Racine and Mount Pleasant residents packed a conference room Monday night at Gateway Technical College with the purpose of telling Racine Mayor John Dickert, Gateway Technical College President Bryan Albrecht and Rep. Cory Mason how the two communities could fix its poverty problem.

Residents spoke out about issues around race, transportation, mental illness, education, and inequities in the judicial system that need improvement. Some people got angry and voiced frustrations about having lost funding for programs while others focused on how their social service agencies had worked to address key issues in the community like housing and job training.

Mason, Dickert and Albrecht called the meeting to bring social services organizations and the community together to tackle an issue that is complex, but they also wanted to let the community know that they will again be asking the federal government to establish the area as a Promise Zone.

“These are generational issues,” Dickert said. “That’s why this is a big lift and it’s going to take more money and more effort than we’ve ever done. But the results will be far more dramatic than we’ve ever had. So are people ready to do the big lift? That’s the question.”

Racine’s Second Chance At Creating A Promise Zone

Introduced during the 2013 State of the Union address by President Barack Obama, Promise Zones are communities in urban, rural and tribal areas with high poverty and unemployment rates where local agencies can be more easily connected with federal grant money. Promise Zones focus on building private-public initiatives that create jobs, leverage private investment, increase economic activity, expand educational opportunities, and reduce violent crime.

“Our hope is that Racine’s Promise Zone will create a pathway to the middle class by providing our community and local businesses with increased economic mobility and opportunity within Racine,” Mason said.

Being identified as a Promise Zone means area agencies have the ability to apply to the federal government through a shortened grant making process. The designation would include parts of Racine and Mount Pleasant. Last year Racine and Mount Pleasant applied for the grant, but they weren’t chosen. However, they missed qualifying for the designation by two points, Mason explained to the group.

If Racine receives the Promise Zone designation, it would be comprised of 28,000 people, 40 percent of them are unemployed.

“We were stunned with the raw data,” Mason said. “There are a number of areas that are well above 20 percent while other areas are as high as 62 percent unemployment. To know that there is that much poverty gave us pause.”

Another map showed that of those people that were over the age of 25 years-old, 10,000 of them did not have a high school diploma or GED diploma.

“It makes you focus on what we might do to address the issue,” Mason said.

Residents Give Lawmakers, Municipal Leaders Advice

But the group was also there to listen as residents explained that the problem didn’t just have to do with education but with hope, respect, trust and a whole laundry list of other things.

Racine resident Brittany Woods advised Mason to look at the policies around incarceration because Wisconsin is the highest in the nation in the percentage of black men it incarcerates.

“It plays a part in education and unemployment, so have you looked at the number of felons in impoverished areas and how you go about getting them access to employment?” She asked.

Mason said that prisoner re-entry programs would be part of the program they want to see implemented in the Promise Zone.

Alice Ervan, a school teacher at Janes Elementary School, explained that 98 percent of the students that attend the school are on free and reduced lunches.

“I agree with the first speaker… Mental health is a desert here,” she said. “…Mental health is a huge deficit in every avenue of our children’s lives and it doesn’t matter if you are in a high poverty school or not because abuse is abuse.”

She explained that one of the biggest items that comes up on teachers’ surveys is that they need help with mental health.

“We need to help these traumatized children… nobody likes people hurting kids, but we need more help,” Ervan said. “If we are going to bring up our community we have to address the issue of poverty and of mental health. How do we get these little kids to believe in who they are before it fractures in third grade?”

At the end of the evening, a man named Bobby (who declined to give his last name) said that people did need help with their mental health, but he challenged the group and asked how many people wanted to be treated like a black person gets treated? The fundamental problem in his mind: People need to treat others better, he said.

“We need a check-up from the neck up,” he said. “We need to deal with this right here… I mean treat people correctly.”

What’s Next

Mason said his office would be using some of the residents’ advice and comments to help make the Promise Zone application better. The applications are due in February, but the community likely won’t know if they received the designation until fall.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Denise Lockwood has an extensive background in traditional and non-traditional media. She has written for Patch.com, the Milwaukee Business Journal, Milwaukee Magazine and the Kenosha News.

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