Every month, a few dozen people gather at noon at the Urban League of Greater Madison's south-side headquarters. The June meeting of Communities United is the last before the group breaks for the summer, and Ananda Mirilli calls it to order right on time.
Mirilli, restorative justice program manager for the YWCA, has been chairing these meetings for a year and attending for four. She says the group is part networking tool, part coalition and part educational forum. She thinks the attendees, who are almost all people of color involved in social justice work, will play a crucial role as Madison buckles down to address its problems of racial inequality.
People introduce themselves, though many seem to already know each other. Today a representative of U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan's office is here, as is the founder of the J Ware Foundation, a new group devoted to raising AIDS awareness in transgender populations. Several public health workers also join representatives from the Urban League, Unidos Against Domestic Abuse, Agrace Hospice, Dane County's Child Protective Services office, and the Fair Housing Council.
Monthly agendas follow a consistent formula. After introductions and networking, guests present on topical issues in the Madison community. Recent themes have included white privilege, black entrepreneurship and the Madison Metropolitan School District. Guests have included Alex Gee, founder of the Justified Anger Coalition, and Juan Jose Lopez from the Latino Chamber of Commerce.
This month's presenters speak about racial health disparities. They are Lisa Peyton-Caire, founder and chair of the Foundation for Black Women's Wellness, and Jackie Hunt, a substance abuse specialist at Journey Mental Health Center. But the information does not travel one way -- the goal is for both parties, the presenters and the participants, to exchange information and resources. Presentations are followed by discussion.
"It's a safe way for white folks to learn about communities of color and other communities," says Mirilli. "It's also an opportunity for folks of color to talk specifically about their challenges without having to excuse themselves or feel victimized."
About race, not poverty
Mirilli is thrilled about the recent attention racial disparities have been getting in Madison, by the media and by public officials, in the wake of Gee's December essay in The Capital Times and the publication of the 2013 Race to Equity report. Both pieces, she says, brought race into sharp focus.
"When a black male middle-class minister is saying 'I'm experiencing racism in this community,' it's not only about poor people," says Mirilli, a native Brazilian who has been in Madison for eight years. "This is not about poverty, this is about race. But in our community, poverty and race are so connected that it's difficult to see clearly."
The fresh dialogue is a relief to advocates weary of being told that the race conversation was finished in Madison.
"Before all of this [attention] there was a lot of dismissal," remembers Mirilli. "I do restorative justice work, so my goal is to reduce disparities in [school] suspensions. So now I can talk about that without having to convince somebody that disparities exist."
She says that awareness creates opportunities for "deep personal interrogations about the implicit biases we all have."
Communities United recently hosted several Dane County Board supervisors, who came to ask and answer questions. Mirilli thinks this beautifully exemplifies the group's role as communication conduit between important spheres of influence.
"It was great because a lot of [supervisors] really saw the importance of hearing folks in the community talk about their struggles and what they'd like to see their elected officials focus on," says Mirilli. "It's so important when alders and county supervisors and mayors and political officials are looking at this. Change happens when systems look within themselves."
Yet other advocates for racial justice are wary of the recent public awareness.
"It's an up-and-down thing, says Stephen Braunginn, former president and CEO of the Urban League of Greater Madison and co-founder of Wisconsin Network for Peace and Justice. "There's a surge at one time, and then there's a release. Then there's another surge, and then there's another release."
Communities United was founded in 2000, around the time former Mayor Sue Bauman convened the Race Relations Task Force, which Braunginn served on.
"We issued a report about what should be done, and most of it hasn't been done," says Braunginn. "There was a serious group of people who put some serious labor into this report, and we didn't do it to have it sit on a shelf."
"It seems like it's about a five- to seven-year cycle we go on where there's this huge light shone on racial disparities in this community," says Ed Lee, chief program development officer at the Urban League of Greater Madison, "and then we get lulled into this state of business as usual."
The most recent surge was in 2008, says Lee, when the Urban League released its State of Black Madison report (PDF). Nothing much happened after that report either. "Are there any data points that one could point to and say the needle here has really moved in the last five or six years?" asks Lee.
Lee, who has often served as the Urban League's liaison to Communities United, celebrates the group's role as both a convener and an information-sharing resource.
"What we learn from the members of Communities United helps shape our priorities here at the Urban League," says Lee. He says it's also helpful in informing him about other things happening in the community that align with the Urban League's mission.
Lee says group members provided constructive criticism when the Urban League was looking for support for its Madison Prep charter school. After working through concerns, Communities United endorsed the proposal.
He says the group also provided a forum when the proposal grew controversial and people in the community wanted more information. "There was an opportunity to have some conversation about where there may have been some differences of opinion," he says.
Lee hopes that positive energy can be harnessed soon.
"I think we have no choice any longer but to confront these disparities and to make some serious headway into erasing those disparities," he says.
Lee says public officials need to pay attention to the work that's already been done and hear firsthand from communities of color about their challenges and aspirations.
"Too often we have public officials who are not connected to these communities but who think they know what's best for these communities," says Lee.
"I don't have anything personal against the mayor, I don't have anything personal against the county supervisors or alders, but I'm angry with the system," adds Mirilli. "So how can I transform my anger into something that's going to generate change in the community?
"I'm here to criticize, but I also want to help," she adds.
At Communities United, she can do both.