Building Political Clout from Scratch

San Francisco    The last session on this tour of Milwaukee and Amani United’s steadily progressing leadership development had a curious title:  platform.  Curious, because the organization had a fairly detailed issue agenda formed over recent years.  Much of the scope of my work with them initially had been helping them construction programs and campaigns to put the platform expressed into action.

Once the leaders were assembled, it became clear that the real topic was how to get others, especially public figures, to take the organization and its issues seriously.  Elections for city and county offices from the top executive posts down the ballot, including alderman and county council members, were set for early in the coming year.  Filing was right after the beginning of 2020 followed by a mid-February primary and an early April general election.  The question before Amani United was really the classic one:  how does a nonpartisan community organization build power for the powerless.

A default option is usually holding a community forum, and that made sense here as well.  It’s an opportunity to showcase organizational issues and ask candidates to respond and make commitments.

As usual, easier said than done.  The organization had tried one with partner organizations in the past and watched as two critical problems developed.  At one level, the meeting was hijacked by an outside group whose questions then sucked up all of the air in the room, allowing all candidates and officials to walk out glad handing.  At the other level, the outreach effort was weak, giving outsiders and officials the opportunity to ignore the community because it was disorganized and not present in force.  Lesson learned, get ready for the next test!

The plan became to utilize the regular monthly meetings on the first Saturday of every month to invite existing elected officials including the three aldermen who represent different pieces of the Amani neighborhood to come to a portion of each meeting in the last half-hour to answer questions.  With seven Saturdays between now and filing, members would have an opportunity to measure responses of existing candidates in advance and by the invitation, their new unity, and clear questions send a message that there’s a new game in town this time around with Amani United.  There’s also a regular meeting on a fixed Tuesday every month, which would give Amani an opportunity to also invite rumored and perspective candidates to come to meet the members and get on record on Amani issues as well, offering more bites at the apple.  Additionally, killing two birds with one stone, it would help attendance.

Once the outline of the plan was fixed, then the discussion became about voter registration deadlines for the election and how to take advantage of new legislation in Wisconsin allowing same day registration as the election.  Amani produced 98% turnout of all eligible voters in 2008 when Obama was on the ballot, so it has already proven that when it cares about issues and candidates, they are unbeatable.  The emerging platform plan will allow them to remind officials to pay attention.

This plan isn’t enough to build power for the powerless, but coupled with a steady diet of campaigns and actions on the drawing board and already being put in practice, look out Milwaukee, or whatever community and city that is willing to do the work to win with people power.

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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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