MILWAUKEE, WI – I am here for three days, having keynoted a citywide Summit on Race and Families organized by Aurora Family Service (AFS), a regional nonprofit whose mission reads like a manifesto for the priorities of a civilized society: providing health care, mental health services, parenting counseling, elder care, help getting out of debt, and a lot more – all on a sliding scale to make it affordable for anyone.
AFS pulled together 400 nonprofit people, community leaders, and activists for the Summit in response to a perrenial Milwaukee problem: plenty gets said here about race, but nothing gets done. The city is intensely segregated, has the seventh-highest infant mortality rate in the nation, and was the scene of an infamously brutal racial beating – known here as "the Jude case" – in which 3 off-duty white cops savagely attacked a biracial man outside a party.
Most black, white and Hispanic people I have talked with here seem to agree that the city has been paralyzed by a cynical racial deadlock: no group trusts any of the others, leading to a shared grim resignation that nothing will change and that the best any constituency can do is hunker down and grab hold of whatever it can for itself.
The Summit aims to change that. It filled the ballroom at the 140-year-old downtown Pfister Hotel with Milwaukeeans of all races who have decided it is time to do something. In my keynote, I did my best to fuel them with a sense that this city is theirs to lead -- they cannot wait for complacent power brokers and weary would-be reformers -- and that folks in neighborhoods from Baltimore to Los Angeles are proving on the ground that they can create their own politics through united action on problems like drugs, lack of health care, police abuse and one-sided journalism.
Afterward, disciplined breakout sessions identified the most urgent issues and began plotting strategies for joint action. The energy coursing off of the assembled fed-up citizens was palpable, and the conviction that goddammit, this time it will be different was tangible. Time will tell. But I've not seen this kind of furiously kinetic energy in such a diverse group in a long time. Even if you peel off the non-politicos, what remains looks a lot to me like the beginning of a citywide organization pressing for racial interchange and justice.
It's a good example, I think, of how to respond to the bankruptcy of mainstream money-dominated political policy and gelded-citizen numbness: Call hundreds of frustrated citizens into a hall and ask them to draft plans for the kind of community they want to live in. Let's not mistake a broken American government for a broken American soul. Folks who want a better, fairer life are damned hard to kill.
The photo, taken from the top floor of the Pfister Hotel, looks east toward the shore of Lake Michigan. The cathedral-like building to the right is, believe it or not, the federal courthouse.