For the past 25 years, Nehemiah Community Development Corporation has been addressing issues of racial disparities in Madison. On the morning of Oct. 29, they hosted a press conference at Fountain of Life Church on Madison’s south side to talk about the big boost they recently got – a $1 million Community Impact Grant award – that will help the agency improve the health and well-being of the African-American and Madison community as a whole.

“This grant really highlights what we’ve been working on for the past few decades. It highlights the efforts of developing capacity in leaders and convening influencers, training white allies, and creating economic development and opportunities,” Rev. Dr. Alex Gee, president and founder of Nehemiah, told the crowd at the press conference.

Members of Nehemiah’s staff, community partners and community members were in attendance to listen to community leaders talk about the largest grant ever received by Nehemiah, a leading non-profit organization in the field of community development.

Rev. Dr. Alex Gee

“Racial stress and isolation are both killing black people in Wisconsin. Our desire is really to have a stronger Madison for all,” Gee said. “And although we celebrate the accolades that our city receives, we want everybody to be able to celebrate that. But as long as black people are leading every negative comparison – whether it’s incarceration or health or economics or academics – then we can’t really celebrate this as a great city for us all.

“But we want to,” Gee continues. “And this grant and this partnership helps us to do this. This grant will help us develop the capacity of black leaders to help address racial disparities who will shape an agenda that comes from the black community for the black community.”

The Wisconsin Partnership Program with the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health recently announced that Nehemiah will receive a $1 million grant over five years that will support Nehemiah’s Justified Anger work through a project titled “Reducing Health Inequity through Promotion of Social Connections.”

“Typically in this community, the white community sets the agenda and sets the table and invites us to rubber stamp it,” Gee said. “We are creating the agenda. We are listening to the community. We are creating the table. We’re training black people to come in and run the table and then we’re inviting non-black allies to support the black innovation. That has not happened system wide historically in this community. That, for us, is part of the secret sauce.”

The project will focus on reducing disparities in overall health among African Americans living in Wisconsin. To address these health disparities, Nehemiah has been working with Meadowood Neighborhood residents on Madison’s southwest side piloting an innovative approach to increasing health equity by developing new and strengthening existing social and professional networks for African Americans.

Harry Hawkins, Nehemiah’s executive vice president, speaks at the press conference.

The grant will also promote long-term, sustainable change of social networks in a way that will dismantle systems of implicit and structural racism.

“We knew that we need to do more than program delivery because there’s a toxicity that is present in a community like Madison and unless we address it and cause it to dissipate, then no program will really solve the problem,” Gee says. “People have asked why we have not fixed this problem and it’s because we’re been trying to band-aid cancer when we really need something radical at its roots.”

Dr. Karen Reece Phiffer, director of program research/evaluation for Nehemiah/Justified Anger

Dr. Karen Reece Phiffer, director of program research/evaluation for Nehemiah/Justified Anger, said that Nehemiah is really excited about how the Wisconsin Partnership Program funds will allow them to expand their capacity to conduct a full and rigorous evaluation of the strategies that they will be implementing.

“We’ve been compiling these strategies for the last five years and we’re really excited that this gives us a chance to take it full-scale,” Phiffer said.

She added that Justified Anger would be working with Dr. Jerlando Jackson of Wisconsin’s Equity and Inclusion Lab. “Wei LAB, as it is known, is really an international leader in research promoting equitable and inclusive work and learning environments,” she said. “Through this partnership, we’ll be able to extend these concepts to the community so that we can have equitable, inclusive environments everywhere that we go.

“I’m really excited to have Wei LABs and Dr. Jackson on board,” she added. “It will allow us to document and describe the work that we are doing so that we can document this to use as a statewide model and even a national model as ways to address inequities and health disparities.”

Andrea Dearlove, senior program officer for the Wisconsin Partnership Program at University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, said that the mission of the Wisconsin Partnership Program is to improve the health of all of Wisconsin’s communities.

“We realized that if we don’t look at health through the lens of health equity, we won’t be able to improve the health of all of Wisconsin’s communities,” Dearlove said. “The other thing that we realized based on science and evidence and research is that not all health is created in the doctor’s office. Whether or not you are healthy also is whether or not you experience the microaggressions and macroaggressions of racism. It is whether you feel socially isolated in the context of your community. It is whether or not you have employment. Those are all well-supported indicators of health.

“So this grant program is designed to support community-wide organizations and community-wide partnerships,” she added. “Unless we change the systems that lead to these health inequities, we won’t be successful. We believe that this effort needs to be led by the community that is most affected. If it’s led by the community, then we can have sustainable change.”