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For the past 15 years, TRUE Skool, a nonprofit organization based in downtown Milwaukee, has provided in-school and after-school programs, using hip-hop culture, public art projects, music and other tools to engage with students.
The small, community-based organization doesn’t benefit from the backing of a large family foundation or dedicated major funder; instead, like many other nonprofits of its size, it leans on individual grants and earned revenue to sustain its operations.
“We are a small organization,” said Fidel Verdin, co-director of TRUE Skool. “We’re not an institutional organization. And, quite frankly, we’re not ran and led by white people. We have a movement that is focused with a laser beam on using the most phenomenal and influential culture on the planet today – hip-hop – to make a positive collective impact on our society. Some people may resonate with that. … Some people may not.”
TRUE Skool is the kind of organization that does important on-the-ground work but can be overlooked by funders, according to the organizers of Scaling Wellness in Milwaukee (SWIM).
SWIM, an initiative aimed at increasing awareness of trauma and supporting trauma-informed work in the community, is now laying the groundwork to develop a collaborative hub for nine nonprofits, including TRUE Skool, on the city’s near west side to provide access to legal, accounting, grant writing and other services. The 11,000-square-foot building is planned to include space for the organizations to host events for donors, community gatherings, and trauma and resilience trainings, while also providing 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 Amy Lovell, a co-founder of REDgen and a member of SWIM’s steering committee. “… There are a lot of nonprofit centers out there, but there aren’t many that are doing the self-care piece.”
SWIM has worked with Milwaukee developer Juli Kaufmann to identify a location for the development, but has not yet disclosed the site.
The goal is to help small organizations – including those working in fields such as mental health and wellness, foster care support and anti-trafficking work – scale and increase their impact in Milwaukee, Lovell said.
“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.”
“These are very passionate people, people who put their lives at risk every single day,” added Frank Cumberbatch, vice president of engagement for Bader Philanthropies and a member of SWIM’s steering committee. “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.”
Spearheaded by Amy Lovell and her husband, Marquette University president Michael Lovell, 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.
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.”
TRUE Skool co-director Shalina S. Ali sees the hub as a way to “even the playing field” and increase collaboration among community-based organizations.
“When we have organizations that are doing really great work but the resources are limited, it hinders our ability – and not just ours but everybody’s – to be able to connect because we’re struggling to get these small grants and add them up to something that creates some sort of sustainability,” she said.
While TRUE Skool may not carry the same level of name or donor recognition as other larger Milwaukee nonprofit organizations, affiliating with SWIM offers “huge amplification” of the work it is already doing, Verdin said. And getting the word out to wider audiences – such as corporations and universities – is important, as its programming is aimed at developing a pipeline of creative talent who choose to stay in the city.
“We really look at this as an opportunity to say, how can we be better valued in this space and in this market as a business and as a creative incubator for talent so that hopefully our young professionals from the community don’t feel like they have to go elsewhere,” Verdin said.
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.”
SWIM is preparing to launch a fundraising effort for the hub 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.