Groups break down silos to tackle lead abatement

Lead poisoning is a prominent issue in Milwaukee, where lead-based substances in homes such as paint, dust and water are present. Although government and community groups have been tackling the problem for years with limited success, new collaborations are emerging that aim to help more people facing the dangers of lead. 

The MKE Civic Action Team, a group coordinated by the Greater Milwaukee Foundation, is using its convening power, social connections and advocacy efforts, which it learned during the COVID-19 pandemic, to further support lead abatement work.

The team’s cross-sector partners ensure that these efforts go beyond helping homes become lead-safe and families healthier; they are creating jobs, strengthening the workforce and growing the economy.  

The role as a convener

Ian Bautista is senior director of civic engagement at the Foundation. He has served as the MKE Civic Action Team's co-lead and the economic recovery team's facilitator since the group's launch in 2020.

On the social front, the Civic Action Team helps facilitate relationships between groups, amongst themselves and philanthropic partners; draft letters to the Milwaukee Common Council; and advocate for groups on various levels. In November 2022, for example, the economic recovery team sent a letter to the Common Council requesting additional funds be directed toward Milwaukee’s ethnic chambers of commerce to help small businesses seeking to do lead abatement work. 

Financially, the Civic Action Team looks at ways it and the Foundation can support groups such as the Coalition on Lead Emergency in building capacity and increasing operational support.

COLE’s advocacy efforts included meeting with government officials such as alderpersons and the Health Department and urging them to save the kids by investing more in lead abatement, said Richard Diaz, chairman of COLE. 

“We felt like the responsible thing to do was to build that up rather than have the Civic Action Team compete for oxygen in that space,” Bautista said. “We don’t have to get any credit, but if we can take our social infrastructure and leadership infrastructure and apply that to the best benefit of COLE’s efforts - we all viewed that as a win.”

The team is also finding ways to support the city of Milwaukee and its partners on its lead abatement project. 

Lead abatement efforts currently in the city

The city approved $25 million for its new lead abatement project out of the $394.2 million it received from the American Rescue Plan Act. An additional $3 million will support lead abatement workforce training. 

The $25 million will alleviate the cost of lead remediation projects for homeowners or property owners, provide water filters and lead-safe home kits, nurse case management and more. Over $20 million of those funds will be contracted out to local nonprofit agencies by the Health Department. To make a home or unit lead-safe from paint hazards, it costs an estimated $25,000 for contractor services alone.

The department contracted with Social Development Commission, Milwaukee Habitat for Humanity and Revitalize Milwaukee, which partner with local contractors trained in lead abatement. 

Together, the group will make homes lead-safe while building workforce capacity, growing the local economy, increasing environmental efforts, eradicating silos and more. 

“When you look at the whole picture, it’s a win-win for everyone,” said Ofelia Mondragon, lead abatement manager for the Social Development Commission. “We’re addressing a health issue that is severe in Milwaukee, that we can no longer afford to go generation after generation. And then, it’s supporting the local economy.” 

Kevin Kane, co-owner of Green Homeowners United, is partnered with Revitalize Milwaukee. He and his team received lead abatement training in December 2021 and hired additional staff. The team has already undertaken a lead abatement project and passed clearance and is now waiting for Revitalize to start receiving referrals. 

“It's about stopping a poison. It's about saving people,” Kane said. “We’re excited by the chance to upgrade these homes. It is a chance not just to help people living in these neighborhoods, but ideally, to employ people to work in the communities that they know.”

Why it matters

Lead poisoning can impact a child’s development, it can cause chronic health conditions, impulse control issues and behavioral issues. It can impact their ability to learn, leading to issues down the line with education and employment.

Black and Brown and low-income neighborhoods are disproportionally impacted by lead poisoning, where homes are older than 1978, Diaz of COLE said. 

Decades of disinvestment have made it harder for individuals and families to make the necessary changes to their homes compared to wealthier neighborhoods with similar aged homes, local leaders said.  

“Communities of color, they haven’t had that wealth, they haven’t had that access to capital to fix or repair the homes as they need to be, so this is leading to much higher rates of lead poisoning in communities of color than white communities,” said Tyler Weber, deputy commissioner of environmental health for the City of Milwaukee Health Department. 

It's important to get this right.

Weber noted that having an established relationship with the Greater Milwaukee Foundation and the MKE Civic Action Team is critical because when a challenge arises, they’ll have an established rapport to address said challenges. 

By spending money to combat lead issues now, Milwaukee is increasing people’s quality of life, which in turn improves their physical and mental health, Diaz said. The places that are hit the hardest by lead poisoning are often the ones combatting other issues such as income levels, infant mortality, recidivism and more. 

“If we can show that we can get this right on the one hand, that might give us the confidence, the relationships and the expertise to be able to take on other challenges and do other things,” Bautista said.