Scaling Wellness in Milwaukee plans nonprofit hub on city’s near west side

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The organizers of a Milwaukee-based initiative aimed at increasing awareness of trauma and supporting trauma-informed work in the community plan to develop a collaborative hub for nine nonprofits on the city’s near west side. 

Scaling Wellness in Milwaukee (SWIM) launched in 2018 as a coalition of local nonprofit leaders, public officials, academics, social workers, health care professionals and other stakeholders to address the issue of generational trauma in Milwaukee. For the past two years, the group, which recently received its nonprofit status, has worked to bring attention to research that indicates trauma – a term used to describe a high-stress psychological response to an adverse experience – is a root cause of disparity in many cities, including Milwaukee. 

SWIM now plans to build a hub to support the organizations that are working to help those who have experienced trauma in the community. 

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The SWIM Hub is envisioned as an 11,000-square-foot building, from which the partnering community-based organizations would have access to legal, accounting, grant writing and other services. It would also include space for them to host events for donors, community gatherings, and trauma and resilience training. 

The goal is to help the small organizations scale and increase their impact in Milwaukee, said Amy Lovell, a co-founder of REDgen and a member of SWIM’s steering committee.

“It’s about giving these community leaders who are working tirelessly, to give them the space they deserve,” Lovell said. “If you have a small nonprofit – and I say this from starting one – you don’t have the budget to hold a fundraising event or to hold a training. … So if we build this space, now what they have is a space that is equitable. They have this space for all the work they’re doing.”

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The group has worked with Milwaukee developer Juli Kaufmann to identify a location for the development on the city’s near west side, but has not yet disclosed the site.

Frank Cumberbatch, vice president of engagement for Bader Philanthropies and a member of SWIM’s steering committee, said SWIM’s partnering community-based organizations are doing difficult and taxing work, but are often overlooked. 

“These are very passionate people, people who put their lives at risk every single day,” Cumberbatch said. “And this statement might be controversial, but they seem to be a group of folks that nobody seems to care about. But we recognize their importance to the city and to the community, so we will provide those resources like space and knowledge for them to develop.” 

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The hub also will provide wellness services to address the second-hand trauma experienced by service workers. 

“The idea is to ‘heal the healer’ so they can pour out and help the community,” said Lovell. “… There are a lot of nonprofit centers out there, but there aren’t many that are doing the self-care piece.”  

SWIM is preparing to launch a fundraising effort for the project. It has yet not finalized cost estimates.

The organization also plans to hire an executive director to oversee the facility and bring on a board of directors, Lovell said. 

In the meantime, the organization is working on a rebranding effort with the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design to better communicate its mission. 

“We’re working to maybe rebrand, recognizing that ‘SWIM’ doesn’t actually tell the story of who we are,” Lovell said. 

SWIM has evolved over the past two years since its launch in January 2018 by Amy and her husband, Marquette University president Michael Lovell. In the beginning, SWIM convened a series of meetings with representatives from hundreds of local organizations to discuss strategies to address the issue of trauma. The group partnered in the fall of 2018 with Milwaukee-based nonprofit SaintA to host a conference on trauma at Fiserv Forum, an event that drew 1,500 attendees, leading national trauma experts and a personal video message from Oprah Winfrey. 

Since then, SWIM has worked with consultant NATAL, an organization that provides treatment and support to victims of trauma in Israel, to help steer its path forward. Bader Philanthropies, which has financially supported SWIM since its inception and provides ongoing funding for organizations in Israel, brokered the introduction to NATAL. 

NATAL held about 40 meetings in Milwaukee to seek community input on the initiative. Out of those meetings, SWIM began building relationships with its nine partnering community-based organizations.  

“It was a lot of listening to needs, challenges, what’s already in place and the problems,” Lovell said. “They (NATAL) were fantastic at providing a space safe for people to share.” 

Those conversations helped SWIM leaders narrow their focus, Cumberbatch said. The group determined that the organization would focus on supporting – not competing with – existing organizations working to address trauma. 

“We concluded that SWIM in itself is not going to be another nonprofit in the community trying to end trauma,” he said. “We are going to function as a hub … a facilitator of what are the needs of the ecosystem that must be satisfied in order for the whole environment to improve.” 

The COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated existing challenges in Milwaukee, particularly in communities of color, including food insecurity, joblessness and the digital divide, Cumberbatch said. But it’s also served to raise awareness of the devastation of trauma on the community, he said. 

“I say to the team just about every day: SWIM has become more important than we ever could have imagined,” he said. “… We were working on this when the greater community paid no attention to it, but we knew the importance. It saddens me to think that it took a virus, a pandemic, a man putting his knee on another man’s neck and killing him on TV to bring attention to trauma in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, blocks away from where people go to work and where people entertain.”

“Now we’re really glad that the greater community recognizes that, yeah, we have systemic racism in Milwaukee … that African American boys are under siege,” he added. “We didn’t want it to be this way, but if that’s what it took to get people’s attention then so be it and now let’s get on with the work.”

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