Counting himself as part of this population in crisis, Johnson and others at WCS returned to their organization and started having conversations about the pervasive ripple effects of trauma in the African American community. Historically the trauma came from slavery and Jim Crow. Today it comes from factors contributing to the high incarceration rates of boys and men of color. Johnson and others wondered if their organization was addressing these issues specifically for the target population of boys and men of color.
Since 1912, under a few different names, Wisconsin Community Services has served individuals who are in the criminal justice system or at risk of becoming involved. They provide pretrial court services, drug treatment, residential reentry services, and a large behavioral health program for those with severe and persistent mental illness.
“If you look at communities in Milwaukee where poverty is most likely to happen, it’s in communities that have lower numbers of men who are there to care for their families because they are in prison,” Johnson explains. “WCS provides services that make it more likely for men to stay and support their families.”
Johnson and others realized that their clientele was mostly men of color, but that their organization could be more effective in serving and being aware of that population.
“The prospects of African American males in Milwaukee are very poor compared to other urban areas. I’m not sure the Black community has rebounded from the loss of factory jobs in Milwaukee over 20 years ago. We work with thousands of African American males on a daily basis so it just made sense to start impacting that specific group through the services of WCS,” Johnson explained.
With the support of WCS’s administration, Johnson and others formed the Black Male Advisory Council or BMAC (pronounced Bee-Mac) in early 2015. In the last year and half, 10-15 active staff members met regularly to focus on how their organization can better serve and empower boys and men of color.
“The biggest challenge is finding a place to dig in,” says Johnson. “The challenge is so enormous and all our staff has full-time jobs.”
Not in anyone’s job description, staff members use their own time to serve on the committee. BMAC has organized successful luncheons and gatherings for WCS staff to recognize the contributions and increase awareness about the challenges facing African Americans. This August 31st, the BMAC will host its second annual Community Resource and Job Fair, where boys and men of color can come and meet employers, mental health providers, and other community resources. The event runs from 10am-2pm and will include food, entertainment, and visits from local politicians.
Johnson has hope that the BMAC provides a strong voice for the people WCS serves.
“Foundations and funders are well intentioned but the answers have to come from a different perspective.” Black Male Advisory councils, or councils for other target groups for that matter, have the potential to facilitate conversations with less strings attached and to keep the focus on the clients and target population.
Another purpose of the Black Male Advisory Council at WCS is to ensure that all members of the organization's diverse staff are empowered and supported. Forty-five percent of employees are black and fifty-five percent are white. “If we want to be successful with our Black clients, we have to make sure that our Black staff feel empowered and supported. We are counting on them to be our first line of defense.”
Johnson thinks that the Black Male Advisory Council could be recreated in other organizations, both nonprofits and federal agencies, but not through a mandate. WCS’s Black Male Advisory Council works by organic empowerment. Its growing success shows how creating a safe space for a specific population creates awareness, celebrates contributions, and promotes action.
How is your organization providing safe spaces for advocacy and action for specific populations?