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Marquette Wire

The student news site of Marquette University

Marquette Wire

The student news site of Marquette University

Marquette Wire

‘Growing Up Milwaukee’ documentary gives a voice to the voiceless


When college sophomore Tyshun Wardlaw returned home to Milwaukee during the summer of 2003, the business student landed a dream internship for anyone pursuing a career in the entertainment industry. Little did she know working as a casting assistant for the movie “Mr. 3000,” which was being filmed in the Miller Park Stadium at the time, would alter her life.

“I said, ‘wow, this is so creative, it’s so intense,’” Wardlaw said. “The creativity is something that really got me and said, ‘this is something I want to do.’”

After working her way up the hierarchical career ladder, Wardlaw decided last April it was finally time to take a leap of faith and start her own production company. That’s how Wardlaw Productions here in Milwaukee was born.

“I told myself this year that I would no longer wait for contracts,” Wardlaw said. “I had enough.”

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Her dreams don’t end with the creation of Wardlaw Productions. It’s just the beginning of what she has planned for her company. With a mission to share stories that give a voice to the voiceless, Wardlaw said she considers her company to be focused on social entrepreneurship, meaning she hopes her products can lead to social change.

“We are a company focused on telling the untold stories,” Wardlaw said. “We want to make sure we’re capturing videos that are changing people’s lives and not show stories that are meaningless.”

Wardlaw put her company’s mission to the test when she heard the news about the tragic death of beloved father and community member Archie Brown Jr., who was shot after he accidentally hit and killed a toddler with his van. Although Wardlaw did not personally know Brown, she knew people who were mourning and deeply affected by his death.

During the several weeks following Brown’s death, Wardlaw noticed a string of violence. According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, from the beginning of the year until July, the number of killings in Milwaukee reached 82. In 2013 the toll came to 105 deaths, which is the highest number since the Milwaukee Homicide Review Commission started to record homicides in 2005.

The increasing number of violent incidents in Milwaukee shocked Wardlaw and made her consider the future of the city, but more importantly what the future of today’s young people would be like. This ignited the spark for her documentary “Growing Up Milwaukee,” a film that captures the everyday lives, struggles and challenges Black teens face growing up in the most segregated city in the United States.

“Let’s not just highlight the violence. We know it’s happening, but let’s tell the stories of the youth. Let’s tell the stories of how it is for them day in and day out,” Wardlaw said. “Do they feel hopeless? If they do, how can we help and impart hope and encourage them forward? How can we show (them) that there’s good things that can come out of this city and that has come out of this city?”

Wardlaw and her team are still in the pre-production stages of the documentary, but have compiled a rough organizational strategy to follow. Ideally, Wardlaw would like the film to follow the journey of three teenagers over a period of six months.

She is still in the process of casting these roles, and has been in contact with local nonprofits such as Running Rebels, a nonprofit founded by Victor Barnett which provides positive outlets for inner city youth and PEARLS for Teen Girls, a nonprofit that strives to empower young women and girls founded by Colleen Fitzgerald. Wardlaw hopes to select teens by the beginning of November so her team can begin filming later this winter and spring.

“If you wait for the ideal situation, it will never get done,” Wardlaw said. “We just move as we go.”

During her research, she was astonished to discover that out of 6,600 homeless people in Milwaukee county, 1,800 are children.

“When you think of homeless people in Milwaukee, you don’t really think about teens,” Wardlaw said. “That’s something we want to focus in on.”

Joining the team is Nora Richie, a junior in the College of Communication and an intern for Wardlaw Productions. Richie said she enjoys working with Wardlaw and is excited to be a part of the production and have a hands-on internship, rather than the coffee-fetching kind.

“(Tyshun) also agreed to take me under her wing and give me insight into all aspects of creating a feature-length film,” Richie said. “Not many people allow an intern with no narrowed-down focus to join a project and be involved in that many aspects. She’s been where I am and truly wants to share her wisdom and knowledge with us, which is something I greatly appreciate.”

Wardlaw can relate to not having a clear, set plan in college. As a sophomore, she was drowning in debt and didn’t want to change her major after spending a year’s worth of tuition on her business classes. She decided to continue her studies in business and completed her degree in business management at Santa Clara University in 2006. She went on to earn a masters in business management at Cardinal Stritch University in 2012.

Setting her eyes on “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” or the “mothership” as she liked to call it, Wardlaw traveled back to the Midwest. As a show she thought had an “eye for justice,” Wardlaw felt drawn to Harpo Productions and “The Oprah Winfrey Show.” Unfortunately, the “mothership” departed, or rather retired, in 2011 before Wardlaw had the chance to work there – but that didn’t mean it was over.

With great networking skills comes great opportunities, and for Wardlaw, her connection to Candi Carter, the senior producer for “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” created them. Wardlaw worked as an intern for Carter’s startup New Chapter Entertainment, which lead to working as an associate producer on various news outlets and the first season of “The Steve Harvey Show.” She eventually made her way back to New Chapter Entertainment as the associate producer.

As a Milwaukee native, Wardlaw wants to incorporate other Milwaukeeans into her film, particularly artists and musicians to collaborate on an original soundtrack for the documentary. She hopes that by bringing successful people who also grew up in the same city, lived in the same neighborhoods and attended the same schools, she can show young people that they can achieve anything.

“We are all from Milwaukee and we have been to all different kinds of places and some have been all across the world,” Wardlaw said. “Yet, (Milwaukee) is still home.”

In addition to sharing the lives of Milwaukee’s youth, Wardlaw wants to interview the families of the teenagers and have them be involved in the story. Wardlaw said she thinks the family element is crucial for her documentary.

“It makes sense to include their environment because you are affected by your environment,” Wardlaw said.

Given the theme of the film centers on Milwaukee’s youth, Wardlaw stressed the importance of getting the documentary distributed in the area. If the team follows their tentative schedule, post-production work will be completed roughly by late summer or early fall. Her ultimate goal is to show the film at a city-wide screening, but also hopes the documentary will catch national attention as well.

Taking on a project of this size can bring problems of that size, which is why Wardlaw is thankful that she hasn’t run into too many challenges at this time. However, she is well aware of some obstacles that may arise as the production continues.

Her goal is to get the community excited about her film and wants community members as well as leaders to be involved, which she predicts could lead to controversy.

“Just with any story, someone is going to have different sides, different versions (of) it and how they think the outcome should be,” Wardlaw said.

With just one video teaser reaching over 7,000 views, Wardlaw is pleased and surprised by the overwhelming response and positive feedback “Growing Up Milwaukee” has received. Every week, Wardlaw said, people reach out over social media to suggest youth-focused organizations and people to highlight in her documentary.

“People want to know what’s next and when (they) can see more,” Wardlaw said. “People are hurting here, and they want to be able to tell their stories.”

With the documentary in the pre-production planning stage, it’s difficult for Wardlaw to say exactly what the documentary will contain. She would like to capture the youths’ journey to adolescence and eventually see positive change occur in their lives, but the narrative is dependent on the subjects.

“In a perfect world, we would like (the documentary) to end happy for these young people,” Wardlaw said. “But we don’t want to filter it or give it a Hollywood ending.”

“‘Growing Up Milwaukee’ is us, it is our families,” Wardlaw said. “We are a part of (the youth’s) future and (the youth) are a part of our future.”’


Watch the teaser trailer here:

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