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In 2012, a group of young Black and brown professionals in Milwaukee, Wisconsin established an unofficial happy hour and networking event. Every few weeks, a mass text would go out and recipients would gather at the bar for a drink or two, where they’d discuss their jobs, their lives, and their city. With each passing week, the same theme kept coming up: Why didn’t people love Milwaukee as much as they did?
Like many mid-sized cities, Milwaukee is in the midst of a years-long “brain drain,” where thousands of talented young Black and brown residents have migrated to larger cities like Atlanta, Houston, and Washington, D.C. Despite a comparatively lower cost of living and multiple opportunities for career advancement and entrepreneurship, Milwaukee is consistently ranked as one of the most segregated cities in the U.S., and major racial disparities exist, especially in health and education. As a result, according to the City of Milwaukee Millennial Task Force, the number of 25- to 34-year-olds living in Milwaukee decreased by 1.8% between 2010 and 2015, while that same age group increased in population by 3.8% nationwide.
Over drinks at happy hour, a coalition formed to change that: Social X, a diversity and consulting group building initiatives to attract and retain young professionals in the Greater Milwaukee area. Early on, the group knew that though career and jobs are important, it’s not always the deciding factor in where one chooses to live. People want to feel a connection to their city—like they can pursue their professional and personal goals in a supportive environment where they belong. The Social X happy hour provided that sense of belonging, but it wasn’t enough. To bridge the gap, the group’s activities grew in both size and scope; today, thousands of young Milwaukeeans participate in social gatherings, city tours, “Homecoming Week” events, professional development panels, and community service projects. They also meet every Tuesday and Saturday to run.
F.E.A.R., an acronym for Forget Everything and Run, was added to the Social X lineup by then-president Nyerere Davidson in 2015. During a trip to Washington, D.C., to research the elements that made the city so appealing for emigrants, he joined the District Running Collective for a group run. Instantly, he felt that sense of community he had been seeking to create in his town.
“He realized this was something that we needed in Milwaukee,” said Tenia Fisher, Social X director of health and wellness. “There is a lack of diversity and color in the running community. It is important for people of all shapes, sizes, backgrounds, and color to have a safe place to be themselves and run.”
The mission of F.E.A.R. is to welcome runners of all levels and abilities to pursue physical, emotional, and social health through running. They welcome all people—of all races, physical abilities, fitness levels, and ambitions—to gather in neighborhoods around Milwaukee for runs and fun. Some also plan meetups for other endurance pursuits, like bike rides, swims, or cross-training sessions in the gym. Every year, the group hosts the Run The Yard 5K, complete with a post-race block party. On paper, it may seem like a running club would do little for fixing the city’s braindrain woes, but in practice it’s been a key element of Social X’s strategy.
“Having an activity to look forward to weekly that promotes health, goals, and gets you a sense of family will keep you in the city of Milwaukee,” Fisher said. “It also encourages members to pour into the city more. They actually start to get involved in championing for the city.”
By running through majority-Black neighborhoods around the city, F.E.A.R. also serves as a sort of moving billboard for health and fitness, a message that doesn’t often get broadcast to people of color. They also advocate for awareness and inclusion throughout the city by breaking down cultural and racial barriers. When Ahmaud Arbery was pursued and fatally shot while jogging in February 2020, F.E.A.R. led the call for Milwaukeeans to create safe spaces for all runners in all neighborhoods.
The F.E.A.R. program, along with Social X, has served as a model for other communities working to attract and keep young professionals—particularly young professionals of color—in their towns and cities. These running groups often meet up at races like the Cherry Blossom 10K in Washington, D.C or Bridge the Gap in New Orleans to socialize and share strategies. “It’s one of our most important trips,” Fisher said. “Run crews from all over the world socialize, run together, and promote the importance of people in the running community. We really connect on a different level together. This is when we are most like family. “
Every week, more people join in on F.E.A.R. runs, and every week, Milwaukee feels more like home for members of the group, whether they are lifelong residents or recent transplants.
“I’m most proud of how much we have grown,” Fisher said. “People come to run, but they really show up to connect with family.”