Community organizations, elected officials converge for job creation

Leaders take a grassroots approach to developing a Milwaukee Jobs Act

By Maricha Harris

Job creation was the center of discussion at a town hall meeting that was organized and hosted by several community- based organizations, including Citizen Action of Wisconsin, League of Young Voters, Milwaukee Inner City Congregations Allied for Hope (MICAH), 9to5 Milwaukee, Milwaukee Area Labor Council, Urban Underground, the African American Chamber of Commerce, Voices de la Frontera, Laborers Local 113, Tikkun Ha-Ir, and Wisconsin Jobs Now. The meeting was held at Cross Lutheran Church.

Many of the organizations gave two-minute remarks, and several elected officials, including Alderman Ashanti Hamilton, Alderman Willie Hines, Representative Barbra Toles, Alderwoman Milele Coggs, Senator Spencer Coggs, and Mayor Tom Barrett, addressed the audience of approximately 150 residents.

“The first purpose [of the meeting] is to begin a conversation with the community about what they would like to see their city doing about job creation,” said Jennifer Epps- Addison, organizer for Citizen Action of Wisconsin and meeting facilitator.

Mandela Barnes, organizer, MICAH, raised awareness about jobs moving from Milwaukee to Waukesha. Barnes said many manufacturing and factory types of jobs are moving. “We’ll take the Target Distribution Center for instance; that’s all the way out in Oconomowoc,” he said. “They employ a lot of people, but a lot of people [who] really need the jobs aren’t able to get there easily.” Barnes says that when you lose these jobs, “you lose everything that goes along with that job.”

David Bowen of Urban Underground talked about the need for youth employment. “Jobs that traditionally went to young people, don’t go to young people,” he said. “If you have to compete with people who have more work experience, and you have no work experience period, you can not compete. So young people need an opportunity to gain that experience.”

Other organizations talked about various employment issues, such as supporting small businesses, decreases in wages, poverty and racial disparities.

Following the presentations, Ald. Coggs greeted attendees and opened the floor for public testimony. Eager to speak, residents quickly formed two lines. Many people gave ideas for solving the job crisis—such as helping youth develop entrepreneurship skills—while others shared personal stories. Still, others gave their perspectives of the problems within Milwaukee.

Tonisha Howard, 27, shared how today’s challenging job market affects her and her family. As a single mother of three children between seven and four and a full-time Alverno College student, she has to work two jobs. Even with those jobs, Howard is “still barely making ends meet.” Howard is a certified nursing assistant and works for Hales Corner Care Center and Comfort Keepers.

Dedicated to school, she takes on 18 credits per semester. Howard expects to graduate in December of 2012 with a degree in Community Leadership and Development; she plans to attend graduate school at Alverno College.

As she pursues her goals, Howard is faced with many financial burdens. She says her biggest challenges are paying rent, her Wisconsin Energy bill and her daycare co-pays. She receives Badger Care and Foodshare.

In today’s economic crisis, people from all walks of life are experiencing financial adversity. But in Wisconsin, disparities exist among certain populations. African American men have an alarming unemployment rate. The problem has caught national attention. Earlier this year, CBS News covered the issue and reported that 34 percent of Black males in Milwaukee are jobless.

Michael Hagler, III., 21, is fortunate. He has a job. Hagler attended the job-centered town hall meeting and says he understands the challenges in today’s job market. For him, wages are a major issue. His $8.00 an hour job at Office Max hardly brings home enough money.

“Gas is a big thing, and food is a big thing,” he said about his financial challenges. When it comes to helping people like him in the community, Hagler said, “The only big issue to me is how much you get paid to work. Nobody wants to work every two weeks for [very little money].”

During public testimony, ideas given by residents were recorded. The suggestions will be considered as the Milwaukee Jobs Act is being developed. Ald. Ashanti Hamilton will be the lead sponsor on the proposed legislation.

After public testimony, elected officials were given the opportunity to respond to what residents said. Mayor Barrett was first to address the audience. “I think we have to keep our eye on the prize,” Barrett said. “I think what we have here is a commonality where we want a future for our community. But the challenge is we do not make enough ‘stuff’ in this community. We do not make enough ‘stuff’ in this country.”