Photo by Adam Ryan Morris.
You’ve been president of MICAH since 2010. What does the group do?
Milwaukee Inner-City Congregations Allied for Hope is a faith-based organization that began in 1988 and includes more than 40 congregations throughout Milwaukee County. MICAH also has 10 affiliates in the state, an organization called WISDOM, and a national affiliate. We cover a range of issues, from ending the prison pipeline, to immigration reform, to life-sustaining wages for all workers. We recently were part of the lawsuit for more mass transit in the rebuilding of the Zoo Interchange. Public transit and access to jobs will continue to be a big concern. We want to prove that public transit is not an invasion from Milwaukee, but a rescue effort to save the entire region.
Is there one key issue?
Jobs. If everyone had a chance for a life-sustaining job – not just a job paying slave wages, or a few jobs filling potholes – a lot of the other issues would correct themselves.
You worked at the House of Correction for 25 years, not the usual career path of a religious activist. Did you have a come-to-Jesus moment?
After my second night at the House of Correction, I looked up to the heavens and asked, “What the hell did I get myself into?” Twenty-five years later, as I was packing up to retire, I got the answer. “You’ve seen what I’ve wanted you to see. Now fix it.” I went in looking at the inmates as criminals and ne’er-do-wells, but I changed. I remember one young man telling me he was going to make a million dollars selling drugs. He had all the numbers in his head – the percentages, the selling prices. I asked, “Did anyone ever tell you that you’ve got a mathematical gift?” He said, “No.” I remember thinking, “What a waste.”
You have said that Milwaukee is run like a plantation.
When you look at the slave plantations of old, there weren’t fences or barbed wire. It was a mindset that you can’t get past the plantation boundary because people know you are black, that you are out of your area and someone will put you back in your place. Today, when you try to get off the plantation known as Milwaukee, you are surrounded by suburbs of influence and affluence. Your color defines you, and you become objects of suspicion and fear. By and large, African-Americans in the city do not have access to the suburbs. We don’t have trains or buses, and many people don’t have cars, or at least cars that look like they belong in the suburbs. So you are kept in the central city, the heart of the plantation.
Violence dominates the news out of the central city. What can be done about all the shootings?
In the last few weeks, you’ve seen the perfect storm of neglect – neglect in the household meets neglect in schools, neglect in the government and neglect in the church. The two young men in the shooting at a playground, clearly they are damaged and sick. What causes that level of anger and mental illness? What taught those young men that life is so casual? That’s what frightens me.
Let’s say I live in Brookfield and I agree with you. What should I do?
We have to educate each other. All our communities have problems. But only the problems in the black community are viewed like a contagious disease that will spread to white neighborhoods if black people move in. After those two young girls in Waukesha stabbed their friend, I wasn’t suddenly afraid to live next to a white family with young daughters. I mostly felt bad for all the young people involved.
What’s your take on Police Chief Edward Flynn?
He came in with a hard line and this Irish attitude of being a tough, hard-nosed police officer that would bring down the crime numbers. He got a huge lesson that these are human beings in the central city, not statistics. Right now, Flynn is leaning toward more of a community-policing approach, but he’s still missing key elements.
Should the taxpayers help pay for a new sports arena?
If aliens came and saw us watching grown men run up and down and throw a rubber ball through a hoop, and what’s more, they are some of the highest-paid individuals, I wonder if those aliens would think we were civilized. I’d like to see the same determination going into fighting poverty.
What are your dreams?
I have six kids and nine grandchildren. Every time I pray and I fight for this community, I’m also fighting for them. When they leave the house in the morning, I tell them, “Look at the sky. That’s how large the world is. And your dreams can be as big as that sky.” ■
This article appears in the August 2014 issue of