Rust Belt Takeover of Milwaukee


The Mitchell Park Domes are a registered National Treasure. While exploring the iconic structures, members of the RBCoYP explained how the Domes are in danger of being demolished, and how people can take action. Photo courtesy of the Milwaukee Preservation Alliance.

When we think of historic buildings, a young demographic doesn’t immediately come to mind. Millennials and Generation Z-ers are infamous for being addicted to technology, but also know how to use it to their advantage better than any other age group. By 2020, these two groups are predicted to make up 50% of all donations in the U.S., while still only making up roughly 20% of the population. This seems to be a positive outlook for nonprofits all over the country, but it’s a little more complicated than that.

It’s not just that people 16-34 are more likely to donate, it’s how they choose to donate that makes their slice of the giving pie harder to target. With text for advocacy campaigns, social media crowdfunding, and game incentive individual giving platforms, there are 1.5 million nonprofit organizations that these “philanthro-kids” have the option to donate to online, yet every year they only give to 3 organizations on average. So, if Millennials are not contributing to charitable organizations via individual giving, where is their money going? The Rust Belt Coalition of Young Preservationists (RBCoYP) is, like their generation, way ahead of the curve on the answer.

The RBCoYP is a group of historic preservationists from across the country who are just as dedicated to saving old buildings as they are about creating new connections. Formed in 2016, the Coalition is made up of 6 groups from across the ‘Rust Belt’ – a region identified by the markers of de-industrialization across the Northeast and Upper Midwest (New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Wisconsin are just a few).


“We focus on creating experiential learning opportunities that will leave people feeling more empowered to take action when they see a historic site that needs protecting.”

The eclectic Coalition is engaging an audience of the usual suspects (Baby Boomers and Matures) but is also appealing to their own generation in ways that match up with their true ideals – to be more active in the real world. This approach is crucial in the business of protecting historic buildings. Since their inception they have held 9 of their “Rust Belt Takeover’s, the most recent taking over Milwaukee from May 10-12th. Each takeover stands out not only because of its hands on, offline explorations, but nearly every event during the weekend is absolutely free. “We wanted to create a low-cost opportunity for education. Not everyone that cares about old buildings is a professional and knows the designation toolkit like we do,” says Sarah Marsom, “ringleader” of the RBCoYP. “We focus on creating experiential learning opportunities that will leave people feeling more empowered to take action when they see a historic site that needs protecting.”

Milwaukee Art Museum. Photo courtesy of the Milwaukee Preservation Alliance.

During their Takeover of Milwaukee, the RBCoYP visited the Mitchell Park Domes, a designated National Treasure. While in awe of the magical architecture, the tour guides explained how the Domes were in danger of being demolished. Creating these opportunities for people to experience first-hand what they might lose from their community is exactly the kind of emotional connection that is vital in pushing people to take action when it comes to protecting historical landmarks.

On the second day of the tour, attendees had a variety of choices for activities. If being outside is more your thing, then taking the bike tour through the Hank Aaron State Trail is made for you. If you have a home rehab project coming up or frequently work with old buildings, take the Frank Lloyd Wright walking tour along the historic Burnham Block. Visitors are able to walk through two different houses and learn what is saved and what is usually changed when going through the process of a historic designation.



Finally, what preservation gathering wouldn’t be complete without touring a local brewery? Milwaukee’s Pabst Brewing Complex served as the location for the Takeover’s Opening Night Party, complete with a beer tasting contest from all the different states in attendance. Visitors are encouraged to bring a six-pack of beer (or root beer) from their home state to compete in taking the glory of the best brew. “Ohio has won every time,” says Marsom.

These free opportunities cropping up across the country appeal to the younger population’s ‘broke’ persona while still inspiring them to donate. Instead of endless appeals online, the RBCoYP gets them off their phone and into the spaces that they are trying to save. A recent study by Edge Research showed that younger generations are more likely to participate in protecting a historic building by taking a tour of a historic structure or having a weekend stay in a historic district. In short, they are more likely to participate in an experience first before forking over their dwindling paychecks.

Reimagining places is only possible with the surrounding community’s active support. The Rust Belt Coalition has proved that they know how to inspire action and create change in cities across the U.S. – and it’s not by being online. By appealing to our universal need for empathetic connection, either to a building or each other, the friendships, education, and experiences made possible by the Rust Belt Coalition are, in the end, priceless.


Sources: Ellie Burke via BlackBaud, “The Next Generation of American Giving: The Charitable Habits of Generations Y, X, Baby Boomers, and Matures.”

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