“Work is being done, but change is not happening.” That opinion, shared by one participant at a “listening session” conducted by LISC Milwaukee, sums up the impetus behind a recent symposium on central city revitalization attended by neighborhood leaders, real estate developers, lenders and city officials.
Leo Ries, executive director of LISC Milwaukee, put it this way: “While many people in our industry are working hard every day to improve Milwaukee’s central city neighborhoods, we all agree that change is not happening fast enough to keep up with deteriorating economic conditions in our city.” LISC Milwaukee is the local branch of the largest community development organization in the country.
The first-ever symposium in Milwaukee focusing on central city neighborhoods was sponsored by LISC and hosted by Marquette University Law School. The symposium provided a forum to release two reports that addressed the issue from different perspectives. LISC released the results of focus group sessions with 119 neighborhood activists, “Voices from the Community: a Summary of the LISC Listening Sessions,” and Paul Brophy, a community and economic development expert and author, released “Community Development in Milwaukee: An Assessment and Recommendations.”
The listening sessions focused on the themes of marketing, education, economic development, leadership, process issues, public policy and workforce issues, explained Christopher Boston, LISC’s director of sustainable communities. Boston pointed out that many organization leaders don’t clearly see how their work fits under the community development umbrella, perhaps because of its historical emphasis on housing. He called for creating a “big tent” that encompasses a larger vision for community development.
One issue that emerged at every session is the role of race and racism as a threat to the general well being of Milwaukee, Boston said. An example is the staggering unemployment rate among black men, which led some to ask, “If African American employment isn’t decreasing, are we focusing on the right things?” The exodus of young African American leaders from the city also was a common problem identified by focus group participants.
Among the significant signs of optimism that leaders generally agreed on was the renewed effort by the Milwaukee Police Department to work more closely with their communities. Another is the “sincere yearning for greater collaboration and synergy,” Boston said. “There is a love for Milwaukee, and optimism and hope about Milwaukee’s future,” he added. “People want transformational outcomes.”
The LISC report identified five goals: improve access to quality education; stimulate economic activity; increase family income and wealth; foster safe and healthy environments; and expand investment in housing and other real estate.
Brophy’s report praised civic leaders for “getting” the connection between neighborhoods and the broader economy. “There is a strong philanthropic and government interest in neighborhoods. You have LISC; you have people at the neighborhood level who understand it is their job to help this work. You have interest at the state level,” he noted.
At the same time, he said, there is “very little strategic alignment at the system level,” no apparent correlation between ambitions and resources, and an insufficient market orientation driving neighborhood interventions. He added, “Race needs to be contended with,” and communication could be strengthened.
Brophy, who interviewed 50 stakeholders in Milwaukee and reviewed community development systems in three other cities, concluded that while past and current initiatives to improve neighborhood conditions have had some successes, the general trends are discouraging: racial and ethnic isolation; increased poverty in the inner city; more vacant housing; reduced property values in many neighborhoods; and limited upward mobility.
He recommended a fresh approach to community development known as “collective impact,” defined as “Long-term commitments by a group of important actors from different sectors to a common agenda for solving a specific social problem.” He suggested that funders and select community partners, such as Marquette University and the Greater Milwaukee Committee, develop a shared vision — together with grassroots activists — to improve neighborhoods and the community development system. LISC should expand its role beyond its current function as a funding intermediary, and serve as the communications link and idea broker among the key players, Brophy recommended.
As part of a six-person panel responding to the reports, Mayor Tom Barrett said, “We need to have an honest dialogue.” He added, “No one in this room thinks if we’re all pitted against each other, things will work.”