The parking lot of Fountain of Life Covenant Church was overflowing on Saturday afternoon. So was the lot for the Nehemiah Center for Urban Leadership Development, next door. A highway sign directed people to park at the Villager Mall, where a shuttle was available. And even more cars filled lots of nearby businesses as people trekked along Badger Road, making their way toward the Rev. Alex Gee’s town hall meeting.
This activity in the Fountain of Life parking lot was far different from what he described in his essay, “Justified Anger,” published as a Capital Times cover story in December. In that piece, Gee wrote about being questioned by police officers within sight of the church's sign, which includes his name.
“I talked about what happened right outside that door,” Gee said after Saturday's meeting, motioning toward the lot. “What redemption, to have people come around and say, ‘Let’s make the community better,’ on the same grounds where I had one of my most frustrating experiences. That’s powerful. That’s redemptive.”
He was blown away by the initial response, from the Madison community and beyond, to his essay, and he was overwhelmed by the energy in the church on Saturday. He hoped 250-300 people might attend, not the 500 or 600 that showed up, filling the church’s sanctuary and spilling into an overflow room.
The crowd included community members, business and nonprofit leaders, educators, elected officials, activists and others interested to hear Gee discuss why he wrote the essay and what he believes are the next steps toward addressing Madison’s racial disparities.
The driving force in that movement will be a coalition of black community leaders, assembled by Gee, who will work together to set an agenda addressing systemic issues in education, mass incarceration and employment.
The coalition includes Keetra Burnette and Kaleem Caire, both of the Urban League of Greater Madison, Rev. Lilada Gee of Lilada’s Livingroom, Lisa Peyton-Caire of the Foundation for Black Women’s Wellness, Patrick Yates of Fountain of Life Covenant Church and Michael Johnson of the Boys and Girls Club of Dane County.
“I know we’re skeptical. I can feel it in the room,” Gee told the crowd. “Let me tell you what’s going to be different: You, me, we’ve had these talks and gatherings, but not like this. I want to believe in a beautiful Madison, and I know you do, too. So we’re going to work together to do this.”
Gee said Madison is at a “tipping point” when it comes to racial disparity. And while the issue might seem specific to Madison’s black community, he said, “in some essences, the Latino community is right on our heels.”
Building the coalition is part of an effort to “re-set the table” — that is, to give African-American voices more influence in issues that affect the greater Madison community. The goals for the coalition are to engage new leaders and build a grassroots movement, all while rebuilding hope in the hearts of youth, Gee said.
Partnership beyond the coalition will be crucial, he said.
“This is not a black problem to be solved by black people. These solutions must be shared and be solved by all of us together,” Gee said.
Gee said he’s gotten “every indication” that people in the Madison community are taking his essay and its implications seriously. He said he’s been contacted by gubernatorial candidate Mary Burke’s office, Dane County Executive Joe Parisi, the Madison schools superintendent Jennifer Cheatham’s office and U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson.
Johnson was in attendance on Saturday, along with several other elected officials including Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne, Dane County Sheriff Dave Mahoney and Madison school board members T.J. Mertz and Ed Hughes. Patrick Sims, interim vice provost and chief diversity officer at UW-Madison, said the university is committed to partnering with the coalition’s efforts.
“We need you to … use what you have and who you are, because our kids deserve better, our families deserve better, you deserve better and Madison deserves better,” Gee said. “We deserve better than this.”
Robert Agnew, Jr., a UW alumnus who spoke during the town hall portion of the meeting, said he got chills from the energy and hope that was cultivated in the room.
Agnew, who was incarcerated while working toward his degree, said he believes people behind bars are stereotyped as uneducated, hopeless and useless.
“I was one of those, but I’m none of those things,” he said, adding that he believes it’s important to transform education in order to increase graduation and decrease incarceration. That starts by instilling childrens’ self-value and identity, he said.
Agnew said the town hall was a momentous occasion.
“A lot of people feel that this is a point in the circle that we always come back to, but we never go towards jumping off in the deep,” Agnew said. “I disagree. Because I think this is a new era, a new generation, and I think it’s time for a change. I really believe in the mission, and also the drive that Pastor Gee has in mobilizing people and igniting them. It doesn’t take a lot, it only takes a few to start a movement."
Sen. Ron Johnson said he hopes to be a part of the conversation with the coalition as it continues. He said he sees strengthening faith, strengthening families, strengthening communities and having job opportunities as the first steps toward solutions.
“When I was here, I just heard a lot of common sense,” Johnson said. “I wasn’t disagreeing with it … The one woman who said she was here 30 years ago and we were talking about the same issues. Well, that tells you something. What I’ve been trying to convey to the people I’ve talked to so far is, we share the same goal. I mean, we do. I’m concerned about every American. I’m concerned about these problems in inner cities. We’ve got to find solutions. And the way you do that is you have to start the dialogue. So you’ve got to have people with good will, willing to listen to each other. You’ve got to really focus in on the root cause of the problem. We’ve got to define the problem so we can provide proper solutions. My approach is always to first figure out, ‘What do we agree on?’ Develop those relationships, develop that level of trust. Then when we get to, maybe it’s a disagreement, we can kind of find common ground. So this is really about sharing those goals and trying to find common ground.”
Gee said it will take him a few days to process everything he experienced Saturday.
“You could feel the love and energy,” he said. “I feel more hopeful than ever before that people are ready to get behind new leadership. I mean, just the presence. People stayed ‘til the end. They were engaged. They listened. And they entered into our space... I feel like my community was honored. I feel like I was honored, I feel like my mother was honored, I feel like my pain was honored. So I take that away. And I also take away that the coalition had better get together and set this agenda, because the people are serious about this.”
People who couldn't attend the meeting can share their thoughts and contact information by visiting madisonjustifiedanger.wordpress.com. A video of the town hall will be available on the Covenant Church's website on Monday, and people are encouraged to join the conversation on Twitter using the #JustifiedAnger hashtag.