Eye on Unemployment: Milwaukee

Eye on Unemployment: Milwaukee

As the first of a new series on how unemployment is affecting African-Americans, BET.com looks at Milwaukee and what’s being done to get people working.

Published June 28, 2011

Unemployment. It’s a word where, if you live in an urban city you’re either experiencing it, know someone who is, or can see first-hand how others have been affected.

With the Black unemployment rate over 16 percent, all across the country hundreds of thousands of people have been impacted, yet many continue to ask the question, “Where are the jobs?” And “what is the government doing to help me get back on my feet?”

In Milwaukee, especially, those questions are being asked. According to a report released last Wednesday, the Midwestern city is one of the most segregated in the nation, and more than half of African-American males between ages 16 and 64 are unemployed.

In 2009, there were more than 70,000 job seekers in Milwaukee, but fewer than 10,000 job vacancies.

“Milwaukee 40 years ago didn’t have anywhere near this type of problem,” Milwaukee city councilman Tony Zielinski tells BET.com. “We had a very strong economy; however, with the departure of these manufacturing jobs oversees, a void was created that I think the city really did not address. They did not identify sufficient jobs and fields where we can provide a segue into other opportunities for employment.”

Dissimilar to many cities that are relying on umbrella solutions to tackle unemployment, Zielinski is tackling the problem head–on.  At the end of last year he created a taskforce that addresses unemployment issues in the city of Milwaukee specifically as they relate to African-American males.

As of two months ago the taskforce has been able to secure and disperse funding for its first jobs initiative through a resolution proposed by Zielinski and passed by the federal government. The initiative was a partnership with Will Allen, an urban agricultural farmer and MacArthur genius grant recipient. Allen, an agronomic and aquaponics pioneer and founder of Growing Power, Inc., built a farm in the middle of a Milwaukee residential neighborhood in 1993. The farm, which grows vegetables like tomatoes, mushrooms and salad mix, and farms tilapia fish, helps to feed urban Milwaukee residents affordable, healthy food through an on-site farmers market. His two-acre urban agricultural farm can produce enough food to sustain 2,000 people. Through the taskforce’s funds secured through the federal government’s Community Development Block Grant, Growing Power, Inc. has been granted $425,000. A company once dependent on the efforts of its many volunteers will now be able to create at least 150 jobs in Milwaukee.

“We’re looking at short-term solutions, long-term solutions, manufacturing, agriculture, education and [we’re] looking to address some of these socio-economic factors that are contributing to the high unemployment rate,” Zielinski says.

But these types of solutions aren’t the only thing that Zielinski is looking at holistically. His taskforce is also diverse. Members of his committee include Dr. Marc Levine, founding director of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Center for Economic Development, and Wendell Harris, first vice president of the NAACP’s Milwaukee branch. Other members include the executive director of the largest association of commerce in Wisconsin, the executive director of the social development commission in Milwaukee, local pastors and elected officials.

“You need to bring together the best minds you have in the community from all sectors because each different sector of that society brings something to the table that they can contribute to help address the problem. For example, the faith-based community can bring something to the table that the private sector business community can’t provide, and vice versa.”

Zielinski says that if there is a particular group that needs a little extra help “we have to work as a team and reach out.” He acknowledges that nationwide unemployment did not happen overnight and it won’t go away overnight either. However, when joblessness specifically affects communities, causing the potential for crime, recidivism and suicide rates to rise, particular attention needs to be paid to it.

“If you don’t specifically target [Black unemployment] as an issue that deserves a top priority, deserves precedence and allocation of financial resources, you’re not going to address the problem."

(Photo: REUTERS/Jason Reed/Landov)

Written by Danielle Wright


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