To tackle racial disparity in Wisconsin’s capital, community leaders start with the very young

GWEN IFILL: The college town of Madison, Wisconsin is not the sort of place that leaps to mind when it comes to the discussion of racial disparities.

But the gap between black and white residents in Madison's Dane County, are, according to recent reports, more extreme than most other jurisdictions in the nation. Now there's a new effort to find ways to bridge that gap.

Hari Sreenivasan reports.

REV. ALEX GEE, Fountain of Life Covenant Church: Doggone it, this is our — this is our community. And we're not going to let it go to hell in a handbasket. So thank you for coming.


HARI SREENIVASAN: At the Fountain of Life Covenant Church in Madison, Wisconsin, the Reverend Alex Gee recently addressed hundreds of residents about a campaign he calls justified anger.

REV. ALEX GEE: But don't let our anger frustrate you. Don't let it cause you fear, or consternation.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The reverend is angry about statistics that show significant gaps between Wisconsin's white and black populations.

REV. ALEX GEE: Racial disparity is awful. We are ground zero for so many issues, particularly those concerning African-American men.

Six hundred and fifty people poured in. They filled this place. There was standing room only. We had 150 people in the foyer.

HARI SREENIVASAN: In a report that detailed nationwide racial disparities, the Annie E. Casey Foundation found Wisconsin had the worst rankings for African-American children in the country.

The report cites stark differences in between African-American and white children when it comes to education, family income, and home stability.

REV. ALEX GEE: People don't come to Madison so their kids can fail in school. People don't come to Madison so their kids can go to prison and rot in cells. Dreamers come to Madison, and then, when they feel excluded from the dream, they become nightmares.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Gee says the national spotlight on Wisconsin's racial disconnect hit a nerve.

WOMAN: I did this same thing 30 years ago, where we're right back again for the same issue, and I'm sick and tired of this.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Noble Wray is the interim president of the Urban League of Greater Wisconsin.

NOBLE WRAY, Urban League of Greater Madison: It reflects on our community in a very deep way. What are our values? Do we believe that this is the way that there should be almost these two cities coexisting, or two counties coexisting in terms of the experience that people have here in Madison and Dane County?

HARI SREENIVASAN: The reasons that cause these differences between white and black children start young, even before school.

WOMAN: Do you want to read that with momma?

HARI SREENIVASAN: To get kids caught up before entering school, Dane County officials began sending social workers to work with parents from under-served communities. Katie Snow is the program supervisor.

KATIE SNOW, Dane County Early Childhood Initiative: The brain is developing very rapidly in the first three years of life, and particularly in that first year. So, you want as much as possible to have a stable family situation, where there's not a lot of stress.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Joe Parisi, executive for Dane County, says the program is specifically designed to close the educational gap.

JOE PARISI, Dane County Executive: We engage the parents and the kids in opportunities to learn how to interact with each other in the most productive way, and aimed at helping those kids achieve the educational and developmental milestones necessary to enter 4-year-old kindergarten at the same level as the majority of the kids coming in.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Dione Blouin says working with Snow has helped her improve her daughter's language and comprehension.

DIONE BLOUIN: I feel like, being a young mom, you just feel like you're going wrong with a lot of things, and you just need that support to let you know you're doing good and what to do, what not to do. And I think that is very important.

HARI SREENIVASAN: By the time babies like Dione's are in middle school, the gaps are significant.

In Wisconsin middle schools, white children are six times more likely to be proficient in eighth grade math than black students. Reading proficiencies for African-American students are four times worse.

Principal Tremayne Clardy from Sennett Middle School welcomes attention to the problem.

TREMAYNE CLARDY, Principal, Sennett Middle School: There are definitely disparities that we have to address and are addressing.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Clardy, who wrote his doctoral dissertation on racial disparities, says educators need to make learning more personal and purposeful.

TREMAYNE CLARDY: When a student identifies a purpose for being in the classroom, and you enhance that with a culturally relevant curriculum, that's when the light comes on. That's when the education truly happens.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Wray links much of the racial divide to poverty and employment opportunities.

NOBLE WRAY: The gap is pretty striking. For African-Americans, it's 25 percent unemployment here in Dane County. For whites, it's 4.8 percent unemployment. That's pretty stark.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Those unemployment numbers are troubling at a time when Madison's construction industry is experiencing a labor shortage. So the Urban League partnered with Dane County officials to train minorities for trade industry jobs.

They helped Walter Konya, who had trouble finding work after high school.

WALTER KONYA: I believe that the odds are stacked against you as a minority, within — this day in the country, but programs like this do help even the odds in a great way, I would say.

HARI SREENIVASAN: What Madison is facing is not unlike racial disparities seen across the country. The Annie E. Casey report called the imbalance between African-American and white children's achievement a national crisis.

Community leaders see it as a call to action.

REV. ALEX GEE: If we don't capture it now, if we don't address it now, then I'm really concerned about what Madison will become in the next decade.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And so what is the solution for Madison?

REV. ALEX GEE: I think what's going to be different is the indigenous voice. We're rarely at the table. We're rarely asked what we think, and that doesn't dignify us. So we're the topic of every discussion, we're the subject of every report, and we don't get to interject, we don't get to submit, we don't get to say anything.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Noble Wray says that may be changing.

NOBLE WRAY: There seems to be a movement. There's community leaders. There are nonprofits involved. There are grassroots people that are talking about this.

All of the other initiatives were really led by government, and that has been one of the problems, because we can never sustain the effort. Politically, when we get turnover, it's not thought about anymore.

REV. ALEX GEE: We have the wherewithal and we have the goods. The question is, do we have the will to change this on our watch?

HARI SREENIVASAN: Both Reverend Gee and Noble Wray are optimistic that addressing the thorny issue of racial disparity here in Wisconsin could become a template for other communities around the country.