David Michael Miller
The Young Gifted and Black Coalition has brought a tremendous urgency to local politics, an energy that has been lacking over much of the last decade.
The group has brought new voices into the mix. Think of the typical city of Madison meeting — majority white alders hearing from majority white developers proposing new luxury student apartments, majority white near-east-siders arguing for a pet project and majority white environmentalists asking for a new impact study.
While many Madison groups suffer from chronic mission creep, Young Gifted and Black, before and after the shooting of Tony Robinson, has stayed tightly focused on concrete goals. Its members have a consistent list of policy objectives they want to see, mostly focused around policing and jailing.
I don’t agree with every one of the coalition’s policy objectives, but I’m glad they continue to relentlessly promote their ideas. It offers a direct challenge to leaders to adopt these policies or come up with their own. Inaction and the status quo are no longer good enough.
When a social issue comes to the forefront, there’s an instinct to form new committees, workgroups, partnerships, coalitions and alliances. These groups are important, as they can source potential solutions from a wide body of stakeholders. Through these conversations, different partners figure out how to maximize resources.
Unfortunately, sometimes the process breaks down, and well-meaning people fall into a cycle of forming new group after new group to keep addressing the same problem. In cases like that, hearing a new partnership has been formed sounds like the brush-off line from Raiders of the Lost Ark:
“We have top men working on it right now.”
There are times when Madison’s network of committees and commissions only offers the illusion of progress, like the color wheel icon on my Mac that keeps spinning even when Google Chrome has been locked up for more than five minutes. The city has been drafting a new landmarks ordinance for so long the current ordinance should itself be considered a historical landmark. The ruins of the Garver Feed Mill were ready to fall in on themselves before the city got serious about redevelopment.
Madison’s use of conversation as a substitute for action has had real consequences on black lives. In 2012, black men made up 43% of Dane County’s new prison placements while making up less than 5% of the county’s population. Unfortunately, the only way to make some people notice is to unfurl a Black Lives Matter banner in the Capitol Rotunda or at the front of a theater.
Young Gifted and Black’s other great strength is that it exposes different voices in the black community. When the media wants to get a black perspective, they almost always go to the same shortlist of nonprofit leaders and clergy members. There are some amazing people on that shortlist — Michael Johnson of the Madison Boys and Girls Club immediately comes to mind — but it’s silly to say this handful of leaders represents the entirety of Dane County’s black population.
All communities are internally diverse — they aren’t a unified Borg-like hive mind speaking with one voice. It is as silly as saying that every woman in Wisconsin is represented by Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch. Or that every man is represented by Mayor Paul Soglin.
When members of the coalition disagree with other black leaders, that doesn’t show division, that shows richness.
The group has had missteps. Young Gifted and Black disrupted a mayoral debate held at the Barrymore Theatre. They unfurled a banner at the front of the theater while chanting demands, a dramatic and striking action, but then they stayed around and continued to shout over the mayoral candidates. Activism doesn’t follow Robert’s Rules of Order, but there’s a fine line between making sure your voice is heard and drowning out others.
Now Young Gifted and Black will have to decide what do after this round of spring elections. Do they continue poking at government from the outside? Do they start pressuring more elected officials to support them? The proposed Dane County jail is one of Young Gifted and Black’s most public targets. I bet they could make that expensive new jail a major issue in next year’s Dane County Board elections.
Like the American Civil Liberties Union and Madison’s own Freedom From Religion Foundation, I won’t always agree with Young Gifted and Black. But I’m terrified by what the conversation would look like without them. No matter what they choose to do, they represent an important new voice, and I hope they remain a factor in local politics for years to come.
Alan Talaga co-writes the Off the Square cartoon and blogs at isthmus.com/madland.
[Editor's note: This story was changed to reflect the fact that the Landmarks Commission finished drafting a new landmarks ordinance, but it is now pending before other city panels.]