With the help of a $1 million grant, a local community development organization will expand to more Madison neighborhoods in an attempt to improve the health of African-American residents.
Madison’s Nehemiah Community Development Corp. and its nearly 5-year-old Justified Anger initiative was awarded $1 million last week to expand its work beyond the one city neighborhood it now serves.
“We realized that if we don’t look at health through the lens of health equity, we won’t be able to improve the health of all Wisconsin’s communities,” said Andrea Dearlove, a senior officer with the Wisconsin Partnership Program, which awarded the grant in partnership with the UW School of Medicine and Public Health. “The other thing we realized ... is that not all health is created in the doctor’s office.”
Whether people experience racism, have jobs, and feel welcome in their communities and workplaces affect health, she said.
African-Americans in Wisconsin have higher rates of heart disease, high blood pressure, premature births and maternal death than whites, according to Nehemiah’s founder and president, the Rev. Alex Gee. Often, those poor health outcomes are affected by stress, employment and how involved a person is in social and community life.
To reduce such health disparities, he said the Justified Anger initiative will develop social and professional networks while developing African-American leaders.
Even African-Americans from comfortable middle-class backgrounds can be negatively affected by racial stress and isolation within the larger Madison community, he said.
“Our desire is to really have a stronger Madison for all,” Gee said. “Although we celebrate the accolades that our city receives, we want everyone to be able to celebrate when that takes place. But as long as black people are leading every negative comparison, whether it’s incarceration or health or economics or academics, then we can’t really celebrate this as a great city for us all.”
The grant was among four $1 million grants the two organizations announced last week. Among the recipients was Madison’s Supporting Families Together Association, which will use the money to address and prevent school expulsions.
The grants will be distributed over five years.
Moving to new neighborhoods
Justified Anger was launched in February 2014 and has focused its programs on the Southwest Side’s Meadowood Neighborhood. Its goal was to reverse the image of Madison as being unfriendly to minorities and eliminate racial disparities in Madison and throughout Wisconsin.
The initiative has promoted personal and professional networks among African-Americans through leadership training in the neighborhood and has also started to educate non-black allies about racism and to build relationships among people of different races.
The organization hasn’t yet decided what neighborhoods it will bring its services to or have a timeline for starting its work, said Harry Hawkins, Nehemiah’s executive vice president.
He said those decisions will be made after discussions with the neighborhoods, adding that they want the agenda driven by residents and community leaders.
“One of the mistakes we hope to avoid is just assuming we know what people need,” Hawkins said. “So we take the time and the effort to listen first.”
Developing the black community
To improve health outcomes, Gee said the Justified Anger initiative will continue to develop African-American leaders, such as Corinda Rainey-Moore, a participant in Justify Anger’s first leadership program cohort.
Rainey-Moore, a 39-year Madison resident and Kids Forward community outreach engagement coordinator, said she has participated in leadership programs before but found them lacking.
“I learned there are companies that send their employees to these leadership institutes ... but they don’t send people who look like me,” she said. “What that told me was that they don’t see us as leaders. I wanted to be in a space where there were folks who were just like me ... and in an environment where we could talk about what that means.”
Unlike those other programs, the Justified Anger leadership development institute included other African-Americans who could share similar experiences, Rainey-Moore said.
She said she’s had an idea for a couple of years to start a high school girls leadership academy but had struggled to “get moving in a direction to make it happen.”
“I had it all up here (in my head),” she said. “And nothing on paper, but now I have it up here and on paper.”
Now, she said she has the support of community members and is planning to launch the academy in the next few weeks.
Too many of Madison’s young black people with leadership potential have fled to cities in the southern United States because they are more appealing and supportive of African-Americans, Gee said.
“We’re finding that those communities are more welcoming and there are more role models than what we see in northern Midwestern cities,” he said. “We’re losing Madison-born blacks who have the skills and the cachet to really become leaders in this city.”