that process have on you personally?
La’Ketta Caldwell: It helped me heal from a relationship break-up. During the time I was heartbroken,. I was amazed by each woman that I interviewed. Through their story I heard how women went from victim to survivor. I could not believe they were able to bounce back from having something happen to their body. Our body remembers what our mind try to forget. Many times during the interviews I would cry because they fought to heal. I learned many lessons about grit from the project. Every time the play was performed, more women shared how it related to their own personal story. It gave them a way to express the past hurt, because, they did not know how to talk about what had happened to them.
Milwaukee Independent: You recently lost your brother to suicide, how has his loss affected you?
La’Ketta Caldwell: The greatest lessons I have learned through this process is the importance of forgiveness. I could not remember why I was mad at him. There are times that you do not get to go back and fix situations. Also, I did not know how many individuals battle with mental illness. Imagine if we treated cancer or diabetes like we do mental illness, how many people would be robbed from our lives. I am passionate about talking about mental illness and the impact this had on my family. I do not want another family to go through what we did.
Milwaukee Independent: How have the arts helped you through the healing process?
La’Ketta Caldwell: The arts have helped me tremendously. I wrote in my journal leading up to the funeral and months afterwards. Praise Dance was a physical way for me to express the ache my body felt.
Milwaukee Independent: What do you think Milwaukee as a community can do more of in order to help youth who suffer from mental illness?
La’Ketta Caldwell: I think we need to continue the discussion around mental illness. The play “Pieces” is a great show that can help facilitate the discussion.
Milwaukee Independent: Why do you stay in Milwaukee? You could live anywhere, so what is it about the people and the culture here you connect with?
La’Ketta Caldwell: God truly has put me in Milwaukee. I do love the South, but my place is here. I am blessed to be able to do purpose driven work. I have great friends who are like family to me. I moved here for love, and I stay here because I love the work I do.
Milwaukee Independent: What personal or business accomplishment are you most proud of and why?
La’Ketta Caldwell: The PSA on suicide that “Can You Hear Us Now?” created for a young man. We had the opportunity to release it to the family first. His whole family came, and his mother shared that she knew her son would be great. This moved me because art could be used to help a family begin their journey towards healing. Looking back I never knew that I would go through their process. I reached out to them while going through it myself. They provided great support.
Milwaukee Independent: Do you have any thoughts about what can be done to improve the lives of people who have suffered from any kind of mental trauma?
La’Ketta Caldwell: This may sound silly, but love and support go a long way. We have to also let individuals know it is okay to obtain support from a therapist.
Milwaukee Independent: If you were granted one wish to improve the community around where you live, what would it be?
La’Ketta Caldwell: If I was granted one wish for my community is that youth had the opportunity to play outside without worry.