How Milwaukee Community Leaders are Responding to Local Protests

Local leaders are speaking out.

After a week of nationwide protests over racial injustice, Milwaukee community leaders are calling for immediate action to address the deep-rooted problems that have led to inequity for communities of color, while also taking a stand against the violence that has threatened to cloud the issue.

Ellen Gilligan, president and CEO of the Greater Milwaukee Foundation, a philanthropic civic group, said, “I am grief-stricken that we are again mourning more black lives lost and more communities capsized, all the while lamenting that nothing has changed since the last atrocity. Well, we must change, and we must start now.”

She described Milwaukee’s communities of color as “vibrant, unique and essential,” adding, “Yet we accept that in Milwaukee, an African American can expect to live 14 fewer years than a person who is white. There are no excuses, and there can be no more delays. We need to eradicate the systemic racism that withholds wellness and power from people of color and keeps our entire region from truly thriving.”

Apathy toward the issue cannot be tolerated, she said. “Individual acts of violence and prejudice inflame these wounds, but the roots are embedded in how we have shaped society in a manner that benefits people differently, and for the most part, those differences are favorable if you’re white and detrimental if you’re not.”

Gilligan points to several long-standing issues plaguing Milwaukee: Housing covenants and real estate practices that have prevented nonwhite residents from living in communities of their choice and securing mortgages and homes that would have changed their family’s trajectory toward prosperity; the uneven application of laws resulting in extremely high incarceration rates for black men; school and social structures built to be navigated by English language speakers, leading to disparate access to learning and resources for those not fluent in English. “And now, COVID-19, which, through the disproportionate rates of infection and loss of life in black and Latino communities, has proven just how deep our health inequities run.”

The Greater Milwaukee Foundation made a generational commitment to racial equity and inclusion in 2016.

“The work we have accomplished side-by-side with the community means something, but it is not enough,” Gilligan said. “Our pace must be faster, our resolve must be sharper, our urgency must be greater as we seek justice. A much greater burden must be carried by white leaders and white institutions, and I pledge to do all I can to advance a new era that ends racist structures.”

The Greater Milwaukee Committee, a civic organization made up of 200 local CEOs working together to “make Milwaukee the best place to live, learn, work, play and stay,” released a statement on Sunday in response to the protests.

“Racism and systemic inequities in access to health care, education and justice are unacceptable,” the statement said. “Working together we must find a way to create change, while standing against violence and property destruction.”

The “tragic and unjust” death of George Floyd illuminates the deeper issue of systemic racism, the GMC noted.

“The Greater Milwaukee Committee is committed to listening to the voices of our community, hearing the concerns raised in protest, and leveraging our work to be a part of systemic transformation,” the statement continued.

The GMC pointed to several programs aimed at improving conditions in the city, including MKE United, a group planning process to create a “shared and inclusive vision for Downtown Milwaukee and its adjacent neighborhoods,” Scale Up Milwaukee and The Commons, which provide resources and talent development to local small businesses, and MKE Responds, a recent project to respond to community needs stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Eve Hall, president and CEO of Milwaukee Urban League, said the video of Floyd’s death, seen by millions around the world, “took everyone over the edge.”

“Protests and rallies began peacefully by well-intentioned and concerned citizens of all races and backgrounds,” she wrote on the Urban League’s website. “Unfortunately, peace was compromised by individuals whose motives were mired in destruction and chaos. This distraction is chipping away attention from the real issues.”

Milwaukee County Board Chairwoman Marcelia Nicholson also released a statement indicating that the protests and distress in Milwaukee and across the country are a response to “an unjust system that has oppressed and exploited black people for hundreds of years.”

“We have to break down and dismantle institutional and structural racism if we want to make progress and live in a community based on justice and equity,” she said. “The legacy of racism in Milwaukee is seen in the extreme poverty and denial of opportunity for black and brown people, and countless examples of police violence that our community has had to endure.”

“The only way to work towards justice is to replace systemic racism with a society based on equity, and that is what Milwaukee County government is committed to doing.”

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Rich Rovito is a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine.