Tagged ‘Social Development Commission‘

Does Milwaukee Need SDC?

What’s next for SDC (Social Development Commission) was the question of the day in this morning’s Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Community leaders, probably several  who haven’t graced the doors of SDC for ten years, chimed in with their predictions. What they know about SDC is what they have read in the paper, and while the MJS has been a steady observer of SDC for many years, its coverage (intentionally or not) has been focused on a slice of life in the agency. That said, clearly SDC has troubles of significant proportion, sufficient to call the question.

SDC was established by Mayor Frank Zeidler in 1963 as a quasi-governmental entity to study the problems of poverty and racism and recommend solutions. In 1964, SDC was designated as Milwaukee County’s Community Action Agency as part of the federal War on Poverty. The agency’s enabling legislation includes city and county ordinances and state statute; its legally defined mission is to address the problems of poverty in this community.

Does Milwaukee need SDC? My response is YES, IF…..

The appointing authorities identified in state statute and city and county ordinances for the statutorily-created Social Development Commission appoint people of substance and stature to the Board of Commissioners;

Those appointees attend every board meeting, serve on appropriate committees, and give their best effort to the governance of the agency;

Board members act with courtesy, study the issues before them, and deliberate with the best interests of low-income people as their top priority;

A highly competent executive management team is quickly installed;

That management team includes professionals with excellent management skills, proven leadership ability, and demonstrated commitment to the unique empowerment role of community action in this country;

The board of commissioners and the management team invest its time and resources in a fast-track, in-depth diagnostic and strategic planning process, using its own resources and expertise and calling on local planning resources for assistance.

The agency re-commits to the fundamental principles of community empowerment, elimination of poverty, and creation of opportunity for everyone;

Elected officials and those in positions of power avoid backroom deals, refuse to foster hostile takeovers by other agencies, and fully support the efforts of the agency to right itself.

Does Milwaukee need SDC? There is just one answer for that. Yes.

The poverty rate in this city is 29.4%.

Managed well, with leadership that is enthusiastic and inclusive, with a plan that reaches every part of the community, respects every person, and organizes every resource, with a board that is careful and collaborative and forward thinking and with a community that looks for progress instead of rejoicing in mistakes, SDC can change that number. Now is the time to give the agency just that chance.


Disclosure: I worked at SDC for several years, starting as an intern in 1976, and most recently, as Director of Planning, Research and Community Involvement from 1990 to 1995; I also served a term as an elected SDC Commissioner. Recently, I worked as a consultant for the agency with major responsibility for writing the agency’s Head Start application.

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Another One Falls: What Happened to Esperanza Unida?

 Last week, I talked about the closing of the iconic Hull House in Chicago.  This week, I just have to talk about one of Milwaukee’s own iconic nonprofit organizations, Esperanza Unida.  Yesterday’s Sunday paper carried the news that after forty years, the organization had lost its federal non-profit status. This essential designation, the one that makes foundation and government grants possible and gives donors a tax deduction, was lost because the Esperanza Unida administration did not file a Form 990 with the Internal Revenue Service three years in a row. 

 Esperanza Unida, founded in 1971, started out as a very small, storefront enterprise that focused on workers rights, especially advocacy for Latino workers who had been injured in the workplace.  Ted Uribe, Esperanza’s first director, was a basically a community organizer.  Under his leadership, the group tackled a host of community issues including the distribution of anti-poverty funds by the increasingly powerful Social Development Commission.  When Rich Oulahan became director, the organization took off in new directions, establishing a national reputation for a social entrepreneurship model of job training that started with auto donation/repair/resale and expanded to a day care center, restaurant and other initiatives.  Oulahan attracted federal support to establish the International Building on National Ave., and commissioned Reynaldo Hernandez to create a mural that northbound I-43 drivers still see and appreciate every day. When I drive by, I think about Rich Oulahan’s persistence and advocacy – he died in 2008.

So what went wrong with this nonprofit masterpiece?  Like Hull House, there are probably many possible answers.  From my perch way outside the organization and the neighborhood it serves, I’m wondering where the board of directors was when the 990’s weren’t filed.  I occasionally read the southside papers and see on Facebook references to a lot of political infighting, some of it very bitter and divisive.  I think about the wisdom of having an organization so entirely wrapped up in the identity of its executive director and wonder if the board ever tended to the unpleasant duty of developing a succession plan.  Was there attention paid to building a board that had the professional and technical skills, such as accounting, legal, and fund development expertise, necessary to steer a major nonprofit enterprise? Another thought is what happpened to the organization’s community support?  Esperanza Unida used to be an untouchable nonprofit, so politically well-positioned that its funding was almost never in doubt.  I don’t have answers.  I just ask the questions that I think need to be asked.

The need for an Esperanza Unida continues.  People need skills that will get them family-supporting jobs.  That hasn’t changed.  It’s a sad thing for Milwaukee that this important resource – this community resource – no longer exists as a nonprofit organization.  Those of us involved with nonprofits as staff or consultants or board members need to find the lessons learned from Esperanza Unida’s situation and resolve to keep the valuable nonprofits in our community healthy and strong.

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