Editor’s note: This is one in a series of profiles in the Humans of Wausau series, which is funded in part through a grant from the B. A. & Esther Greenheck Foundation. Follow the Humans of Wausau Facebook page here.
By Kelli Oligney for Wausau Pilot & Review
Jay Stahl, 21
Q: Where are you originally from?
A: We are originally from Iowa City, Iowa. We moved to Wausau for my dad’s job. My dad was a County Zoning Administrator; one who’s in county planning.
What are you going to school for in Milwaukee?
I am going for journalism and have a year and a half left.
You often say that you try to “give a voice back to your hometown” – what do you mean by this?
I focus on a lot of different topics. I was speaking for veterans, service members, military spouses, and families. I speak for those who do not wish to speak up. I will sit in a city council meeting or in a boardroom with powerful individuals. I try to give a voice to kids like me; black individuals, LGBTQ+, those who don’t feel they have a place or families that don’t feel heard.
Have you given your voice towards the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement that is occurring?
I spoke with the Wausau Police Department and am trying to work with them to improve recruiting police officers of color, and bridging the gap between communities of color and our local law enforcement agencies and departments. I believe there’s an unnecessary divide between the two. This has been a longstanding issue that never seems to end. Real people want to have a safe place to live and feel comfortable leaving the house without feeling targeted.
If you had to give advice to anyone, what would it be?
Keep going. Growing up as a black boy on the east side of Wausau, it was hard to know where my place in the world was. I used to cry in my bedroom or on the bathroom floor and would force myself up off the bathroom floor and fight for the kids who were doing the same. I would tell anyone to find a way with some strength to keep going.
What was the hardest moment of your life?
The hardest moments were growing up here and spending summers watching black men die on TV screens. Even today, as we are mourning George Floyd, Ahmed Aubrey, and Breonna Taylor; nothing has really changed. It’s not just the fault of one side over the other or one particular group, but an entire culture and broken system that needs to change.
Seeing those incidents happen while you were growing up, did that change anything in you?
Yes, growing up watching the trial of Trayvon Martin’s killer and seeing documentaries on the death of Matthew Shepard as he was strapped to a fence and left for dead definitely made me want to give a voice back to my hometown, but also to people who haven’t been heard. I do feel I have a personal responsibility to help them because I am willing, but also because of what I’ve gone through. Seeing how far we have come, but also how far we have to go is beautiful, but also heart-breaking.
What are your favorite memories from living here?
Wausau is the only place in the world where I’ve been that’s like this and is a great place to work and play. Growing up and feeling different, you’d think a smaller community like Wausau would be small-minded, but the people here have always been big-hearted. I’ve always enjoyed going to stores in the summertime and seeing business owners my parents knew. As a kid, I’d enjoy going to the Center for Visual Arts (CVA) to paint an art piece or watch a show at The Grand.
What changes would you like to see in the community in the next five years?
To me, Wausau has always been a place that will listen, but may not understand. In the next five years, I’d like for us all to get to a point where we can understand each other and find common ground by working together. Growing up, I never labeled anyone as being different from me and tried to focus on finding common ground and I think that’s something we all can do. I believe we can get to a place where we listen, understand, and agree to disagree, but can still value each other’s life experiences even when we ourselves have not lived them. We see on social media that people are not willing to put down the weapons and just look at each other and live in a cohesive environment. Problems occur on both sides and it’s not the best of who we are, but I truly do believe Wausau is an accepting place. I never thought I would find myself on dairy farms or in fields, but once I did I found how much I have in common with those who aren’t like me. Due to stereotypes, you’d never think to see someone like me in an environment such as that, but that’s what I have loved about growing up here.
What is your favorite quote?
“People ask me if I ever reach the top, will I forget about them. So, I ask people, if I don’t reach the top, will y’all forget about me?” That quote is from a rap song and the yearbook quote of Michael Oher from The Blind Side. I also love, “We don’t have a word for the opposite of loneliness, but if we did, I could say that’s what I want in life,” which is from the late author Marina Keegan.
What motivates you each day?
I’m motivated to fight for kids like me and knowing the work we all do can better someone’s life.
What keeps you in the area?
I love it here. I always say that I’m giving a voice back to my hometown and that means someday I will come back full-time to live here. I look forward to raising children here and staying active in the community even after I graduate college because it’s where I grew up and into myself; philosophically, emotionally, mentally, and physically.