Partnership MKE helps business, community leaders break down bias

Leadership Development


Milton Cockroft and Andrew Meerkins plan to catch a Milwaukee Bucks game in the next few weeks to get to know one another better.

Cockroft leads a nonprofit he founded to help low-income students prepare for college and careers. Meerkins is an attorney in downtown Milwaukee. Cockroft is in his 50s, the father of adult children. Meerkins is in his early 30s, the father of three young children.

Cockroft is black. Meerkins is white.

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Andrew Meerkins, associate and litigation lawyer with Foley & Lardner LLP, and Milton Cockroft, executive director of Pathways Milwaukee Inc., at the Partnership MKE kickoff.

Their professional and social circles might not have otherwise intersected, but the two men have been paired together to build an intentional friendship over the next eight months.

Meerkins, an associate and litigation lawyer with Foley & Lardner LLP, and Cockcroft, executive director of Pathways Milwaukee, are among the community and business leaders participating in a new initiative called Partnership MKE.

The eight-month program, spearheaded by United Way of Greater Milwaukee & Waukesha County in partnership with the Milwaukee Jewish Federation, is taking participants through a leadership development program and curriculum. Its monthly workshops touch on a variety of issues, including race, gender, sexual orientation, religion and ableism, designed with the lens of eradicating intolerance and
prejudice, while creating a safe space to wrestle with those sticky subjects.

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Outside of the workshops, participants meet up with their partners for a casual meal, a cup of coffee or other social outings to build a relationship with one another and discuss what they are learning.

Cockroft said a desire to make actual substantive change in the community motivated him to join the program.

“You try to figure out what’s actually making a difference and an impact; how do you move the needle on education, racism, poverty? How do you make an impact?” he asked. “The concept of pairing people from different walks of life to get to know one another, I thought it was a great opportunity to do something that could make a difference and move the needle.”

Partnership MKE builds on the model of The Mosaic Project, a program that was led by the Milwaukee Jewish Federation and produced more than 600 alumni during its decade-long run, which ended in 2010.

This iteration of the program was born out of the coalescence of several incidents in the city, including civil unrest in Sherman Park and the anti-Semitic threats made against the Harry and Rose Samson Jewish Community Center in Whitefish Bay, said Joel Peterson, manager of diversity development and community engagement at United Way of Greater Milwaukee & Waukesha County.

“There was a lot brewing at the time,” he said. “And we thought with all the unrest in the city, this is, unfortunately, a great time to have the city intentionally wrestle with the tension that is here … If we don’t address it, if we don’t create a space where people can talk about it, then we’re going to keep going with the same rhetoric where we talk about the issues but nothing is really done.”

United Way launched the program in August. Participants represent a variety of corporations and nonprofit organizations. The hope is that participants – many of them decision makers in their workplaces – will leave with more empathy and a better understanding of how to address biases, which could create a ripple effect in the city.

Peterson recognized that most people likely have already gone through diversity training in the workplace. To take it a step farther, the experience had to be relational, he said.

“Partnership MKE gives information, but it also gives you a partner who is different from you,” he said. “On a one-on-one level, you can discover your blind spots. Bias has to be addressed on a one-on-one level.”

LaShawndra Vernon, executive director of Artists Working in Education, and Linda Benfield, managing partner of the Milwaukee office of Foley & Lardner LLP, at the Partnership MKE kick-off.

To pair partners, organizers used an algorithm developed by Brookfield-based SysLogic Inc. that considered participants’ answers to a survey regarding their personal political beliefs, backgrounds and religious affiliations. They were ultimately matched with people from whom they were the most dissimilar.

“It was like eharmony, but backwards,” Peterson said. “We have mechanisms in our brains that make us comfortable to look at and talk with people who are similar to us.”

Mara Duckens, executive director of St. Francis Children’s Center, joined the program to grow as a leader. She said she wants to learn how to create a safe environment for her team members, in which everyone’s ideas are respected. As a mother, she also wants to pass on what she has learned to her daughter.  

“The idea of reflecting on one’s own biases is a very powerful thing,” Duckens said. “And it seems that it is especially important in the times in which we’re living. There seems to be so much anger and vitriol around differences in beliefs and divergent perspectives.”

As a nursing talent liaison for Aurora Health Care, Erika Colón is focused on developing a diverse pipeline of talent throughout the health care system. She views the work of addressing her own biases, while also developing as a leader, as integral to her job.

“I want to be a more well-rounded and fair and good leader,” she said. “I want to be a better leader to the people on my team, to understand them better and consider everything they bring to the table.”

Wisconsin State Rep. David Crowley and Angela Quigley, co-owner of wedding vendor guide and blog Married in Milwaukee, both grew up in Milwaukee. Aside from that, Crowley, a black male politician, and Quigley, a white female business owner, have had very different upbringings and life experiences.

Those differences have come out in the pair’s monthly meetings. But Crowley and Quigley have also learned more about where they come from, how they have come to believe the things they do, and how those beliefs have changed over the years.

“Having a confidential space to talk about the thoughts that are deep in the corner of your brain with someone who is different from you – those are the ways to overcome bias,” Quigley said. “And that’s not something that will happen from reading a Facebook post. It’s sitting down with someone face-to-face, saying those things that you may be scared to say. Saying them out loud can really cause you to reflect that maybe I’m not right; maybe I do need to work through this.”

Quigley said she has been challenged to confront her own biases, while Crowley said he was challenged when he learned about different viewpoints on sexism and gender norms.

These topics are uncomfortable. But, Crowley said, becoming uncomfortable is all part of the process if it serves a larger goal of building bridges.

“There are conversations that we try to run away from,” he said. “But you can’t necessarily look at confrontation as a bad thing. At some point, if we want to come to a place of acceptance, we’ll have some backlash because we’re getting to the point of understanding.”

The tone in the room is a refreshing departure from what often occurs in online discussions, said Lisa Valenti-Jordan, an associate and intellectual property attorney with Foley & Lardner.

“Having people there who want to talk about difficult issues, I think, is one of the most important things we can do right now,” Valenti-Jordan said. “We’re polarized because we’re unwilling to talk about it. We think, ‘I know what I know and I am right.’ That is just so hopeless to me. But there is hope in conversation and in a willingness to meet and try and maybe be offended. But I think you get a lot more grace in a situation where everyone is willing to be there.”

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