Nonprofit Excellence Awards panel discusses city’s racial, socioeconomic issues

Abele suggests city leaders make dramatic policy changes for municipal court system

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At the Biztimes Nonprofit Excellence Awards breakfast Thursday morning, Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele, participating in a candid discussion on racial disparities and deeply-seeded socioeconomic barriers plaguing residents of Milwaukee’s low-income neighborhoods, suggested the city make dramatic policy changes to the Milwaukee Municipal Court System.

Milwaukee College Prep Principal Michael Morgan speaks during a panel discussion on racial and economic problems in Milwaukee.
Milwaukee College Prep Principal Michael Morgan speaks during a panel discussion on racial and economic problems in Milwaukee.

The Municipal Court System falls under the control of city government, rather than county government.

Abele was a member of a four-person panel of community leaders who spoke at the event, held at Potawatomi Hotel & Casino, that included Milwaukee County Director of Health and Human Services Hector Colon, Principal of Milwaukee College Prep Michael Morgan and Milwaukee Jobswork President Bill Krugler.

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The panel members answered questions and offered their thoughts on how community leaders could immediately address frustrations regarding long-standing 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.

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 dis-empowers 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.

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“The cost of the DA, 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.'”

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Noting that the audience at the event Thursday morning 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?'”

Here’s a video of the panel discussion at event, which is also available on the BizTimes multimedia page:

The panel discussion preceded the 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.

The 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 of the Year
  • Joe Schmidt of Trane co., Next Generation Leadership Award
  • 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.

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