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Friday, October 31, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 43.0° F  Overcast
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Madland: Confronting racial disparities in Madison isn't easy, but just do something
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Credit:Wisconsin Council on Children and Families

Madisonians are talking about race and racism these days, which is a good thing, given a string of unflattering and disturbing reports about our city and state's record on race and equity.

For example, a new report released last week by the Annie E. Casey Foundation says Wisconsin is the worst state to grow up in if you're African American -- yes, worse than Mississippi -- in terms of several important socioeconomic indicators, including the poverty rate, health care access and education. Meanwhile, according to that report, Wisconsin is 10th for white children, 17th for Latino kids, and 37th for Asian Americans.

And we can't pin it all on Milwaukee.

UW-Madison professor Gloria Ladson-Billings, a renowned expert on educating African American children, who I interviewed for an Isthmus cover story, told me she once walked out of a meeting where Madison academics were bemoaning the state of black Milwaukee.

"If we have 'a good school system,' we must always ask: good for whom?" she says. "We're not doing a great job serving all kids. If I'm white and middle class, I can get a fine education in Madison public schools. But it's not the same for black students."

Providing more evidence for Ladson-Billings' claim, the Capital Times reported Wednesday that reading scores gaps between whites and students of color have been increasing. As measured by the Wisconsin Knowledge and Concepts Examination (WKCE) conducted last fall -- which is, granted, an imperfect gauge -- only 11.4% of black students and 12.9% of Latinos in Madison schools tested into "proficient" or "advanced" categories. Compare that to 59.4% of white kids, and you get more proof of the racial disparities highlighted by Race to Equity, a report and project conducted by the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families, which helped quantify what many of Madison's African American residents know already.

In a blog post that likely sparked an equal amount of white guilt and resistance, Willy Street Co-op employee Sasha Debevec-McKenney wrote: "I have never lived or operated in a place that was more racist."

Ouch.

Where do we go from here?

Educating ourselves about white privilege and disparities is a good starting place, but Madisonians have a reputation as navel gazers. One surefire way to avoid despair and inaction is to reach out and get involved in working to make our schools and city better for people of all races.

More than half the kids in the Madison public schools are not white, so how about volunteering in some classrooms? The schools and teachers have their work cut out for them, but it takes a village. Our newest school board member, Michael Flores, volunteers by reading to kids in schools. The Urban League and the Boys and Girls Club do lots to enhance education after school, too. Or how about the Literacy Network?

Local activist Joe Mingle sent an email recently reaching out to a number of people on the east side with a list of ideas of how to reduce disparities close to home. "I wish I knew how to fix all this mess but all I know is my little part," he wrote. "The whole thing is humiliating and infuriating, but we can't let confusion or uncertainty prevent us from taking action."

Mingle went on to list a number of projects in the troubled Darbo-Worthington neighborhood that help mainly African American teens who are struggling in school. Mingle is assisting urban agriculture projects, including developing pantry gardens near the Schoeps Ice Cream factory. And he's working with Erin Parker at East High to enhance the school's urban agriculture program and develop and market an east-side barbecue sauce.

"They don't have any money but could do some great stuff," Mingle wrote. "The whole idea of the BBQ sauce project is to raise money to support this budding new program. Erin's got permission to create some new raised beds on the East High campus so teens can start growing stuff right there. She's really hoping the community will rally and help make it happen sometime this spring but we have no money or supplies."

If you are tired of sitting on your couch and reading reports about how crappy Madison is for people of color, why not get down and dirty and help with some hands-on projects?

It won't solve all the problems, but you have to start somewhere.

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