Mileka Aljuwani

1957 -- 2006

Aljuwani's Passion Was Justice

By Amy Rabideau Silvers

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel -- August 25, 2006

hirteen years ago, a human whirlwind blew into Milwaukee, determined to shake things up for the better.

Her name was Mileka Aljuwani.

Passionately, steadfastly, she began working on all kinds of justice issues, especially anything to do with education and economic development.

"Mileka was extraordinarily passionate," said Ellen Bravo, now with the women's studies department at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. "She took seriously the issues of justice and equality. People were never just tokens or statistics to her. They were always real people."

"Wherever there was an issue, you'd look up and she was there," said Shakoor Aljuwani, her brother.

Aljuwani died of breast cancer Sunday. She was 49.

Aljuwani, who cobbled together her own living in consulting work, did not have health insurance. She discovered a lump in her breast earlier but did not seek immediate treatment, family and friends said. The formal diagnosis came in January.

She lost a breast to a mastectomy and then her long dreadlocks to chemotherapy. Aljuwani said that was OK, as long as she could keep her mind, her brother said.

Then came the news that the cancer had spread to her brain. She remained lucid until her final days.

A native of Buffalo, N.Y., she earned a pharmacy degree at Howard University and then studied accounting.

"She basically bounced around the country, developing a career -- New York, Boston, Albuquerque, San Francisco, Peoria -- and then she ended up in Milwaukee, where she stayed the longest," Shakoor said.

"Our mother was a Mississippi sharecropper -- she only went to school when it rained -- but she instilled a love of education in us," he said. "Mileka was brilliant. She was reading at 2 years old and had no fear and was bold from early years, just walking up and talking to anyone from early years."

In Milwaukee, she became a resource for people interested in starting businesses.

"Many people visiting her in hospice talked about her helping with business plans and development," her brother said.

When it came to her business consulting, she could have probably used a consultant herself.

"She helped one man who was starting a T-shirt business," Bravo said. " 'How will I ever repay you?' he said."

"Give me a T-shirt," Aljuwani told him.

She was pleased to send would-be entrepreneurs to Legacy Bank, but wanted them to be prepared to succeed, said Margaret Henningsen, a founder and vice president of the bank. Henningsen also remembered Aljuwani's reaction to her own business plans.

"A lot of people said I was crazy to start my own bank," Henningsen said. "She just got that little Mileka look -- like a laugh wanting to come out."

"Yeah, that sounds just like you," Aljuwani told her.

U.S. Rep. Gwen Moore (D-Milwaukee) called Aljuwani one of the hardest working people in the liberation struggle.

"She was very concerned with economic development for people of color, something she considered to be the next threshold of the civil rights movement," Moore said in written comments.

When Moore began teaching a son to cook -- with the incentive that they would regularly invite an interesting person to dinner -- "not surprisingly, Mileka was at the very top of his list," she said.

Aljuwani, a one-time candidate for the Milwaukee School Board, also served as national executive director of Project 2019, dedicated to improving the graduation rates of African-Americans in college. The project's name uses the year 2019, which is the 400th anniversary of the sale of the first slaves in America, she said. The effort was the brainchild of Charles Sanford of the Chicago area.

"I'll be honest, the achievement of African-American students is low -- lower than students of other races in every category," Aljuwani said in 2002. "We recognize that most of the problem is ours to solve. A well-trained, well-educated child of any race is going to be a benefit to all races."

At last month's Community Brainstorming meeting in Milwaukee, Aljuwani's absence was palpable.

She never dominated the conversation, but she always helped move it forward, said Lt. Governor Barbara Lawton.

"She was irrepressible in driving forward. She was exquisitely bright," Lawton said. "It was what she said and to whom she spoke and what action it was driving that were important to her.

"Mileka believed in developing business opportunity and economic justice . . . She didn't back away from the role race plays in that. She didn't let you rest easy -- that was her gift."

In addition to Shakoor, survivors include brother Hashiem.

Visitation will be held from 4 to 7 p.m. today at the New Pitts Mortuary East Chapel, 2031 W. Capitol Drive. A family hour will be held from 6 to 7 p.m. The funeral service will be held there at 3 p.m. Saturday.