Interview with Rev. Alex Gee
Justified Anger Coalition poised to take next steps
by A. David Dahmer
Many of us in the community have known Rev. Alex Gee for years and even decades. Whether he’s been teaching, preaching, mentoring, fathering, authoring, educating, publishing, community building, or simply being on the frontlines of social justice, we’ve always known him to be busy man.
Well, things have gotten even busier for Gee, the senior pastor at Fountain of Life Church and the founder and president of Nehemiah Corporation, over these past several months following the publishing of his first-person essay, “Justified Anger,” a Capital Times’ cover story on how the Madison area needs to do better by its African-American community. Suddenly, he has become the go-to man on all questions on race relations in Madison.
“I wrote this essay in December and did the [Justified Anger] Town Hall Meeting because people were asking, ‘What do I think? What do I recommend? What do you want to happen?’” Gees says. “So life got even busier because I’m running a church and a nonprofit. I’m traveling. I’m overdue on a book proposal that I want to put together. I didn’t see all this stuff coming. And as you have made me aware, I haven’t written anything for The Madison Times lately. Sorry!”
[Alex’s bi-weekly column “Life Lessons with Dr. Alex Gee” in The Madison Times used to be a big hit with the readers and has been missed. There are no hard feelings at TMT. We understand.–Ed.]
“It’s been a whirlwind for me. I’ve realized that since the Town Hall Meeting, I’ve really gotten to know the members of the [Justified Anger] Coalition well as we strategize,” Gee adds. “And I’ve talked to area foundations who like what we’re doing that want to bring African-American people to the table to frame proposals and solutions. But it’s taken awhile to coordinate schedules and get everybody to the table. Some people have been wondering what I’ve been doing for months — [I’ve been] organizing, strategizing, meeting with community leaders and funders. “
Gee sat down to chat over coffee with The Madison Times at his Nehemiah Community Development Corporation office ahead of his press conference May 21 which he hopes will move the disparity conversation from talk and strategy to action. The conference will be held at the abandoned car wash on 711 W. Badger Rd. behind Gee’s Nehemiah office building. The car wash will be coming down in the next few weeks and will be replaced by an amazing space for Madison southsiders. At the press conference, Gee plans to talk about the Coalition’s next steps and to announce an African American Family Meeting to take place on June 5.
The press conference will be hosted by Gee’s Justiﬁed Anger Coalition, a Nehemiah and African-American community initiative, which seeks to create a greater Madison region where African Americans collectively thrive as self-sufﬁcient stakeholders in the economic, social, cultural, and spiritual fabric of our community.
“I think the old car wash is a great background to show that there are cool things that are about to happen here,” Gee says. “It’s a symbol that something that is an eye sore now can be changed into something very beautiful when the community works together.”
That car wash backdrop, Gee adds, represents collaboration, partnership, and opportunity.
“We’re talking about having a cross-cultural soccer league at that space. We are going to have basketball courts put in. We can hold events there. We can hold festivals,” Gee says. “By having this collaborative effort this will become an area of town people will be proud of. Kids will have a positive place to go. It will be a well-lit place where good things happen. The old car wash will be a backdrop that says, ‘Nothing in this community is insurmountable if we work together.’”
The funders, which Gee will announce at the press conference, are Madison Gas & Electric Foundation, CUNA Mutual Foundation, Madison Community Foundation, and Evjue Foundation. There have also been some significant anonymous local donors.
“Our total gifts are just shy of $100,000,” Gee says. “It’s taken some time to put this collaboration together. But that’s what we have been doing these past months along with shaping strategic priorities.”
Those five strategic priorities are around education, mass incarceration, economic development, personal capacity development for individuals and agencies, and accountability for the broader community for what organizations and agencies are going to do to enhance diversity.
Madison’s struggles with race relations and Gee’s efforts to improve them are starting to get national attention. Gee was recently interviewed and will be featured in an upcoming segment of "PBS NewsHour," which will delve into how the city addresses race relations and racial disparities. A crew from the television news show has been in town this past week exploring ways the community is addressing race issues. They also interviewed Dane County Executive Joe Parisi.
“I love the fact that we are getting some national attention because I think it helps other communities to start having this discussion,” Gee says. “It’s not because I want to put Madison in a negative light, but I think a city like Madison is revered highly and if people around the country see the struggles in ultra-liberal Madison, they will start looking at other communities, too. I think it can help spark a conversation.”
In the last week of May there will also be a couple of national documentarians — one man from Dallas and another from the Marquette University Film Department — coming to Madison to chat with Gee. “They’ve been following this whole process and they want to do a video over the next year or two of Madison and how they are responding to this,” Gee says. “They asked to be able to tell the story through my lens and to be able to talk to my mom. They asked me for some of the names of people who have been in Madison for a long time; the older pioneers.
“I think that Madison is in a position that it can be a thought leader if we address these issues appropriately,” Gee adds. “It plays up to Madison’s strengths. I think it’s a great opportunity.”
All of this attention and fanfare — local, state, and national — is not something that the humble Gee was seeking. But he has it now. And, with anything as big as this, there will always be haters. Or, at the very least, dislikers. As you can imagine, not everybody is going to be happy when you shine a light on the dirty underbelly of your “Best Place in America to Raise a [Caucasian] Family” city. On top of that, you always have the garden-variety racists who will come out of the woodwork and attack. Some of them keep their venom to the comments section of Madison.com., but others take the time to write letters. And even within the community you have questions popping up. Why aren’t our black elders having more of a say? Where are the Latinos/Hmongs in the Justified Anger Coalition and events?
Gee takes the negative in stride while still keeping focus on all of the positiveness of the movement.
“I never said, ‘What we do is the only action we can take in this community.’ I just wrote what I felt. This is nothing new for minorities. We all read the Race to Equity report. Most of us for a long time have known what has been going on,” Gee says. “We started Nehemiah 21 years ago because of what was happening at Somerset. So we didn’t just start moving; we seized a moment to communicate. My desire was never to exclude anybody.
For 21 years, Gee’s Nehemiah Center for Urban Leadership Development, a non-proﬁt, community-based organization, has met the basic needs of Dane County’s African-American families by addressing their unique spiritual, academic, social, physical and economic concerns. Nehemiah specializes in interrupting the cycles of poverty, racism, and discrimination that many families face by empowering individuals with dignity and by also challenging unjust systems.
“When this article came out, the paint wasn’t even dry on this facility. Our grand opening was in summer… there hasn’t been a lot of breathing room,” Gee says of Nehemiah’s recent creation of the South Madison Center for Culture & Community (SMCCC). “We’re still working on our place here. Nehemiah is growing. There is so much going on.”
Gee says that he has met with African American elders and sought their advice and he has been talking to Latino community members and even hosted a group of Latino community leaders in his home for dinner and conversation. [Centro Hispano is planning on leading their own Race to Equity discussions and initiatives as it concerns the plight of Latinos starting next month.]
In the future, the Justified Anger Coalition will work with as many people and communities as possible. But now, it’s time to hear from the broader African-American community. “The June 5th [African American] Family Meeting will be our first stab at bringing the greater black community together to talk about what we want to see happen — because there is not just one view or one opinion,” Gee says. “It will be our first great opportunity for anybody in the African American community to come and say, ‘This is what I see. This is how I feel. This is the problem. This is what leaders forget. This is what teachers are doing.’ I want to give people an outlet to share their frustrations but then to channel it and say, ‘Here’s what has got to happen.’
Gee says that part of what they want to do now that foundations have given them some planning dollars is have some really good listening sessions. “We’re having all of this talk going on right now with what has happened with the achievement gap, opportunity gap and [how] it’s affecting parents, teachers, and kids but I’m not hearing their feedback,” Gee says. “So, on June 5, I’m eager to get a lot of feedback at the African American Family Meeting.”
At the African American Family Meeting, there will be small group talk with facilitators, a panel, and dinner held from 6:30-9 p.m. at Fountain of Life Church on Madison’s south side. “I want people just to listen to what emerging leaders, existing leaders, and young folks are saying and what they’re seeing as the problem and the solution,” Gee says. “We will also be spending time in schools and talking to young African American males; interviewing them. What do you want to see?
“People in our coalition know what we see. We’re in the trenches. We are hearing what people are saying,” he adds. “But we’re making a concentrated effort over the period of a month and a half to listen to various segments of the African American community to make sure we are on point. That will all feed into our plan … because I just don’t want to have a small group speaking for everyone. I think that’s been a fear of people.”
Some people are already tired of all of the talking, I tell Gee. They want action. They aren’t seeing anything from the white community but some top-down, white-guilt concessions. There’s no real change happening, they say. “Sure. I think that’s an area honestly where we get some pushback … because people hear about a potluck where 400 people show up and they are like, ‘Oh, sure…. A [recent Justified Anger] potluck is nice, I guess,’” Gee says. “But I think a potluck is huge. I saw 15-year-old black boys talking to older white men. I saw people sitting at a racially diverse tables talking about these racial issues that people don’t normally talk about. I think the more we talk and have genuine conversations, the more it will trickle down into our homes and we will develop stronger relationships and friendships.
“We want to get grassroots buy-in to what we are doing. That’s what will make this unique. And it starts with first talking to each other,” he adds. “I think — in the past — to talk about mingling without talking about the systemic issues, was superficial. I think we’ve been afraid to talk about the issues because we think that they are so evasive that we never will get to the relational part; it would just cause things to be too explosive. I think that we have to tackle both. There are systemic issues but we can overcome them through relationship building. I don’t think in my time that I’ve seen both of those held with appropriate attention. I’m going to continue to encourage the picnics and the potlucks.
“You have people who are saying, ‘We’ve talked enough.’ We have people who are saying, ‘They’re not going to listen to us … you can’t change policy,’” Gee continues. “I think that we need to change policy, we need individual advocacy, we need personal relationships, we need leaders to talk about it, we need hiring structures to change, we need neighborhoods to be diverse, we need our kids hanging out together. I think it’s so multi-faceted that there is enough for everybody to do. If we just each do our part and communicate, I think we can make a big difference.”