By A. David Dahmer
Madison’s struggles with race relations and Gee’s efforts to improve them are starting to get national attention.
Gee was recently interviewed and will be featured in an upcoming segment of “PBS News- Hour,” which will delve into how the city addresses race relations and racial disparities.
A crew from the television news show has been in town this past week exploring ways the community is addressing race issues.
They also interviewed Dane County Executive Joe Parisi.
“I love the fact that we are getting some national attention because I think it helps other communities to start having this discussion,” Gee says.
“It’s not because I want to put Madison in a negative light, but I think a city like Madison is revered highly and if people around the country see the struggles in ultra-liberal Madison, they will start looking at other communities, too. I think it can help spark a conversation.” In the last week of May there will also be a couple of national documentarians — one man from Dallas and another from the Marquette University Film Department — coming to Madison to chat with Gee.
“They’ve been following this whole process and they want to do a video over the next year or two of Madison and how they are responding to this,” Gee says.
“They asked to be able to tell the story through my lens and to be able to talk to my mom.
They asked me for some of the names of people who have been in Madison for a long time; the older pioneers.
“I think that Madison is in a position that it can be a thought leader if we address these issues appropriately,” Gee adds.
“It plays up to Madison’s strengths. I think it’s a great opportunity.”
All of this attention and fanfare — local, state, and national — is not something that the humble Gee was seeking. But he has it now.
And, with anything as big as this, there will always be haters. Or, at the very least, dislikers. As you can imagine, not everybody is going to be happy when you shine a light on the dirty underbelly of your “Best Place in America to Raise a [Caucasian] Family” city.
On top of that, you always have the garden variety racists who will come out of the woodwork and attack.
Some of them keep their venom to the comments section of Madison.com., but others take the time to write letters.
And even within the community you have questions popping up.
Why aren’t our black elders having more of a say? Where are the Latinos/ Hmongs in the Justified Anger Coalition and events?
Gee takes the negative in stride while still keeping focus on all of the positiveness of the movement.
“I never said, ‘What we do is the only action we can take in this community.’ I just wrote what I felt. This is nothing new for minorities.
We all read the Race to Equity report. Most of us for a long time have known what has been going on,” Gee says.
“We started Nehemiah 21 years ago because of what was happening at Somerset.
So we didn’t just start moving; we seized a moment to communicate. My desire was never to exclude anybody.
For 21 years, Gee’s Nehemiah Center for Urban Leadership Development, a non-proﬁt, community based organization, has met the basic needs of Dane County’s African- American families by addressing their unique spiritual, academic, social, physical and economic concerns.
Nehemiah specializes in interrupting the cycles of poverty, racism, and discrimination that many families face by empowering individuals with dignity and by also challenging unjust systems.
“When this article came out, the paint wasn’t even dry on this facility.
Our grand opening was in summer… there hasn’t been a lot of breathing room,” Gee says of Nehemiah’s recent creation of the South Madison Center for Culture & Community (SMCCC). “We’re still working on our place here. Nehemiah is growing. There is so much going on.”
Gee says that he has met with African American elders and sought their advice and he has been talking to Latino community members and even hosted a group of Latino community leaders in his home for dinner and conversation.
[Centro Hispano is planning on leading their own Race to Equity discussions and initiatives as it concerns the plight of Latinos starting next month.]
In the future, the Justified Anger Coalition will work with as many people and communities as possible.
But now, it’s time to hear from the broader African- American community.
“The June 5th [African American] Family Meeting will be our first stab at bringing the greater black community together to talk about what we want to see happen — because there is not just one view or one opinion,” Gee says.
“It will be our first great opportunity for anybody in the African American community to come and say,
‘This is what I see. This is how I feel. This is the problem. This is what leaders forget. This is what teachers are doing.’ I want to give people an outlet to share their frustrations but then to channel it and say, ‘Here’s what has got to happen.’
Gee says that part of what they want to do now that foundations have given them some planning dollars is have some really good listening sessions.
“We’re having all of this talk going on right now with what has happened with the achievement gap, opportunity gap and [how] it’s affecting parents, teachers, and kids but I’m not hearing their feedback,” Gee says.
“So, on June 5, I’m eager to get a lot of feedback at the African American Family Meeting.”
At the African American Family Meeting, there will be small group talk with facilitators, a panel, and dinner held from 6:30-9 p.m. at Fountain of Life Church on Madison’s south side.
“I want people just to listen to what emerging leaders, existing leaders, and young folks are saying and what they’re seeing as the problem and the solution,” Gee says.
“We will also be spending time in schools and talking to young African American males; interviewing them. What do you want to see?
“People in our coalition know what we see. We’re in the trenches. We are hearing what people are saying,” he adds.
“But we’re making a concentrated effort over the period of a month and a half to listen to various segments of the African American community to make sure we are on point.
That will all feed into our plan … because I just don’t want to have a small group speaking for everyone. I think that’s been a fear of people.”
Some people are already tired of all of the talking, I tell Gee.
They want action. They aren’t seeing anything from the white community but some top-down, white-guilt concessions. There’s no real change happening, they say.
“Sure. I think that’s an area honestly where we get some pushback … because people hear about a potluck where 400 people show up and they are like, ‘Oh, sure…. A
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“But I think a potluck is huge. I saw 15-year-old black boys talking to older white men.
I saw people sitting at a racially diverse tables talking about these racial issues that people don’t normally talk about.
I think the more we talk and have genuine conversations, the more it will trickle down into our homes and we will develop stronger relationships and friendships.
“We want to get grassroots buy-in to what we are doing. That’s what will make this unique.
And it starts with first talking to each other,” he adds. “I think — in the past — to talk about mingling without talking about the systemic issues, was superficial.
I think we’ve been afraid to talk about the issues because we think that they are so evasive that we never will get to the relational part; it would just cause things to be too explosive.
I think that we have to tackle both. There are systemic issues but we can overcome them through relationship building.
I don’t think in my time that I’ve seen both of those held with appropriate attention.
I’m going to continue to encourage the picnics and the potlucks.
“You have people who are saying, ‘We’ve talked enough.’
We have people who are saying, ‘They’re not going to listen to us … you can’t change policy,’” Gee continues.
“I think that we need to change policy, we need individual advocacy, we need personal relationships, we need leaders to talk about it, we need hiring structures to change, we need neighborhoods to be diverse, we need our kids hanging out together.
I think it’s so multi-faceted that there is enough for everybody to do.
If we just each do our part and communicate, I think we can make a big difference.”