By Alex Gee
MADISON, WI (December 19, 2014) — Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the December 17 issue of the Madison, Wisconsin, Cap Times.
“Don’t give up on us and ignore us…we need to be inspired. Don’t group us all together. We’re more similar to other students than people realize. We want to be respected. We need mentors to stay on us and see us — and our potential.”
Last June, just before summer break, I met with groups of young African-American males during my student listening tour. I visited each of the Madison high schools in an attempt to find the cultural and academic pulse of young black males. I needed to hear for myself how they felt about what’s being said — and thought — about them in our community.
Those discussions were one part of a much larger conversation I had engaged in with several hundred local African-Americans since writing “Justified Anger” one year ago. My personal essay for the Cap Times called on Madison to address pervasive racial inequalities here.
To these young men, I had asked the question: What message do you want to convey to the superintendent? Their answers deserve to be heard by the broader community, too.
These young men were troubled by stereotypical views of them as well as their own willingness at times to play into those views. The young men stated that too many teachers and administrators underestimate their ability, worth and potential. They mentioned feeling unwelcome and expendable.
Although visiting with these students was very powerful and a highlight of my year, their overwhelming and collective sense of isolation — at home, at school and in the eyes of the law — broke my heart. These young men don’t want or deserve to be statistics. They have dreams that are being snuffed out by hopelessness.
Our communities, schools and homes cannot afford (in every sense of the word) to lose this generation of talented young men. There will be no African-American community of the future if they don’t survive and succeed today.
These young men may look like me, but they belong to all of us.
Since those conversations took place, the nation has erupted in racial turmoil after grand juries failed to indict white police officers for killing unarmed black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and an unarmed African-American man, Eric Garner, in Staten Island, New York. Many no longer think of police brutality as a thing of the past. I don’t know a black man who doesn’t have an inordinate fear of police!
What is Madison learning from those communities that chose to ignore the mounting sense of restlessness, hopelessness and racial disparities? What’s our shared opportunity today? How do we assure this doesn’t happen here?
As one might imagine, this past year has been amazingly busy. The perfect storm of the “Race to Equity” report, which brought hard data to the realities of black lives here, unprecedented media attention, community gatherings and public outcry have all helped to create an almost unavoidable awareness — and sometimes conversation — about race in Dane County. I have felt our city wrestling with the severity of our community’s racial inequalities.
In response, I organized a group of African-American leaders, the Justified Anger Coalition, to implement changes here. We are building a framework for community-based agencies and corporations, faculty and ex-offenders, government and philanthropists to work collaboratively to eliminate racial injustices that plague our community and undermine its world-class status. It’s work that African-Americans and non-African-Americans alike must engage in to change Madison for the better.
(The Covenant Companion published an interview “Hitting a Nerve” with Gee in April about what he hoped would happen in the coming months.)
I initially wrote “Justified Anger” because I wanted to express my pain and frustration at both my personal experiences and the city’s obliviousness concerning racial realities here. I had no idea this experience would afford me the opportunity to learn so many new things about our community. Many of them were very exciting and refreshing, while some of them were downright painful.
Some struck me as puzzling — like the reaction to the coalition name, Justified Anger.
“When are you going to stop being so angry, Alex?” asked a colleague recently.
I cannot tell you how many times over the past year I have been asked this question.
“And when are you going to the change the name Justified Anger? People are saying that we get it already. Can’t we just move forward toward solutions, now? Don’t we get it?” he continued.
Ironically, while a year ago I was being lauded because I was not thought of as an angry black man, today many white colleagues are asking — or wondering — why I won’t calm down. Why are people more concerned by my anger than the blatant issues which exist and fuel my anger? And can’t people see that my anger is fueling me — and others — to new action?
The sentiment of my friend and other well-meaning whites is that we already know all of this. The Madison Prep debate, “Race to Equity” along with my essay and many other initiatives have all helped to make us aware of the issues. So what my friends are really saying is “Don’t we get it already? Let’s move ahead to solutions.”
The problem with quick solutions is that they rarely have long-term effects. Part of fixing the problem is understanding how it was created in a community like ours in the first place. If our racial disparity is so embarrassingly painful that we rush to a solution without ample thought and introspection, our efforts become cosmetic, pretentious and short-lived.
“No! Actually, we don’t get it yet!” I replied to my friend. I began to explain — again — why I feel this way.
I recounted the experience of my daughter Lexi, when a white high school classmate discovered that Lexi had been admitted to UW-Madison. The student quizzed Lexi about her GPA and ACT scores, then remarked to another classmate standing nearby:
“It must be real nice to be black!”
I still clench my teeth each time I tell this story!
I could tell that my friend was not only stunned but seemingly horrified that such a conversation would take place.
I then asked him that if that had been his honor roll student whose intelligence and hard work had just been insulted, how long would it take him to stop being angry?
To which he said one of the most remarkable things I’d heard in the Madison area this past year:
“Maybe we as whites aren’t angry enough yet!”
When my caring white colleagues suddenly realize that it’s not enough to be passively understanding of the issues, but that we must all become angry and move to dismantle barriers that hinder the success of all our children, we will change Madison for the better.
My dismay over the situation with my daughter is not merely that a National Honor Society student, who happens to be African-American, was insulted. I’m equally dismayed at the fact that some white students feel comfortable and justified in openly questioning my daughter’s admissibility to the university where her grandmother, mother, father and aunt all earned degrees.
So it’s not just the “struggling” African-American students who suffer from misperceptions at school, huh?
In another interaction, a community leader interested in working with our youth said: “Your task is difficult because you’re asking white volunteers to get involved and perhaps tutor your kids. I happen to know that there are people in my circles who are asking why they should come here and help your kids just so they can grow up and compete with their own kids for spots at UW-Madison.”
I am honestly still reeling from that one. He spoke with such a sense of entitlement as if his children already had a “spot” at the UW until one of “our” kids comes along and steals it. His statement to me implied that he and his associates possess the skills to make our children “admissible.” His statement also sadly implies that some would easily withhold their assistance in order to protect the systemic racial injustice that he would most likely insist doesn’t exist…or that he in any way has contributed to or benefited from.
Could this be an example of where certain white privileged kids learn that they have guaranteed spots at prestigious universities until a person of color eclipses them? The gall! Are people seriously threatened by a summer tutoring program? It concerns me to think about what these kids will grow up to think about African-Americans after hearing talk like this.
It angers me that we have bequeathed this to our children. This ugly racial arrogance has now become part of their inheritance because we as adults haven’t done enough to demand an equitable and more integrated society for our kids in Dane County. If we neglect to come up with viable solutions for these disparities and the systems that perpetuate them, neither white youth nor youth of color will be prepared to compete in a corporate, educational setting or the global market.
I have been invigorated by many experiences in the past year, among them working and praying with some of Madison’s brightest African-American leaders who formed the Justified Anger Coalition. This effort could not have been shaped without the support of colleagues such as Kaleem Caire, Lisa Peyton-Caire, Lilada Gee, Keetra Burnette, Tori Pettaway, Noble Wray and Michael Johnson.
In addition, I am grateful to both black and white elders for their wisdom and guidance. Immediately following my article, complete strangers visited my office. One gentlemen was in his 70s and he told me he was the principal of the first federally enforced integrated school in a major southern city. He told me he’d googled me because he wanted to meet me in person and offer any assistance he may be able to provide. Another woman in her late 80s asked her son to drive her to my office because she wanted to see where I worked. She said she wanted to volunteer and read to young African-American children.
Just before a spring community potluck at Memorial High School designed to bring people of different races together, an 80-year- old woman locked her keys in her garage as she prepared to drive to our event. Not wanting to miss the potluck, she walked a mile carrying her casserole in order to be part of the discussion. Wow!
Elderly white neighbors saw me going for a walk in the neighborhood and told me wonderful things about their involvement in the NAACP in upstate New York during the tumultuous 1960s.
A colleague who’s a retired UW faculty member saw me at a restaurant and thanked me for my work and commented that it was about time Madison opened its eyes to its issues of race relations.
The message I got from these older whites was that they knew we were still far from true racial equality. They had each lived through segregation as well as America’s early futile attempts at integration and they seemed to have been waiting for someone to tell the truth that we have not arrived yet. Support from this age group meant a great deal to me. Their actions said to me that we cannot afford to be so eager to congratulate ourselves for arriving at unity because we have not.
I was incredibly encouraged by the words of wisdom and affirmations of many local African-American civil rights leaders who agreed to serve in an advisory role to me. Many of them have fought this fight for almost a half-century.
Brandi Grayson of the Young, Gifted and Black Coalition speaks during a recent retreat for the Justified Anger Coalition.
Another gratifying experience this past year has been the community awareness that there is no one-size-fits-all monolithic African-American community in Madison. We have listened to newer African-American voices without discrediting the older voices of proven leaders.
My heart and cultural pride were stoked by my African-American listening forums and the hundreds who participated. These groups included people ranging from tenured faculty, fundraising professionals, researchers, ex-offenders, single moms, community leaders, artists, unemployed women, underemployed men, young adults and UW-Madison officials. I asked what they lamented, what encouraged them and what was non-negotiable regarding race relations in Madison.
They lamented that we’re still talking and not changing racial injustice and that hardworking blacks still don’t feel at home in Madison. They said they were encouraged by African-Americans taking the lead in calling our community meetings, and were encouraged by new voices. They demanded that our agenda not be co-opted or hijacked by white leaders who purport to think like, think for, or represent our community’s needs. They also demanded that African-Americans take the lead in saving, correcting and empowering our youth. They called for personal responsibility of black families, an overhaul of unjust systems as well as new resources for our communities to respond to pressing needs.
As one older African-American gentleman shared powerful words of love and admonition at the session, young black leaders listened without interruption as this elder statesman challenged us to do better by our children and to honor our great legacy as strong, proud African-American people.
A community conversation like this where older and younger voices were equally respected made the evening feel like a magical bridge-building and healing moment. Wow. Powerful.
I hosted a reception for more than 30 young African-American professionals to solicit their ideas and support for the Justified Anger goals and recommendations. Their energy and intelligence were simply impeccable.
My community outreach meetings convinced me that many non-African-Americans were truly ready to have honest discussions about racial disparities in our community. For example, Madison Police Chief Michael Koval had me meet with his entire captain staff to offer suggestions on how the department could engage more positively with the African-American community.
Leaders and influencers from the Latino community accepted an invitation to meet me in my home for a meal in order to build greater trust in collaboration for our respective communities. It was a powerful and historic gathering and hopefully only the first of many more.
Male African-American high school students from all over Madison shared that that they felt isolated and unwelcome in the community.
A young Korean-American pastor of a multi-Asian congregation asked me how they could learn from and with African-Americans. He acknowledged that his community needed to have a better understanding of how Asian-Americans have benefited from the civil rights efforts of blacks.
Candid conversations with key white business and philanthropic leaders — which, in my opinion, would have never taken place five years ago — also showed me that we have many leaders who believe in trying new methods for closing the achievement gap. Many are convinced that because not enough African-American leaders have been at the necessary decision-making tables, resources and viable solutions have eluded the community.
Some of these leaders even provided financial support that has enabled us to do a great deal: Organize ourselves, hold community forums and listening groups, analyze data from our interviews, create smart goals and strategies and also to create a dashboard to measure the success of the plan we will soon reveal.
Strategists from 100State met with me and offered help. They assisted us with tech and online survey support. Inmates from Wisconsin state prisons wrote and thanked me for speaking up on their behalf. Hundreds of people sent me emails, Facebook messages and tweets asking how they could be helpful. Nearly 1,000 people joined our mailing list indicating their interest in moving this agenda forward. And local artists are creating an exhibition at Overture Center titled “Justified Art,” a response to my article and key racial issues in our community.
So where are we going from here?
A year ago I issued a challenge to our community to dramatically step up its efforts to rectify racial disparities. I challenged funders, government leaders, faith leaders of all ethnic backgrounds and corporations to consider the ramifications for our community that was becoming increasingly more bifurcated.
Today, I am hopeful. Not satisfied — but hopeful.
I called for a new table, one at which African-Americans were seated at the head, enjoying the liberty of setting that table, choosing the china, deciding the menu, hiring the cook and inviting the guests we want to eat with. This is beginning to happen, much to my great surprise and pleasure.
It was only in January that I convened a small group of African-American leaders who agreed to stand with me in demanding equity for our children and families. In all honesty, we were cynical and distrustful at the time. Many of us felt that the larger community wanted to ignore our pain and our story, until thousands of Facebook shares retold my story; over 600 people stood by us at our February town hall meeting; and corporate leaders asked me what I needed to serve my community’s needs. In addition, more than 40 white clergy offered to help and hundreds of residents attended training sessions we’ve hosted. Seasoned African-American leaders shared that they saw a level of engagement they’d never witnessed before.
It is beginning to look like a new table has been set.
For example, although I am an alum myself and former employee of UW-Madison, I have never formally partnered with the university in my 20 years of community service. However, several key UW-Madison leaders like Vice Chancellor Darrell Bazzell, the school of education’s Associate Dean Dawn Crim, education Professor Gloria Ladson-Billings, interim Vice Provost of Diversity Patrick Sims and director of community relations Everett Mitchell — and a host of white faculty and staff — have offered their services to aid this effort with planning, leadership development, research, policy analysis, networking and basic moral support.
Young impressive grassroots leaders like those in the Young, Gifted and Black Coalition bring brilliant energy to the table with their own blend of social network savvy and resolve. And the leaders of the African American Council of Churches, black fraternities and sororities and African-American service organizations have agreed to help implement our strategies.
This unprecedented sense of unity is key to the reforms we are seeking.
Our plan is to roll out a powerful strategy in early 2015 that we refer to as the “Our Madison” initiative.
From January until late May, the coalition met early mornings, evenings and weekends to harness the energy of what was happening in Madison. We crafted vision and mission statements. We outlined four critical focus areas: economic development, mass incarceration, family and community wellness, and education.
Each area of focus is led by some of our brightest and most accomplished experts in the African-American community. These experts are working with teams to create action items, recommendations and smart goals for our community.
Our action plan will be evidence-based and fleshed out within our work groups. We will identify gaps in services, forge strategic partnerships, support existing efforts, evaluate existing policies and systems and challenge them when appropriate. We will mobilize our volunteer support base for staffing start-up efforts and to lobby for political support for our recommendations.
We chose “Our Madison” because every concerned resident, agency, institution and branch of government must become involved. We did not create racial and system inequities and we refuse to dismantle this alone, nor should we be expected to. We need all hands — of all colors and class — on deck.
I now proudly stand with thousands of people in our community who will not rest until we see to it that empowerment, accountability, inclusion, hope and justice are restored in our community. Everyone will be held accountable — African-Americans and the larger community.
If we fail to fix this problem, it will not merely be African-Americans who suffer. All of our children will raise their children in a reality that we either perpetuate or create. We’re at a historical juncture for our collective communities and families.
Madison, we have momentum — let’s not ignore it — let’s use it to move us all…