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Nonprofit leaders

From left: Felicia Davis, Tutankhamum "Coach" Assad, Will Green

Three African-American nonprofit leaders who applied for employment program funding are strongly criticizing Madison officials for how their organizations were treated and calling the process “blatant” discrimination.

In August, Madison's Community Development Division issued a request for proposals from organizations to support youth and adult employment programs. This was the city's first call for applications for adult employment programs since 2012.

Felicia Davis of DSS Community Center, Tutankhamun “Coach” Assad of the Mellowhood Foundation and Will Green of Mentoring Positives said city officials took their organizations out of the category they applied for and assigned them to the "work teams" category that aims to serve 14- to 15- year-old youth. These organizations pay youth for jobs that include working in community gardens and participating in food development. 

Davis said officials did this assuming their organizations did not have the capacity to administer jobs programs as well as larger nonprofits like Briarpatch Youth Services or Common Wealth Development.

“It is very racially insulting and discriminatory to have all of the African-American grassroots organizations listed in a category that classifies us as incompetent and individuals that lack the skills needed to provide the programs that we have been providing for multiple years,” Davis said.

Draft recommendations from city staff suggest allocating either $20,936 or $24,426 to the three organizations, along with others, for serving 14- and 15-year-old youth. The city is also proposing to allocate a total of $254,000 for organizations serving the 15- to 21-year-old youth category and $248,950 for those serving young adults 16- to 21-years-old who might need more emotional and social support. 

CDD director Jim O’Keefe said some organizations' proposals were shifted to categories that more accurately reflected their programming. Additionally, he said the amount of funding paired with each age category was not pre-designated.  

“We tried to align proposals with the tiers that we thought reflected the strength of the proposal and that wasn’t always the same areas the applicant had submitted the request to,” O’Keefe said.

An original set of recommendations — since revised — from the Community Services Committee released at an Oct. 24 meeting suggested that Davis, Assad and Green’s organizations use nonprofits such as Common Wealth and Briarpatch as their fiscal agents.

O'Keefe said the city failed to explain the recommendations clearly or reach out to applicants prior to the Oct. 24 meeting.

"We certainly bear responsibility for contributing to some of the misunderstandings that exist around those recommendations," O'Keefe said.

The nonprofit leaders are requesting their organizations be funded at the levels they applied for in their proposals. Assad applied for $75,000, Davis requested $100,000 and Green applied for $149,999 for youth employment programming.

Davis said the organizations have been operating on “shoestring” budgets to support low-income residents and people of color in underserved communities and said additional funding would help build internal capacity and demonstrate self-sufficiency. 

“We would like to see our organizations allocated funding at a higher amount since our organizations are serving three of the most underserved neighborhoods in the city of Madison," Davis said. 

Assad said he wants to see the city's funding process change and move away from what he called entitlement funding.

"We decided we should not, could not, and would not accept any more discrimination and invalidation," Assad said.

The Community Services Committee will meet Nov. 16 and expects to take action on the recommendations. The Finance Committee and the City Council will also need to sign off on the final funding recommendations. 

Continuum approach to employment

Madison offered funding of about $650,000 for youth employment programs and $630,000 in the adult employment arena. However, O’Keefe said the city received 22 proposals totaling over $1 million in each category.

“We’ve had to pack 20 pounds of potatoes in a 10 pound bag in each case,” O’Keefe said.

After the City Council approved an amendment sponsored by Ald. Shiva Bidar, District 5, early Tuesday morning, the CDD now has an additional $50,000 to allocate for youth employment and $100,00 for adult employment. 

“Youth and adult employment are evidence-based practices for violence prevention, so it makes sense to me that if we’re going to continue working towards putting more funding into violence prevention, we should put it to where we already know it is working,” Bidar said.

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The City Council approved the 2018 capital and operating budgets at a marathon meeting ending in the early hours of Tuesday morning. 

In their proposals, applicants were asked to provide a continuum of services that support high school graduation, GED attainment, career guidance, pre- and post-employment training and services and work placement for youth and adults facing barriers.

In addition to financial benefits, the programs should also create pathways to employment as a method of addressing racial and economic disparities, juvenile delinquency and neighborhood violence, according to the criteria.

O’Keefe said the city is seeking agencies to fit into the building-block approach to employment opportunities that the city is trying to create.

“We did not come at this from the perspective of responding to individual programs and individual agencies,” O’Keefe said. “We’re trying to fit these different agencies and the work they’re doing into those continuums.”

For example, the city has supported work crews for 14- and 15-year-olds through Briarpatch. Under the continuum approach, a young person could take the job readiness skills they learn on that team and apply them to Goodman’s Teenworks program or the city’s Wanda Fullmore Internship.

To Green, the city’s recommendations seem as if officials are parachuting into neighborhoods that he, Assad and Davis have been working in for years and that input from neighborhood residents was not considered.

DSS Community Center has served youth in the Brentwood community for eight years, the 7-year-old Mellowhood Foundation operates in the Meadowood Neighborhood and Mentoring Positives has been working in the Darbo-Worthington neighborhood for 14 years.

“They’re trying to make these decisions about neighborhoods, but they really don’t have information from us,” Green said.

Assad also said he received misleading information from a city staff member about their applications and heard another city employee say the grassroots organizations would not be funded because they lacked reliability. 

"The entire process reeked of the usual racial invalidation," Assaid said. "People with no cultural competency are administering the grants and continue to ignore racial injustice by underfunding essential programs in the most disadvantaged neighborhoods."

O'Keefe said he was aware of the situation and the staff members involved were informed that the behavior was not appropriate. He also said nine people reviewed the employment applications and he does not believe the staff members' comments interfered with the recommendations.

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Abigail Becker joined The Capital Times in 2016, where she primarily covers city and county government. She previously worked for the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism and the Wisconsin State Journal.