A Clear Solution

    Milwaukee may once have been known as the beer capital of the world, but Muhammad Mahdi is on a mission to put the city on the map for a simpler form of refreshment—water.

    The former teacher and nurse’s BKlear water that comes in aluminum bottles aims to improve health and help save the planet. The added alkaline is intended to counter people’s exposure to toxins in the environment, in the air and in some of the food they eat by restoring the chemical balance in their bodies, while the recyclable containers reduce waste.

    In addition, Mahdi’s remarkable story of overcoming difficult circumstances and deciding to make a positive difference offers inspiration to others who want to play a part in changing the world for the better.

    While he is now widely recognized as a role model for his community involvement, there was a time when Mahdi seemed more likely to become known for less welcome activities. Growing up in chaotic circumstances, he witnessed his first murder at just eight years of age and was caught up in crime and violence.

    A wakeup call came one night when he found himself in a shootout, through circumstances he chooses to gloss over. “It wasn’t like the movies,” is all he will say. “My heart was pumping; my feet were heavy. I was sweating. I was telling myself this was a graduation from fighting; now it’s going to be life or death. And as much as I had this idea of, ‘Yo, I’m gonna die young anyway; YOLO, it don’t matter,’ at that time it became real.

    “It’s not that I didn’t have run-ins before. I had seen some of my friends killed and all that stuff, but now it was happening to me.”

    Be clear with your intentions. Be clear with your path.

    Choosing to change
    Mahdi escaped from that incident with a bullet wound in his hand and a graze to his back. When he saw his pregnant girlfriend after this incident, he felt their baby kick. He had always wanted to have a son because he wanted to leave something behind, but he realized all he had was a name. “And I said, ‘Hell, I ain’t going, because when he is born, he is going to call somebody else Daddy.’ And that was the start of the change.”

    Today that son is Amaru, a teenager who helps his divorced father run BKlear along with his two younger siblings; Mahdi (who is also an Air Force vet) wanted the endeavor to be a family affair. The children assist in boxing and shipping the water, for which a monthly family subscription of 60 bottles costs $99.99.

    Milwaukee-area deliveries are made free. BKlear has been endorsed by some Milwaukee-area businesses and the company has sponsored Olympic Gold medalist sprinter English Gardner, whose image can be seen on the business’s distinctive containers.

    Escaping serious injury in that street-life shooting set Mahdi on a different course. He became an early education teacher for a time before going into nursing, a move prompted by the struggle of caring for his great-grandmother at the end of her life. “I said that if anybody in my family was going to be in this position again, I was not going to feel helpless, but I was going to be able to be the provider.”

    Graduating from Bryant & Stratton College in Milwaukee, he worked in nursing for about a decade. During that time, he became more and more aware of the importance of encouraging good nutrition. “A lot of the illnesses I saw come through were from the food we put in our mouths, the drinks we put in our mouths.” Then came “an epiphany” in August 2020, when he woke up in the middle of the night. “I felt like I was drowning. I was in complete sweat.”

    Mahdi simply knew that he needed to focus on providing health-enhancing water for others, and with that “crossroads moment” of certainty came the brand’s name: BKlear. “Do it right,” he says. “Be clear, right? Be clear with your intentions. Be clear with your path.”

    Water had always been important to him, he says, as “the only place I found peace in all of my chaotic life. I could not sleep unless I had a soundtrack of water. Any big decision I’ve ever made, including this of leaving my job, I went and I sat by water.”

    Searching for identity
    Mahdi got sucked into street life after his parents’ divorce. “That’s where everything was happening,” he explains of the lure. “That’s where I learned, this is where men do and say what they want, go where they please and can’t nobody tell them anything.” It appealed to what he now recognizes as the toxic masculinity he saw being modeled.

    “It was a bunch of people not knowing what it meant to be a man, teaching everybody how to be a man,” he says. “I didn’t know what a Black man was supposed to be. I didn’t know what a male was supposed to be. I didn’t know what a son was supposed to do.”

    That lack of clear identity was compounded by other experiences. Bussed from “the heart of the hood” in Boston to a predominantly white school in Bedford, Mahdi and his siblings were “the poor little Black kids that looked like the token people.” They stood out in their hand-me-down clothes and for the free lunches they received. Then they’d be teased when they got back home.

    “So, I had to kind of assert myself with what I felt like was going to give me some respect,” he says. “Sports wasn’t it… I didn’t have anything else at the time other than my hands. Because my father taught us that a man is only going to get through life by working and fighting, he’s gonna have to fight for everything he wants and work for everything he wants. Well, I knew how to fight.”

    Though his childhood and younger years were tough, Mahdi also absorbed positive values from both his parents. From his mom, who always had a hug for everyone, he learned selflessness. “Everybody who’s ever met my mother, they love her… she has such a loving spirit,” he says. She worked two jobs to provide and opened her home to everyone. “So we were in two bedrooms with about nine or 10 people,” Mahdi recalls. “That was my cousins, my siblings, my mother, my grandmother, and of course they got the rooms, so we got the floor.”

    His father was very focused—kept in shape, ate well, didn’t watch television—and instilled discipline and hard work. “A Saturday morning wasn’t like some kids’—eat cereal and watch TV. We were waking up before the sun rolls to go outside in these fields and pick up rocks and sticks in the dark—and with the fear of, if I run this lawnmower over a rock or stick and it messes up my blade, ‘I’m gonna tear y’all up.’”

    Still widely known as “Nurse Mahdi” despite leaving the health industry to pursue BKlear full-time, he sees well-meaning behind his father’s toughness. “I know in his mind he was saying, ‘I’m teaching them how to be young Black men that are going to have to be disciplined and hardworking.’ But as a child, all I saw was, ‘He hates me.’” Mahdi traces his father’s toughness back to his own childhood; Mahdi’s grandfather was killed on a construction site by some white supremacists, he says. “So, everything [my father] learned about being a man was with aggression.”

    For his part, Mahdi wants to “be a superhero in my kids’ lives.”

    I never had a mentor. I think that I displayed so much anger and lack of respect for authority that nobody wanted to deal with me. But I’ve always had people look at me and say like, “You’re better than this… there’s more to you.” So there have been people in my journey that have dropped nuggets in me that I can pull back from now as an adult.

    Growing up, I probably wasted so much time because I didn’t know how to ask for help. I didn’t know how to ask for mentorship. If anyone can actually provide mentorship for me on this journey, or guidance, or any type of introspective, I would very much appreciate it and be humble enough to accept it with no pride and no resistance to authority.

    From an interview with Louis Carr

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