As a public historian, I have collaborated with a variety of institutions and community partners to interpret, record, and share stories about the past that challenge us to rethink comfortable narratives and wrestle with the messiness of the human condition.
African Americans in the Milwaukee Police Department
Oral History Project
Creator and Interviewer, 2016-2018
The African Americans in the Milwaukee Police Department Oral History Project is comprised of twelve audio interviews with retired and current Milwaukee Police Department officers of African descent, as well as two current African American University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM) Police Department officers. Narrators describe their experiences as Black people living and working in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in addition to earlier places of residence. I conducted the interviews between 2016 and 2017 at officers’ homes, the UWM Cultures and Communities Program office, Wisconsin Black Historical Society and Museum (WBHSM), and the University of Memphis. WBHSM Director Clayborn Benson provided assistance with recruitment and coordination.
200 Nights of Freedom: March on Milwaukee 50th Anniversary
Oral History Committee Chair, 2017-2018
Serving as chair of the March on Milwaukee 50th Oral History Committee, Will helped lead a collaborative effort to record unheard voices from the city’s 1967-1968 civil rights insurgency for open housing. Fifty years after the NAACP Youth Council led 200 straight nights of protest in support of a local fair housing ordinance, a team of archivists conducted more than twenty-five oral history interviews with a diverse range of participants and community members at dispersed locations. The team dubbed these sites “listening posts” in honor of Black and allied organizational attempts to document police brutality in ’67 and ’68. They also asked people from the community to share physical artifacts or images from the March on Milwaukee demonstrations as part of three “History Harvests.” The committee was represented by five archival institutions: Wisconsin Historical Society, Wisconsin Black Historical Society, UW-Milwaukee Archives, Marquette Special Collections and University Archives, and Milwaukee County Historical Society.
In addition to recognizing past Black Milwaukee freedom fighters, archivists supported MOM50’s drive to re-ignite democratic engagement around issues of racial injustice from the grassroots. The oral history committee’s second harvest, for instance, partnered with the Wisconsin ACLU Youth Social Justice forum to record stories from contemporary activists alongside veterans of Milwaukee’s Black freedom struggle. This collection of oral histories is being cataloged by Wisconsin Historical Society and made available for online access, research, and educational use. Copies are being shared with all participating institutions.
Transforming Justice: Action Research from the Ground-Up
Project Assistant & Web Developer, 2014-2015
As a graduate assistant on the Transforming Justice action research project, Will helped support workshop development, community outreach, and project conceptualization in a collaborative effort to create a grassroots history of mass criminalization and incarceration in the City of Milwaukee. Collectively, UW-Milwaukee scholars, filmmakers, and community members from local organizations worked to re-frame conventional narratives around crime, health, safety, and justice in Milwaukee and the nation more broadly. Workshops for Liberation featured scholars and organizers working at the vanguard of prison and police abolition and rethinking community safety in an age of rampant carceral capitalism and emergent Black Lives Matter protest. They included Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Mariame Kaba, and Rachel Herzing. The team’s Youth Video Collective, part of TJ’s counter media initiative, which documented young people’s experiences with overpolicing, racism and mass incarceration through powerful, self-directed video narratives.
The Transforming Justice project not only documented and gave voice to the above issues, but helped people on the ground develop strategies for re-defining security and health from the perspectives of individuals, families, and communities directly affected by predatory policing and public/private surveillance. Will had the pleasure of designing the website for Transforming Justice and leading social media engagement on platforms like Twitter and Facebook. The entire project earned UW-Milwaukee’s 2016 Fromkin Award.
Stitching History from the Holocaust
Project Lead & Web Developer, 2013-2014
This digital exhibit was a collaboration between UW-Milwaukee Libraries, UW-Milwaukee Digital Humanities Lab, and Jewish Museum Milwaukee. After Jewish Museum Milwaukee decided to tell the story of Hedy Strnad, a Jewish-Czech fashion designer who perished during the Holocaust, they turned to UWM information librarians and humanities scholars to help provide a broader context for understanding their exhibition’s artifacts. Stitching History from the Holocaust was the first community-partnered project to come out of UWM’s Digital Humanities Lab. Since its 2014 launch, the site has provided a roadmap for future cross-institutional, community-based projects.
The Omeka exhibit Will helped develop created a new context for the Jewish Museum Milwaukee’s artifacts: one that both interpreted Hedy and Paul Strnad’s experiences and shared her remaining dress designs with the world. Rather than merely create a public-facing website, the Digital Humanities Lab team built this exhibit using an archival repository structure. Items were tagged with descriptive information, or metadata, enabling further research and opportunities to construct new narratives around exhibition items. Many people worked on the project, all captivated by the Strnad’s powerful story of artistry, love, and survival.
Interpreting Enslaved Lives at Arlington House
Furnishing Plan Co-Developer, 2010
Years before Black and allied protestors sparked a national movement to remove monuments to the so-called “Lost Cause” and other state-sanctioned symbols of white supremacist hegemony, American University public history students, including Will, Katrina Lashley, Alexandra Lane, re-imagined the historical interpretation of enslaved life at the home of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. “Arlington House, the Robert E. Lee Memorial” — whose former plantation grounds are also home to Arlington National Cemetery — had never told a full, accurate story of the enslaved Black men and women held in bondage at the National Park Service site. The team’s job was to grant three of these families agency through a revised interpretation of the built environment.
Collaborators developed a furnishing plan that, through careful research and the employment of current public history methods, gave voice to the silenced Black men and women whose perspectives NPS had downplayed in the traditional narrative relayed to hundreds-of-thousands of annual visitors. Will’s section of the plan re-imagined Arlington House’s “Winter Kitchen” as a dynamic site of Black resiliency, place-making, and cultural production. It explored themes of intra-racial class struggle, white paternalism, and Black resistance in the face of enslavement through ceremonial acts of conjuring and marketplace agency. The project won the National Council on Public History award for best graduate student poster at NCPH’s 2011 conference.
Note: This is a selection. Visit CV for full project listing.