October 17, 2017 has come and gone. The happenings of the day may be long forgotten by many with no lingering connections between now and then. In contrast, through an initiative of the Greater Milwaukee Foundation (GMF), a philanthropic organization, more than 5400 people had table conversations. According to GMF's promotional materials, the goal of the On the Table events:
"Provide a unique opportunity for civil conversation among people
interested in building new relationships, generating ideas and igniting
action for the benefit of the community and its future."
The timing of the On the Table events had an historical backdrop. This year marked the 50th anniversary of major protests in Milwaukee. Fifty years ago, activists protested for three days in opposition to police brutality, open housing restrictions and other civil rights concerns. Although many may assert society has improved in Milwaukee since then, there are many social indicators that say otherwise. On the surface things may have changed, but in reality many of the issues motivating the protesters 50 years ago have manifested today in different ways. Some still refer to Milwaukee as the Selma (Alabama) of the North based on the plight of Blacks. The city continues to be hyper-segregated by race and Blacks rank disproportionately high in unemployment, incarceration, poverty, evictions, poor academic achievement and other social indicators.
Thus, GMF's simplistic endeavor to foster communications, build new alliances and create solutions was a lofty yet very much needed effort. The one day of authentic conversations throughout the region resulted in participants having a meal together and sorting through tough conversations.
GMF held a media briefing on December 14, 2017 to announce the findings from the On The Table events. They presented their initial findings in a Voices from the Tables report. In total, there were more than 150 discussion topics and 100s of post cards completed containing participants bold ideas to move the conversations forward. It was not surprising to learn that 81% of the Tables talked about race, equity and inclusion.
In addition to GMF leadership espousing on the success of the initiative, the media event included presentations by groups who hosted On the Table gatherings. Other groups were in attendance as well. These groups not only hosted the one-day event, they also implemented next steps to keep the conversations going and get to tangible outcomes.
Here are a few summaries on notable On the Table hosts:
America SCORES Milwaukee, Boys and Girls Club and Milwaukee Bucks
As the Executive Director of America SCORES Milwaukee, Kate Carpenter uses soccer as a means to provide academic programs to youth. Despite her best efforts, she recently realized although the youth may have fun playing soccer, her desired academic outcomes would not occur due to the trauma that youth were experiencing at home and in their neighborhoods. She initially ignored the emails she received from GMF asking her to host a On the Table event. Kate later saw that her involvement could help get to the heart of the problems the youth were experiencing and have greater impact with them.
Kate contacted the Milwuakee Bucks to see if they would be interested in collaborating with her. Alicia Dupies, Vice President of Corporate Social Responsibility for Bucks was receptive to the idea, although she too had initially ignored GMFs emails. The partnership seemed ideal, but they needed a community partner who had direct reach to youth experiencing community based trauma. This led them to Jamar Wills, Program Coordinator for Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater Milwaukee. The three created a formidable partnership that has them working together to help youth heal from trauma through sports. They are in the process of developing a coaching network in Milwaukee so they can share best practices and support each other. "It's not that youth can't learn, we don't know what they went through the night before," stated Jamar. "We want them to function and be normal, yet their lives are not normal. They have a lot of responsibility on them that should not be the norm for children."
This On the Table partnership is putting a spotlight on the reality that sports alone doesn't give youth enough to fortify them against the trauma they experience. They are focused on helping youth win in academics and life in addition to sports.
Messmer High School and Catholic Central High School
Messmer High School was one of the few On the Table hosts who's table discussions was exclusively youth led. Their event included students from Messmer and Catholic Central High School in Burlington, Wisconsin. Those not familiar with the locations of the schools may miss the significance of this cross cultural exchange. Messmer is an urban High School in Milwaukee and Central High School in a rural community about a hour southwest of Milwaukee. It almost seemed like Lisamarie Arnold, Director of Alumni & Community Relations for Messmer High School, had goosebumps as she recounted the experience. The adults were merely fliers on the wall as the students worked through their anxiety and quickly discovered connections points. The acknowledged how different their communities were from each other, one being right of the interstate and the other being amidst farmland. Ideas and perception of each other formed based on their closed communities. The students stated they don't get to form their own opinions about others. Instead, their parents and TV influences their opinions. Lisamarie was proud of how they talked about the need to be open to learning and experiencing different cultures.
The two schools plan on continuing their conversations early next year with the Messmer students going the Central. It is important to note that within their total student population, Messmer only has one White student and Central only one Black student.
The media briefing ended with Ellen Gilligan, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Greater Milwaukee Foundation, sharing her gratitude to the community at large for their participation in On the Table. She also gave her commitment to her organization leading the effort again in 2018. "We will continue to encourage people to come together to catalyze action and support resident led work," Ellen noted. It is her hope that the discussion next year will include more young people because they are the voice of the future. She also hopes more people will hosts in their homes and neighborhoods to help build stronger communities.