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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Nice Surprises in the City of Milwaukee

Milwaukee       Before taking my traveling road show from Madison to Milwaukee, I spent some time in the ACORN archives that are part of the Social Change Collection of the Wisconsin Historical Society.  Perhaps four years ago, WHS archivists had picked up another 35 cartons of material from our hall in Baton Rouge where we were storing a ton of stuff that had been in our various New Orleans local and national offices.  I met with one of the archivists who had recently finished accessing, filing, and sorting through the most recent bunch.  He claimed it “filled in some missing pieces,” and that was good news for all of us.

I had been naïve in my first visit to the archives some thirty months ago, thinking I could buzz through the collection.  Over the week I visited, I may have jumped around in thirty or forty boxes.  It was a start, but I was most impressed at how much I had underestimated the task, especially since I was looking for old strategy and program memoranda.  There are now 224 cubic feet of paper archives and that means 224 boxes of materials.  Plus, there are more boxes of photographs and hours and hours of video.  That’s a mountain to climb.  I joked leaving that it would take me two or three months to go through all of what they had.  The archivist at the desk, suggested summer was better than the winter.  Indeed!

Once in Milwaukee, I stopped at a coffeehouse nearby the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee where I was due not long afterwards.  Within minutes, a fellow approached me and identified himself as Dan Grandone, a former Gamaliel community organizer, who was going to the event later that day and now ran a leadership development program with a great name:  WILD.  Anytime you can run into random community organizers on the street by chance, take my word, you’re somewhere close to heaven if you want to note this on your GPS.

At the event there was a former ACORN canvasser in Minnesota and a former ACORN organizer for a brief spell in another office.  UM-W Professor Aaron Schutz, my host, cracked that the urban studies department was chock full of ex-ACORN folks.

It gets even better though.  During the call and response after the meeting, one young man spoke up and gave a testimonial to ACORN.  Turns out he had a slew of relatives in the Lower 9thWard of New Orleans, including a sister who said ACORN had helped get her house together after Hurricane Katrina.   Another young man spoke up not long afterwards saying he was a community organizer in the Milwaukee and wanted to know how they could connect with ACORN.  After the meeting, I visited with all three of the delegation and they turned out to be connected to the Amani neighborhood and the Dominican Center.

The Amani neighborhood has seen steady decline in crime since 2005, including another 12 percent decrease in 2017 alone. It’s located between 20th and 27th Streets and between Center St. and Keefe Ave., right in the middle of the 53206-zipcode.  In fact, one experienced organizer told me that this zip code had the highest incarceration rate in Wisconsin, and perhaps the nation, but crime over this period has dropped at almost double the level of the city as a whole.  They want to see how to bring the ACORN Home Savers Campaign to Milwaukee and how to link up.  Yeeha!

It’s these kinds of surprises that keep me hitting the road, rain or shine, sleet or snow, and here there was plenty of the latter, but these kinds of conversations made the sun shine for me.

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