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Having grown up in two Milwaukee neighborhoods, Clarke Square and Washington Park, I have not lived full time in my hometown for more than a half century.
I am now, by definition, “an outsider.”
Outsiders, especially older ones, have a strong tendency to take trips down memory lane, back to the (supposed) Golden Age. And to tell people what they “should” do.
I think – hope – I have avoided those fates, and that what follows is useful in thinking about pathways to a better future for Milwaukee neighborhoods. Useful in the sense that an outsider sees things that everyone has gotten so used to that they seem totally normal. Even if they should not be.
As Tolstoy said in “Anna Karenina”: “There are no conditions to which a person cannot become accustomed, especially if they see everyone else living in the same way.”
If the starting point for addressing any problem or challenge is naming it, here is what strikes me as some very important ones that are now so “normal” in Milwaukee that most people don’t even see them anymore.
To the outsider, this may be the most striking norm, a widespread – but not openly expressed – belief that real, large scale, substantive positive change can’t happen.
It starts with a default position that something, whatever that something is, isn’t possible. Or that we cannot afford it. Or, an important driver of pessimism, a zero-sum view of things, a fear that whatever someone else is getting, should have come to me. Or is coming out of my pocket.
Unexamined pessimism has two big consequences: First, it leads to thinking small about big problems, especially those related to poverty, resulting in self-fulfilling negative outcomes.
If you believe something isn’t possible, you will always be right. Instead of trying to find solutions to problems, the norm becomes blaming or blame avoidance.
“They” did it. “We” are innocent. Nothing changes.
And, second, this kind of pessimism seems to be generational. Across races and neighborhoods, older leaders are the most pessimistic and most wedded to a zero sum view of the world.
Making this negative worldview explicit should be a starting point for making certain that Milwaukee’s cadre of exceptional younger leaders remain hopeful and committed.
The opposite of pessimism is not optimism. It is hope, a belief that there can be a better future.
Driving down Center Street one day with a Milwaukee-based colleague, I asked, “If you had to name the single most important thing that the people in this neighborhood need, what would it be?”
Without any hesitation, he responded: “Hope.”
We then talked about how to get from here to there. How do you generate hope in neighborhoods where large numbers of people have given up.
There were three big answers: money, aka “resources”; short-term visible “wins”; and community peace.
A useful case study or example, again related to Center Street: An NNS article in which the father and his son drove the street and counted a large number of liquor stores and not a single healthy food market.
Here is a replicable model for real change that addresses that bleak reality.
Several years ago, in a Philadelphia neighborhood very similar to Milwaukee’s North Side, Brown’s Supermarket opened a prototype store. It was one that naysayers predicted would fail but has thrived and served as an anchor for revitalizing an entire neighborhood, including the hiring of people who have been incarcerated promoting healthy living in a community-friendly, non-lecturing, way.
Brown’s now supports replication of its model around the country. A powerful and visible sign of hope.
Unlike rejecting pessimism and building hope, dealing with victimization is trickier. How do you convince individuals, groups and communities that have repeatedly been victimized to not define themselves as victims?
There is a powerful answer to that question.
Once a group – or individual – defines themselves as a victim, there are no constraints on their behavior. Anything can be justified by what has been done to me/us.
Victimization inevitably leads to justifications for destructive violence, social disintegration and isolation where cooperation would have been possible.
This needs to be explicitly rejected in the name of seeking to find ways to true brotherhood and sisterhood.
A few final thoughts on things that work in building healthy communities. Short-term, but substantive and visible, wins are critical to building hopeful communities.
Starting with people at a young age in supporting communities is also critical.
For example, large scale mentorship and after-school programs using alumni of Marquette, UWM, MSOE, Alverno and other schools could have a major impact in Milwaukee communities and serve as national models.
A final outsider thought: Given the foreseeable fiscal and political environment, there is a pressing need for the corporate and philanthropic sectors to think big about community change.
They also need to reject pessimism and the nickel and diming that results from it and apply proven models for supporting community change in Milwaukee communities.
Those models exist, some in Milwaukee, others in different cities. All beacons of hope and progress.
Frank Schneiger is the founder and president of Frank Schneiger and Associates, a planning and change management company serving the nonprofit and public service sectors.
Pat O says
Well said! Especially the need for hope. One thing that I learned years ago about young people involved in gangs and killing was often that they had no hope. How can we who view life as precious and an adventure to truly live and enjoy find ways to instill that hope and share optimism? How can we teach people that they do not have to see themselves as victims or powerless? Thank you Frank for writing this and reminding us not to accept a “new normal” that is filled with pain and angst instead of peace and joy.
Excellent article, so much can change.
Rick Deines says
Thanks for the article. An analysis this clear both philosophically and practically is rare. A ‘buy-in’ for this kind of framework provides a context or back drop to engage all citizens in meaningful civil dialogue. The heart of the ‘doing’ or ‘change’ starts with building relationships through honest, open exchange.
‘Hope’ emerges and is experienced directly when deep connections among us precede ‘problem-solving.’ There are Milwaukee citizens prepared to be part of facilitation teams that reflect the ‘real’ Milwaukee. They have the approach and skills to lean into what Dr. King named “the Beloved Community.’ Insights in this article open up those possibilities. Who needs be exposed to this? Folks with and without resources to say ‘yes.’ Both ‘bottom-up’ and ‘top-down’ involvement owned by citizens in the neighborhoods can get the ball rolling. In some neighborhoods it is already happening and a consortium could be formed to create a buy—in for a shared practical vision and practices adapted as needed. Thanks for this and spread the word—rick deines