Angela Damiani has a clear goal: “To make this the most awesome city on the planet.”
Note that we didn’t say “an easy goal,” we said “a clear goal.” But don’t tell Damiani that it can’t be pursued and there can’t be progress in getting there. In the six years since it began, NEWaukee, the organization she leads as president, has become a fast-growing energizer and catalyst for community-building activities, particularly among young professionals.
At an “On the Issues with Mike Gousha” program at Eckstein Hall on Wednesday, Damiani said the jargon term for NEWaukee is that it is a social architecture firm. What does that mean? In short, NEWaukee is an organization aimed at consciously designing ways to shift a population toward a goal – and that goal is to make Milwaukee a place people think is attractive and appealing. Which is where the ”awesome city” ambition comes in.
Damiani told Gousha, the Law School’s distinguished fellow in law and public policy, that the group arose almost spontaneously beginning in 2009 from the efforts of its founder, Ian Abston, to develop a social circle when he moved to Milwaukee for a job. It began to burgeon, largely driven by social media, and after an event at the lakefront in 2011 drew an unanticipated crowd of about 3,000, NEWaukee was formed into a more formal organization. It is funded in large part by local businesses that want Milwaukee to be able to draw employees and retain them. And NEWaukee has branched into a wide array of activities, including volunteering on social issues such as helping in Milwaukee public schools and involvement in major community issues such as proposals for a new arena and a streetcar system downtown. At the same time, building involvement in the social and entertainment life of the city and connecting people with each other remain at the organizations core.
Damiani said Milwaukee has a part of its character that is eager to create an exciting, innovative future and a part of its character that doesn’t want to change. She’s trying to overcome the latter and spur the former, with a goal of having people stop asking her why she decided to live in Milwaukee after living in several other places in the United States and Europe.
She described a trip to Denver a few months ago with other NEWaukee employees. She said late on a Sunday evening, her group had trouble finding seating in restaurants or space on the streetcars in the area because there was so much going on and so many people around. She said downtown Milwaukee is nearly empty on Sunday evenings – but she can envision the time when that won’t be the case.
There is an abundance of things to do and reasons to like Milwaukee, she said. But more is needed, with more energy and more vitality in the city’s life.
“We know this is a long play,” Damiani said. But it’s one that can have a happy — even exciting, even awesome — ending.