March 27, 2015
I, along with over 10 – 15 others, have been working very hard to advance this movement that we call the Milwaukee Community of Leaders (MCOL). We have been working hard in the trenches building the foundation that we pray will be able to carry the weight of such a heavy load and responsibility of doing the business of the Black community.
Over the past few months, I’ve attended a ton of meetings trying to get feedback and guidance from strong Black leaders of Milwaukee. Much of the feedback we’ve received revolves around either moving too fast, too soon or just the opposite – we’re moving too slowly; we’re not moving fast enough. We also received a heavy dose of “this is Milwaukee” or “how bad it is in Milwaukee.” For a person who is working in seven urban cities, Milwaukee is not much different than other cities that have a majority minority Black community. I’m not sure what the right speed is because as we dive deeper and deeper into the problems we face, they are so extreme and pronounced that they will require more attention than we originally thought. This coupled with the reality that there is no “central” and “strategic” infrastructure that is looking out for the Black community in America and specifically Milwaukee.
What we have is hundreds or maybe thousands of people who are trying to address our issues with the hope that their efforts will be successful. Unfortunately, this is not enough – our problems are mature and deep (systemic in nature) and the best that we might be able to accomplish with this approach is to partially address some of the symptoms that we face. I liken it to treating a person with terminal cancer with an aspirin because all we see is the patient’s fever. What makes matters worse is that we lack the institutional capacity and infrastructure needed to work in a collective to address our issues. It has been some time since we’ve been even close to having “one” voice.
As a community and as a collective, we’ve experienced a tremendous amount of atrophy and some rigor mortis as a result of our movement being mothballed for nearly 50 years. Rigor mortis is one of the recognizable signs of death, caused by chemical changes in the muscles after death that causes the limbs of the corpse to stiffen. Yes, we’ve made significant individual gains but very few collective gains. Most, if not all of the issues we faced in the 60s still haunt our community. Sure, some of us have assimilated and the white community has accepted a very small percentage of us into their schools, clubs, neighborhoods, places of worship, their cultural infrastructure, and into their families; however, that’s not true for the masses of Black people. The majority of Black America lived in poverty amid (side-by-side) wealth and promise. Of the nearly 50,000 American cities, 75% of Blacks live in around 40 of them and they all have the same challenging characteristics (i.e. poor school systems, ballooning prison population, long-term economic disinvestment, etc.).
The last major gain we’ve made as a “group” was achieved during the 1960’s with the passage of the historic civil rights and voting rights legislation. These gains had the capacity to impact all Black people because they were stepping stones to address the massive economic disparity created by the American institution of slavery within a country that is valued in excess of $100 trillion and owned nearly 100% by Whites (Blacks only own approximately .5%). The 60s legislation, coupled with the landmark Brown vs. the Board of Education, was a beginning step to level the playing field that would ultimately allow future generations of Black people to better compete. Let’s be real clear, this was a start and was not the ultimate end game like so many of us emotionally believed or, at least, acted.
Because of our shortsightedness and inexperience, we dismantled our movement. The war on poverty, affirmative action, set-asides, public housing, and other public policies emerged (while not perfect) that were aligned in our favor. In hindsight, we dropped the ball and let America off the hook. Our movements were derailed and dismantled. Imagine if we were able to match the gains of the 60’s every decade and also maintain the intent and fidelity of those efforts. We would be much further along. Instead, every one of those gains has been undermined and/ or weakened and today is nearly non-existent. When originally coined, the term minority directly referred to Black people. Today minority means everything but white (i.e. woman, handicap, Asian, Hispanic, etc.). In fact, the mere idea of reparations has been removed from public discourse and laws have been enacted to oppose any efforts to favor one group over another – not taking into consideration the nearly 400 years of chattel slavery and the residue of this most tortuous experience against Black people in this country nor today’s physiological, social, and economic impact NOW THE LEGACY OF SLAVERY.
MCOL wants to restart our movement and given the state of affairs of our community, we really need strategic leadership NOW. The Black community must admit to suffering from a high level of hopelessness. There is a general belief that nothing can be done and this belief manifests in so many ways, especially by many of those who are supposed to be leading the way (if our leaders don’t have hope, what do you think the average Black citizen feels). With nearly two thirds of our population living at/near poverty, most spend most of their time fighting the “sting” of not having enough (i.e. employment, education, money, food, housing, love and respect, etc.).
Some estimate that we have nearly a million non-profits and Milwaukee has it share. However, the needle isn’t moving, and in fact, the conditions are getting worse because our leaders are not working together. This is the worse form of tribalism creating, instead of collective unity, collective paralysis. Far too many of us can recite what our community needs (we know what the outcomes should look like). However, when Black people come together, we only talk about our issues in the context of “we must do this” or “we must do that.” We even have forums, workshops, and symposiums that further articulate on the problems. We spend too much time focusing on the problem with very little time focusing on real and achievable solutions. Even when we do come up with solutions, they are impractical given the infantile stages of our structure (we lack resources and simple unity and cohesion). I liken it to a beginner 100 lb. weightlifter going into the gym and attempting to bench-press 1,000 pounds (it will kill him). Far too many of the solutions we come up with are for more seasoned organizations because they represent such a high degree of difficulty to implement.
If we are going to grow to become strong enough to defend the Black community, we are going to have to take one step at a time and have patience to grow our “group” capacity – something that we keep avoiding while hoping that we can skip this part. I believe that one of the main reasons why we stay in the “start” mode is because of a severe case of hopelessness. Many of us have drunk the Kool-Aid of Black inferiority and white supremacy. I know many people disagree with this, but tell me why we are unable to mount a sustained campaign? By the way, with the lack of knowledge about our history and the massive bombardment of negative stereotypes in the media, in language, in religion, and now in our culture with our use of the “N” word, even the best of us are impacted. This is why we must recommit ourselves to learn more about our history before and during the enslavement of our people. This knowledge will strengthen our resolve and make us better vehicles to defend against Black inferiority and white supremacy.
MCOL hasn’t mobilized tens of thousands of people; shut down City Hall or Wisconsin Avenue; initiated a massive boycott or protest; put a majority owned business out of business; publically punished and bloodied the nose of one of our many enemies; nor have we become the institutional private sector power center that has the ability to reward its friends and punish its adversaries. Some of our critics have said that if we haven’t done any of these things, we haven’t done anything and this effort is a waste of their time. I, like many of you, fundamentally refuse to accept that logic but I do understand the pain and disappointment that many of our people feel, especially some of our elders (I get it). MCOL hasn’t been able to challenge on any equal playing field those that oppose and oppress us. Guess what, you’re right. Like the weightlifter, we too must go to the gym every day and exercise and build the muscles needed to pick up heavier weights (bigger responsibilities). Failure to do this is like saying you want to be a doctor but you don’t even graduate high school (totally impossible). We must take one step at a time. If we are to grow to do any of these things, we will have to earn it and MCOL has made the first of many steps.
Benjamin Franklin said this famous line at the time of the signing of the Declaration of Independence in July 1776: “We must hang together or else we most assuredly will hang separately.” The meaning of the quote was that the signers of the Declaration, as well as colonists in general, had to help each other and support each other or they were doomed. The line is, of course, a pun. Franklin is using the figure of speech "hang together" to mean, "stick together" or "support one another." He puns that with the phrase "hang separately." By this, he means being executed by hanging. So he is saying that if they do not support each other, they will be executed. By extension, he meant that if the colonies as a whole did not support one another they would all be defeated by England. This is the state of the Black community today.
Which do hanging do you prefer? Do we hang together and try to do something or do we allow hopelessness to prevail (if your answer is not to do anything, you have made the choice). I say to our community on behalf of the future generations of Black children who will be born into a system that will give them little to no chance of playing on a “even” playing field, “LETS HANG TOGETHER.” Whatever excuse that we hold for not hanging together is just that AN EXCUSE. We have so much work to do to just organize ourselves. This is in no way, shape, fashion, or form, an easy task. We not only have to organize, but we must build the capacity to be effective and ultimately be successful. We must, as a group, show the rigor, tenacity, and grit needed to fight through whatever obstacles that confronts us and “will” ourselves to victory. Brothers and sisters, the outcomes that we see in our minds won’t happen unless we are willing to work and sacrifice for them. WE MUST EARN OUR INDEPENDENCE BECAUSE NO ONE IS GOING TO GIVE US.
While I most definitely don’t know everything (in fact, I know very little), one thing I do know – the problems that we face will never be resolved by anyone else and if we are unwilling or unable to “do for self”, nothing will get done. Yes, the problems we face are colossal and systemic (I will not kid you) but I also know that we have greatness running through our veins and have the capacity to rise up to the challenge of today just like our great and glorious ancestors did for their time (we are only the sons and daughters of them). For many of us, our problem is that we don’t know enough of our history, therefore we are unable to ascertain the greatness of our ancestors and this restricts our ability to exhibit pride and self-love (say it loud I’m Black and I’m proud).
We can/will begin to challenge these issues, when we come to understand the concept of Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror.” It’s us brothers and sisters (period). If you are unhappy with your brother or sister, guess what, you must get over it and not let that stop you from joining side by side with your brother and sister because we only have each other and when you look into the mirror you see yourself and you see me, your brother. Doing nothing is not an option nor is giving up an option. We can’t wait this out (this storm will only intensify). For those who truly understand the purpose of life, there is but one option and this is participate in the struggle for fairness, equality, and true freedom for the Black man in America and Milwaukee.
So, I and many others maintain hope for you and for myself that we can come to this reality no matter where on the spectrum we reside. I wake up every day, along with so many of you, hoping this is the day that we meet and come together. This working together will be a new math and yield a better outcome for our community (1 + 1 = 3). We have no other options, we either organize or perish. We either stay on the course we’re on and doom future generations of Black children from ever achieving the American dream or we FIGHT BACK NOW. MCOL has begun to lay the foundation to begin to tackle these problems but I must caution you from being too elated and/or excited. The success will only come when we’ve earned it which means that we must break down the walls of separation and tribalism. WE MUST REBUILD OUR CAPACITY ONE STEP AT A TIME.
Rahim Islam is a National Speaker and Writer, Convener of Philadelphia Community of Leaders, and President/CEO of Universal Companies, a community development and education management company headquartered in Philadelphia, PA. Follow Rahim Islam on Facebook (Rahim Islam) and Twitter (@RahimIslamUC).