Listening Hard & Learning Some Things
June 18, 2009 1:58 PM
Yesterday morning, about 40 people attended a meeting I called in response to the murder of a Memorial High School student on the southwest side last week. While I called for the meeting of alders, county supervisors, business owners, neighborhood leaders and others from the southwest side, my hope was that we could generate discussion among the people at the meeting. I didn't want to be the main attraction, and as it turned out, I wasn't.
There was a lot of positive energy in the room and a lot of discussion between people from different parts of the very big area we call the southwest side. Nothing made me more hopeful than when it seemed that neighbors were just talking to one another as if I wasn't in the room.
I listened hard and learned some things. What I learned was that a lot is being done at the grassroots level. Ernie & Joan Horinek proposed to form a coalition of Balsam Road landlords. An emerging leader in the Allied Drive neighborhood, Florenzo Cribbs, has already met with a group of African American leaders including Madison Police Officers to work on the issue of providing positive male African American role models. And Pastor David Smith has pledged to step up the already strong involvement of the African American churches.
I pledged to offer City of Madison encouragement and support in any way I can for these citizen-generated efforts. In addition to these grassroots efforts, we need to strengthen and adjust city-led projects that are already in place, like the Meadowood Neighborhood Center, the neighborhood police officer, increased building inspections and the new farmers market.
Madison is a growing community. With growth comes cultural diversity. That's a good thing. After all, our kids will grow up in an increasingly diverse global economy. Living amid diversity gives them an advantage.
But we are also living in a community with growing poverty. That is not necessarily a good thing and we need to do two things to address it. First, we should insist that dealing with poverty is not just Madison's responsibility but the responsibility of every community in Dane County. Second, we have to recognize that poverty is a reality in our community, right here and right now.
I wrote last week about Mendota Elementary School and principal Sandy Gunderson. My point was that high poverty levels didn't need to lead to low school performance. After all, we have every reason to expect high achievement from poor kids just as we do from anyone else. In fact, their ticket out of poverty is a good education and it is in all of our interests to make sure they get exactly that.
Two things were clear coming out of yesterday's meeting. We cannot only talk in the abstract about these issues, and it is time to work together as a community to act. I was glad to see that many efforts are already underway in the neighborhoods. There are valuable things that City government can do, but many times it is the people to people interaction within our community that strengthens our neighborhoods and our city.
To make sure the City does its part in these efforts, I asked Chief Wray to head up a task force to address gun violence in the city, and I also asked Community Development Director Bill Clingan and Department of Civil Rights Director Lucia Nunez to work on a plan to continue our discussion and to support efforts within the neighborhood however we can. Bill and Lucia are already working hard with my office on that, and we'll have concrete next steps to present in the very near future.
I applaud the initiative of the residents at the meeting. The City, County and schools must do their part to promote safety and stability of our neighborhoods. But government can never be a substitute for grassroots efforts and strong community leaders in taking care of a neighborhood and its residents.