Conversation on Talking: Ellen Gilligan and Carole Nicksin

Our editor in chief talks with the CEO of the Greater Milwaukee Foundation about, well, talking.

Dynamic Dialogue

Ellen Gilligan, president and CEO, Greater Milwaukee Foundation
Carole Nicksin, editor and publisher, Milwaukee Magazine

There are a lot of conversations taking place in Milwaukee, and not just on the pages of this issue of Milwaukee Magazine. The Community Brainstorming Conference has had monthly talks centered on African-American issues monthly since 1986, and the Frank Zeidler Center for Public Discussion was established here in 2006.

And in 2017, the Greater Milwaukee Foundation launched its annual On the Table event. On a single day, hundreds of small gatherings of people break bread and take on topics that matter to them. Underlying all of these efforts is the belief that discussion – about our differences, our similarities and our ideas – is the first step toward positive change for our community. I sat down with Ellen Gilligan to talk about the importance of … talking. – Carole Nicksin

This conversation was published in the January 2019 issue of Milwaukee Magazine’s cover story: Let’s Talk It Out.

Dynamic Dialogue: Ellen Gilligan and Carole Nicksin

EG: In a community as racially, geographically and politically divided as our region is, we thought it was good to have people come together and talk about what they love about Milwaukee, and what some of the challenges are, and how they could work together to make the community stronger. We were very interested to see what emerged from On the Table, and last year what emerged were the things that the foundation had heard from a whole variety of people over many years about what was important in this community: issues around race, issues around education. So, that helps to reinforce the kind of work that we’re doing.

CN: This year, Milwaukee Magazine hosted a table and discussed the role of media outlets, and whether our responsibility goes beyond just reporting what’s going on in the community, and extends into being involved and trying to make changes in the community. The non-media people at the table felt that doing really good reporting is enough, but Mary [Spicuzza] from the Journal Sentinel chimed in and listed quite a few initiatives that the Journal Sentinel has put into place recently to catalyze change.

EG: I think people are anxious and inspired to make change in this community. With On the Table, not only are people thrilled to come back together, but they want to take action, and they have taken action. Last year the foundation hosted a table with some youth-serving organizations, and one of the issues that came up was that many children are living in trauma on a daily basis. Out of that came an effort to help youth-serving organizations understand what kids are dealing with. It’s really, in some ways, trauma-informed coaching. They started a pilot project last year, and then that has expanded, and they’ve just announced a major initiative related to that.

CN: That’s so great. One of the things I like best about Milwaukee is it’s very civic-minded.

EG: Yes, people love to learn in this community. They want to come, they want to engage, and they like to learn about other people’s experience.

CN: I think it’s quite remarkable.

EG: [Former Journal Sentinel publisher] Betsy Brenner curated a table and tried to invite people who don’t normally come together. One of the guests was a young woman who was a barista at Colectivo and during the dinner, she got a text that she and her family were being evicted. In the midst of this dinner, this young woman’s life gets turned upside down. And in that moment, people reached out and helped her and got her settled. The chances of that happening at that very moment – it shows the frequency with which people’s lives are in crisis and we don’t know it.

CN: Back in 2017, the magazine hosted a series called MilMag Live. And it was essentially a panel discussion that was designed to morph into a conversation with the audience. And what we found was that the more serious the topic, the better the turnout and the better the engagement, which was so exciting to see. We did one about race, and 300 people showed up on a Monday night for it.

EG: Milwaukee is so interested in talking about race. I think that probably for many years, it was a taboo subject. So the willingness to talk about it openly and candidly and for people to engage in that conversation, I think, is a huge positive step for Milwaukee. But talking is not enough. And if you’re a person of color, it has to move beyond talking. People want action. They want community change. And this year, we have added [to On the Table] what we’re calling action grants, which are small grants that people can apply for to help move them from talk to action.

CN: In your own life, do you like to have difficult conversations?

EG: Yes, I do. I mean, I think that the foundation has been on a journey about trying to understand how we could serve this community, which is changing very rapidly. And so in 2015, our board made a generational commitment to advancing racial equity in the community. That whole effort has required a lot of learning, a lot of dialogue, a lot of difficult conversation. And I learn something every day. If I don’t, I’m not advancing the work.

CN: I enjoy difficult conversations, too. It challenges you, just as you said. It makes you really think. You can’t just go on autopilot when someone’s bringing up something that is important and uncomfortable. I think it keeps you young.

EG: I’m all for that!

“Let’s Talk it Out” appears in the January 2019 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

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