Last updated on July 27th, 2020 at 12:48 pm
As protests decrying racism and police brutality gained momentum across the country, in response to the death of George Floyd, Milwaukee’s central city entrepreneurial hub Sherman Phoenix found itself at the center of ongoing conversations around racial equity in one of the nation’s most segregated cities.
As civil unrest continued, the hub fielded hundreds of calls from area companies, community leaders and local philanthropists asking what they could do and how they could help advance the movement toward social change.
Those exchanges gave Sherman Phoenix the push to bolster existing resources and efforts around racial equity by launching its own nonprofit organization, known as the Sherman Phoenix Racial Inclusion & Social Equity (RISE) Alliance.
The goal of the RISE Alliance is to provide advancement opportunities and support for young leaders of color, while working with the corporate sector to build a more diverse workforce through inclusion training and strategy development.
“We’ve informally been this hub that has been a reflection, not just a possibility, of the work that is required to ensure there’s racial inclusion and social equity,” said Sherman Phoenix co-developer JoAnne Johnson-Sabir. “This movement really amplified and set up a faster cadence to really solidify how we become the hub in community around these issues.”
Sherman Phoenix, and the cohort of black-owned local businesses that fill the 28,000-square-foot building at 3536 W. Fond du Lac Ave., are all too familiar with the fight against racial injustice Milwaukee.
The hub, itself, was born from violent protests that erupted in Sherman Park after police fatally shot 23-year-old black man Sylville Smith in 2016. Two years later, the $3.5 million Sherman Phoenix redevelopment project gave new life to a BMO Harris Bank branch building burned during the civil unrest.
Today, Sherman Phoenix houses 27 tenants– including a yoga studio, cafe, barber shop and wellness boutique– that, like most small businesses across the country, have been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Despite losing tens of thousands of dollars in sales and laying off staff, all of the Sherman Phoenix tenants remain in business and many have found ways to pivot, thanks in part, to upwards of $150,000 in local donations that provided tenants with three months of rent relief, among other resources.
“We’re now in this interesting space between surviving and thriving,” said Johnson-Sabir. “We still have funds to raise because our model is going to look a little different.”
Sherman Phoenix is seeking an additional $150,000 to launch its RISE Alliance, which includes hiring an executive director and expanding several existing diversity and inclusion programs such the AmFam STEAM & Dream Lab.
Last year, Madison-based American Family Insurance donated $50,000 to establish the science, technology, engineering, arts and math program to expose K-12 students and young adults to careers in those fields. When the pandemic hit, Sherman Phoenix and AmFam distributed 500 laptops so students could continue the program virtually.
The goal, Johnson-Sabir said, would be to replicate the STEAM & Dream program model and grow it across the state, and possibly across the country.
While the RISE Alliance needs the support and participation of corporate leaders and allies, its mission will ultimately be carried out by the community it serves, said Johnson-Sabir.
The hope is also to shift the conversation around workplace diversity and inclusion from the usual focal points of white allyship and corporate stewardship to the holistic needs of diverse employees.
“We’re going to use the RISE platform to bring together our constant experts in the space around mental health, around corporate stewardship,” Johnson-Sabir said. “Thinking about the moniker of diversity and inclusion, how can we own this space? It’s a good thing that these conversations are happening, but we really want to rest with the expertise of our residence and people of color.”
Sherman Phoenix’s RISE Alliance isn’t the only local effort D&I effort underfoot. Last year, the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce unveiled a new initiative with goals of increasing diverse management by 25% and diverse employment by 15% in the Milwaukee region by 2025. As of May, 95 companies representing more than 140,000 employees have signed the Region of Choice pledge.