The key to addressing complex issues is to take a grass-roots approach, and to cast a wide net.

Such an approach is clearly needed to address racial inequalities, which are more extreme in Dane County than they are in most other parts of the country.

Why a grass-roots effort? Because it leverages the skills, views and experiences of the many instead of a few — and, critically, it seeks to involve those who are most impacted.

Thanks to the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families’ Race to Equity report, we now have undeniable, easy to understand, data-driven evidence that the problem of racial inequality is more critical than many had previously realized.

Step one is for all of us to recognize the importance of this issue, and the urgency in finding resolutions. Step two is to have meaningful dialogues. And I believe those steps are taking place.

I attended one of the first public sessions at which Ken Taylor, WCCF executive director, presented data from Race to Equity. And I observed the stunned silence as he detailed the evidence for the significant racial disparities in Dane County.

People are not only hearing that data, they’re responding. In the last few months I attended two more community meetings focused on that report, and I was encouraged by the new faces and the dedicated interest I saw there. Another good sign: The recent YWCA Advancing the Equity Agenda conference was sold out.

Such dialogues about racial inequities are essential to the process, since they encourage us to move out of our comfort zones and begin to see the value of others’ cultural perceptions and contexts.

Step three is more challenging, however. We need to determine which actions will have a lasting impact and implement them.

Some people and organizations are well ahead of the curve in terms of meaningful action.

The Rev. Carmen Porco is doing great work on the North Side of Madison, creating new ways to think of low-income housing that defy stereotypes about low-income communities and what they can achieve. UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank recently stated that diversity and inclusiveness are priorities. Common Wealth Development and Freedom Inc. are two nonprofits doing important work. And of course the YWCA has a track record of encouraging dialogue and understanding.

Collaboration among groups, whereby many voices are heard and valued, is critical. This type of collaboration is something I see as a board member of Community Shares of Wisconsin. I see it too in one of its member groups, the Interfaith Coalition for Worker Justice, which brings faith communities, labor, and others to work together in focused efforts on behalf of low-wage workers.

These nonprofits are the model that will allow us to move to the next level.

Most Wisconsinites are well meaning and want to help eliminate racism. Certainly a community that has racial disparities is not healthy for anyone. Such disparities undermine our quality of life overall.

Madison is a community proud of its frequent ranking as one of the best places to live. Ending racial inequalities will bring us much closer to being one of the best places to live for all of us.

Each of us has a responsibility in helping rectify the issue of racial disparities, since we are all affected by it.

As we work through this process, my hope is that we will eventually achieve a more level playing field for everyone in Dane County.

Johnson, of Cottage Grove, is on the board of Community Shares of Wisconsin, which raises funds for 68 small, grass-roots nonprofits.

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