If you’re like me, you spend too much time bouncing from the New York Times to the Washington Post to local media and other online sources, expecting to be appalled by the latest abhorrent headline from the political ecosystem.
Almost always, you are, um, rewarded.
The habit resembles a gawker’s delay at a traffic accident — it’s hard to look away. What follows is that how-have-things-come-to-this moment as we face an obscene presidency from a Wisconsin that has lost much of its progressive mojo.
Some of us spend our time complaining, writing, and, well, fuming. Others, many others in Madison, keep their heads down and focus on directly helping people, especially in the nonprofit communities of African-American and Latinos, but also white advocates and volunteers.
My journalism work connects me with scores of such people, as does being a board member of the William T. Evjue Foundation, the charitable arm of The Cap Times. “Evjue” has distributed more than $57 million to local causes since the 1970 death of the foundation’s namesake and our founder. We typically review more than 200 grant requests per year.
When a leader such as Ruben Anthony, president and CEO of the Urban League of Greater Madison, recently visited to update us on Urban League programs and to pitch a grant request, I paused and wondered. How does he persevere in the era of “Make America Great Again” — cynical code for rampant racial discrimination?
For African-Americans in Madison, we are almost five years removed from the “Race to Equity” report that documented huge racial gaps in academic achievement. (An updated equity report is slated for this fall.)
Anthony spoke first of Urban League progress. The Madison chapter is celebrating its 50th anniversary and in the past three years his organization has placed 860 low-income adults in jobs paying an average of more than $12 per hour. Through training and coaching that costs roughly $2,000 per person, the goal is 1,500 jobs by 2020. The program has broad-based support from Madison’s business and philanthropic communities. On the morning we talked, Anthony had just met with eight men and women being trained for commercial driving licenses.
The Urban League also has a successful scattered-site housing program and an education program. He estimates his group works with 100 or more nonprofit, for-profit and government partners.
He also described other racial progress in Madison, pointing to a dramatic increase in the African-American high school graduation rate reported last month by the state Department of Public Instruction. “We have to acknowledge when progress is happening,” he said. Madison School District Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham “has always been honest to say that in the face of a lot of challenges, we have to recognize the small progress that’s being made.”
On two other positive notes, Anthony said the United Way of Dane County and leaders from communities of color are working together more effectively than was once the case, and that African-American relations with police are better: “I think the community and police relationships are improving because there’s a lot of proactive talk going on.”
In many ways, Anthony says, Madison can be a national model, and praised the city’s Black Leadership Council, the Latino Chamber of Commerce, and YWCA Madison in particular.
But in this toxic national political environment, he cautioned, vigilance is required.
“All it takes is one national incident to reignite the rage that we have seen here locally, whether it’s a police shooting or some other type of racial incident that we typically have on campuses, like the Barack Obama noose thing and other stuff.” (In 2016, a costume depicting President Obama wearing a noose appeared at a Camp Randall Stadium football game, inflaming the community.)
Anthony added: “As much as we make progress, there is still a tinderbox that could be ignited because of the backdrop. It has put us all on our heels about racial tension and in a lot of instances, I feel like the hands of time are being turned back to an era of blatant racism and discrimination.
“Many of the things that have been the foundation of what we support as a country have been blatantly kind of taken away. It’s hurtful not just to African-Americans, but to Americans in general. The progress we’ve made as American people sometimes is in question, whether it’s about race or women being discriminated against. It’s just a disturbing climate.”
I asked Anthony whether he and other African-Americans have been experiencing this toxic divide all along and if empathetic white people are just now fully realizing it.
He smiled and said: “I wouldn’t disagree with that. I think it’s a little bit more public now, and I’ve seen it embraced more publicly. I choose to be a glass-half-full guy. We have to look at the small accomplishments. If we can help one family, if we can help 1,500 families, we’ve done our part.
“It’s easy to get sidetracked and say ‘woe is me’ because this is happening nationally or to give up, and I think that we can make our statements, we can have conversations, we can express our civil disobedience, but at the same time you need some people doing the work.
“Despite what’s going on, what we do best is go into the vineyards and do the work, with families, with young people, to move them out of poverty, to fight social injustices and those sorts of things.”
He alluded to the people he met with who are being trained as commercial drivers.
“To be quite frank, I like spending my time with the kind of group I just left this morning, knowing there are some folks who come to us and feel like they have a chance because they came through our doors. They know there’s a real opportunity they can change their lives.”
He concluded, “If we can have a couple of those a day, that makes it all worth it.”
Fortunately, Anthony’s philosophy is shared by many across Madison.