Milwaukee, Wisconsin 2020-09-03 20:13:03 –
Emilio de Torre seems powered by a high-octane fuel of positive thinking and belief in social progress. He was ideal for his position as the local ACLU youth programs director and this summer, moved on to become executive director of the Milwaukee Turner Society, an organization better known in recent years for its landmark Downtown building than for its past history as a forum for community engagement and an engine of education. He is part of the effort to take the Turners into the future. Off the Cuff spoke with de Torre about his past and his plans.
Tell me about your background. Where are you from?
I grew up in Flushing, Queens and moved to Wisconsin in 2006. My family is mostly from southern Spain and came here for economic reasons or fled the Civil War in the 1930s. On my father’s side, his mother—my abuelo—danced flamenco and ballet folklorico, and eventually worked for the town where she lived. My abuelo worked as a porter and played piano. My abuela wrote the first Spanish language newspaper columns in Suffolk County, Long Island. My father was a professor at Queens College, CUNY. He taught Spanish and French. My mother was a computer programmer and a math teacher. Her family lived in Brooklyn and did lots of different things. Her sister, my aunt, was a nun in the South Bronx.
Most of my family is still in New York. I have two sisters and nephews and nieces with whom I’m very close. I have an amazing and brilliant wife and three incredible children, plus dogs, cats and the science department from my wife’s science class at home in Milwaukee. I still speak with my abuela frequently. She’s as sharp as a whip. My mom’s family traveled a lot and were very entrepreneurial. Pop Pop fixed up apartments, houses and cars and taught me a lot about being handy.
You’ve long been involved in working with youth—New York Boys & Girls Club, public school teaching and then ACLU youth programs director. What drew you to that kind of work?
When I was younger, I wanted to be Indiana Jones: have adventures, drink in random dives around the planet and steal gold from Nazis after prolonged fight scenes. I loved meeting people and was worried that I would become a teacher one day because it was a genetically inherited trait from my parents. I had lots of different jobs, restoring antiques, woodworking, managing a restaurant and some health food stores, all sorts of things.
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Eventually, I did gravitate to teaching when I thought I needed a career to grow up. At least that’s what my family tells me. I had an epiphany that my life was better lived in service to a greater cause than my own self-indulgence, so I stopped drinking in the late 1990s and threw myself into more productive things. I’d always strived to be socially aware and active, and felt that education and youth empowerment provided opportunities for community members to determine their own paths and their own community direction, rather than be pushed unknowingly or unwillingly down the wrong path. I was very lucky to teach at PS 287 in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. The students and staff there were incredible. I then went on to work for the Madison Square Boys & Girls Club and I still keep in touch with many of my colleagues and the formerly young people who were there.
It was at the Boys & Girls Club that I recognized how structural racism, institutional bias, economic deserts and bad policies perpetuated New York City’s, and our country’s, inequities. We had a great crew of people across Brooklyn, Bronx, Queens and Manhattan that worked to prepare young folks for the world. Surprisingly, I still have former students reach out to connect with me on Facebook.
I met my wife, Nicola, when I was a teacher in Brooklyn. A part of my job was to help non-New Yorkers get a better understanding of the people, cultures and resources there. I had met many different people in my travels, but never anyone as exotic as a Wisconsin farm girl. I was smitten and we got married in 2001. It was Nicola who convinced me to move out to Wisconsin after our first child was born. She sold me on Wisconsin nice and took me to some elusive Narnia-esque fish fry that served cod and shrimp and all sorts of fried delicacies. It was a really diverse big room full of laughter and agape. I never saw that fish fry again once we moved here. I think it was an elaborate illusion. On the other hand, it was easier to raise kids with her folks so close and the rent and food was less expensive.
When we were still in New York, I saw the ACLU of Wisconsin had a position open and it was the only job I applied for. I love their mission and I very much wanted to work to further civil rights and civil liberties for young people and adults. Their staff was much smaller then—maybe there were six of us. Coming to Wisconsin was a tremendous culture shock. I’d never seen all white construction crews or seen so many Confederate flag bumper stickers in a Yankee state. I’d never met creationists or so many bold loudmouthed homophobes either. I’d also never seen a sports team followed as devoutly as people follow the Packers.
Early on with the ACLU, I was in West Bend fighting against folks who wanted to censor all sorts of literature, hide books on human development, and put books on how to cast gay demons out of your child next to YA books that depicted any LGBTQ person with dignity or in the vaguest of positive lights. I heard a young mother with a child in a pram tell another young mother how, “if a gay person sneezes and you inhale it you can catch homosexuality.” I thought she was joking at the expense of the weird anti-gay hordes that had shown up and turned to share the laugh. When I realized she was serious all the hair on my body stood on end. I was in a science free zone. Frankly, I was terrified. How do you contend with that? Can I inhale religious beliefs or ethnicities and transform also? Do I have to go find a relative and breathe their sneeze to revert back? I still think about how weird that was. I’ve been in crashes and held up at gunpoint before, but I think this was scarier still.
I love Milwaukee dearly now. I just moved from Ozaukee to Milwaukee. I can’t imagine moving back to New York, although a part of me will always be a New Yorker.
You came to Milwaukee in 2006 to work with the ACLU. Was this your first encounter with Milwaukee? What were your impressions of the city at that time?How do you think Milwaukee has changed (or not changed) since then?
Milwaukee is beautiful but we need to do better. I don’t think that Milwaukee has changed enough. There is greater diversity of business ownership now, and people are a lot more outspoken about needing to support Black owned business, Latinx business and Hmong businesses, but the social and economic inequities are still here. Racial disparities in policing, poor economic development outside of Downtown Milwaukee, empty houses, poor state infrastructure for mass transport. And it’s not just Milwaukee that keeps itself down. The state legislature has taken giant steps backward to keep Wisconsin’s broken criminal justice system locking up Black and Indigenous people at world record rates. People I speak to all over the country are stunned by how wrongfully proud some state legislators are to make voting harder for others. We have gerrymandering that seems like something out of a Roald Dahl horror. And how do you explain someone like Glenn Grothman to people living in other states? We sadly live in a state that vilifies Milwaukee and Madison and attempts to defund Milwaukee’s public schools at every turn even though these two cities generate most of the state’s wealth and revenue. We have our work cut out for us.
During the past decade, what did the Milwaukee Turners do? I think aside from the ballroom rental for live music, most Milwaukeeans have no idea that the Turner organization still exists. Do you disagree?
The Milwaukee Turners are poised to do great things. Of late, most people do think that the Ballroom is the main part of the Turners. The Milwaukee Turners were once known for being Abolitionists. They provided the bodyguard for Abraham Lincoln during his 1861 inauguration. There is a beautiful memorial to the men who enlisted and died in the American Civil War—among them several Jewish men too—rather uncommon for that time. They won international and national awards for fencing and gymnastics. They were at the forefront of the suffrage movement. They recruited and enlisted folks to fight the Nazis to prove that Germans, and more importantly German Americans, were more than the hateful rhetoric and actions coming from Hitler. They claimed three socialist mayors among their ranks.
And recently they have created or hosted many meaningful academic and community building activities such as CMI—Confronting Mass Incarceration—that provided many well attended explorations and discussions of our sorry state of racist incarceral affairs. They fundraised aggressively for America’s Black Holocaust Museum and they started the Fourth Street Forum—a program which I watched avidly to learn about Milwaukee life. They have a beautiful old timey gym with our nation’s second oldest rock-climbing wall. The gym is managed by the charismatic Kim Kosmitis and it’s the only instructional rock-climbing gym in the state. It’s got bouldering, ice walls, a moon wall, a rock-climbing treadmill and more. There are no auto belays there. You learn how to climb and you keep fit. I frequently use the slack rope, the rage cage and throw darts after work to unwind. Kim is respected internationally and he’s a Milwaukee treasure. I’m really glad he and the staff are there.
What do you see as the Turners’ future? How can the organization reconnect with its progressive past?
The Turners have a rich history. It’s all over the walls; the flags honoring justice, liberty, tolerance and reason—the artifacts; the stained glass. The memorials and paintings honoring their past members, immigrants and fallen veterans. I even have urns of the ashes of three previous Milwaukee Turners in my office next to drinking steins, awards and old leather-bound books. In my opinion the Turners turned inward more following the McCarthy-era United States—they followed a quieter, more philosophical and philanthropic path.
It’s time for the Milwaukee Turners to emerge from this chrysalis stage and use their location, history and influence to unify and strengthen Milwaukee. I’ve spent 15 years working shoulder to shoulder with some of the most incredible humans in the state. It is my great wish that they, and others, will become proud Milwaukee Turners and help break the stranglehold that mental, physical and economic segregation has on the city. I’ve been working closely with the Turner’s Board of Directors since I came on board. They’re wonderful and progressive people. Art Heitzer, Chris Ahmuty, Julilly Kohler, Michael Morgan, Claudio Cortez, Megan McGee, Aims McGuiness and the others. We’ve recruited a new person or new Turner to our ranks almost every day I’ve been here—professors, students, journalists, organizers, activists, actors, athletes, attorneys, teachers, state representatives, the county executive, alders, retirees, computer programmers, chemists, painters – Black, Latinx, Filipino, white, multiracial, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Atheist. I smell a very diverse and inclusive Renaissance coming on and it’s incredibly exciting because it represents what Milwaukee can be.
We’ve just begun offering free yoga programs on Facebook. Milwaukee’s own, renowned Shakespearean actress Malkia Stampley is teaching this. We’ll be offering free arts with UWM art professor Jessica Meuninck-Ganger and others, rock climbing techniques with Kim Kosmitis (our rock-climbing gym is open under very limited and very sanitary conditions from 5 to 9 p.m.—appointment and masks only). he incredible Ambrose Wilson Brown will teach mindfulness. We will eventually have children’s gymnastics and martial arts and I hope to bring back the Fourth Street Forum as the Vel Phillips Forum if possible.
When we reopen our doors properly once there is a vaccine or better safety against COVID-19, then I’m sure we’ll have some other great collaborations. We’re also looking for a new tavern to operate in Turner Hall—one that represents the vibrancy and diversity that is Milwaukee, one that deserves to be at the heart of the city. In a similar vein, we’re collaborating with Fred Gilich from Too Much Metal and Mike Brenner from Vernacular Brewing to have a Milwaukee Turner Pilsner-Turnerbrau. It will feature our iconic logos and the proceeds will go to fund restoration of Turner Hall (a national historic landmark), our programs and our gym. On top of all of this, we’ve begun giving our gym a facelift. Generous donors are championing removing the boards and restoring the beautiful 15-foot tall windows. and another donor has offered a $15,000 matching grant to upgrade the weights and cardio section of the gym. We can use a lot of love in this endeavor. Realistically, Turners can get quite a bit for only a $50 annual family membership!
We’ve just set up a strong team of dynamic Turners to create podcasts. We’ve got an incredibly diverse team of Milwaukee Turners who will be creating our online newsletter and content for the website too. We’ve even changed our Facebook content dramatically and by doing so have added hundreds of new folks who are sharing in these ideas and plans. Even more importantly, I see our Turner future reflected in the formation of our new youth group. We’ve set all of this up in a little over a month because of who we are as a principled organization.
As with so much in my past so far, it’s the mission and the adventure that is keeping me here. The time we’re living in, the rich history of the Milwaukee Turners, the opportunity for Milwaukee to build this way. I feel that the principles of the Milwaukee Turners are needed as a compass now more than ever.
Milwaukee Turners will host a diaper and feminine hygiene drive on Sept. 21 with Ayuda Mutua, Milwaukee Diaper Misson and Metcalfe Park Community Bridges; and a DACA legal clinic on Sept 26 with Voces de la Frontera.
For more visit milwaukeeturners.org.
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