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'Justified anger': Five years later

  • 11 min to read
'Justified anger': Five years later

My stomach was filled with butterflies as I woke up on the morning of Dec.18, 2013, more than a little bit nervous.

I had written a cover story for The Capital Times about my experience as a black man in Madison. I had poured out my soul, sharing my hopes for the city where I had spent so much of my life as well as the frustrations and indignities I had experienced here.

I voiced my anger because white Madisonians did not seem to understand the depth of the racial disparities in this city, how they affected even a middle-aged pastor and nonprofit leader who happened to be black. The article was called “Justified Anger,” and I was not sure what the reaction would be, among either whites or blacks, in our community. People can get uncomfortable with anger, particularly when it comes from a black man.

The article set off a tidal wave of reaction, particularly in the white community, as people came face-to-face with the racial realities of Madison in the early 21st century.

In the process, I rode a five-year roller coaster of emotions, capped by a high point in October when the Wisconsin Partnership Program gave the nonprofit I run, Nehemiah, a five-year, $1 million Community Impact grant to address the root causes of racial health disparities among African-Americans.

Now, five years after that original article, what started out as an improvised response to an essay that was never intended to start a movement has become a multi-faceted approach to changing the racial dynamics in this community.

That movement brought people together across the customary lines, it propelled more African-Americans into leadership roles, it drew whites by the hundreds into conversations and education about the black experience in America and in Madison.

But there were plenty of moments of doubt over these past five years, as well as the joyful realization that I was not facing this alone. We were attacking the toxicity of racism in our society and we were doing it with black leadership that was setting the table instead of just getting one or two “non-voting” seats.

Today we are in the midst of a surge in hate crimes across the nation and a renewed vocal and virulent racism in the public discourse. Locally, there is a focus on crime that often involves black young people and reinforces old stereotypes that play on fear.

Lately, I have been using this image of the toxicity of racism and what we can do about it.

Our lakes in the Madison area help define who we are. Lake Mendota, one of the most studied lakes in the world, looks beautiful from a distance. We don’t see the toxicity that threatens the fish that swim there, or the toxicity that threatens the lake’s existence. We cannot solve it by just putting a few more fish in the lake. We need to address the root causes of the toxicity.

Racism in our community is toxic. It lingers below the surface and many cannot see it when they describe a very attractive city. The need to represent all black people, adjust, remain silent, and the need to overproduce compared to the average citizen causes chronic stress. The lack of role models who can help black people navigate the never-before-diverse environments also causes a level of stress that they must return to every day. Their white counterparts never experience this. This toxic racism not only threatens the black members of our community, but it threatens our ability to contribute to the well-being of the entire community. And this is why many African-Americans — especially those born here — choose to leave the area.

The grant we received in late October will allow us to focus on reducing the racial toxicity that affects the physical health of so many African-Americans. The stress of living in a toxic environment can lead to high blood pressure, a greater risk of diabetes, compromised immune systems and increased maternal and infant deaths. Blacks are dying more often and earlier than their white counterparts. Addressing this is literally a matter of life and death.

Confronting the root causes — the racism embedded in our institutions and the systems we take for granted — comes directly from strategies outlined in the Our Madison Plan framework released in 2015 after in-depth conversations with African-Americans in Madison. Our Madison Plan stated that we would work to align the community and build social capital, convene people to develop collaborative efforts and strategies; and that we would strategically affect systemic change by affecting policy, community and business practices, and skills for better personal cross-cultural interactions. 

Justified Anger 1

This movement brought people together across the customary lines, it propelled more African-Americans into leadership roles, it drew whites by the hundreds into conversations and education about the black experience.

We will expand on three pieces developed over the past few years. Going forward, we will include ongoing evaluation by the Wisconsin Equity and Inclusion Laboratory under the direction of Jerlando Jackson in the UW-Madison Center for Education Research. We will focus on developing grassroots leaders in two to three Madison neighborhoods, expand a network of young African-American professionals grounded in culturally appropriate leadership practices and work with white allies to educate them and coach them on how to dismantle systems of racism. Our work has been concentrated in three main areas:

PROFESSIONAL LEADERS — Madison loses many of its black professionals and the reasons have little to do with the weather. Our Leadership Institute not only helps them develop knowledge and skills that will help them in their careers and connect to the wider community, but it also helps them build a black network. These professionals meet grassroots leaders and I connect them with my network. It weaves them into the black leadership tapestry of this community. Over 30 people have gone through the Leadership Institute and we are now working with our third cohort. The participants are employed in private businesses, nonprofits and government, and spend over 60 hours in classroom instruction, life coaching and networking with local black leaders. This institute is helping them influence the cultural climate in the organizations where they work.

GRASSROOTS LEADERS — Madison neighborhoods are rich with black grassroots leaders who know what their community needs to thrive. Many are already running programs and providing services. Beginning in the Meadowood Neighborhood on the southwest side, we sought to listen to the residents, identify community leaders, rally the community churches, empower and fund some of the grassroots initiatives. However, our goal is to support leaders and residents to create a sustainable network. We coached residents and 15 of them completed our leadership curriculum. We are currently working on a plan to raise money between Justified Anger, area churches and local businesses to create three part-time positions so local residents can carry out the agenda of the community without any governmental or foundation funding. With the Wisconsin Partnership Program grant, we can expand that to more neighborhoods, building more grassroots leadership capacity that is self-reliant and connected to each other.

NON-BLACK ALLIES  —  Strengthening existing support networks and building new ones for professional and grassroots black leaders helps, but to reduce the stress of racism, we must address it directly. Beginning in 2016, we created U.S. Black History for a New Day, a nine-week course taught by UW-Madison professors as well as talks by my sister, Lilada, and me. It covers the history most of us never learn, even in college. Participants process the information in small group discussions following the lectures. We then offer further training for participants to identify how, when and where they can take action in their spheres of influence. We aren’t merely educating for the sake of knowledge but taking a methodical approach for mobilizing people to do something differently. Some 650 mostly white Madisonians have gone through the class and learned how to recognize racism on a personal level as well as in other areas of their lives. Of those who have taken the class, some 300 have gone on to other training opportunities around racial issues, and 150 have gotten directly involved either as individuals or in groups to improve the racial dynamics in our community. There is another series starting in February.


Writes Gee: "I wrote my article in a way that allowed Madisonians to say, 'This is one of our own. We need to listen, even if we don't like it.' And I called out the pseudo-liberalism of Madison."

This approach addresses the toxic stress related to racism by working to change the social and systemic landscape, and defines the next steps for the movement that grew out of that 2013 essay. The story of how we got to where we are today offers some insights into what we can do in the future.

Five years ago, I did not expect the Justified Anger article to generate the response it did. People I knew and respected because of their roles or positions in the community — most of them white — reached out to me to ask to talk. Most had not done that before. For blacks in Madison, the stories I had told in that article were nothing new. They had had similar experiences. But for whites, a door had just opened.

I was no stranger to Madison. I had been a paper boy, delivering The Capital Times in my youth. I had worked on Park Street. I went to Leopold, Lincoln and West, then to the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I did the things we want our Madison children to do. Yet things were not ending up the way I thought they were supposed to. I wrote my article in a way that allowed Madisonians to say, “This is one of our own. We need to listen, even if we don’t like it.” And I called out the pseudo-liberalism of Madison.

The reaction to the article kept building. People offered to help me organize, to raise money.

Sometimes it got a little weird. People offered to put together sit-ins and then raise bail money for me once I got arrested. “Wait a minute,” I said. “Don’t you realize that bailing me out works only if I go to jail? What if I don’t want to go to jail?” Jail was not part of my plan. Growing up, I had promised my mama that jail would never be a part of my life.

I could not keep up with all of the responses. So, out of sheer naiveté and frustration, I said, “Let’s have a town hall meeting and I’ll just tell everybody why I wrote the article.” Well, we did, and on Feb. 15, 2014, nearly 600 people showed up to my church, Fountain of Life. There were business executives and nonprofit leaders, people from foundations and students from campus, teachers and pastors, ordinary citizens and elected officials — even Republican U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson.

When I walked into the packed sanctuary that day, it was as surreal a moment as I had ever experienced. The audience was predominantly white. The media was there. I could hardly breathe. I thought, “This is becoming a thing!”

The meeting was a huge success. But I left with my anxiety even higher. People were asking, “What do you want to do now?” I’m thinking, “I want to go back to my normal life. I want to run Nehemiah. I want to lead Fountain of Life.” But I felt compelled by black history to speak honestly in this moment.

I started leading planning meetings, and faced the differing views of what should come next from others in the black community.

One of the things that was unique about Justified Anger was it provided a space where a variety of black leaders could work through their differences and in the process, take new leadership roles in the community. I did a lot of listening, just to make sure I was not just pushing my own agenda. I spent a lot of time in high schools talking with black students, in neighborhoods talking with single black moms, at meetings with formerly incarcerated people, and with black faculty, doctors, police officers and social workers.

There was another big community meeting on April 27, 2014, at Memorial High School where some 300 to 400 folks crossing racial and ethnic divisions showed up to share food and stories. One 80-year old white woman could not get her car out of her garage, so she walked a mile carrying her casserole so she could be there.

Town Hall

"Justified Anger, State of Emergency" town hall meeting held at Fountain of Life Covenant Church in 2014.

There were young African-Americans serving as table discussion leaders. They were so struck by how people were intrigued by their history and their story. They couldn’t believe white people wanted to hear about their experiences and took their comments seriously.

We received some funding that May to put together a plan, a process to show how to move the agenda ahead. Leaders worked on that over several months as people kept asking me again what was next. But I did not want to rush the process. And then Madison police officer Matt Kenny shot and killed an unarmed black man, Tony Robinson, on March 6, 2015.

The community did not believe racial disparities could happen here and sure as heck didn’t believe that an unarmed kid could be shot by a police officer. I had originally written the article in late 2013 because people were saying Madison did not have a problem. By spring 2015, people were saying Madison indeed was in trouble.

Leaders in Madison who were black began to come together to shape a document that would define what Madison needed to do to overcome its racial disparities. There were black people in the room across the political spectrum, female leaders, young leaders and veterans of the movement. Many of us had never been in a setting where it was just black people collectively setting a city-wide agenda.

In the end, that group shaped the framework that became known as Our Madison Plan. The word “Our” signaled that we wanted this to include the whole community, not just the black community. We hoped to unite leaders of all backgrounds around a shared vision for addressing the unmet needs of Greater Madison’s African-American community.

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This never was intended to be something Justified Anger would do on its own. It was a framework, but it would take collaboration from the entire community. And it would take money. We estimated that it would take $1.5 million over three years to get things moving. To its credit, the Evjue Foundation — the charitable arm of The Capital Times — led the way with a $150,000 grant. We raised $500,000 in total. Interestingly, people asked more questions about why we didn’t raise $1.5 million than how we stretched $500,000 over three years and still met our goals.

On the night of May 29, 2015 — a year and a half after that original article — Our Madison Plan was unveiled to around 1,000 people gathered at the Alliant Energy Center. It was a spectacular moment. On the stage were black leaders who had helped shape the plan along with elected officials and funders, most of them white.

There was another dimension to this. It felt like everyone paused for a minute and said, “Maybe they’re going to fix it, the people up on stage are going to fix it — they’re the black dream team.”

I was not sure what to do next. I was worn down by the public and personal pressures of the previous year. I pretty much went dark for a couple of months, thinking about how I was going to do this. I stopped answering emails. Every day was a panic attack. I felt stuck.

Justified Anger 2

I began to think of Justified Anger as a movement that could help build capacity to make the community stronger.

Then I had lunch with a friend who is an organizational consultant who got me back in action. He said I had to remind people that Our Madison Plan was a framework and he suggested mobilizing white allies to work with black leaders. That suggestion led to the class on black history where we would train and mobilize white allies. Some clarity began to emerge about what Justified Anger as an organization could do.

I began to think of Justified Anger as a movement that could help build capacity to make the community stronger, while mobilizing individuals to take action within their spheres of influence and to build meaningful cross-cultural relationships.

That began to take shape with the pilot project in Meadowood, with the black history class, and with new ways to strengthen black leadership in the community.

I came to understand that community transformation is what we need to heal racial disparities. We needed to create the ripples that would lead to change.

The work is more than just trying to fix an individual – the focus of so many programs. It means looking at where the community is hurting and work on making the community better as a whole by bringing people together. It means reducing the racial toxicity in our social environment. That’s where we are heading now, building on the lessons and successes from our experience in the past few years. And that’s what led to this extraordinary Community Impact grant.

This is where our work begins to synergize —we build capacity and connections, which create networks to foster a healthy black community, while tearing down any system that would come against that flourishing by empowering non-black allies to change their spheres of influence, and to do the deep inner work of challenging and educating themselves.

This grant received through the Wisconsin Partnership Program empowers us to begin to address the health disparities found in microaggressive communities such as Madison, and to lead the way for the nation in how we prove there is real hope for change and a deconstruction of racism. Our work aims to create a city and culture where black people can be healthy and flourish as much as others. 

Five years ago, when I wrote the Justified Anger essay, I was able to vent my frustrations as a black man in Madison.

Five years later, black brothers and sisters have joined together in setting the agenda for what needs to be done.

White allies and non-black allies have joined us in the effort to get rid of toxic racism. Funders have seen what we can do and are helping us move forward.

Am I done being angry? Of course not. The deep racial disparities remain and hurt everyone in our community. I am still waiting for more whites to become angry with me. I fear our community putting this issue on the back burner.

But, am I hopeful that we can make this a stronger community for all? Of course I am — but it is work that will need to be done by all of us so that in another five years, all Madison-area residents have begun to thrive because we put our hope into action.

“Hope has two beautiful daughters; their names are Anger and Courage. Anger at the way things are, and Courage to see that they do not remain as they are.”

— Augustine of Hippo

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