Last week, Nehemiah Community Development Corporation received a $1 million grant to reduce racial health disparities among African-Americans.
“Racial stress and isolation are both killing black people in Wisconsin,” said Rev. Dr. Alex Gee, pastor of Fountain of Life Church and president and founder of Nehemiah.
At a Monday press conference, Gee and Nehemiah staff said the money will support the ongoing efforts of the Justified Anger Coalition and allow them to hire a program coordinator, as well as up to three community specialists to help replicate their work in the Meadowood neighborhood.
The grant is one of four Community Impact grants from the Wisconsin Partnership Program at the UW School of Medicine and Public Health. The grants, $1 million each over five years, are meant to “improve health and health equity” in the state.
Justified Anger, an initiative of Nehemiah working to “move the needle” on racial disparities in Madison, has created several programs since forming in 2014, including the Justified Anger Leadership Institute for African-Americans and its “Black History for a New Day” classes for the white and non-black community. The class traces systemic racism throughout the history of the United States, and it aims to motivate participants to do something about it.
In the Meadowood neighborhood, Justified Anger hired Jacquelyn Hunt, a professional substance abuse counselor, as a community organizer. She then started a leadership development workshop.
All three of those efforts will be supported by the new funding, and all three act as starting points for further action, said Harry Hawkins, executive vice president of Nehemiah. Leadership Institute participants complete a capstone project in their field of expertise, and Black History students can connect with Justified Anger’s new director of mobilization to find opportunities to put their knowledge to use.
Justified Anger trains white allies to follow the lead of black innovators, Gee said, which he called the “secret sauce” of the group's work.
“Typically the white community sets the agenda, sets the table, and they invite us to rubber-stamp it,” Gee said. “We’re creating the agenda, we’re listening to the community ... then we’re inviting non-black allies to support the innovation."
The money will also help replicate Justified Anger’s Meadowood effort in other areas, but Hawkins said the organization isn’t ready to announce specific neighborhoods until it discusses ideas with community members in those areas.
“We’re going to take our time and make sure we’re connected with people in the neighborhood,” Hawkins said. “One of the mistakes we hope to avoid is just assuming we know what people need.”
“We do know that we will be invited into whatever community we go into. That we will not choose it, it will choose us,” Gee said.
Wisconsin’s Equity and Inclusion Laboratory will work with Justified Anger to “design and conduct rigorous evaluation of the project efforts,” a press release said. That will allow Justified Anger to document and describe its work so that other cities may be able to use it as a model, said Karen Reese, vice president of research and education at Nehemiah.
The goal of all these efforts is to reduce health disparities by promoting social connection and addressing racism.
“Not all health is created in a doctor’s office,” said Andrea Dearlove, senior program officer for the Wisconsin Partnership Program.
Other “well-supported indicators of health” include factors like micro- and macro-aggressions and social isolation, she said.
“The stress of being isolated, the stress that comes from microaggressions, is causing African-Americans to die from the same illnesses that their white counterparts have, more often and earlier, and that has to be addressed,” Gee said.
African-Americans in Dane County experience many health disparities, including higher rates of cancer, obesity and diabetes than white populations.
Gee said he’s seen family members and congregants suffer from what he believes are racial stress-induced illnesses. He and his wife lost two infants in the 1990s, and did not realize until much later that their experience was part of the larger story of Wisconsin’s drastic black-white infant mortality disparity.
“This is not just something that I’m doing for some unnamed disenfranchised group. I’m doing this because this has come to my front door and I don’t want to see continued loss,” he said.