Walnut Way Conservation Corp.
When Sharon Adams was growing up in Milwaukee’s Walnut Way, a neighborhood of sturdy old homes sheltered by canopies of trees, gardens thrived as well as extended families. There was connectedness and what Sharon calls a sense of "greening."
As a young idealist in 1968, her schooling and career pointed her east, for a time, to Detroit. There, she says, "I saw the contrast between communities that were barren and torn apart by race riots and the very affluent communities. That was a defining moment for me; I learned to be a bridge." Eventually she took what she had learned -- "a peaceful but confident and spirit-driven way of finding equality" -- to a job directing the Girl Scout Council of Greater New York. When she moved back to Milwaukee in 1997, however, the years had not been kind to her old neighborhood. Prostitution, gangs, and drug activity resulted in ugly, sometimes fatal scenarios against a backdrop of trash-filled lots and boarded-up houses. Fear ruled the streets like an unseen emperor.
In 1998, Sharon, husband Larry, and others founded Walnut Way, turning the neighborhood from one that was preyed on to one that was prayed for -- and fought for. They were guided by the example of a gentle neighbor, Emma James, who built a new home in the then-dangerous old neighborhood and refused to move -- literally -- when she was shot at in the street. Sharon says in a tone of wonder, "She stood her ground!" So has Walnut Way. Today it serves more than 1,000 people by facilitating the rehab of old houses and building new ones (100 so far); converting a drug house into the Walnut Way Neighborhood Center; and cultivating gardens. Walnut Way has also established a nursery of trees to extend the urban canopy that once sheltered a little girl with big ideals, ideals that have taken root where she, too, stands her ground.