By Ellen M. Gilligan
President and CEO, Greater Milwaukee Foundation
There are two public health crises in America right now. One is quite recent. One has been afflicting us for generations.
Racism is our nation’s oldest sin and most vile disease, and I am grief-stricken that we are again mourning more black lives lost and more communities capsized, all the while lamenting that nothing has changed since the last atrocity. Well, we must change, and we must start now.
Our communities of color are vibrant, unique and essential, yet we accept that in Milwaukee, an African American can expect to live 14 fewer years than a person who is white. There are no excuses, and there can be no more delays. We need to eradicate the systemic racism that withholds wellness and power from people of color and keeps our entire region from truly thriving.
We cannot continue to tolerate the apathy or intent that causes the lives of black and brown fathers, brothers, mothers, sisters, children to be disregarded, devalued and discarded. This cycle of pain endlessly affects people in our community, and the recurring injustice – whether in our back yard or 1,000 miles away – causes damage in equal amounts to the heart and health of all who live with the reality that the next time history repeats, they or their loved ones could be in harm’s way.
Individual acts of violence and prejudice inflame these wounds, but the roots are embedded in how we have shaped society in a manner that benefits people differently, and for the most part, those differences are favorable if you’re white and detrimental if you’re not. That cardinal disparity of embedded racism, and the systems that support it, are what leaders across our community – especially white leaders – must work together to dismantle.
The policies, practices and social norms that drive life experiences to diverge by race are obvious to those affected but often remain invisible to those with privilege: Housing covenants and real estate practices that have prevented nonwhite residents from living in communities of their choice and securing mortgages and homes that would have changed their family’s trajectory for prosperity. The uneven application of laws resulting in incarceration rates for black men that have reached epidemic levels. School and social structures built to be navigated by English language speakers, leading to disparate access to learning and resources for those whose fluencies do not include English. And now, COVID-19, which, through the disproportionate rates of infection and loss of life in black and Latino communities, has proven just how deep our health inequities run.
These and many other systems of bias predate us all, but many in power have tended to them through the years while others have perpetuated them through inaction.
For how long, have our friends and neighbors of color cried for justice, only for their calls to be met with silence and indifference by those who should be their allies?
The reactions to injustice we see now are the result of accumulated oppression and the denial of hope that the disparities, the persecution, the dehumanizing treatment will ever end. But end they must – if not yesterday, then today.
First, we must be willing to honestly see the suffering in our neighborhoods, our communities and our country. We must exit the comfort of our individual existence and hold tight to the humanity that allows us to recognize the innate worth all people possess. We must celebrate diversity, including the rich contributions that communities of color have made and continue to make to our collective way of life.
Most importantly, we must hold ourselves and each other accountable for permanently changing both our narrative and reality.
The Greater Milwaukee Foundation made a generational commitment to racial equity and inclusion in 2016, and the work we have accomplished side-by-side with community means something, but it is not enough. Our pace must be faster, our resolve must be sharper, our urgency must be greater as we seek justice. A much greater burden must be carried by white leaders and white institutions, and I pledge to do all I can to advance a new era that ends racist structures.
As your community foundation, we love Milwaukee and have spent the last 105 years dedicated to its brightest future. I know you love Milwaukee too. Our community has come together before to develop bold solutions to big problems. We have the knowledge. We have the ability. Together, we have everything we need to transform Milwaukee.
I want you to hear and know that you matter. Your family matters. Your community matters. Now is the time to rid ourselves of the virus of racism so everyone in our community can experience the joy, health, safety and fulfillment in life that they deserve. Now is the time for everyone to thrive.