Mileka Aljuwani

1957 -- 2006

Education and Health Defined Activist

Mileka Aljuwani’s Life and Death

By Mikel Kwaku Osei Holt

Milwaukee Community Journal -- August 30, 2006

Have you ever racked your brain about what you didn’t say during a presentation?

It occurs with me often. I’ll outline thoughts for a speech, but drift in another direction, and then later kick myself for not including an important fact or two, a poignant point, or linking antidote.

That thought hit me again Saturday as I drove to Mileka Aljuwani’s repast following her funeral service.

You could say I had an excuse. I had planned to restrict my comments to the allotted two minutes scheduled for friends and relatives that precede the eulogy. But the coordinator pulled me out of line and informed me that I was scheduled to give a more lengthy presentation with select dignitaries.

It kind of caught me off guard, so I expanded my remarks to include comments about how leaders are accorded their status, and a passage from a book given to me by Mileka that served as the basis for her cultural philosophy.

I even explained how my family ended up with the surname "Holt," and the meaning behind my adopted name-Kwaku Osei-- awarded me at the completion of the rites of passage.

I concluded by saying Milwaukee, and particularly the Black community, was a much better place because of Mileka’s work and leadership. A true warrior for justice and Black empowerment, she married the philosophies of Black Nationalism and Africentricism, creating a paradigm that moved our community forward.

The executive director of Project 2019, she focused much of her energies during the last years of her life to a campaign to improve the quality of education for Black children.

The audience, consisting of a who’s who of Black leadership and social activism, was apparently appreciative of my remarks, and thus I should have felt good about my role in the homecoming of one of the community’s most esteemed organizers.

But while driving to the repast it hit me that I had missed a unique opportunity to offer a few salient points touched on by other presenters. Given the makeup of the audience, an examination of where we are in regards to the struggle would have been appropriate.

Most specifically, I should have introduced a discussion about the void in leadership that defines us, the invisible hand that guides a large percentage of Black politicians, and our responsibility to put aside our differences, to collectively approach the plethora of problems that plague our community.

If nothing else, I should have talked about two issues in particular that warrant discussion given the circumstances of Mileka’s death, and the project she was working on even as cancer limited her involvement.

It speaks volumes that Mileka, possessor of a master’s degree, died because she couldn’t afford health insurance.

Secondly, as someone mentioned during the homecoming, her passion for education was overwhelming, sparked in part because she failed to see political movement to remedy the embarrassing statistic that a majority of Black children attending public schools will not graduate.

I vividly recall a conversation I had with Mileka following a forum on education. Given the nature of the hearing, I was surprised that she had not attended. But she explained it was a waste of time. All the participants would do is talk about the problem, but won’t offer any solutions, she surmised.

"It’s about political gamesmanship, brother. They ain’t really interested in changing anything; they’re more interested in coming up with excuses, appeasing their special interests, answering to the master. I don’t know if they realize what’s at stake, and if they do, they naively perpetuate a conspiracy that is destroying our community, and will limit our future."

Mileka wavered back and forth, over whether our focus should be on the system, parents or the socioeconomic conditions. But she never moved from her assertion that things would never change as long as the status quo remained in place. Only when the people truly control the educational system, put in place the curriculums reflecting our contributions, and have high expectations for student achievement, will our children benefit. And that is not going to happen under a partisan political system that puts political platforms before people’s basic needs.

That’s a debate that will continue even as Mileka enjoys her heavenly reward for years of dedicated service. So too should we discuss why she died in the prime of her life. Education and health. Those two issues defined Mileka’s life and death. How could we not discuss them?

In hindsight, I should have ventured into that abyss. Maybe I should have held everyone in the room accountable, to some degree, for Mileka’s death, and the plight of our children.

Standing with a group of celebrants afterwards, we did venture into a discussion about Mileka’s health care plight. One of the discussion participants was quick to note that politicians, including our Black ones, have been derelict in their duties, having failed to resolve an issue that has plagued this city--and our nation--for the last two decades.

There are 70,000 poor and working poor people within this county without health insurance, and thus without access to regular health care.

For reasons no one can or will explain health care costs have risen faster in Milwaukee than any other major city in the country. The benefits we provide to public workers, including our politicians, have increased by 12% annually over the last decade.

And to top it off, we just recently witnessed the closing of St. Michael’s Hospital, leaving the entire Black community with but two hospitals and four clinics within easy proximity. Everyone knows, or should know the story. Our politicians speak of it frequently, promise investigations, and decry the plight of the growing number of uninsured, and even vow to "tackle" the problem. But the reality is that nothing has changed. Indeed the situation has gotten worse.

Obviously, there is no consensus to resolve this perplexing problem, no leadership, no direction, and apparently, no high priority. Who cares about the Mileka’s of the world? Apparently, not those with insurance. Maybe if we took away the politicians’ health insurance they would be more forceful in finding a solution and Mileka would be alive to applaud them for doing what we pay them to do.

The same can be said of the educational situation.

Can’t they see the devastation illiteracy has had on our city? It is similar in many respects to Hurricane Katrina’s impact on New Orleans, only worst. Are they--and we--truly blind to the fact that if we solved the educational problem, most of our other social ills would disappear? But just like the health care problem, there is no focus, no consensus, and no prioritization. Only plenty of excuses.

Someone reminded me after the services of a "controversial" comment I made recently in regard to Black-elected officials that seems appropriate to the occasion: "we elect Black elected officials based on their ability to articulate the plight of Black people, versus their conceptionalizing or offering solutions."

I stand by the statement.

I can’t remember the last time I heard a campaign speech or saw literature that offered a solution to the myriad of problems we face. It’s gotten to the point where I cynically tell candidates for office before they open their mouths, what they will say. "Just give me a quote and background info, I can fill in the blanks," I’ve told many of them.

"You’re concerned about crime, housing, unemployment, health care and education."

Actually, they all say the same thing, but few offer any solutions.

Which is not to say some don’t try. Some do and are either overwhelmed, or simply unable to navigate apathetic political systems.

I guess they are glad we don’t hold them accountable for measurable achievements during their terms. They should be glad we don’t ask them "what has changed in the last two decades under their watch?" "Is it true that our situation has gotten worse? That crime is on the rise; that the Black unemployment rate has been stagnant for the last decade, as have resources to our community. That there are more uninsured than at any time in history, and the poverty rate--40% in 1966--is still at 40% today."

No wonder most Black people don’t vote!

Of course, the value of Black-elected officials transcends the obvious. Many Black-elected officials are fighting the good fight, advocating for Black rights and justice, chipping away at the walls of apartheid, finding crumbs for our table.

In the last week I’ve observed State Representative Jason Fields taking the state to task for not meeting its MBE participation goals; Alderman Joe Davis demanding greater police accountability; Alderman McGee leading a protest march; and State Representative Barbara Toles reintroducing a bill to rescind the policy of paying the salary of fired police officers.

That’s well and good, but it won’t bring Mileka back to life, or have any effect on the thousands of MPS students who return to school next week, one half of whom it can be predicted will not graduate, be trapped in poverty, have children out of wedlock and end up in prison.

What about the wasted lives of those Black students, or the hundreds who will suffer needlessly because they can’t afford a visit to the doctor?

Truth is we can’t put the blame for disingenuous public policies on the shoulders of Black-elected officials. We should shoulder an equal amount of the blame. We don’t support them, watch their backs, or advocate on our own. We don’t demand, force changes in public policy, make the system accountable, or use our dollars effectively to impact social change.

We are as much to blame as the myopia and ineffectiveness of our officials.

Mileka would be alive today if we had a universal health care system. She would have not had to dedicate her life to an organization that advocates for the education of Black children if the system worked; parents were more concerned and committed.

A strong case can be made that things haven’t changed because we don’t have the collective will to change them.

Maybe on second thought, it was better that I didn’t "go off" during Mileka’s homecoming. There’s a time and place for everything. The homecoming, even for a valued community activist, isn’t the place for political discussion, unless you’re Coretta Scott King.

Instead, let me say rest in peace dear sister, I applaud your work, but will use other forums to lay the blame for your early death, and to continue to do the work you dedicated your life to.