May, 2011

Salute to Mr. Wynn


One of the great blessings of my professional life is that it started out in a frying pan.  I didn’t have a slow ramp-up where everyone at my job spent time training me and helping me get my bearings by giving me insignificant work I couldn’t mess up.  I started at the Social Development Commission and on the first day I was told to write a proposal for Tom Wynn. 

Not the Tom Wynn you see in this picture.  This picture (which I labeled Tom Wynn Nice) sure does look like him.  Because he was handsome and he had a smile that could quiet down a very noisy room.  The Tom Wynn I met on Day One at the Social Development Commission was the head of the National Association of Black Veterans and IVOCC (Interested Veterans of the Central City) and right from the jump, he was mad.  Mad that what he’d asked for was help getting a proposal done and what he got was me.  And mad at me because he assumed (rightly) that I was an ivory tower white girl who was against the Vietnam War and didn’t know anything about Black people.

That’s where our relationship started.  But it got better.  Over the years I did a lot of work for Tom Wynn, wrote a lot of proposals, did research on bad discharges and lack of access to services.  He would be polite and friendly, courtly even, until he sensed resistence or lack of high priority, and then he would let me have it.  And that’s where I learned a) to listen to an angry Black man without running away; and b) hold my own when I knew I was right.

Tom Wynn never really trusted me but he came to trust my skills – I guess that means he respected me.  I certainly respected him.  He was the first person I knew who lived his commitment to a cause every second of every day.  He carried the problems of Black veterans on his back and for a long time did it almost all alone.  He was fierce, that man.  Fierce and insistent and undeterred.

At his retirement party in 2004, when everyone knew that he was dying, people lined up in front of the chair where he was sitting – to shake his hand and have a few words.  When it was my turn, he gave me one of his Africa pins and we both at the same time, said “Thank you.” And he shot me one of those smiles.  Like in the picture.

So — when I drive by 35th and Wisconsin Avenue, I look up at the brand new beautiful 52-unit Thomas H. Wynn, Sr., Veterans Manor for homeless veterans, and I think – what a good, wonderful thing that is.  What a really fine salute to Mr. Wynn.  And I think how lucky I was to have him as my drill instructor.

When is it OK to Judge People?

I can’t imagine actually being a judge.  Every time I read about someone in the paper who is accused of a crime, I start thinking of reasons why he/she should be let off the hook.  I marvel at judges I know who can drop the hammer on a defendent – 10 years, 20 years, life without parole.  I could never do that.  I think I’m an extreme case, though.  A person who overdosed on Joan Baez in my formative years, who can get obsessed with thinking that ‘there but for fortune (or the grace of God) go I.’ 

Judgments about people aren’t just personal — they’re very often professional.  By that, I mean that our judgments about a group of people, say, teen fathers or drug-using moms or high school dropouts or gambling addicts, influences how we respond to them.  If we’re in a position to design programs or organize services, the essence of our judgment is manifest in those programs or services. How much we value people who have the problem we are trying to fix, what we think they are capable of in terms of managing their own lives, how much we blame them for being in the situation that requires our help.

It’s the last thing – the blaming – that surprises me the most.  Over the past year, in my professional life and my volunteer work, I’ve been astonished at the ease with which professional helpers – social workers, therapists, human service workers – seem ok with blaming clients for their situations, even when the clients are children. Acting as if their middle class playbook is the only one on the shelf, they are indignant that their clients aren’t playing by the rules.  Aggravated that phone calls aren’t returned in a timely fashion, convinced that clients lack motivation when they miss appointments, personally offended when clients — with years of addiction or mental illness — suffer a resurgence of their symptoms. 

And this isn’t just about individuals judging — it’s ultimately about how their combined judgemental attitude shapes a program or an organization.  In other words, the judgmentalism becomes embodied in the organizational culture – in everyday interaction, policies, expectations.  All of these things act out what the people in charge think of the people who want help.

But even in this tsk-tsk littered landscape, there are those professional helpers who know how to make it real – who understand people’s situations and can offer paths to recovery that are realistic and attuned to their reality.  Moreover, they know how to help people in a respectful way. I admire those people and strive to be like them. 

But it’s really challenging.  For the past year, I’ve been working on helping someone get their life straight and, in the process, chastising others who have been quick with their judgments and disdain.  I moved ahead like Switzerland – always neutral, just interested in peace and progress.  But I’m feeling my non-judgmental self cracking.  I’m getting tired of excuses, aggravated with the drama, and frustrated with the lack of results.  I feel myself kicking into serious judging but also realize that this is probably where the rubber hits the road, that now is when it really gets tempting to flip open the playbook and point to the right formation.  “Here, play it this way!”

I guess this is what separate what’s easy from what’s hard.  It’s easy and completely understandable to get fed up after an unfruitful year of trying to help someone.  Everyone would understand.  It’s hard to find yet another tack and take another run at it.  To be patient and not judge.  Which is, I guess, what you have to do if you buy into this ‘there but fortune’ business.

Bonehead Move: The Destruction of the Downtown Residential Hotels

My new favorite term is generational error.  Developer Gary Grunau used this phrase to describe Governor Walker’s refusal of $810 million in federal high speed rail funding.  Blowing up downtown hotels that provided housing for hundreds of low-income singles in 1980 is another epic generational error.  The Randolph, Antlers, and Plankinton House provided over a 1,000 units of what would now be known as SRO (Single Room Occupancy) housing.

The downtown hotels offered cheap rooms — $8 a night plus a $2 key deposit in 1974 — coffee shops, a sense of community, access to stores and services in the community (what there were at that time), and independence.  People with disabilities or long-term addictions or family estrangement could just plain live on their own.  It was affordable and available. 

In the place of the downtown hotels, we have the fabulously successful Grand Avenue Mall, a development that has suffered in concept and reality practically since the day it opened.  We have rows upon rows of condos. And a lot of new buildings with the retro look that John Norquist loved so much and that is so reminiscent of of the old residential hotel era.

And we have a lot of homeless people – most of them single adults (76%) – and a large shelter system.  I’m not saying that these two facts are directly linked (well, I guess I am) but it’s an interesting coincidence that the Antlers and Plankintown Hotels were blown up in 1980 and the Guest House Emergency Shelter for Men opened in 1982.

The City of Milwaukee’s decision to acquire and raze the homes of about a thousand poor people was tied to the belief that commercial redevelopment of the downtown was a higher value — that the area’s economic resurgence would benefit the entire City.  Truth be told, it wasn’t just the downtown hotels that interfered with strategy, it was the people who lived in the hotels.  They weren’t good for downtown’s image and so they had to go.  And they did.  But we’re not better off.  We’re worse off. 

The community is scrambling to create truly affordable housing for very low-income people.  We had the opportunity to do that in 1980 when, if we had followed the lead of other cities like New York and Los Angeles, we could have upgraded the residential hotels to be more acceptable neighbors in the revamped downtown.  It could have been done.

That it wasn’t, that these historic buildings were blown up with so little regard for where poor people could afford to live is one massive generational error.  And we’re still paying for it.

When in Doubt, Blame: Reflections on Milwaukee’s Infant Mortality Problem

This isn’t the first time that the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has gone on a star search.  Remember last year’s fawning over Geoffrey Canada, the founder of the Harlem Children’s Zone?   What was the matter with Milwaukee?  How come we don’t have a Geoffrey Canada?  Why aren’t we having phenomenal success educating low-income, African American kids?  What’s wrong with us?  If the education establishment knew what it was doing, it would replicate the Harlem Children’s Zone in Milwaukee.

Now, about a year later, the new subject of adoration is Mario Drummonds, leader of the Northern Manhatten Perinatal Partnership.  Like Mr. Canada, Mr. Drummonds is a charismatic figure whose zeal, commitment and talent organized a blitzkrieg of activities on a single housing project, the 1,500 unit St. Nicholas Houses in Harlem.  (See “Milwaukee infant mortality rate still high, despite years of effort, millions spent,” in Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, 5/7/11))

Immediately, the conclusion is drawn that if Milwaukee had its act together, our infant mortality rate would plummet.  If Milwaukee would marshal its resources and not have 112 different initiatives working throughout the city (a list which, by the way, seems to include every parenting program, research project, and child development effort in the city in addition to programs specifically addressing infant mortality), then we could beat this problem and get out from under being one of the worse places in the U.S. to be a baby.  In essence, if we could replicate Mario Drummonds’ program in Milwaukee, we’d have it made.

It doesn’t work like that, folks.

Because it’s not about Mario Drummonds’ program.  It’s about Mario Drummonds.  Just like it’s not about the Harlem Children’s Zone.  It’s about Geoffrey Canada. Each of these men is what is called a Monomaniac on a Mission (MOM), a very technical term for the one person who is willing to move heaven and earth to achieve something and can convince other people to leave their cars running in the street to come and help.

There are a million things that are different about the places where Mr. Drummonds and Mr. Canada developed their projects.  History, politics, access to wealth, receptiveness to innovation, diversity, and culture of challenge and confrontation are some of the elements to be considered.  Their programs were shaped by the environment, by opportunities that were presented, and by their own personal ability to convince others to invest substantial resources — millions of dollars — in achieving the desired results.

Rather than blaming the hundred small, shoestring agencies that are trying to help young parents do a better job, maybe we ought to look at what kind of environment Milwaukee provides for budding MOMs.  When one comes along, do we listen or tell him/her to sit down and wait their turn?  Do we get behind big dreams or resent them?  Embrace vision or write it off as tilting at windmills?  Do we recognize community anger and frustration as the growing power of change or run away from it?

Like 99% of things in the world, “it’s complicated.”  Replication of programs from other cities rarely works unless virtually all of the environmental features are the same.  The adult drug court model is an example of a very successful replication process throughout the country.  Programs that have been shaped and developed around a single personality usually fall flat.  It’s not a committee that makes those innovations work, it’s one absolutely electric person at the center.

We’ve got those live wires in Milwaukee.  We really do.  Time to let them loose and see what they can do.