On May 29, an overflow crowd of 700 packed the Alliant Energy Center to celebrate a new framework created by a coalition of leading African-Americans to attack racial disparities in Madison.
On hand that evening were nearly all of Madison’s most prominent African-Americans, a who’s who from religion, business, education, social welfare and politics.
And, as I described at the time, Madison’s white-dominated power structure was also out in force – the mayor, school superintendent and police chief, City Council and Madison School Board members, the head of the chamber of commerce and many of the city’s top business executives, professors, and nonprofit leaders.
Also in attendance, importantly, were hundreds of other Madisonians, black and white, who sacrificed a gorgeous weekend evening to come inside.
Now four months – the entire summer – have passed, and the coalition’s work since that night has been off-stage, literally and figuratively. So it seems like a good time to catch up and look ahead.
The biggest news from coalition leaders is that they have decided to focus their initial efforts on the Meadowood neighborhood, a troubled area on Madison’s southwest side.
The Rev. Alex Gee, senior pastor of Fountain of Life Covenant Church on Madison’s south side and the leader of the movement, explained the reasoning in an interview at his Badger Road office.
“The idea of being focused in that geographical area helps move away from what could be perceived as a diluted effect by trying to address the entire city of Madison” at once, said Gee.
“By focusing it in an area, (we can) learn so that we can then begin to move it to Allied Drive, move it to Darbo-Worthington, move it to Wexford, move it to south Madison, and then really see the multiplier effect,” added Gee, referring to other Madison neighborhoods with concentrations of relatively low-income African-Americans.
It was Gee’s essay in the Cap Times in 2013, headlined “Justified Anger,” about his personal experience with racial profiling and other racial issues in Madison, that launched the movement. The coalition chose to take that headline as its name. Earlier in 2013 saw the release of the “Race to Equity” report, a study by the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families that revealed alarming metrics about black-white disparities in the city.
Gee said Meadowood is a good choice for initial focus because issues there have appeared comparatively recently and, importantly, because the geography of the area can be easily understood.
“If you say ‘south Madison,’” Gee said, “you have a general sense of where that is, but don’t know the boundaries.” If you mention Meadowood, he added, most people are talking about an area bordered by Schroeder Road or Hammersley Road on the north, Verona Road on the east, Elver Park on the west, and King James Way or Williamsburg Way on the south.
Gee added, “So we can think through that area, we can identify the churches, the businesses, the banks and the schools.”
Meadowood began more than 50 years ago as a neighborhood dominated by ranch homes along tree-lined streets, but it has increasingly experienced crime and other urban problems in recent years, especially in areas of inexpensive apartments. A recent Wisconsin State Journal analysis showed the region has a comparatively high concentration of arrests of African-Americans.
Justified Anger coalition leaders settled on Meadowood in their in-depth planning session in August, said Karen Reece, director of research and program evaluation for the Nehemiah Center for Urban Leadership, another organization headed by Gee.
She said coalition leaders also based their decision on the area’s large wealth disparity and the fact that the city has already been investing in the Meadowood Neighborhood Center and Theresa Terrace Neighborhood Center as well as through its neighborhood resource teams, providing a base to build upon.
Gee said the coalition will pilot efforts in Meadowood under each of the five focus areas of its framework, which was unveiled last spring and titled “Our Madison Plan.”
Those five headings are: gaps in school achievement between black and white students; underemployment of blacks in the city; the proportionately higher rate of incarceration among blacks, especially for men; issues around health and wellness, including the availability of healthy food and health care; and identifying and developing a new generation of black leaders.
In Meadowood, Gee and Reece said the coalition has started to talk to neighborhood residents, elected officials and also to directors and staff at neighborhood centers, the branch library, churches and schools. Next steps include identifying and helping grassroots African-American leaders within various areas of Meadowood engage other black residents.
The Justified Anger coalition is also looking at recent demographic research on Meadowood, Reece said, will soon hire its first employee and is also working on its database of volunteers.
The coalition plans another community potluck in the next couple of months, she said. The first drew about 375 people to the cafeteria of Memorial High School in April 2014.
Much of the summer’s additional focus, Gee said, has been around fundraising, which by its nature happens in the background.
The Evjue Foundation, the charitable arm of the Cap Times, announced its lead donation of $150,000 to the Justified Anger movement at the May event. Madison Gas & Electric Foundation followed with a $75,000 grant and the CUNA Mutual Foundation contributed $25,000, Gee said.
“I spent the summer really talking to folks about (the financial) sustainability and why it’s important to have the resources to really lead this,” Gee said. “We’ve done great work on the backs of great volunteers, but now we want to really keep it professional, and we’ve set a bar for ourselves and for the community. We don’t want that to slip.”
Part of the reason for this column, frankly, is my concern that the excitement and energy from that late-spring event could fade for the community at-large. It is worth recalling what Mayor Paul Soglin said that night: “I think we’re in a magical point in that we’ve got the largest and the deepest commitments I’ve ever seen to systemic change.”
But the fact remains that Justified Anger is, thus far, an all-volunteer effort tapping the expertise of the city’s highest ranking – and therefore busiest – African-American leaders. Those two facts explain why the process takes time.
So progress continues. For now, though, much of it is off-stage.