Residents set vision for thriving community

There was no hesitation. As residents of the Sherman Park East Advisory Council considered options for a new Greater Milwaukee Foundation investment in their neighborhood, they unanimously chose youth engagement as their top priority. 

“By focusing on youth development, we can change the future for our youth,” said Jacarrie Carr, who serves on the Council. “We can set high expectations for the youth and actually put them in position to win.”

No one needed to tell Jacarrie and the others that Sherman Park is a young neighborhood, with 33 percent of residents under age 14, and 16 percent between the ages of 15-24. No one needed to tell them the neighborhood’s youth face daunting challenges as they come of age, including Wisconsin’s 64 percent high school graduation rate for Black students or the nation’s highest rate of incarceration for Black men. No one needed to tell them that despite this, young people in this community possess incredible talent and resilience. 

No one needed to tell them because they live and work in Sherman Park every day – some since they were children – and they know the community’s challenges and assets better than anyone. And that’s why the Foundation is committed to ensuring they remain at the center of decisions that affect them and their neighborhood.

Community foundation approach

Community-driven change is not new territory, but the Foundation is deepening how it involves residents directly in implementing local philanthropic strategies. 

“We are taking a values-based approach, which includes sharing the power and co-creating with residents,” said Darlene Russell, senior program officer for the Foundation. “We are intentionally starting with the people, and I think that is what makes this different and why it will lead to greater success.”

The work is just one element of the Foundation’s much broader Thriving Communities strategy, dedicated to joining with residents of Milwaukee to create positive change in places that historically have faced barriers to revitalization. The work is emerging, but it builds on decades of partnership and investment the Foundation has made in Milwaukee neighborhoods, including Sherman Park.

As with many of the people and places it serves, the Foundation’s commitment to Sherman Park is multi-dimensional. The Sherman Phoenix development, a new community anchor, is providing high-quality commercial space for entrepreneurs of color. Foundation donors have given more than $466,000 to the project through the Foundation and another $140,000 independently. And through its impact investing program, the Foundation has invested $300,000 in the Phoenix, further supporting an effort that residents have prioritized and embraced.

Sherman Park residents lead

The Advisory Council’s first meeting on Nov. 12 was part of a three-tiered process the Foundation has undertaken to engage community stakeholders in Sherman Park, with a focus on the eastern geography. The Sherman Park neighborhood is bounded by West Capitol Drive, West North Avenue, North 32nd Street and North 60thStreet. The Foundation’s focus area is bounded by West Capitol Drive, West Center Street, North 32nd Street and North Sherman Boulevard.

The approach included hiring two residents as neighborhood fellows who spent the summer months conducting individual interviews with other residents. Three visioning sessions followed in August, September and October at locations throughout the neighborhood. Participants gathered to develop a shared vision and ideas for strengthening their community. The goal was to arrive at potential priorities for an initial Foundation investment of $50,000. 

The Foundation then formed the Advisory Council to determine the one big idea that was both scalable and fundable for greatest impact. Now that youth engagement has been identified, the process of developing criteria and seeking proposals from the community will begin. Ideas may include paid employment opportunities, mentorship, professional skills development, athletics and other programming to help youth reach their full potential. 

“I am most hopeful to see youth working, doing good in school and being able to enjoy being a kid,” said Carr, who personally engages in youth development through his organization, Jacarrie’s Kicks for Kids. “I am hopeful that the Sherman Park area can be known for positivity and a place where youth are successful instead of incarcerated. I am hopeful to see Sherman Park community leaders teaching the youth different life skills, and then those same youth teaching younger youth those skills. I am hopeful to see the Sherman Park area back happy.” 

The Advisory Council’s work will continue through 2019 as the Foundation invests a total of $150,000 in community-led efforts over the course of the upcoming year. They next meet in January.

Moving forward, the Foundation will be introducing more ways for donors and partners to join us in this significant body of community work. Look for these opportunities in the times ahead.