Foundations convene to discuss city’s economic and social issues

Groups look to Baltimore, St. Louis for ideas on how to lift impoverished communities after violent protests

A gas station is seen burned down after disturbances following the police shooting of a man in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, U.S. August 14, 2016. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein

A group of Milwaukee’s largest foundations and philanthropic organizations gathered at the offices of the Milwaukee Bucks Foundation on Tuesday afternoon to brainstorm ideas on fixing the deeply-seeded economic and social issues on the city’s northwest side that gave rise to recent violence in the city’s Sherman Park neighborhood.

According to those who attended the meeting, several ideas to address issues in the central city, including the possibility of pooling resources, were discussed, but no concrete steps toward collaboration were taken.

A gas station is seen burned down after disturbances following the police shooting of a man in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, U.S. August 14, 2016. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein
A BP gas station is seen burned down after disturbances following the police shooting of a man in Milwaukee. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein

Among those in attendance were representatives from the Greater Milwaukee Foundation, Bader Philanthropies, the Zilber Family Foundation, the Greater Milwaukee Committee, the Burke Foundation, the United Way of Greater Milwaukee & Waukesha County, and the Brewers Community Foundation. Public officials and representatives from several community organizations on the northwest side were also in attendance.

“There was agreement that there needs to be some coordination and alignment to address the unrest, but I think it was a bit mixed in how we approach that,” said Jerry Roberts, program officer at Bader Philanthropies. “There’s urgency into what needs to happen, but there also has to be intentionality in the efforts. We have to really look at and listen to the community.”

Eight businesses on the north side of Milwaukee were either destroyed or damaged by fires Saturday night as violence erupted following an officer-involved shooting that left a 23-year-old man named Sylville K. Smith dead.

The violence continued on Sunday night, prompting Mayor Tom Barrett to enforce a strict 10 p.m. curfew for youth in the area in an attempt to quell the unrest.

Roberts said he and representatives from other organizations around Milwaukee are reaching out to peer organizations in cities like Baltimore and St. Louis that have experienced similar eruptions of violent protests in their poorest neighborhoods in recent years to see what they have learned and how they have begun addressing similar issues in their communities.

He said that the community needs to avoid politicizing the issue and rid itself of the notion that Milwaukee is different than other cities that have experienced similar violence.

“Milwaukee’s not different,” Roberts said. “Milwaukee had buildings that burned and police in riot gear. It’s the same thing that happened in Ferguson (Missouri) and Baltimore. We’re not unique. We have poverty and crime and issues like other cities. How can we learn from what other cities have done, or are trying to do, as a starting point?”

A Milwaukee Bucks spokesperson issued the following statement through email on Tuesday night following the meeting: “This is our home and we are invested in creating a brighter future for all of our community. Given the deep-seated issues of inequality in our city, no one organization is able to tackle it alone. We appreciate the opportunity to have this discussion and work with partners and influential voices in Milwaukee. Together, we will continue to leverage our resources towards initiatives and partnerships aimed at meaningful, lasting change for the community.”

Ellen Gilligan, president and chief executive officer of the Greater Milwaukee Foundation, said that though a second meeting of the organizations has not been formally set, Milwaukee’s foundations and philanthropic organizations are in “constant communication” on a daily basis about programs and initiatives in the area.

“I’ve probably had six different conversations about this since the meeting,” Gilligan said on Wednesday morning.

Many organizations around town are already deeply involved in communities such as Sherman Park on the northwest side, but the days of violence that erupted over the weekend have added a new sense of urgency to their efforts, she said.

Economic disinvestment and lack of employment opportunities have plagued the area for years, she said, however, “there are people who are living in these neighborhoods who are getting up every day and going to work and sending their kids to school and living a productive life, and we really need to engage all voices and residents and business owners in those neighborhoods in developing any strategies or solutions that we might invest in. Having the residents at the table, in the discussions, making the decisions is critically important part.”

The organizations that attended the meeting were enthusiastic about reconvening soon for future discussions, Roberts said.

“Milwaukee is a city that likes to plan, and we don’t have time to plan,” he said. “I’m hopeful, I’m really hopeful, that we’ll be able to work in partnership with our nonprofit organizations, with the city government, county government; whatever it takes.

“Folks are in crisis mode,” Roberts continued. “The cleanups were great, in my opinion, and they showed a great sense of community coming together, but when the cleanup crews left, families are still there and they still have to deal with what happened in their neighborhood and on their block the day before.”

Reggie Moore, director of the Milwaukee Office of Violence Prevention, organized the meeting on Wednesday. Moore did not return multiple calls seeking comment.

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Ben Stanley
Ben Stanley, former BizTimes Milwaukee reporter.