At the BizTimes Nonprofit Excellence Awards breakfast on Nov. 3, a four-person panel of community leaders engaged in a candid discussion of racial disparities and deep-seated socioeconomic barriers plaguing residents of Milwaukee’s low-income neighborhoods.
The panel included Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele; Hector Colon, director of Milwaukee County Health and Human Services; Michael Morgan, principal of Milwaukee College Prep: Lola Rowe North Campus; and Bill Krugler, president of Milwaukee JobsWork. Kimberly Kane, president of Kane Communications Group, moderated this discussion.
The participants answered questions and offered their thoughts on how community leaders could immediately address frustrations regarding longstanding racial and economic problems on the northwest side that boiled over in August, leading to multiple days of unrest in the city’s Sherman Park neighborhood that, at times, turned violent.
The discussion immediately preceded the annual BizTimes Nonprofit Excellence Awards ceremony, which honors reader-nominated corporate citizens and nonprofits for their ongoing commitment to making southeastern Wisconsin a better place to live, work and play.
Though much of what the panel members touched on has been discussed at length in media reports and speeches made by local politicians since the protests erupted in the Sherman Park neighborhood – including the city’s lingering segregation problems and deep educational and economic disparities between white and minority citizens – the conversation on Nov. 3 shed new light on possible solutions and offered fresh insight into some of the city’s most glaring problems.
Abele suggested the city make dramatic policy changes to the Milwaukee Municipal Court system as a way to immediately improve the quality of life of residents living in the city’s poorest neighborhoods.
The Municipal Court system falls under the control of city government, rather than county government.
But changing city policy to dramatically reduce or eliminate incarcerations for people who are late paying fines for traffic violations and other misdemeanors or low-level crimes is “the place where I think there’s potentially the highest return impact in the short run here,” Abele said.
“I’ll bet we can all agree that nobody, not a single person, should do a day behind bars for something that starts as a traffic violation,” he said. “In addition to the fact that it’s a massive waste of money, it is morally wrong and disempowers people and there’s a lot of alternative models. But when a municipal court – if someone’s late on a fine, the moment they issue a warrant and somebody’s detained even for a pretrial, if they have a job, they often lose the job. If they have a warrant or any kind of record, it is immediately harder for them to get back into the workforce.
“The cost of the (district attorney), the public defender and everything else on the county budget side is orders of magnitude more than whatever revenue they’re getting. I’ve jokingly suggested to some of my friends in the city, ‘I’ll give you the money back just to not do this.’”
Morgan delivered a stirring account during the discussion of his personal experience as a young black man moving from high school to college in the Milwaukee area.
“I went to Milwaukee Madison High School,” he said. “I graduated in 2001, and it was a predominantly African-American student body when I graduated: 97 percent African-American population. Then I went to Carthage College down in Kenosha. It’s a liberal arts school, probably 90 percent Caucasian population. When I walked into my first classroom for my first day in college…my first experience, I was really overwhelmed and I felt really inadequate in that first class. I vividly remember the first question that was asked, and feeling like I knew the answer, but in fear of embarrassment, not raising my hand and then watching one of my peers raise their hand and give the same answer that I knew was the correct answer, and feeling like, ‘Wow, I wonder if what I had been taught for the last four years has me feeling as though I’m not able to compete with people of different races.’”
Noting that the audience at the Nonprofit Excellence event was predominantly white, Morgan continued:
“This is probably the second time I’ve been this nervous walking into this type of setting. It reminded me of that experience when I left high school and went to college … I think that we’re having a lot of healthy conversation that may be somewhat over the top around, ‘What’s the underlying issues?’ For me it gets back to: we have race issues, we have segregation issues and we have poverty issues. We talk about employment addressing some of those issues and we talk about access to health care and things like that. But you have a lot of very angry people. Angry young people who are frustrated with angry parents who are frustrated. And I think we really need to have an honest and open conversation around the ‘why’ and be very honest about that. So we can say, ‘Now what? What can we do about it?’”
Krugler, who focuses on workforce development issues, made an appeal directly to business leaders in the crowd.
“For the business people out there, I feel like I represent you and I’d ask you to get engaged,” Krugler said. “You can’t sit on the sidelines anymore on this. If you’re out in the suburbs, you have aging workforces. You’re going to wake up someday and not know where you’re going to get your next people to hire from. You’ve got a big pool of people in the city that right now aren’t ready to go out and work. You need to get engaged.”
Colon hinted that changing attitudes toward Milwaukee citizens who have felony convictions on their record could improve local economic conditions.
“There are so many individuals that have a felony, and we have a very unforgiving society,” he said. “Many of these individuals have no other options but to engage in negative activities in order to provide for themselves or their families. This is a big problem we face as a state and it’s something that I think we all need to work (on) collectively and will require some law changes. (We need) to have a society that’s more forgiving and allows individuals an opportunity to succeed.”
To watch the hour-long panel discussion in its entirety, visit the Biztimes.com Multimedia page.
The Nonprofit Excellence Awards winners were:
- BMO Harris Bank, Corporate Citizen of the Year
- Megan Shannon of Reinhart Boerner Van Deuren S.C., Corporate Volunteer of the Year
- Cramer-Krasselt, In-Kind Supporter
- Joe Schmidt of Trane co., Next Generation Leadership
- St. Ann Center for Intergenerational Care, Nonprofit Collaboration of the Year
- John Cary of the MACC Fund, Nonprofit Executive of the Year
- St. Coletta of Wisconsin, Nonprofit of the Year (Large)
- Community Warehouse Inc., Nonprofit of the Year (Small)
- Homeless Assistance Leadership Organization Inc. (HALO), Social Enterprise of the Year
More than 350 people attended the third annual Nonprofit Excellence Awards program.