By Arielle Vaccaro
For Harambee West Care Program Director, James Ferguson, it was impossible not to like Reverend Dr. James White. Not only was White the founder of Harambee West Care and a well-known community icon, but he was also known to, on occasion, drop a few powerful lines of rap.
Ferguson found out about White’s secret skill at his graduation, at which White gave a speech, then broke out into some freestyle rap.
“He was a man of many talents,” said Ferguson, recalling the memory of his fellow students, smiling in surprise and swaying to the beat of White’s rhymes in their caps and gowns.
This Saturday, at the HeartLove Place Ballroom, Harambee West Care will be honoring more than White’s musical talent, however.
The non-profit, dedicated to improving the Milwaukee community on a number of fronts, will hold a banquet to commemorate the work of Dr. White, even after his passing in August of 2013. At the banquet, Harambee West Care will hand out several awards, including Dr. James G. White Human Service Award.
Although West Care Wisconsin is now a thriving hub of information and community improvement, it was not always that way.
Before White’s involvement in the organization, Harambee West Care was Harambee Community Vision and Mission, a nonprofit suffering from a lack of funding and fire damage due to race rioting. White was working for the national non-profit, West Care, as Regional Vice President.
According to Ferguson, however, “He had his heart set on coming to Harambee.”
Eventually, White would merge West Care Wisconsin with Harambee Community Vision and Mission to create Harambee West Care in the aftermath of late 1960’s race riots.
Today, the non-profit carries on its work without White, but advocates his objective everyday.
“Our mission is to uplift the human spirit,” Ferguson said.
According to Executive Director Rochelle Landingham, Harambee West Care offers a litany of services meant to do exactly that.
“Our importance is to provide programming, services, resources for the community and beyond to allow people to live a better quality of life,” said Landingham.
One of those programs is called Face Forward. Through this service, young men and women pair with a mentor and receive with one-on-one cognitive behavior therapy. Harambee West care combines clinical and social service methods to prevent youth with criminal records from later entering Wisconsin’s adult prison system.
“Our purpose and our goal is to keep them from crossing over into that system, because we all know that’s another beast,” Ferguson said. “That program has got to be one of our hallmarks.”
Face Forward started in January, 2014 and runs until December, 2015.
Among other prevalent community issues that Harambee attempts to alleviate is Milwaukee’s crime rate, one which greatly exceeds the national average.
For Landingham, there is a direct correlation between the high rate of crime and a lack of employment opportunity and training.
Landingham mentioned Milwaukee’s 53206 zip code, in which more residents have criminal records than in any other zip code within the city.
“That issue has to be addressed, in order for us to survive.
In order for them to even have a job, we have to deal with the felony issue here,” Landingham said. “Something has to be done.”
Harambee West Care also has a hand in the state’s mental health care redesign.
Landingham co-leads a committee titled Cultural Intelligence that aims to promote cultural understanding between those employed in mental facilities and the patients they serve.
The non-profit sustains a number of beneficial partnerships with other Milwaukee entities, including the Department of Children Services.
The two have collaborated to establish Fostering Futures, a program meant to help children who have experienced trauma.
The program is sponsored by Tonette Walker, wife of Governor Scott Walker.
Harambee sponsors a feeding program during the summer, as well, at which children between the ages of three and twelve can get a lunch supplied by the Social Development Commission SDC).
Both Landingham and Ferguson were able to describe the Harambee community that they serve in one succinct word.
“Harambee is very resilient,” Landingham said. During her tenure at Harambee West Care, she has found that the neighborhood boasts an involved population, concerned with employment, housing, and the well-being of the community.
She recalled an incident in which a dollar store attempted to move into a vacant space that was promised to the community to be used as a space for public recreation.
Residents went to great lengths and attended heated town hall meetings until the dollar store was moved out of the lot.
“Don’t underestimate what people will do with opportunity,” said Ferguson of his community.
Although Harambee has seen many agencies open and shut their doors, it continues to thrive.
“We have to be a nucleus for education for them,” Landingham said, mentioning that many residents arrive at the doors of Harambee West Care on West Wright Street and North Martin Luther King Jr. Drive in search of voting information and other services that only Harambee can offer.
Harambee West Care’s reach is further than just the neighbordhood borders of North and Keefe Avenues.
Denise Crumble is Health Project Coordinator for the Milwaukee Health Department.
She runs Plain Talk for Parents and Prep Talk for Youth, two programs aiming to supply parents and their children with the resources needed for a safe sex life.
Crumble uses space at Harambee West Care for her programs, for absolutely no charge.
“It’s wonderful to have a space where I can work with parents,” Crumble said, pointing out the building’s comforting, homey quality, its Afro-centered decor, and friendly staff.
According to Crumble, Harambee West Care’s treatment of the young people that she teaches is unlike that of other, similar agencies.
“A lot of agencies serve youth, but a lot of times they want them to be seen and not heard,” said Crumble.
However, at Harambee, they are welcomed, treated fairly, and, if necessary, firmly.
“They make them feel like a part of the community,” Crumble said. “The most important thing is that I can bring my youth to a place where they feel respected, supported and safe.”
She attributes some of Harambee’s success to White’s work: “Before White took over, there was a lot of instability and chaos.”
His willingness to invite other agencies to use Harambee West Care’s space helped not only Denise Crumble’s, but a number of religious institutions as well as the League of Martin — a group of local African American police officers.
Thus, White’s memory is still much alive within Milwaukee, and more specifically, Harambee.
At West Care Wisconsin’s banquet in his honor, attendees will be able to see Milwaukee’s reverence for his memory in full force.
Guests can expect nothing short of what White might expect for the community he served.
Harambee West Care promises great food and speakers during the event.
According to Ferguson, there will also be a special announcement. He will unveil the beginnings of a new project to address the high rate of male, African American incarceration in Milwaukee.
Harambee West Care will collaborate with the Helen Bader Foundation to complete the project.
“We’re really excited,” Ferguson said.
The banquet is open to the public. Residents of Harambee are especially encouraged to attend.
Festivities start at 5:30 p.m. this Saturday, July 12.