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Hundreds of people, including many of Madison’s top business and community leaders, gathered Friday night to hear how a group of influential African-American residents calling themselves the Justified Anger coalition plans to lead a broad-based attack on pronounced racial disparities in the city.

The event at the Alliant Energy Center’s Exhibition Hall felt like a party early on, with tables of refreshments and music from a neo-soul band. It turned serious as the Rev. Alex Gee, the effort’s leader, issued a fervent call to action.

“Madison, this is our moment,” said Gee, pastor of Fountain of Life Covenant Church and president of the Nehemiah Center for Urban Leadership Development. “This is our chance to do something.”

He termed it a “call to audacity,” saying generations of African-Americans audaciously fought everything from slavery to Jim Crow laws. That same audacity is needed anew, he said.

“African-Americans have abdicated our audacity; no one took it away from us,” Gee said. “We will reclaim it in this community beginning right now.”

While the effort will be black-led, it will be implemented by the entire community, he said.

The size of the crowd and its diverse makeup spoke to the passion behind the issue. Organizers said they had seats for 700. All were filled, and dozens more stood.

Deborah Biddle, 53, of Verona, said she first heard about the effort through her membership in a black sorority. She came hoping to learn ways to put her skills to use.

“I’d like to hear about something that I can really latch onto personally,” said Biddle, who works for a career counseling company and attended the event with her husband and 15-year-old son.

She said she was particularly interested in helping in the areas of career and leadership development.

“It seems like a handful of African-American people are really prominent and quoted in the newspaper and on TV, but it would be great to expand that pool of people,” she said.

Meredith Green, 70, of Fitchburg, a retired early childhood education specialist who is white, said she arrived “curious and hopeful” and wanting to be part of the solution.

“It’s a good city to be white in,” Green said of Madison, “but it doesn’t feel comfortable when there are this many people who are disenfranchised.”

Essay started effort

Gee spurred the effort with a highly read 2013 essay in The Capital Times newspaper detailing his experiences with subtle and not-so-subtle racism. The Capital Times sponsored Friday’s event.

Gee’s essay was titled “Justified Anger,” and that is now the trademarked name of the coalition that issued “Our Madison Plan” on Friday.

More than a year in the making by a cross-section of black leaders, the plan spells out goals in five areas: education, economic development, incarceration, family and community wellness, and leadership and capacity development.

“It’s African-Americans coming together in ways I’ve not seen in my 30-plus years in this community,” Darrell Bazzell, vice chancellor for finance and administration at UW-Madison, told the crowd in his welcome.

Some of the goals are precise and provocative. For instance, the plan seeks to drop Madison’s paired elementary schools, put in place in 1984 to integrate city schools. Coalition leaders say busing black students out of their neighborhoods makes it harder for their parents to be involved in school activities.

Other goals are more diffuse, such as creating “pathways for enhancing education, employment and entrepreneurship opportunities for African-Americans.”

Gee’s newspaper essay followed a much-discussed report the same year by the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families titled “Race to Equity.” It starkly illuminated racial inequalities in Dane County and remains an authoritative backdrop for equity discussions in the community.

“I love Madison, but some things have to change,” said Marlon Anderson, 44, as he arrived at Friday’s event. He is a black father of three sons and works in security for the Madison School District.

“We need to draw attention to these problems, because sometimes people just don’t know what’s going on,” Anderson said. “It’s like when someone says your fly is open. You fix it. Well, this is the community walking around with its fly open.”

Residents galvanized

The March shooting death of 19-year-old Tony Robinson, who was black, by a white Madison police officer further galvanized residents to scrutinize race relations. From the stage Friday, Gee gave a well-received shout-out to the Young, Gifted and Black Coalition, a group that has staged numerous protests following Robinson’s death and whose in-your-face tactics have been questioned by some.

“If you don’t have agitators, you will not have systemic change,” Gee said.

The coalition has ambitious goals. It wants to raise $1.6 million by the end of this year and a minimum of $20 million by 2020.

The $1.6 million would be used to hire 10 full-time staff members to carry out the next phase of the effort, which includes community meetings, the training of volunteers and the implementation of ideas. The $20 million would create an endowment, with the interest income “supporting social innovation in the local African-American community,” according to the plan.

Friday’s event provided opportunities for people to learn how they can participate going forward. There will be “opportunities for thousands of people to take hundreds of steps together,” Gee said.

Also, there was a wall where people posted notes completing the sentence: My hope for our Madison is . . .

One person wrote, “That in my lifetime, racial disparities will only be taught in history classes.”

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