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Michael Nieling is a designer, educator, father, and full-time spaz. He is the Creative Director at Ocupop, a creative agency that has led design projects and campaigns for companies at all ends of the spectrum — from Google, Facebook, and Mozilla to PBS, SXSW and Burton Snowboards to countless successful (and horribly failed) startups. Michael is also co-founder of Kunoa Cattle Company. Traveling in from Honolulu, HI, we caught up with Michael to get to know him better.

What do you typically eat for breakfast?

My family actually makes fun of me because I am so predictable in this regard. I have granola, yogurt and berries for breakfast EVERY morning. It is my favorite food. I am sad and boring.

What do people know you for?

I guess generally, if I am known for anything, it is my candid, personal, somewhat off-color style of sharing the stories of our successes and failures in a way that seems to resonate with a lot of creative people. Beyond that, people that know me well, know me for being a human border collie - a complete spaz who cannot sit still and loves to constantly be running at full speed. Oh, and I live in Hawaii, people like when I bring that up, especially when it is negative 50 degrees in Milwaukee.

How is Milwaukee special to you?

My wife grew up in Milwaukee and still has family there, so we spend every summer in the city and I work out of Ocupop’s studios in the Fifth Ward. It is by far the best Midwest city — and I know this because I have experienced them all — we’ve lived in Minneapolis, Madison, Chicago and Milwaukee over the years. Milwaukee has all the benefits of a bigger city with much less of the negatives that size usually brings and the outdoor activities blow away any of the other options. The ability to go surfing, sailing, swimming and paddling on Lake Michigan right out your front door is pretty magical thing that makes Milwaukee really special to me.

What may people not know about you?

Throughout my entire life, since I was in early elementary school, I have dealt with mild to severe anxiety and depression. Though on the outside looking in, I am constantly going a hundred miles an hour and seemingly confident and doing well, I am perpetually waging an internal battle with nervous feelings of inadequacy and generally speaking, sick to my stomach.

What drives your creativity?

I love solving problems. I love figuring shit out. As the world gets more automated, sophisticated and efficient with technology, machine learning, and outsourced labor I find more and more that creativity is the major differentiator. Creative people, especially those with just enough confidence to take on new challenges outside of their comfort zone are not only NOT being obsoleted, but they are becoming more and more valuable. That feeling of facing unknown challenges, learning deeply and working with smart people to craft a solution drives me day in and day out, nothing is more rewarding. Well that and I love proving my anxiety and imposter complexes wrong.

What are you going to talk to us about in your talk on “Pioneer”?

“Everyone is going to hate this and think I am full of shit.’

That’s me — the voice booming inside my head every time I step on stage at an event. Every time I speak up in a meeting. Every time I present work or paddle out for a surf. For a guy who brims with self-confidence outwardly, that awful internal pep talk reverberates over and over again, perpetually casting doubt, challenging me to prove it wrong.

I am hoping to give a talk full of insight, inspiration, and imposter complexes — with every laugh, tear, and expletive focused on using personal doubt and internal perspective to fuel creativity and success.

If you have the same shitty life coach, you should come; it’ll probably be great. Though I f***ing doubt it.

Ticket registration opens Monday, January 22nd at 11 AM CST. Grab a ticket as fast as you can they are free but limited!


Mark Fairbanks is the Executive Director of Islands of Brilliance, a non-profit organization that teaches creative skills to students on the autism spectrum. Mark and his wife, Margaret, a special education teacher, founded Islands of Brilliance (using all the knowledge gained from raising their son, Harry, who is on the spectrum) to increase the likelihood that the students will be independent as adults. Started in 2012, the organization is now entering its 5th year and has grown to include chapters in Minneapolis and Duluth, as well as workshops held in Portland and Chicago. Below, we caught up with Mark to get to know him better.

What do you typically eat for breakfast?

I kind of have a rotation of stuff. One is fresh fruit with yogurt and granola. That’s what I had this morning—with a side of leftover popcorn from last night. I can binge for a week on toast if we pick up good crusty bread. The household favorite is what we call an egg scramble, which we generally make on the weekends. It’s a better version of Benji’s Hoppel Poppel. Ours is made with fried potatoes, onions, garlic, sweet peppers, hot peppers, and then scramble the eggs in at the end. Cover liberally with Cholula hot sauce. Oh, and black coffee is a constant of course.

What do people know you for?

Lol. That’s a good question. I guess it depends on which decade you’re referring to. I was widely known as a really good designer/art director/creative director up until 2008, when I pretty much left the advertising business behind. Then there was the Translator period, when people couldn’t figure out what we were doing. Translator was essentially a creative sandbox that was applying design process and principals to any number of challenges. I think now I’m widely known for Islands of Brilliance, which from a creative process perspective is an evolving social impact design example. The willingness to leave behind what I had been successful at and try something completely different is probably a common thread.

How is Milwaukee special to you?

Without the initial and ongoing generosity of the creativity community in Milwaukee, Islands of Brilliance would never have become what it is. Plain and simple, I am indebted to the people here. And that’s as special as it gets.

What may people not know about you?

I love gardening. Specifically native species, prairie flowers, and plants that need less water. A lot of my art and design takes place in my yard now. I call it painting with a shovel. We have a pretty hectic schedule, but my wife Margaret and I often work eight hours a day on the yard during the summer on the weekends. I’ve found that’s my therapy. Interestingly, I read there’s a microbe in the dirt that has the same effect as serotonin. I always wondered why I felt so good after digging in the earth, and there’s an actual scientific reason for it. Yes, dirt makes me happy. 

What drives your creativity?

You know, I honestly don’t have an answer to that. I’ve been creative for as far back as I have memory—I’ve been making stuff forever. It’s been as natural as breathing. I’ve certainly had influences from time to time, but the driving force is of a different nature. I think I have good antennae, if you will. I’m able to pick up on signals and ideas that are in the ether. I’m not sure people can really own creativity, some just are better at channeling it than others. I meditate every day, and I think a quiet mind is as good as anything to drive creativity.

What are you going to talk to us about in your talk on “Pioneer”?

The theme is “Pioneer,” so I’ve been giving some thought as to what makes someone a pioneer. My feeling is that it is an individual—or group of individuals—who are the first to explore new areas but are willing to leave behind what “is known” in order to do it. That includes conventional wisdom and even past personal success. It seems to me that how a pioneer manages fear would be some interesting ground to cover. I’ll be weaving together personal stories, anecdotes, and insights from people smarter than me. It will be a different talk for me and involve taking some risks, but that’s in keeping with the theme, right?

Ticket registration opens Monday, Oct 23rd at 11 AM CST. Grab a ticket as fast as you can they are free but limited!



Dr. Katherine Wilson is the Executive Director of the Zeidler Center for Public Discussion, a non-profit group whose mission is to foster civil dialogue & invite trust in the midst of differences. Their trained facilitators get called in for tough conversations that call for deep listening and empathy, like Police + Community Listening Circles. Dr. Wilson’s Ph.D. is in genocidal studies, and she knows the powerful role compassion can play in overcoming barriers. Below, we caught up with Dr. Wilson to get to know her better.

What do you typically eat for breakfast?

I’ve got four urban chickens and there’s nothing like getting warm eggs from under the butt of a chicken each morning for breakfast! I’m a big breakfast fan so, along with the eggs, I usually have cottage cheese, Black Forest bacon, half an avocado, tomato, and pickled jalapeños from my garden.

What do people know you for?

Probably for wearing a lot of hats! Most people know me through the work I do as Executive Director of the Zeidler Center, and Associate Director of Greater Together. In my off time, I teach Latin dance through the Delaware House, and I’m on a sailing race team at the Milwaukee Yacht Club. Before getting involved in the non-profit world, I finished a PhD in genocide studies from UW-Milwaukee. Studying the ways that communities break down and build themselves back up drives the work I do today to facilitate civil dialogue between groups in tension.

How is Milwaukee special to you?

I love Milwaukee. It’s a great size for a city – right on the water, great neighborhoods, low traffic compared with larger cities but still retains a beautiful diversity. The food culture here is taking off. That being said, Milwaukee is also ground zero for embodying the challenges of segregation and systemic racism baked into this country’s history. Positively framed: There are a lot of opportunities to dig in, get involved, and be part of positive actions that really move the dial.

What may people not know about you?

One of my life goals is to sail around the world.

What drives your creativity?

What drives my creativity is exploring outside my expectations, my city, my culture, everything that I consider “normal.” I do this by inviting new people into my home and through travel.

What are you going to talk to us about in your talk on “Compassion”?

I’m going to talk about compassion—basically our response to suffering – in others, in ourselves, and in the world.   How do we define it, practice it, and what are its limits? As someone who’s spent a long time studying mass atrocity, I’d like to share some of what I’ve learned by listening to survivors and perpetrators, reading testimonies, and thinking about how we interface with suffering. Also, I’d like to touch on the idea of compassion fatigue.

Ticket registration opens Monday, Sept 18th at 11 AM CST. Grab a ticket as fast as you can they are free but limited! 


Dasha Kelly is a nationally published writer, poet, artist, and consultant. In 2016, she was named Artist of the Year by the city of Milwaukee, and she has twice been a finalist as Poet Laureate for the State of Wisconsin. Dasha is also the founder of Still Waters Collective, a resource network for writers and storytellers, which has crafted programs and community initiatives using creative writing and spoken word to build leadership and shape self-esteem. Below, we caught up with Dasha to get to know her better.

  1. What do you typically eat for breakfast?  Croissant, banana, coffee.
  2. What do people know you for?  Writing, performing, mentoring and building.
  3. How is Milwaukee special to you?  I’ve had a love-hate relationship with Milwaukee for a long time.  I’m frustrated by the complacency in the water, but seeing so many bold, creative and productive conversations and partnerships in recent years have definitely bolstered the love side of things.
  4. What may people not know about you?  I’m a high-functioning introvert.
  5. What drives your creativity?  I don’t know that anything drives my creativity, suggesting it needs fuel or a combustion apparatus or a reason…  My processor for the whole world is creativity: connecting dots that I haven’t seen connected before.  This is finding shortcuts in a commute, combining mismatched fashion patterns, negotiating a free can of soda, writing a one-woman show.  It’s all the same creative brain, always on, always celebrating dots.
  6. What are you going to talk to us about this month?  My charge and challenge about the idea of “genius.”

Ticket registration opens Monday, August 21st at 11 AM CST. Grab a ticket as fast as you can they are free but limited! 


Caressa Givens is the community engagement and marketing coordinator for Bublr Bikes, a bike share with 57 stations and just over 500 bikes intended for short trips here in the city. Caressa originally studied printmaking at MIAD but found her way into bike culture through Wisconsin Bike Fed, as a cycling safety instructor. Below, we caught up with Caressa to get to know her better.

What do you typically eat for breakfast?  Something with an egg on it or a cup of coffee with a handful of honey roasted peanuts (yeah I know)

What do people know you for? Being a little funny and mostly sassy (basically, I am a spicy bold bag of chips).

How is Milwaukee special to you? It’s the ‘thing’ that I have committed to the longest. It’s my favorite t-shirt that everyone wants me to get rid of because of all of the holes and soy sauce stains, but there is no chance in H-E-double hockey sticks, sorry not sorry.

What may people not know about you? I can drive 3 different styles of fork lifts. I have a certification!

What drives your creativity? When people tell me how much healthier and happier they are when they can use a Bublr bike to get around. It brings me to tears, ask my co-workers!

What are you going to talk to us about in your talk on "Equality”? I am going to talk about the difference between equality and equity when it comes to access to things like basic resources such as education, jobs, and in this case transportation.

Ticket registration opens Monday, July 24th at 11 AM CST. Grab a ticket as fast as you can they are free but limited!


Zeynab Ali is an author and youth activist originally from Kenya. Below, we caught up with Zeynab to get to know her better.

What do you typically eat for breakfast? Typically, my family eats traditional Somali breakfast food such as: injera, marwax, jabati, or seasoned fried eggs with bread.Besides that, since I’m not really a breakfast person. I like to eat leftover dinner.

But most days I don’t eat breakfast, especially during school days. I just leave school hungry, which isn’t healthy, but I’m used to it now.

What do people know you for? At school I’m known to be very shy and quiet, but outside of school people see me as very driven, caring, respected and someone who has a great future ahead of them.

How is Milwaukee special to you? I’ve lived in Louisville, KY which is not a great city compared to Milwaukee. What I love about Milwaukee is that there’s always something going on. Despite the poverty and violence rate, there are always youth and community members organizing events and meetings to better our city. That’s something I never saw in Louisville. I love how we get together and support each other in times of crisis rather than not taking action just because they don’t know the family that was effected by a bad situation. Also, Milwaukee is the only city I know that has numerous of youth organizations unlike other cities who don’t have programming for youth.

What may people not know about you? I wish people knew more about me to be honest; it would make my life easier. I think people should know that I don’t like to be in the center of attention. It gets awkward for me and I just never know how to respond back. I really enjoy hearing about other people’s success. I feel like everywhere I go and even at school, people get so surprised that I wrote a book. And to me it’s really not a big deal, because honestly anyone can write a book. So, I wish people didn’t see it as a big deal because for me writing is just a therapeutic thing I do to let emotions out, because I faced a lot of hardship at a young age and I still do till this day.That’s another thing. I often smile a lot even when I’m dealing with personal issues. I think others get the impression that I’m a happy person, but in reality I’m just hiding my pain. Also, I want people to know that the issues I talk about as an activist are issues I either faced or go through right now. Therefore, I can connect with residents who go through that which is why I take it so serious.

What drives your creativity? Sometimes I see things or hear about things that make me mad usually related to current issues and it inspires me to come up with all sorts of ideas.

What are you going to talk to us about this month? I am going to be speaking about my personal experiences with “Survival,” part of which prompted writing my book “Cataclysm: Secrets of the Horn of Africa.” Some of the book serves as a memoir of me and my family’s struggle fleeing Somali during the horrific civil war there in the 90′s and living in Kenyan refugee camps before coming to the United States. One thing I think we don’t focus enough on too is what immigrant children face, especially as first generation English speakers. When we talk about immigration we often talk about the issues facing adults and immigrant parents, yet young immigrants and children of immigrants are often facing a variety of emotional and mental health struggles too. Sometimes this is due to kinds of responsibilities they hold at a young age for their families too. I would like to speak to this too.Ticket registration opens Monday, June 26th at 11 AM CST. Grab a ticket as fast as you can they are free but limited!

photo by Matt Haas

Ray Chi is a modern renaissance man. He is a sculptor, a site-specific installation artist, a furniture maker, a multi-media artist, an interactive designer. His interactive work includes videos and interactive guides for many museums around the world, from our own Milwaukee Art Museum to the Frida Kahlo Museum, where he got a behind-the-scenes tour of the artist’s home. He has made art of teeter totters and bicycles, as well as turned bicycle racks into public art. Much of Ray’s work blurs the lines between work and play, form and function, and art and entertainment. Below, we caught up with Ray to get to know him better.

What do you typically eat for breakfast? On a good day - homemade sourdough bread with a poached farm-fresh egg on a bed of baby arugula. On 99% of days - whatever leftover breakfast my son didn’t eat that I have time to stuff in my face while racing out the door.

What do people know you for? I’m not sure why people would know me but probably for my high level of modesty.

How is Milwaukee special to you? It is the rare place where you can own a home, find fossils on a beach, catch a Kool Keith show, eat some pretty good bibim-bop, and find a good parking spot - all with relative ease! Also, American Science and Surplus.

What may people not know about you? I am a classically trained cellist and have a permanent retainer on the inside of my lower teeth.

What drives your creativity? I see so much potential in everyday objects and mundane spaces in the city. I try to design possibilities for the ordinary to become extraordinary and look for ways to increase encounters with beauty in our daily lives. I am also always inspired by the boundless ingenuity of children and the quiet rigor and persistence of the makers and artists that make up Milwaukee’s creative community.

What are you going to talk to us about this month? I will be speaking about my work in the context of serendipitous moments and relationships that have helped shape the person I am today. I will touch on public art, collaborative work, furniture design, playgrounds, American Movie, and more!

Ticket registration for “SERENDIPITY” opens here, Monday, May 15th
at 11 AM CST. Grab a ticket as fast as you can they are free but limited!



John Gurda is a historian, writer, and tv personality who has published over 20 books. John researches and writes about Milwaukee neighborhoods, people, industries and places of worship and is fascinated by "why things are the way they are." Below we caught up with John to get to know him better.

What do you typically eat for breakfast? Just the basics: cereal, fruit, and OJ.

What do people know you for? The five-hour Making of Milwaukee PBS documentary, and my role as the bike-riding historian on PBS’s Around the Corner with John McGivern.

How is Milwaukee special to you? Milwaukee is in a really nice sweet spot between large and small; we have all the resources of a metropolis but the manageability and human scale of a much smaller community.

What may people not know about you? I spent six months as a Congressional page when I was in high school. I’m also the defending rock-skipping champion (senior division) at the Ontonagon (MI) Labor Day celebration.

What drives your creativity? Beats me. I’ve always wanted to make things.

What are you going to talk to us about this month? Beyond the Present and Beyond Security, focusing on my rather improvised career as a Milwaukee historian.

Ticket registration for “BEYOND” opens here, Monday, April 24th
 at 11AM CST. Grab a ticket as fast as you can they are free but limited!


Malkia Stampley is an actor, director, and producer who returned home to Milwaukee after working in New York and Chicago and co-founded  Bronzeville Arts Ensemble, where she is now the Artistic Director. Bronzeville Arts Ensemble illuminates the Black experience in America through theater and creates artistic and educational opportunities. Below we caught up with Malkia to get to know her better.

What do you typically eat for breakfast? A green smoothie: avocado, flax, chia seed, mixed berries, Amazing Green green tea + lime powder, spring mix greens, coconut water. 

What do people know you for? That I am an actor, mom, wife and vegan. 

How is Milwaukee special to you? I was born and raised here.

What may people not know about you? I cannot watch horror or thriller movies…and even heated confrontations make me anxious.

What drives your creativity? Collaboration.

What are you going to talk to us about this month? I will explore taboos (some widely recognized and others I will dare to diagnose) in our local and national theater community as well as touch on the entertainment industry as a whole through the lens of an artist of color. 

Ticket registration for “Taboo” opens here Monday, March 27th at 11AM CST. Grab a ticket as fast as you can they are free but limited!

On Friday, February 24th, we’re returning with “Moments” ft. Daniel Holter

Daniel Holter is a producer, mixer, composer, and songwriter and partner behind Wire & Vice, recording studio located in a 1920s-era post office just outside of Milwaukee. Daniel has mixed music by bands and artists such as Nick Lowe, Field Report, Over The Rhine, Amos Lee, Blitzen Trapper, YØUTH, David Choi, among many others. Daniel is also a co-founder of The License Lab, an independent resource for producers, editors and music supervisors. Below we caught up with Daniel to get to know him better.

What do you typically eat for breakfast? Sendik's fresh squeezed OJ is ridiculously great. I have a glass every morning. And my youngest son loves Cinnamon Life… so I grab a bowl of that most mornings, too, as a nod to him. Also, Valentine or Colectivo coffee.

What do people know you for? I suppose as a music producer, though most of the work they might have heard is the stuff usually unnoticed in a typical day… background music on their favorite tv show, commercial music for advertising, that sort of thing. I wrote the music for the launch of the original electric car, the EV-1 by GM, way back in 1999. Was also the composer for a whole bunch of Mad Men promos. I hope that this year means people know me more as the producer and mixer for two of Milwaukee’s most talented sons, Sam Ahmed (as WebsterX) and Chris Porterfield (as Field Report).

How is Milwaukee special to you? Number one, I moved back from LA and to have my kids be raised here. So, this is home. And two, the fact that Milwaukee Wisconsin has a special place in the world of music in all kinds of ways: Les Paul and the invention of both the electric guitar and multitrack recording in my hometown of Waukesha, Summerfest being the world’s largest music festival, the world’s largest sheet music publisher is Wauwatosa’s Hal Leonard, I believe the largest microphone collection is right here in the city, the roots of recorded jazz and blues music can be traced to Paramount Records in Grafton, 88nine is the envy of the non-commercial radio world, and in the Pabst/Riverside crew we have truly passionate and talented people setting trends in the way artists are treated and shows are curated.

What may people not know about you? I originally wanted to be an architect but quickly learned about the level of math required.

What drives your creativity? I’m not sure. Ideas are never in short supply. Execution, however…

What are you going to talk to us about this month? I’ve been told the theme is “Moments,” and I think that word is pretty fascinating in the context of creativity and the human experience. My goal is to inspire and challenge without being too self-indulgent. 

Ticket registration for “Moments” opens here Monday, February 20th at 11AM CST. Grab a ticket as fast as you can they are free but limited!