Get a Move On, Milwaukee

by rthieme on April 30, 2006

Get a move on, Milwaukee!

Posted: April 29, 2006

Icame to Milwaukee in 1987 as the head pastor of a downtown church. In my sermon at the installation service, I named two issues that I believed were critical to Milwaukee’s future, economically and spiritually – race relations and the kinds of jobs that would sustain our economy during a time of change.

Twenty years later, I could give the same sermon, with the same result.

Former Mayor Frank Zeidler told me he appreciated and agreed with my remarks. Others nodded.

They would nod today, too. But would anything change?

Let’s take the issue of work first.

I have felt despair as we read study after study identifying our weaknesses relative to other American cities. The studies generally describe a downward path because the causes of our problems are seldom addressed between one study and the next.

We go to Ireland or Indianapolis, identify what they did there that worked and then come home and refuse to do it.

The latest study revealed that only three metropolitan areas had lost more jobs than Milwaukee in the past year – New Orleans, Gulfport and Detroit.

New Orleans and Gulfport were devastated by Hurricane Katrina, and Detroit was the subject of a recent satire in The Onion reporting that the city had been sold for scrap.

The only three cities that lost more jobs than Milwaukee look like poster cities for biblical calamities.

Milwaukee looks better than that, our downtown anyway. Ours is a less visible calamity of the spirit and will, a state of paralysis that in an individual would look like a pathology.

Thomas Hefty, one local leader who has worked tirelessly to awaken our area to the realities of our economic situation, has said that we need a sense of urgency to deal with the causes of the job loss. Hearing that, I flashed back on another time I heard the word “urgency.”

Shortly after 9-11, I gave a speech for a consortium of financial services, government and security professionals. I spoke of our security needs in the aftermath of the terrorist attack.

Stash Jarocki, president of the group and an executive at Morgan Stanley, told me, “We can change things, but we have to act while there’s a sense of urgency, and urgency has a half life of 90 days.”

Unless we act now about job loss, complacency will once again saturate our emotional lives, and denial will wall off the reality of our situation. Others warned that we would need five, 10 or 20 years to address the root causes of our dilemma because “we did not get here overnight.”

That’s true. We did not get here overnight because at every crossroads, whenever we felt that urgency before, we did little or nothing.

When we say something will not happen overnight, it usually means our leaders lack the will, the ability, and/or the means to do this huge but necessary task, to redefine how we think and behave because how we think and behave no longer makes sense.

Insanity is defined as doing the same things long after it is clear they do not work.

And race? The same lessons apply to race as it figured in the Frank Jude Jr. verdict and the demonstration, once again, that the police force in Milwaukee grants itself a dispensation to commit felonies.

Why in the world would any minority in the city of Milwaukee call the police when they cannot expect to be treated like human beings worthy of respect?

An appropriate response to the trial is rage and outrage. If African-Americans tried to protect their families by doing to the police what the police did to Jude, they would be rounded up, beaten up and sent up.

Twenty years ago, I was told of a white police officer who had beaten someone senseless and said in his defense that he had recently transferred from the core of the city and had not realized that the rules were different in other neighborhoods.

That was 20 years ago! Twenty years.

No, things will not change overnight – or ever – unless business, labor, education and media leaders are committed to changing them.

Otherwise, the past will once again be our future, repeating itself over and over like those studies documenting our economic slide.

We will read them, but we will still not “get” why other cities can adapt to a global economic transformation while we are still wringing our hands about the procrastinations of Brett Favre or whoever replaces that issue at the head of the list of Things We Really Care About.

Richard Thieme of Milwaukee is an author and professional speaker. He has spoken for the FBI, the Pentagon and the U.S. Department of Treasury.

From the April 30, 2006 editions of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

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