Panel: Moving people out of poverty important for economic growth, social justice

Madison and its surrounding environs are often touted for their quality of life, ranking at the top of some polls for best places to live in the United States. Earlier this year, National Geographic touted Madison as one of the “top 10 happiest cities worldwide,” due in large part to its numerous recreational opportunities in lakes, parks and on bike paths.

But not everyone is able to take advantage of this high quality of life, said Dane County Executive Joe Parisi, citing figures that show 75 percent of African-American children live in poverty compared to less than 6 percent for white youth. And that black jobless numbers in the area are more than five times as high as for whites, he said.

“African-American unemployment rates here (25 percent) are the same as they were during the Great Depression,” said Parisi, who introduced a panel called “A Level Playing Field” at the Madison Region Economic Development and Diversity Summit held Thursday at the Monona Terrace Convention Center. “And a white unemployment rate (4.8 percent) that is the same as during the Roaring Twenties. That is simply unacceptable. There is no issue more important … and it’s time we take action.”

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The panel discussion was one of 10 breakout sessions at the conference, which stressed collaboration to advance the region’s economy, promote diversity within business and improve opportunities of all in the region. It was co-hosted by the Madison Region Economic Partnership and the Urban League of Greater Madison.

Panelist Angela Russell, who works for the Madison/Dane County Health Department, began her talk with a slide show of young black men of have been killed by police around the United States in the past year. That group includes Tony Robinson, who was shot by a Madison police officer in March.

She argued that the United States is “not quite post-racial,” in spite of electing a black president and other examples of progress. She said individual and institutional racism remains strong in this country and in Dane County, limiting economic opportunities for minorities.

“We have some challenges here in Dane County that make it hard for us to recruit and retain a diverse workforce,” she said. Some local companies are recognizing the need to expand opportunity for minorities, she added, noting that she has been hired by CUNA Mutual to work as its first equity coordinator.

Tamara Grigsby, community relations director in Parisi’s office and a former legislator from Milwaukee, said data for Dane County show that the median white family income is almost $90,000, while the figure for blacks is only $27,000.

For many African Americans, she said the Madison depicted in glowing magazine articles is “unrecognizable” and that future for many young black men in Dane County is “bleak.”

Grigsby said the quickest way to end racial disparities in Dane County is to move people out of poverty is “family-sustaining employment” and she lauded a county program called “Big Step” that connects job training with the needs of the labor market and helps young minorities get driver’s licenses. She also praised companies such as the Hy-Vee grocery chain, which has taken part in diversity training and hired many minority workers at its Dane County stores.

Lucia Nunez, Madison’s civil rights director, said she has been working on diversity issues for 30 years and often finds herself dismayed at the lack of progress in spite of good intentions.

“We have really amazing laws that I will defend,” she said. “Our civil rights movement led to many incredible laws and we celebrated the 50th anniversary of many of them in the past couple of years. Madison, back in 1963, passed an equal opportunity ordinance … dealing with housing, employment and public accommodations.

“So why am I having a crisis?” she asked. “After all these years … the disparities remain. So we need to talk about equity and go further upstream and not just level the playing field, but tilt it somehow … to stop young African-American men from going into the criminal justice system.”

Then, speaking to business leaders in the audience, she said “this is no longer a moral imperative. It is an economic imperative. If you are going to remain a business that is cutting edge and getting your share of market, you’ve got to be thinking about diversity.”

Rachel Krinsky, CEO of the Madison YWCA, said her organization has worked on fighting racism and increasing economic opportunities for women of color. To that end, she said her agency has gone from 38 percent minority hires to 43 percent in the past three years. However, she said, those jobs were all entry level.

“There were no leadership people of color,” she said.

By using what she called a “multi-cultural organizational development tool that is focused on altering strategies,” she said, changes have been made in how the YMCA is run and employment diversity has climbed to 43 percent. More important, 20 percent of the Y’s supervisors are minorities and 30 percent of its directors are people of color.

Krinsky said her organization is also working with private businesses and government agencies through its “Creating More Equitable Organizations” program to make them more diverse. Participants have included the Morgridge Institute, Unity Health, the Willy Street Coop, Madison Police Department and Forward Community Investments.

“This is a tool we’re finding useful,” she said. “Each organization builds their strategy differently, but they are all embedding it and moving forward. So I want to give you a little hope that it is possible to do this and impact people’s lives.”

— By Brian E. Clark