More than 700 people packed a room at the Alliant Energy Center Friday evening to hear the Justified Anger coalition’s “Our Madison Plan” and embark on solving Madison’s racial disparities.
There were teachers, politicians, business leaders, farmers and activists of all ages and skin colors filling row after row of seats.
“I found the solution to our racial disparity issues,” said Rev. Alex Gee, who has led the effort, telling people to take a look around the room. “We are the solution to this problem.”
“Our Madison Plan” focuses on five key areas: education, economic development, incarceration, family and community wellness and leadership and capacity development.
The coalition plans to tackle specific issues in those areas with community help and to raise $1,575,000 by the end of the year for a two-year start-up phase. That involves funding for 10 full-time staff, community-based initiatives, training, support and administration.
To start that funding, the Evjue Foundation, the charitable arm of the Cap Times, contributed $150,000 and the Art and Sue Lloyd Fund from Forward Community Investments gave $20,000.
By 2020, the coalition hopes to raise $20 million and invest it in a fund that would generate income for supporting local African-American initiatives.
Gee said he’s tired of coming to the table begging for funding, so this fund would exist in perpetuity to fund further work eradicating racial disparities.
“I don’t have the energy to beg to save your property taxes,” Gee said.
The coalition grew out of a Cap Times essay Gee wrote in December 2013 focusing on the city’s failings when it comes to its African-American community. The response to that essay and a subsequent town hall meeting catalyzed this movement which has involved thousands of conversations with individuals across many sectors of the community.
The resulting coalition and its plan are black-led and grassroots, something leaders say has not happened in the past.
“It’s African-Americans coming together in ways I’ve not seen in my 30-plus years in this community to lead,” said Darrell Bazzell, vice chancellor for Finance and Administration at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Gee said until now, most of the initiatives and plans have come from the government down, whereas this one comes from the people up.
“We did not wait for the government to set this agenda. It started at the community level, which makes this thing unique,” Gee said.
Over the past two decades, there have been repeated initiatives at the city, county and state level to initiate conversations around and solutions to racial disparities. Yet such efforts have fallen short and gaping racial disparities persist.
Instead of having a seat at the table when it’s already set, Gee emphasized the need to be able to set that table themselves as black leaders, to be able to decide what goes on it.
Surrounded by the many individuals that have dedicated their time and effort to this plan, Gee said it’s imperative their work doesn’t go to waste.
“We can’t let these brilliant thinkers craft a plan that will change the face of this community and then go on the shelf,” Gee said.
To prevent that, Gee emphasized the need for this plan to be community-implemented — the black community can’t do it alone.
For the hundreds who gathered for Friday evening’s event, which was sponsored by the Cap Times, the feeling following the presentation was one of excitement and energy.
“I think we’re in a magical point in that we’ve got the largest and the deepest commitments I’ve ever seen to systemic change,” said Mayor Paul Soglin.
Community members perused the tables to learn more about each of the five work groups, and could sign up to become involved.
“It’s amazing to see this quality of energy in the room, the solidarity, people actively engaged and taking responsibility,” said recently elected Ald. Barbara McKinney. “It’s not just black people saying: not on my watch.”
Bridget Holcomb said she heard Gee speak at a library and said she realized, “what’s happening in the black community in Madison is my community.”
She gravitated toward the incarceration work group, saying she knows almost nothing about incarceration, which makes her think she really should. Looking at the data presented on the chart about incarceration rates of young African-American men, she said, “This just blew my mind.”
“I can’t believe that we’ve allowed that to happen.”
Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce President Zach Brandon said what’s exciting about the initiative is the focus on building a black middle class, black entrepreneurship and black executives.
“That’s the conversation that has not been had that needs to be had,” he said.
He called the $20 million target an “audacious goal,” saying the chamber’s role will be to support that work as the gateway to the business community.
Leaders from the Young, Gifted and Black Coalition were also excited about the proposal and hopeful it would address some of the issues alongside their work.
“If you don’t have agitators, you will not have systemic change,” Gee said during his speech, crediting Brandi Grayson and other members of YGB for their work calling attention to racial disparities.
Grayson said she’s excited about the proposal, depending on how it plays out, though she noted she sees their group as more than just agitators, calling the group educators and system-changers as well.
Gee said Latino, Asian-American and other groups have also stepped up to say they want to be a part of this plan.
Throughout the night, many expressed a sense of a shift in the discourse and action around racial disparities in the city.
“I have a feeling that our community now owns the challenge,” the UW's Bazzell said.