Racial Equity Meeting Held in Middleton

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MTT News's picture
Michelle Phillips

MIDDLETON­–On June 10, the Middleton Action Team, a group of concerned citizens, held a Racial Equity in Middleton forum at the Middleton Public Library. About 60 people turned out and a panel made up of City Administrator Mike Davis, Percy Brown Jr., Director of Equity and Student Achievement for the Middleton Cross Plains Area School District and Pastor Jim Iliff, of the Middleton Community Church-United Church of Christ gave reports and answered questions. All three men are on the Middleton Equity Team.

Iliff started off the night and gave some background information about himself, telling the group about how he came to the realization that he was not living in the community he thought he was living in when he read the city’s racial equity report. That was back in 2001 and Iliff said, “Once you learn about inequity, you can’t unlearn it.” 

He added that it was later when he learned of a youth group at Middleton High School that he met and began working with Brown. He then went to an equity training event and began working on equity in the areas of housing, transportation and food.

He went in to tell the group about the things he and his church have done to improve equity within the community. The church was a founding member of Middleton Outreach Ministry in the ‘80s, has worked with Road Home Dane County to host homeless in their facility and creates weekend food bags for the Middleton Youth Center. “We are also hoping to build a community center,” he added.

Brown told the crowd that homelessness around the county, including Middleton, was on the increase when asked how many homeless students the district served. “It’s hard to pinpoint how many homeless kids we have,” Brown said. “Health care, nutrition, all sorts of things make it difficult for kids to come to school prepared.”

The three men agreed that homelessness does not have to mean living on the street but may include families doubling up in a single dwelling or moving from place to place with no permanent residence. 

When asked about services available, Brown said there are “a plethora” of services available, but they are not properly aligned to serve the community and said the attitude has been that these issues are not the school’s responsibility, but that of the parents. He included that the services are sometimes not available because they are gobbled up by children from more affluent families. 

“Parents with money make sure their kids use those services–taking a lot of the time of school counselors–making it hard to pinpoint those problems. We need to hold ourselves accountable for kids that really, really need our help,” Brown said.

He included that schools need to get away from the model that every school gets the same. “That’s not an equitable model. Some schools have more poverty and need more services,” he said, and cited West Middleton Elementary and Sauk Trail Elementary as examples. 

Brown said this year has been especially trying for him and that he’s exhausted. He said a teacher using the N-word in class spurred a presentation to students and another for faculty. He said it was disheartening to hear a teacher ask, “Am I going to get in trouble for calling a kid a jerk, too?” A perfect example of staff missing the point and minimizing the affect the word has on African Americans. 

Brown also used the example of a teacher having students read literary texts like “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “Of Mice and Men” in the classroom, both of which use the N-word often. He said that when a teacher has students read the text aloud and that word comes up, white students will immediately turn to look at the black students in the room. “As educators we need to model. If you use that literature, you need to be able to engage in discussion,” he said. Another solution would be an alternate text, though Brown said he does not support banning books that use the N-word. 

“I feel like I am bearing the cross of every student of color in our schools,” Brown stated. “We can’t control what happens in the outside environment, but we can control what goes on in our building.” 

Brown said he feels what goes on in the district office and what happens in reality at the schools are not in sync, and he is hopeful about the new administrators coming on board, including the superintendent, high school principal and Kromrey Middle School Principal.  He said he is especially excited to have Dominic Ricks, a black man, as the new Kromrey Principal, the first in the district. He said Ricks has a special way of making all kids feel included and engaged. 

Brown said that it seems everyone has an agenda they want to push at the new administrators. “I feel like people are trying to jockey to get in with the new superintendent,” he said.

“We lack humility and have leaders unwilling to say, ‘I have A, B, C, and D going on and I need help.’” Brown added. “The thing I do know, is we are better together. If we can’t break down those walls, we can’t move forward.”

Brown said it is vital for kids to see themselves reflected in the curriculum and staff, which is often not the case. He added that there have been some strides made in diversity of staffing, going up from two percent to 13 percent in recent years. 

Brown added that equity measures need to start at elementary level and said proficiency in reading is lacking with just 15-16 percent of black students reading at grade level. 

He said that people in Middleton need to stop depending on leaders of color in Madison supporting Middleton. “We’ve got folks right here. We need to stop relying on the same faces.”

Several people in the crowd expressed their dismay with the handling of the Addison apartment building which is planned on University Ave. across from Willy Street Co-op. The plan brought out area neighbors who voiced concerns about parking and shade caused by the proposed four-story building. 

The developer, Anthony Gray, an African American man, was asking to have the property rezoned to accommodate the building. The rezoning was denied by the council after community members in the neighborhood attended meetings imploring the council to shoot down the project, which would include workforce housing. Gray came back with a three-story plan, which will now include tearing down a stone cottage that Gray had hoped to keep. Davis said Gray is currently trying to secure funding for the project. 

“I get the feeling that there’s more to it when I hear people complain about things like parking and shade,” Davis said.

Iliff said he is currently forming a group called YIMBY (yes in my backyard) as a counter to people afflicted with NIMBY (not in my backyard). He said he hopes that people will embrace diversity in their communities.

Davis also told the group there were good things to report about equity on the city level, but that there was still a lot of work to be done. 

He praised Middleton Police Chief Chuck Foulke and said gains have been made in the department to create equity including hire more officers of color and female officers. “Our Chief of Police is open to approaches in racial equity,” he said. One of those measures is not issuing multiple tickets at a traffic stop. Paying multiple fines is often a hardship for minorities. Davis said that the city has lost revenue by issuing less tickets, but feels it is the right thing to do.

In addition, Davis said the department is using measures to prevent criminal activity by getting to the root cause. The police are also advocating and protecting victims of crimes. 

Davis said that even though he grew up in a small, white Indiana town, he was exposed to a diverse set of people through his father who was a security guard and union steward. He said use of the N-word was never a consideration for him growing up. “It disheartens me to still hear that word in our community­–it’s not just if we say it, but thinking it, too,” he reminded. 

Training on race and equity has also helped the city rethink the way they do things, he said, and added that the city received a grant for the training. “We met people from around the state committed to making a difference in our communities,” Davis said.

The youth center is also an area the city has worked on to improve services and equity. He said 50 percent of the kids served at the center of kids of color. He said the that city is offering job opportunities for kids of color at the center, which will provide an opportunity for minority kids to help other minority kids. 

Davis said the youth center has a summer program that is full. He added that the center provides a place for kids to go and a hot lunch, which they might not otherwise get at home in the summer. 

The city has also made a concerted effort to increase workforce housing. They had a loan programs for down payments on purchasing a home, making about 20 loans, but decided multi-family housing was a more efficient way to increase housing. He said TIF districts are the areas that include workforce housing, but there aren’t that many places that are TIF districts. 

The library outreach program was also discussed, and Davis said in the summer the library takes books to the splash pad at Lakeview Park. The splash pad was chosen because more lower income families utilize it because it’s free as opposed to the pool which charges. He added that the splash pad location was also chosen because of its proximity to those with lower incomes.

People in the audience asked what they could do to help increase equity in the community, and all three men agreed that getting involved with the Middleton Equity Team is a good start. 

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