By Alderman Ashanti Hamilton, Common Council President City of Milwaukee
Last week, I had the opportunity to host a very passionate meeting between community residents, Secretary Carr of the State Department of Corrections, Mayor Barrett and a number of State and Local officials about the Type 1 Youth Justice Facility proposed for 6600 N Teutonia Ave in the 1st District. The showing that we had was profound. Over 130 people came to share their opinions for and against having this facility at the proposed site. In reflecting on that evening, I am reminded about what it means for a community to organize and use its voice to make sure neighbors are at the table when decisions are made.
The nature of our work as public officials requires that we make tough decisions. In doing so, we are never going to be able to address every concern and make every individual happy. However, we always have the ability to take every concern and perspective into consideration as we engage in our decision making processes. As the conversations move forward around this new facility, the State has to be ready to have the community at the table and give them answers and concrete solutions to the questions and concerns that they bring forward.
As community leaders, we constantly proclaim the need for organized and intentional involvement from local neighborhoods. We ask people to organize to vote, create block watches, engage in neighborhood cleanups and generally be partners as we try and move our community forward. What we have witnessed in this process is an incredibly organized and active community. As such, they should be rewarded with a plan of action that supports them.
The surrounding neighborhood can be positively impacted by this project in a number of ways if we are intentional. We can make sure that the local neighborhoods are the source of a variety of jobs—not limited to the corrections officers and counseling professionals that will be needed. Landscaping, food service and other functions have to be sourced from somewhere. We can be intentional in making sure that the surrounding neighborhood gets those opportunities and that employment at this site pays a living wage. We can be intentional in providing opportunities for people to be trained in these types of work if they desire a job but don’t yet have the skills.
Neighbors also must be involved in a number of planning functions that have yet to take place. Residents should be at every design charrette to have a say in what the facility will look like. They should get a comprehensive explanation of what security measures will be in place to guarantee that the facility does not have a negative impact on the neighborhood’s crime rates. Neighbors deserve assurance that concerns brought to the DOC will be addressed promptly should issues arise. These are not impossibilities. This is the best practice for doing something that will impact a neighborhood that already shoulders many hardships.
Most importantly, the focus of our conversations has to fundamentally change. There is an argument to be made about what is best for the youth that we will be serving in this facility. It is valid to point out the horrors of Lincoln Hills and the need for a more holistic approach to youth rehabilitation. However, when talking to residents, it is crucial to be able to answer the question “Why Us?” We have to have something concrete to make sure this facility will be a blessing to the community instead of a burden.
The reform-minded space we are in today around Youth Justice Reform is exciting, and is what our community knows must happen. We can finally start helping our young men and women instead of continuing to break them down. For a strong next generation, we must cultivate a system that can course correct when it is wrong. This facility can be a step in that direction.
My hope is that the State can rectify its previous lack of transparency by taking an active and involved approach moving forward. Reform can benefit the community if done right. Now that we have expressed our frustration about the selection process, let’s get everyone at the table to ensure the implementation has the most positive impact possible on our community.
In the coming weeks, we will be having a series of community listening sessions to hear more community input and talk about the best solutions for our neighborhoods. More updates to follow.
This article originally appeared in the Milwaukee Courier.