June, 2011

No One Wants to Touch It

There is something seriously wrong here.  The latest NAACP report on the state of Black Milwaukee is a yawner.  Same old stuff.  Same old disparities.  Maybe a little worse but, hey, it is what it isWhat’s happened  is that we have gotten used to having leprosy.

Yes, that’s just what’s happened in our lovely city.  We are years beyond caring about the disfigurement, the isolation, and the pain.  It’s enough, isn’t it, that we still have missionaries willing to visit the leper colony and minister to the people we don’t want to see on Main Street.  Keep us safe from contagion but still do the right thing.

The NAACP report includes interesting little facts like:

  • African American students in MPS have a graduation rate of around 40%.
  • Wisconsin’s African American incarceration rate is 11 times greater than whites.
  • Half of African American males of working age (16-65) are unemployed.

More info here in Eugene Kane’s column in the Milwakee Journal Sentinel, “Latest snapshot of black Milwaukee makes the heart sink,” at

This isn’t the first time the NAACP has issued a state of Black Milwaukee report.  The first one I saw was in 1987; we used some of the findings to include in a demographic analysis of poverty in Milwaukee completed for the Social Development Commission.  We thought the news that African American male unemployment was 25.9% and the poverty rate was 29.0% would just stop traffic on Wisconsin Avenue.  When policymakers got that information, we thought (wearing our little candy striper uniforms with the “I may look 16 but I’m still really naive” sashes) they will for sure deal with the obvious racism, disparity, and injustice of it all.

Maybe it’s like the frog in the boiling water.  You know, you put a live frog in boiling water and he freaks out….but… put a live frog in cold water and gradually turn up the heat and he just floats into a state of being fully cooked.

I guess my question is this — HOW DID THIS GET TO BE OK?   How did we get so comfortable with tens of thousands of young African American men not having a prayer of a decent economic, social or family life?  Who’s mad about this?  Who’s grieving?

There is occasionally a great, impressive community ‘raring up’ of indignation and outrage about a pressing issue.  United Way’s anti-teen pregnancy campaign, especially the latest iteration that goes directly to the heart of the awful phenomenon of young girls getting suckered into sex with older men is an example of a group that decided, “This is completely f**ked up and we’re going to change it.”  Of course, United Way wouldn’t talk like that.  But I am.

This situation with African American males is a DISASTER and it has implications that reach into the next many generations.  We see that frog bobbing around in the simmering water — that’s us.  That’s what complacency has brought us.  We’ve been warned.  We can never say this took us by surprise.

Father’s Day Message to Milwaukee Dads

Here’s my Father”s Day message to Dads, especially young Dads.  You matter.  It doesn’t matter what your wife or your girlfriend says.  It doesn’t matter if you don’t know how to do anything useful or even if you have a job.  You matter.  Don’t buy into any of the junk that you hear that your kids will be fine without you.  They won’t.

Here’s the big news for Dads, again, especially young Dads who think they have nothing to offer because they’re not working and have no prospects.  Three-years olds don’t check resumes.  They don’t care what you do as long as you are decent to them.  It’s a very low bar to be a meaningful Dad to a child.  Would it be better if every Dad had a family-supporting job? Absolutely.  Would it be better if they all took parenting classes and were actually interested in child development instead of faking it?  Sure.

But what matters most to a kid is that you simply show up. Be kind. Be dependable in their eyes.  Put them on your shoulders and walk around the block. Make them feel big and important. Put them first in your heart.

Social service programs spend a lot of time on fatherhood projects.  And that’s a wonderful thing.  But the thing I want Dads to hear is that it is your physical presence that matters most, your strength and protection, your playfulness and your laugh, and the loving gaze that tells a child s/he can do no wrong in your eyes.  It’s no cost – you just got to show up. Not once or twice.  Not on Christmas and birthdays.  Regularly.  Dependably.

Men – if you’ve got a friend who can’t take that step to be with his child because he thinks he’s not good enough, take him by the hand and show him.  And remember sometimes it’s the big blowhard Dads who say they don’t care and can’t be bothered who are hurting the most because they’re estranged from their kids.  Help them out. 

Our town would be an incredibly better place to live if all our kids were fathered well.  Many of the programs we develop to try to fix the damage done by absent fathers would be unnecessary.  It’s the little things that count – in the long run, that’s the big thing.  I truly believe that.

From the Lamppost: Making Proposal Feedback Work For You

Constructive criticism is what you get when your husband tells you, “Yes, those jeans do make you look fat.”  This is separated from regular criticism which is severe eye-rolling and/or covering of one’s eyes.  It’s ok to get mad at the latter but constructive criticism?  Mature people take it in the kind spirit in which it is intended.  Or do they?

As one author noted, “Asking a working writer what he thinks about critics is like asking a lamppost how it feels about dogs.”

One experience that I and many of my peers share is having people review drafts of funding proposals.  Over the years, this has been a painful or productive process, depending on the proposal, how decent a draft I’ve given people, and whether they (the reviewers) know what they’re doing.

I’ve learned some things about the proposal draft review process which I happily put to use this past weekend on a proposal for a very important community project.  Here are my tips for not only surviving, but benefiting from, a proposal draft review.

1.  Start the proposal development process with the group in a face to face meeting.

2.  Review the proposal requirements, paying special attention to significant policy/program decisions.

3.  Get agreement on the major issues at the beginning – don’t let things ride.

4. Share two drafts.  An early draft with a lot of holes forces discussion about critical issues — this draft should be reviewed in a group meeting.  The second draft is the ‘close to finished’ draft – unless there are big issues, getting individuals’ feedback is sufficient.

5. Tell your reviewers when you will be sending the draft out and stick to that schedule — even if you are not entirely happy with your progress. 

6.  Ask people to send their feedback/comments to you directly.  One thing you don’t want in the late stages of a major proposal is outside kibbutzing – where some people in the group are talking to each other but not registering their issues with the proposal developer. 

7.  Take all the comments in before making changes.  Get a sense of where your reviewers are – are they all focusing on the same 3 issues or are they finding things all over the place to change?

8.  Schedule your review so there is actually time to influence the final product.  Asking someone to review a proposal that’s due tomorrow is a transparent attempt to avoid having to change anything.  I say you need to have a close to final draft at least a week in advance of the due date.  Inconsequential stuff can be missing but 90% should be available to solid review/critique.

9.  Alert the group when the concerns of a reviewer are such that the future implementation of the project could be impaired should it be funded as proposed.  This is tricky because you don’t want to disrupt the proposal process but you have to insure core agreement on the design.

10. Advocate only for the competitiveness of the proposal and do that sparingly.  Sometimes ‘regular’ people don’t understand what needs to be done to land major federal money.  However, they still know what will fly in their world.  A good proposal developer strives for balance here.  That’s hard — because it also means the you cannot be defensive or argumentative.  When you’ve spent days and weeks on a proposal, it’s hard not to defend every word.  But that’s a mistake and we all know it.

I used to be very reluctant to have people review my work.  Last minute scenes with supervisors and colleagues ripping the draft from hands were common.  Figuring if I gave them no time to critique I could avoid criticism, I completely missed the boat on the whole purpose of external review.  I had to learn it the hard way — it’s not about me.  It’s about getting the money to make something important happen.  So I have to suffer a little…..

Looks Matter

Every time I go to the Milwaukee County Behavioral Health Division or Children’s Court for a meeting, I am depressed by the grounds before I even get to the building. 

I took this picture this morning at BHD.  The rain had washed off the dusty, deserted look, and it almost looked pastoral and welcoming.   But the fact of the matter is that many parts of county grounds look like ruins.

Like this 70’s era empty pond.

Planters with no flowers.  Weeds.  Very grim.

Public art?  What’s that?

I think elected officials figured that the fastest way to show people that county government was saving money was to stop caring about how things look.  Why do anything more than the bare minimum? Mow the grass and shovel the snow.

I’m not an architect or a landscaper.  I’m just a regular person who goes to these buildings quite a lot and, each time I do, I wonder why it’s so important to someone in charge to remind me of how busted the county is, that no matter how stressed or anxious I might be as a consumer of services in these buildings, I need to button up my hair shirt and quit complaining.

So as I was walking back to my car thinking this thought for about the millionth time, I saw this.

And it really made me smile.

See what I mean?