DJ Denson


I am Marquette — Djdade Denson is his father’s son

Djdade Denson grew up in the impoverished-but-resilient 53206, and returned there with a passion for restoring community.

As told to Drew Dawson, Comm ’19

My work is a reflection of my father. Both my parents, really. They were teachers in Milwaukee, guiding me through the 53206. My neighborhood sits at the bottom of a lot of lists: infant mortality, joblessness, male incarceration. You can only talk about the divisiveness between our community and others for so long. It takes a stronger community to mend divisions.

I single my dad out because he helped me see another side. You see, my dad, Ron Johnson, was an activist in the city — creating restorative justice programs, youth basketball leagues and a father-son retreat, Camp Xhongo, works that still shine today even after he passed in 2021. He was respected for his ideals and praised for his creativity in bringing people together. How could I be like that?

Well, it wasn’t the path I took initially. Upon graduation in 2019, I left Marquette with an engineering degree and worked on projects like the Summerfest amphitheater and Milwaukee Youth Arts Center for a local construction firm. Accomplished? Yes. Fulfilled? Not the way I wanted to be.

I wanted to create community, to provide that embrace. That’s what led me to become a manager at Coffee Makes You Black.

There’s an African proverb: “The child who is not embraced by the village will burn it down to feel its warmth.” I wanted to create community, to provide that embrace. That’s what led me to become a manager at Coffee Makes You Black, a coffee shop and community gathering place owned by my father’s best friend, Bradley Thurman.

Being there every day, face-to-face with the community, reinvigorated the passion my parents instilled in me. That’s when I saw an opportunity to combine my education with this work, too. I found my way back to Marquette for the ACRE Program, which taught me about commercial real estate. Housing is a major issue in my and many communities.

So, I want to dedicate my life to developing buildings, homes and communities with sustainable, affordable practices. That starts in the 53206. I’m working on a housing project with the Wisconsin Black Chamber of Commerce. Doing this, managing the coffee shop and taking over Camp Xhongo keeps me working seven days a week. But it’s not work.

Don’t get me wrong; it’s a lot. Yet, to be able to take the knowledge I’ve learned, grow it and reapply it right where I grew up, it’s a blessing. I try to be the example that I needed.

Photo by Mike Miller