Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Henryk Sadura /shutterstock
Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Henryk Sadura/shutterstock

In the last 50 years, economic disinvestment and systemic racism have taken a brutal toll on Milwaukee’s African American community. Up until the early 1970s, large manufacturers like A.O. Smith and Schlitz Brewing provided stable, well-paying jobs, employment among the city’s African Americans was high and home ownership was on the rise. Then, corporations in Milwaukee, like other Rust Belt cities, closed their plants and moved overseas; roughly 35,000 jobs, mostly held by Black workers, vanished, and Black neighborhoods were plunged into poverty.

In recent years, communities bordering Lake Michigan have been revitalized, but Milwaukee’s inner-city neighborhoods have continued to decline, and redlining, zoning laws, and other discriminatory practices have helped make Milwaukee one of the most segregated cities in the U.S. Virtually all indicators—from employment to housing to health status—reflect deep gaps between Blacks residents and their white counterparts, and a special report by 24/7 Wall Street concluded that Milwaukee tops the list of the worst cities for Black Americans.

Now, a unique project, spearheaded by a coalition of community leaders and supported in part by several local Black philanthropists, is tackling Milwaukee’s persistent racial and economic disparities. The Greater Milwaukee Foundation, the Medical College of Wisconsin and the Royal Capital Group LLC teamed up to create the ThriveOn Collaboration, which will focus largely on health, but also education, employment, housing and other issues, operating out of a shared, renovated facility. The collaboration’s vision: “a Milwaukee that is equitable, healthy and thriving for all.”

Birth of a collaboration

At over 100 years old, the Greater Milwaukee Foundation (GMF) is one of the oldest community foundations in the U.S. In recent years, the organization embarked on what Ellen Gilligan, the organization’s president and CEO, calls a “learning journey,” as staff and board members explored GMF’s role and how it could best serve the local community.

“In 2016, we made a commitment to do things differently,” Gilligan said. “We made a commitment to use every tool in our toolbox to advance racial equity, in the city and the region, and to make that commitment our NorthStar.”

GMF’s 2020 strategic plan, titled “A Milwaukee For All,” reflects this commitment, and emphasizes the foundation’s roots in the local community. “Our focus and investment will follow the voices, priorities and ideas of neighbors who live and work in our diverse communities as we share decision-making power to create a new future together,” according to the plan.

Given this commitment, it made sense to consider a change of venue when the foundation’s lease came up for renewal in 2018, according to Ken Robertson, the foundation’s CFO and COO. “We wanted to be closer to our community, closer to the people GMF works with to allow that to inform our overall programming,” he said.

Robertson was already considering moving GMF’s offices when he learned that the Medical College of Wisconsin was seeking a new space for its community-based work, and began talking to leaders at the college about sharing a venue. Next, the foundation and the college teamed up with Royal Capital, a Milwaukee real estate development company that supports local revitalization, and the ThriveOn Collaboration was born.

Thrive on

The ThriveOn Collaboration will occupy a building on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, located on a corner where three Milwaukee neighborhoods meet. The building was once the home of Gimbels-Schuster, a vast, bustling department store where residents lingered during the holidays to admire the elaborately decorated windows. During the 1950s and 1960s, the community, known as “Bronzeville,” was thriving, according to  Robertson.

“It was a beautiful area of town, and it was known as a center of arts and entertainment,” he said. “But it was impacted by the challenges of the ’60s and ’70s and it never came back.”

The building is currently under renovation, and when it is completed in 2022, anchor tenants will include the Greater Milwaukee Foundation and the Medical College of Wisconsin’s community engagement programs. The ThriveOn King building, as it’s called, will address local needs, including food, housing, early childhood education and employment, but final plans are still in the works. Collaboration partners have been holding regular planning sessions where community members offer ideas and input about how the space should be used.

“With the new building, we’re not leaning in, we’re walking alongside,” Ken Robertson said. “We’re not saying, ‘This is what we believe you need.’ We’re listening to what the community needs and working with them.”

Tackling Milwaukee’s healthcare inequities is a major goal of the collaboration. Research makes it clear that poverty and related factors, including food insecurity, chronic stress, and lack of access to health care, have punishing health impacts. According to one calculation, life expectancy in Milwaukee’s poorest, largely Black zip code is 12 years less than life expectancy in a neighboring, majority-white community. As Milwaukee’s health commissioner put it, “No one should have their life expectancy determined just by their zip code.”

Health and racial equity are a primary focus for Leonard Egede, Medical College of Wisconsin professor of medicine, who will be based at the ThriveOn King building once it is completed. Egede’s work explores the impact of poverty, stress and other social determinants of health. This past February, Egede was awarded an endowed chair appointment to support his health equity research. Black philanthropists raised $2 million to fund the chair as part of a $5 million campaign to provide permanent funding for Egede’s work.

Milwaukee businessman and philanthropist Cory Nettles has been involved with the ThriveOn Collaboration from the beginning. He has served on the boards of all three of the partner organizations, and was involved in early conversations about the collaboration. He also co-chaired the campaign to raise $2 million to endow Dr. Egede’s chair. Wisconsin philanthropist Herb Kohl was another early donor. Nettles and Jackie Herd-Barber, who co-chaired the campaign, reached out to Milwaukee’s Black philanthropic community by hosting small gatherings where Dr. Egede talked about his health equity work.

The response from Black philanthropists was enthusiastic, according to Nettles, and the money was raised in a matter of months. Many people were surprised by how successful the campaign was, but Cory Nettles was not one of them.

“A lot of people don’t understand the level of education and the capacity in the Black community,” he said. “The truth is, and this is based on research, African Americans have been shown to give more as a percentage of their wealth than others do. In the Black community—and I know this is the way my wife and I were raised—we were taught from an early age that to whom much is given, much is required, and that you have an obligation to pay it forward.”

Milwaukee’s promise

In an extraordinary, in-depth series for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, journalist James Causey examined the many factors that created and foster Milwaukee’s racial inequities. For the project, called “Milwaukee’s Promise,” Causey also presented solutions. He traveled the country and identified programs in other cities that have shown results. Promising programs have been proposed in Milwaukee, Causey pointed out, but they seldom get anywhere.

“Milwaukee is a place where good ideas often go to die,” he wrote. “We have meetings and talk, then talk some more. In the end, bureaucracy, divisiveness, turf battles and a lack of public commitment reign, instead of collaboration to get things done.”

The ThriveOn Collaboration can be seen as a joint effort to break that cycle. And the coalition behind it is committed to getting things done—not just today or tomorrow, but into the future.

“Our partnership is not an initiative,” Ellen Gilligan said in a video announcing the plan. “It is not a short-term effort. We are in this for the long haul. We are committed to making systemic, generational change, so that everyone can thrive on.”