Alex Gee, I thought with a smile, certainly has a gift.
I was previewing a documentary on race inside the studios of WKOW television last month. There were perhaps two dozen of us there — mostly police officers, clergy, social workers and elected officials — watching and then being interviewed to supplement the program.
As the documentary wound to a conclusion, I noted that Gee’s was perhaps its most prominent voice.
That is no surprise. Gee is a well-known pastor, community organizer and civil rights leader noted for his oratorical skill. A lifelong Madisonian, he leads Fountain of Life Covenant Church and the Nehemiah Center for Urban Leadership Development.
He is also known for his 2013 Cap Times essay headlined “Justified Anger” about the personal affronts he had encountered here because he is African-American. That cover story followed on the heels of an alarming report on racial disparities titled “Race to Equity.” Together, that ignited a black-led movement that took Justified Anger as its name.
Gee remains a long-term optimist about the coalition’s efforts even though in a lengthy recent interview at my office, he sounded pensive about the state of race relations here.
“On some days, it’s more than heartbreaking,” he says. “My spirit is wounded that today’s UW-Madison campus feels more hostile to my daughter, who’s a scholar, than it was for my mother 45 years ago.”
His mother, he says, was “a black woman with a freshman-year high school education, a dropout, two kids, and going through a divorce from an abusive husband, who walked the campus and never, ever, ever, ever felt she didn’t belong here.”
Gee adds: “Yet I’m talking my daughter off the cliff once a week.”
He quoted his daughter, Lexi, who will be a junior: “Dad, a guy sat behind me in class today saying ‘I can’t believe those Black Lives Matter folks are out there again. If I was out there with my car, I’d just run them over.’ ”
Gee adds, “No one said that when I was a student in college. No one said that to my mom, but my daughter is probably the sharpest, the best GPA, the best ACT of all the Gees.
“So there are days when I’m trying to lead a movement and be optimistic for the community, but I’m having these conversations on the phone with my daughter … I think I ride the optimistic wave, but there are times that I think, man, the black middle class came and stayed here believing this was absolutely the best place for the children of black academics, of black professionals, and at this point, 10 years, 15 years from retirement, I scratch my head and ask ... ‘Did I do the right thing by my child?’ ”
With that profound question as a backdrop, we talked about Justified Anger and, well, the elephants in the room.
First, some background. Gee recruited many of the city’s most prominent African-American leaders to the coalition, and just over a year ago launched a plan before about 700 people at the Alliant Energy Center. That night, the Evjue Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the Cap Times, announced a $150,000 grant to Justified Anger, or JA for short. The coalition has now raised about $500,000 and spent less than one-fourth of that amount, Gee says.
JA announced a framework at the kickoff event — the “Our Madison Plan” — under five race-related headings: school achievement, underemployment, incarceration rates, health and wellness issues, and developing leaders.
The coalition’s leaders chose to focus initial efforts on the Meadowood neighborhood on Madison’s southwest side, an area challenged by crime and other problems. To their surprise, they were greeted coolly by some fellow African-Americans who were already leading grassroots efforts there. They decided to regroup and spent months building trust with Meadowood activists, Gee says.
Besides finding skeptics inside Meadowood, JA continues to face a white power structure of business and elected leaders, as well as philanthropists, who at times seem to have their collective arms crossed and toes tapping waiting for statistical evidence of coalition progress.
Says Gee: “The thing that makes this work so difficult is that I feel the sense of ‘What are you guys doing? What’s going on? How’s it coming along? When are you going to print something? When are you going to publish something?’ ”
What people miss, he says, is that Justified Anger is not about programs per se — there are lots of entities doing programs — but instead about winning trust and building bridges and pulling the community together.
“I really want to stress that true change comes from challenging the systems, but it’s also organizing. Those are the two big things that JA is doing, and not much of that looks like programming,” he says.
Out of the Meadowood experience, for example, came insights. Gee says: “We were able to bring the faith community together to work with elected officials and the neighborhood associations and with some of the schools.
“We wanted to find out, from a real grassroots level, who are the identified leaders? What are some of the needs? What are some of the fears? What are some of the concerns? It took that approach to establish credibility, even though we (coalition members) all look like the community.” Gee says those lessons will be applied to other neighborhoods.
Meanwhile, JA organized a series of history classes last winter, predominantly for whites, about the legacy of slavery, a series that will be repeated this fall. The coalition plans a major overall update for the public in mid-September, Gee says, and is focused on adding staffing to support efforts around education, incarceration and wellness.
So the movement moves on, not as an all-encompassing creator or overseer of programs, but as a laboratory for community organizing, for connecting the distinctly separate worlds of white power and money with a wide range of African-Americans, especially those performing vital hands-on work.
Race relations appear even more strained than when Gee wrote his essay, and building bridges is key to finding solutions. But the path isn’t easy, even with good intentions.
As Gee puts it, the goal is to “have a voice with the white intelligentsia in this community that really influence civic life, as well as with the black grassroots folks, and also with the black intelligentsia who are saying, ‘Gee, watch out for this, or keep this in mind, or do this, or do that.’ ”
Piece of cake, right?