Yvonne McCaskill was born in the hills of Kentucky—the daughter of a coal miner. Her mother was a domestic and after her husband’s death when Yvonne was only five years old, she moved Yvonne and her four siblings to Milwaukee to be near a sister.
Growing up on Ninth Street, near Lapham Park in part of the community referred to as Bronzeville, Yvonne recalls living in a close knit community, where neighbors helped and looked out for each other. She also recalls that it was a ‘big deal’ when the family moved to Eighth and Wright Streets somewhat reminiscent of The Jeffersons’ theme song, “Movin’ On Up”.
“We really thought we had moved up in the world because only a few African Americans lived north of North Avenue.”
Yvonne graduated from North Division High School. Today she is one of the charter members that founded the North Division Alumni Association. She also has served as that organization’s president for the past five years. After graduating from North, Yvonne attended Spencerian Business College, with the goal of securing an office job. She also attended MATC for two years, earning a certificate in secretarial science.
“My first job out of high school was working at Three Sisters Clothing Store. I had taken classes in cashiering so I applied for a cashier position with the store. On my first day, they put me in a room in the back of the store. I told my supervisor that I thought I was hired to be a cashier. She responded that ‘little Black girls are not on the selling floor.’ I cried the rest of the day, but returned the next day because I needed a paycheck,” she said.
Eventually, Yvonne was hired as a mail and file clerk at Allis Chalmers, where she worked her way into the company’s secretarial pool. She also worked at General Electric, but within a few years knew she didn’t want to do that for the rest of her life.
A neighbor who was an alumnus of Lincoln University told her about an opportunity to attend his alma mater on a full ride scholarship, so she applied and ended up in Missouri at Lincoln University.
“That was a real cultural shock for me. The summer after my second year there, I returned to Milwaukee, secured a job, met my husband, and ultimately earned my degree in education at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. I started out studying social work, but switched to education so I could have the summers off,” she said.
Alternately between attending school full-time and part-time, Yvonne eventually earned a degree and was hired by Milwaukee Public Schools as an educator in 1974. After 30 years, she retired in 2004. Not quite ready to completely stop working and still too young to draw Social Security, she worked as a consultant, conducting training sessions within school systems to help improve achievement.
One day while looking around the neighborhood, she noticed how properties were deteriorating, the quality of life was diminishing and trash was accumulating—and the seed was planted for Yvonne’s ‘second act’.
“I could see some of the properties deteriorate. Rather than move from the area, some neighbors and I decided we would advocate for ourselves at a grassroots, resident-led level, so we founded the Century City Triangle Neighborhood Association. We took our name from the Century City business park, which is across the street.
“We didn’t want to become a nonprofit, so we created a less-structured organization. It really works for us and it takes egos out of the equation.
“Initially the Association held simple neighborhood clean-ups, then we developed a partnership with the 5th District police department to address crime and safety issues. We also partnered with the City of Milwaukee Redevelopment Authority to discuss some of the unkempt city-owned properties called ‘out lots’.
“We are seeing improvements—crime has decreased and other entities are contacting us to partner with them. We are also a designated Targeted Investment Neighborhood, which has allowed us to receive funding to start Art in the Park,” she said.
Art in the Park, now in its 15th year, is an intergenerational activity held in the summer, geared toward the youth but engaging seniors’ participation. The Association has received funding to bring in local and national artists to work with youth, with the goal of promoting team building and creating entrepreneurship with children. About five years ago, the Association forged a partnership with Clean Wisconsin, which partners with the Metropolitan Milwaukee Sewerage District (MMSD) on environmental stewardship initiatives.
“Art in the Park now focuses on environmental stewardship and environmental art. We use specific strategies to teach youth about the importance of environmental stewardship— why it’s important to fix cars that leak oil, why you should not leave your dog’s poop on the ground and things like that,” Yvonne said.
Students from the Howard Fuller Collegiate Academy, which is down the street, also engage with residents to paint rain barrels and help the Association with garden maintenance. The students receive points for community service on their college applications. Association members also teach environmental stewardship classes at Benjamin Franklin Elementary, which will become a ‘green’ school this year.
“In 2016 our community was chosen as Green Luminary by MMSD and I was invited to join the U.S. Water Alliance, so now I sit on that team.
“Now when partners approach us to do something in our neighborhood, I require them to put funds in their budget so we can at least pay our youth stipends. At some point, our residents should be paid for their intellectual property as well. I’m not concerned about getting paid myself. I like money too, but it’s not important to the work that I do, but I want our youth and some of our residents to be compensated for their time and intellectual property. The legacy I want to leave is that I allowed my heart to lead the way because of my concern about the quality of life of all people,”Yvonne said.