After spending his whole life pushing for change through community activism, Reggie Moore is now working from inside city hall to stop violence by treating it as a public health epidemic.
The refuge bestowed by Parklawn Assembly of God is as physical as it is spiritual, stretching above the shops and houses adjacent to its triangular plot in northernmost Sherman Park, by one measure Milwaukee’s seventh most violent neighborhood and, for the last year and half, first in infamy.
Inside the Pentecostal church, the deeply devout welcome those more tepidly receptive to spiritual rebirth. A sanctified atmosphere diffuses through the congregation, led by a rollicking 20-minute gospel performance. The flock, assuaged by the singing, is feeling euphoric as it stops during this hour of respite from the burdens of everyday living. Elder Marcus Arrington rolls out the itinerary for today’s service, which refrains from questions of personal morality in favor of a sober panel discussion focused on gun violence. “We’re blessed to be in the house where we have a leader who has a vision that extends beyond the four walls: Brother Reggie Moore,” he says.
Moore, 41, looks more bureaucratic than ecclesiastical, but he’s guided by an overwhelming faith approaching zealotry. So far, his life’s mission can best be summed up as trying to leave the world in a better condition than he found it. That altruism has motivated him to work toward community organization and youth empowerment for the last three decades, first informally, then as an established outsider activist pushing for change, and now as head of the city’s Office of Violence Prevention. For the past two years, he’s worked from inside the system to spread the gospel of peace throughout Milwaukee, endeavoring to reframe the city’s homicides, suicides, domestic abuse and sexual assaults as symptoms of a larger health epidemic, in need of a coordinated public health response, rather than a lawless society in need of military-style occupation.
“Reggie and his wife [partner-in-activism Sharlen] provide a perfect balance of justice and reconciliation,” says Bishop Walter Harvey, senior pastor at Parklawn. “There are a lot of people in the faith community that are so heavenly minded that they are no earthly good, and then there are some who are so earthly minded they’re no heavenly good. Reggie and Sharlen provide a perfect balance of the sacred and the secular.” A medium-sized man with a high forehead and a buzzed scalp, Moore appears before the congregation outfitted in jeans and a navy blue sweater, the folded collar of a white button-down sprouting from the neckline. He speaks in flat, even tones that belie the intensity of his dedication.
“Good morning everyone. It definitely feels good to be home,” he begins.
Today, Moore’s actual home also skirts Sherman Park, slightly over a mile away from Parklawn, but his childhood home was public housing in the Hillside neighborhood, nestled against I-43 northwest of Downtown. He and an older brother were raised by a mother who worked in health care when she wasn’t performing selfless acts of charity for those in needier circumstances. Moore’s parents divorced early in his life, and while he is on good terms with his father today, he says only his mother was around for most of his upbringing.
“Give my mother credit,” he says. “At an early age, I saw a lot of sacrifices that she made. Raising two sons as a single mother in poverty isn’t easy. Through her faith, and through her commitment, what little we’ve had, she’s always given.”
Moore recalls developing his social conscience at age 10, when crack cocaine arrived on the streets and radiated through his neighborhood. It encroached on his childhood, too, as public play spaces became too dangerous for him and his friends. Chafing at the loss, young Reggie organized.
“I went to the property manager to advocate for a block party,” Moore says. “She said, ‘If you get adult residents that want to have this, I’ll support it.’”
Moore went door to door, enlisting neighbors to not only consent, but commit. Some offered to help prepare food. Others agreed to facilitate games. Moore mapped the event, penciling out where everything should be set up. He got his block party.
“Ever since that time, I had the bug around the fact that anything is possible if we’re able to organize and mobilize and make things happen,” he says.
Moore carried that purpose throughout adolescence. From the outset, his objectives centered not just around leading others to his preferred outcomes, but lifting others, particularly young people, to become leaders in their own right who push just as hard.
When he was 19, Moore and Sharlen, then his girlfriend, went to talk to children at an elementary school in the central city about decision making. The presentation impressed the teacher so much she nominated the pair for the Volunteer Center’s J.C. Penney Golden Rule Award, which they later won.
At the award reception, Moore connected with Paul Schmitz, CEO of youth-leadership development nonprofit Public Allies, who would offer Reggie his first job in the advocacy world – a project on school accountability – and would become a lifelong friend and fellow traveler. “In the first 10 years I was more of a mentor to him and in the last 10 years he’s been more of a mentor to me,” Schmitz says.
And it was Schmitz who introduced Moore to another future mentor turned colleague, civil rights activist and then-Milwaukee Public Schools superintendent Howard Fuller. “Seeing a black man as superintendent [when I was] in high school was inspiring.” Moore says.
Fuller remembers Moore around this time as barely an adult but mature beyond his years, with solid organizational instincts and an unyielding commitment to social justice. “He had what I would call a growing reputation,” Fuller says. “It’s been a dual learning experience [since].”
Moore enrolled at Cardinal Stritch University to study education but left in 1996 without finishing. Undeterred, he found lasting success when he formed the nonprofit Urban Underground in 2000. The goal of the charity, which is now administered by Sharlen, is to build youth leaders through community organizing. Urban Underground’s notable alumni over the years include educators, community organizers and elected offcials such as state Rep. David Bowen.
“I got tired of going to meetings that were about young people, without young people,” Moore says. “It seemed as a community we paid the most attention to young people when they were shooting or dying. Urban Underground was created to say that young people are the experts of their experience in this day and time, in this place called Milwaukee, and that they should be able to speak for themselves.”
The success was hard fought, however. Urban Underground now attracts sizable donations from African-American icons like Colin Kaepernick and Dr. Dre, but the early years were often defined by setbacks and extreme frugality. Schmitz, who acted as Urban Underground’s fiscal agent in the early 2000s, says there were times when Moore and his wife would forgo salary and health benefits to keep programs running. “If they didn’t get the grant, they didn’t cut the program,” he says. “Budget or no budget, they got it done.”
At the end of the last decade, Moore decamped from Milwaukee for Washington D.C., to head up youth activism and engagement for the anti-smoking American Legacy Foundation, now known as the Truth Initiative. It was during these years that Moore was first exposed to the proscriptive policy framework of public health. His work focused on educating the public on the dangers of cigarillos, then believed by many to be a safer alternative to cigarettes, and he was successful in persuading several historically black colleges to ban smoking on their campuses.
It was also during this time that the documentary The Interrupters debuted. It depicted an organization called Ceasefire (now Cure Violence) that uses a public health methodology to head off violence by mentoring at-risk individuals and intervening in heated confrontations in Chicago’s most dangerous neighborhoods. Its front-line members, usually reformed offenders, persuaded aggressors to de-escalate tense situations and supported survivors as they dealt with trauma, heading off violence by calming people before they lashed out in retribution. By acknowledging the causes of violence, such as anger and resentment, and talking people who are experiencing trauma through difficult moments, Cure Violence treats violence as a contagious epidemic destined to spread if not quarantined. The approach is a departure from traditional criminal justice methods of violence prevention, which take place only after injury and trauma occur and focus more on quarantining criminal elements than repairing damage and preventing further harm.
Cure Violence’s work in Chicago proved highly successful, for a time. A 2009 evaluation of the group’s effectiveness found that shootings dropped by 41 percent to 73 percent in seven Chicago neighborhoods where Cure Violence was working. An academic study four years later concluded that Cure Violence’s work in two neighborhoods directly cut killings by 31 percent. Those gains, however, have largely been lost since then. Funding problems and head-butting with Chicago police have whittled away the group’s presence, and killings have soared by 50 to 70 percent in areas it used to patrol, according to Cure Violence founder Gary Slutkin.
Moore was encouraged enough by the public health approach that he brought the strategy with him when he returned to Milwaukee in 2012. Four years later, he adopted the techniques pioneered by Cure Violence with his current role upon being named director of the Office of Violence Prevention by Mayor Tom Barrett. “Reggie Moore has a unique ability to connect to people in the community who are affected by violence, and even those individuals who may cause violence,” Barrett says. “At the same time, he has a real ability to talk to policymakers, to influencers, to individuals that have resources to help us. He’s very, very organized. He has a vision of how to move this community, and it’s very inclusive.”
But Moore accepted the director role with considerable trepidation. Only after hearing support from the community and reflecting about the type of city he wanted for his children did he bring his heart and mind to working in government. “Working for the city was never on my bucket list,” he says. “As an organizer I’ve often been on the outside pushing different levels of government to do things differently.”
His presence fueled a revamp of the office’s mission and capacity in the wake of one of Milwaukee’s most violent years on record. In 2015, the year before Moore’s appointment, homicides surged 69 percent, with 145 by year’s end. Nonfatal shootings edged up 9 percent, eclipsing the 600 mark. It was a bloody environment that threatened the safety of wide swaths of the city, and made officials appear helpless to stop the slaughter.
Under his leadership, the office has grown from three employees to seven, and from a $300,000 budget to one around $1.5 million. He’s led efforts to collaborate with organizations, public and private, that work to combat violence. Some are specific events, such as Heal the Hood, a nonprofit that throws block parties in some of the most troubled spots in Milwaukee. Others are ongoing partnerships, such as a new program with the Commission on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault that provides safe sites for custody exchanges, a particularly volatile situation in families with a history of violence.
And Moore’s office also launched a trauma response initiative that has referred more than 550 individuals who have experienced or witnessed violence to counseling services. One of them was 9th District Ald. Chantia Lewis, whose family was carjacked at gunpoint in November 2016. Despite feeling strong enough to overcome the experience on her own, Lewis says, she was recently shaken by two intense panic attacks while driving through certain areas of the city. “It freaked me out to think that I needed a counselor. I thought I was OK,” she says. “It’s lasting a lot longer than I thought.”
The trauma response training has expanded to the Milwaukee Fire Department, where all firefighters and EMTs are trained to assess trauma, particularly in children, at the scene of a disturbing event, such as a sudden death or a fire. “Counseling allows people to debrief,” Moore says. “They do it in the military. Law enforcement is supposed to do it. … We focus on the physical wound but oftentime the non-physical wound is deeper.”
The plodding bridge-building is consuming work, but it’s far from what Moore’s wife Sharlen points to as the hardest part of the job: attending the funerals of slain children, some even younger than the couple’s own kids, 12-year-old Mia and 14-year-old twins Matthew and Malachi. Last summer’s death of 6-year-old Justin Evans Jr. was particularly hard on her husband. “Our children were fishing down south with their grandfather the same day of the shooting. When he learned that Justin had been preparing to go fishing as well, it hit him really hard,” Sharlen says. “It’s the same challenge the families of first responders deal with.”
The initial impact of these efforts is still unknown, but Moore’s tenure with the city has coincided with a slight two-year decline in Milwaukee’s homicide rate, even as the homicide rate increased nationally. Moore says his office can’t take sole credit, and that nonfatal shootings are still unacceptably high, but he’s hopeful the declines will continue with sustained commitment from the city.
To that end, Moore has launched his office’s most ambitious project to the date, the Blueprint for Peace. The 96-page action plan was developed in tandem with a wide range of stakeholders, including victims and offenders. Its six goals are centered around violence reduction, restorative justice and community building. Among the specific items it calls for is a grant to bring Cure Violence-like interrupters to the streets of Milwaukee in 2018 and beyond.
The plan has received support from many quarters, including the mayor’s office and some Common Council members, but it’s also drawn the ire of a few aldermen who believe it doesn’t act fast enough to address immediate safety and law enforcement concerns.
Reggie Moore at a Black Male Achievement Leaders breakfast | Photos: Kenny Yoo
“I don’t have a decade or a generation to wait. That’s the issue. Reggie and his team can put together an amazing booklet or whatever, but do you know how long it’s going to take to get to fruition? In the meantime, I don’t have patience, and my constituents don’t have patience for out-of-control crime,” says 11th District Ald. Mark Borkowski, who believes that lax sentencing by Milwaukee County judges is a large component of the city’s crime problems. “You want to try to help people. But at a certain stage, maybe they get hardened and there’s no chance,” Borkowski says.
Lewis disagrees, saying she believes Moore’s team is on the fast track to violence reduction, while also saying that pace of change shouldn’t be the main goal. “My No. 1 priority is, will it be impactful and long-lasting? … I absolutely support taking a step back and looking at the root causes.”
It’s this type of gridlock that Fuller warned about while Moore was still weighing accepting the position, and it’s something Moore acknowledges as he considers how long to remain with the city. “I think I’ve done everything that I could to raise the bar for this office,” he says. “My commitment coming into this role was to serve the youth and families of our city. My hope is that when the next person enters this role that there will be a clear and consistent standard that is responsive to our community.”
If there was a moment Moore stepped into the role and became a civic leader, it was during the Sherman Park unrest. The country’s racial tensions were laid bare during summer 2016, after the police-involved shooting deaths of Alton Sterling in Louisiana and Philando Castile in Minnesota, and terroristic retaliation killings of five police officers in Dallas. Milwaukee’s flashpoint came weeks later when on Aug. 13, 2016, MPD Officer Dominique Heaggan-Brown fatally shot 23-year-old Sylville Smith.
But the emotion was too raw and the crowd too massive to pacify one person at a time. The situation, Moore says, took on a “groupthink” mentality. All of a sudden, about 20 minutes after he arrived, the crowd advanced, all the officers jumped into their vehicles, and a brick went through the back of a squad car window. The crowd ravaged five other cars and burned seven businesses that night, with damage estimated at $5.8 million. Four officers and two teens were injured.
That night and the next, Moore camped out on the scene, working to diffuse tensions. While he couldn’t stop the initial surge of violence, he believes the crowd exercised a measure of restraint in how it lashed out. “Many more people could have been killed or injured that night. The people deserve the credit for things not being worse. Some people walked down Burleigh to Fond du Lac. I’m not saying I know why they targeted BMO bank or the other businesses in that area, but it’s clear that they skipped over 50 businesses to go where they went,” Moore says. “What I’ve tried to explain to officials is that Sherman Park, the unrest or response, was bigger than Sylville. The response was a cumulative response to Dontre [Hamilton], Michael Brown, Trayvon [Martin]. It was a cumulative response of outrage about systemic injustice and a series of cries unheard.”
BLUEPRINT FOR PEACE
- Stop the shooting. Stop the violence.
- Promote healing and restorative justice. Address trauma and community anger.
- Support children, youth and families. Invest in school and parenting programs. Develop youth leadership.
- Advance economic opportunities. Invest in workforce development and employment opportunities.
- Foster safe neighborhoods. Create safe community spaces.
- Scale up violence prevention efforts, and improve coordination between prevention groups.
Moore’s presence on the scene helped to cool the unrest considerably, according to some who were there. At one point, Moore learned about a man detained by police whose girlfriend was in labor, and urged MPD commanders to release him at the hospital to watch his daughter’s birth. He was told it would happen only if Moore was at the hospital to receive the man, so he went.
“Reggie and his team were a big part of why the riots only lasted a couple days in Sherman Park,” Schmitz adds. “You had people who knew the community and knew some of the people who were trying to instigate shit. If you compare what happened in Milwaukee to other cities, we had a much harsher first 24 hours, but it ended a lot faster. And his team was relatively new, but they were on the front line those couple days.”
Part of the reason Moore and his staff were so effective at de-escalating was because they were sympathetic to the emotions expressed by the crowd. “I don’t think the destruction of anyone else’s property is ever justified. I think the cumulative outrage was justified,” he says.
Hours after the service at Parklawn has concluded, Moore is still preaching the message of the Blueprint for Peace, this time in a secular setting: the Wisconsin Black Historical Society. He’s brought along prominent survivors of violence and of trauma, including Maria Hamilton, mother of Dontre Hamilton, whose death at the hands of a Milwaukee police officer contributed to the Sherman Park unrest.
The crowd is smaller than the one at Parklawn that morning — roughly 60 people in the auditorium. Off to the side is Barrett, who arrived just in time to hear panelists decry the inadequate response by criminal justice workers to repair the harm visited upon them.
“They tell very powerful stories, and they’re right. They need to have elected officials and public officials be more responsive to the tragedies that they face. I totally agree with them,” Barrett says of the speakers.
Moore’s thinking parallels Barrett’s, but for him agreement is not enough.
“The greatest risk factor to our community is hopelessness. Hopelessness out on the streets breeds apathy. It breeds distrust. It breeds fear. It results in people wanting to leave the city. It results in people critiquing the city, damning the city basically, as opposed to saying, ‘What is the power and potential of the city?’ There are a lot of people who reflect that every day,” he says. “I don’t necessarily equate critique to hopelessness. I don’t have a lot of faith in the criminal justice system, let’s be clear. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have hope that violence is preventable, that a better city is possible.”