Getting the Lead out in Milwaukee’s Amani Neighborhood

Milwaukee       If you want to really be helpful in leadership development or organizer training, you can’t just pull a bunch of old training documents off the hard drive, print the agendas, change the dates, plug and play.  If I’m going to do the work for more than an hour or two, I want to first get to know the organization, meet the leaders and core staff, and get to know their challenges of course and their successes and failures.  For their money and my time, I want to really know what issue enrages them and what they dream for the future.  I spent most of a day doing so with ten leaders and two staff members of Amani United and the Dominican Center, so that they could teach me.

I didn’t walk in blind.  I had met a couple of leaders and one organizer late last year when they buttonholed me after “The Organizer” ran at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee.  Their invitation coupled with that of Sister Patricia Rogers, the director of the Dominican Center, had brought me back in a typically hard winter January day. I had driven the neighborhood and gone up, down, and around the blocks before I walked into the locked down former St. Leo’s rectory, so I knew it wasn’t a tourist destination for visitors to the city.

I had also found some statistics on the internet about Amani.  I knew 92% of the residents were African-American, that 52% of the community was below the poverty line, that female heads of households ran 48% of the families, that more than a third of the population was unemployed, owned no transportation, and hadn’t gotten a high school diploma, that only 73% of the housing was occupied, that 69% of the community were renters with rental rates 20 to 50% higher than the rest of the city, and that 64% lived in units built before 1939.  So, yes, it was my kind of neighborhood, and on the bright side 99.5% of the registered voters in Amani voted in 2008.  That says something right there about hope and the future.

With this background, listening to the leaders in some ways was not surprising.  Familiar themes around non-performing schools, crime and safety, slumlords, abandoned houses, and vacant lots came up.  Other issues were surprising.  The record checks that prevented parents from being volunteers or visiting their children’s schools because of minor offenses twenty years previous.  The contradictory city regulations that kept financial assistance from fixing roofs because the property lacked insurance because insurance was dropped because the roof needed to be fixed.  The fact that former felons had been blocked from buying homes.

And, then there was lead, and the fact that the neighborhood had been poisoned.  Wisconsin had dominated lead production in the 19th century.  Many home fixtures were dictated to be installed with lead.  The water laterals, meaning the pipes from the house to the street, were all lead until recently.  Lots where children played tested through the roof.  Mothers around the table told of their children being poisoned with no penalties and little abatement.  They told me that the lead levels were worst than Flint, and in the Amani zip code they were twice as high as any other area in the city of Milwaukee.  I kept asking how they knew that but later that night found the chart in a report that showed the whole area as bright red.  Other newspaper reports detailed how Milwaukee had been seen as a leader in lead prevention in 2014 but was dragging its feet now.  There were coalitions galore that had formed to deal with lead, some even included Amani United, but talking to the leaders it was impossible to get the sense that the problem was being solved.

The leaders in Amani got my attention, and the lessons I learned kept me tossing and turning all night long.  The next steps will be making the plan and meeting their demands for the skills they need to fight and win.

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Has Maryland Gone from Bad to Best in Lead Poisoning Prevention?

New Orleans      Almost everyone knows the terribly destructive impact even the least exposure to lead can have in destroying the future of children, yet we still regularly hear about such tragedies even after all of these decades of recognized danger.  In recent years, Local 100 United Labor Union members who were workers at the Houston Independent School District and Dallas Independent School district joined with parents and others to win testing and replacement of water foundations.  Joining with our partners in New Orleans, we are also seeing progress.

All of this seems to pale in light of the developments that have been made in Maryland where state laws and local enforcement combined with aggressive and effective community partners, like the Green & Healthy Homes Initiative directed by Ruth Ann Norton, have totally flipped the script on lead dangers in their communities.  Short years ago, Elijah Cummings, the Congressman from Baltimore was raising this issue in committee hearings and upbraiding companies and federal agencies that had allowed tenants to find their children poisoned.  Now in Maryland, according to the Childhood Lead Registry, in the state that is funded by the federal Center for Disease Control there has been a 98% decline in childhood lead poisoning.  State records indicate that hundreds of thousands of housing units in the Maryland have now been made lead free or lead safe.

This is all very good news and should be a model for states and communities around the country.  How they did this is no secret.  The state passed a series of laws establishing strict standards and a lead rental registry.  In addition to the Maryland Lead Risk Reduction in Housing Act (for pre-1978 rental units), there are additional piece of legislation that have been enacted that involve universal screening, education programs, worker training, and additional services and support for homeowner-occupied properties and, importantly, childcare facilities.  Prior to clearing properties for rental by families, there is now a required inspection for lead, directed clean-up if found, and clearance before the unit can be occupied.  The Maryland Department of the Environment in cooperation with Housing and Health produces an annual report that documents all of this work.  Maryland has also used CHIP administrative funds available federally to set up a lead hazard control fund which provides the grease to finally make these wheels roll.

Certainly, there’s still work to be done in Maryland, just as there is in states throughout the country, but examining the work done by Maryland and its partners in the community, this seems like a model that could be replicated everywhere.  The same federal funding sources to trigger such programs are available everywhere and resources like CHIP are in place in every state already.  The key is finally ignoring the whining of landlords, developers, and politically powerful real estate interests, then doing the inspections and forcing a fix.

There’s obviously a way, the question is whether there is a will to finally eradicate lead poisoning.

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