State Sen. Lena Taylor

As many of us cheer on the Milwaukee Bucks, in Round 2 of the NBA’s Eastern Conference playoffs, we are mesmerized by the talent of Giannis Antetokounmpo. However, we know that rarely can one player singlehandedly win a team sport. Everybody has a role to play. When it’s time for other players to come off the bench, you want skilled and accomplished teammates capable of contributing. Bottom line, they need to be ready to lead. Smart coaches build and strengthen their bench at every opportunity. In the African-American community, we need to take a page from their playbook.

Bench Strength could be defined as generating numbers of skills-based employees, individuals, or agencies ready to fill vacant jobs or compete for leadership positions. With this definition in mind and as a community, we must ask ourselves a critical question. Do we have a Black Bench of talented African-Americans ready to go when the opportunity presents itself? Although the answer is often yes, we realize that it’s really not that simple. Black people and organizations also have to be given an opportunity to compete. The past week in our city could serve as a case study on just that point.

A collaborative, that included many African-American led groups such as Milwaukee Health Services, the African American Breastfeeding Network, My Father’s House, The Black Health Coalition of Wisconsin, and UW-Milwaukee’s Zilber School of Public Health, lost a federal five-year, $5 million Healthy Start grant to address Milwaukee’s African-American infant mortality rate. They were edged out by Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin (CHW).

The details of how the grant went from a single Milwaukee applicant to two competing local proposals is cumbersome. There are a series of questionable decisions, broken promises, and lack of commitment to build capacity amongst Black-led health and community providers that was demonstrated at every level.

We often see lip service given for the need to change outcomes for the Black community. This grant in particular was intended to address the fact that Black children in Milwaukee are three times more likely to die before their first birthday than white infants in the city. A report entitled “Fighting at Birth: Eradicating the Black-White Infant Mortality Gap” discusses the need for policies and programs that prioritize healthy maternal and child outcomes for black women because of their greater susceptibility to racism and discrimination to eliminate the gap in infant mortality rates.

Without a doubt, we need to change that. We also need to transform the outcomes for Black business growth, leadership development and opportunities to service our own communities. This was a missed opportunity to build capacity for many of the organizations involved in the collaborative. Building a Black Bench is much like diversity and inclusion initiatives, it must be deliberate and requires a commitment from all of us.