Eating the elephant

I don’t think I’ve ever been in the same room with anyone who has been directly affected by a mass shooting. Last night I listened to a man whose father, the president of the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin, had been murdered by a white supremacist. I also heard from the doctor who had been in charge of the entire emergency room operation that dreadful day in August 2012. Suffice it to say, it was an incredibly interesting discussion.

Sponsored by UWM’s Institute of World Affairs and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, it was part of a February lecture series examining inequality, both globally and locally. This week was ‘Inequality and Freedom from Violence.’ Next week they’ll look at health, then they’ll discuss education, then finally employment. I seek out these lectures around town because I miss being a part of this discussion. I book it in our family calendar and leave Jason to put the boys to bed because I hope that I can somehow be a part of the solution in this city. And because I think EVERYONE needs to be involved in the conversation if Milwaukee is going to be a great city. (Though sadly we were just voted the worst city in the U.S. for black Americans because we’ve got such a huge divide when it comes to equity in opportunity).

Every time I leave these discussions, no matter how invigorating the discussion or thought-provoking the debate, I leave unsatisfied. Invariably at every event I’ve been to in the last few years (and OK, with two kids under four, there hasn’t been THAT many), but at every one, there has been someone in the audience who stands up and asks this question:

We are here because we are interested in this issue and we want to help, can you tell us what we can do? How can we personally make a difference?

And every time, the speakers attempt to address the question with some fine examples, but inevitably, they are lofty and vague (vote, give money, figure out a way to volunteer, contact your local representative). Of course these are great ideas, and should be investigated, but I often want specifics, and I’m left feeling disappointed.

When I was 32, I lived in Africa for 4 months and built a preschool. I raised nearly $5,000 with a paypal account and a blog, and the villagers and I built the school from the ground up. (Bear with me, I have a point here. You can read about the experience here if you’re interested). One thing I found that really helped my cause was getting specific. I didn’t simply say ‘Hey friends in America, I’m building a preschool, can you send some money to help me?’

Instead, I said, ‘Hey friends, this school is going to need 60 stools for the kids to sit on, and each stool is $3’ and ‘these kids need uniforms, at $1.50 a pop, can you help?’ and if you have more to give, ‘how about $200 for an artist to paint a mural, a chalk board, the alphabet and a school sign.’ You get the point.

The village carpenter and his children

The village carpenter and his children

And the money came pouring in! The generosity of my friends and family astounded me. And the lesson I took from that experience is that people want so much to help, they just need to be directed as to how! And they need to know specifically what they can do and how what they can do will make a difference.

I feel like this is what our city needs.

I was reminded of my African experience last night as I walked out of the UWM Student Union disappointed that they hadn’t really answered the question – what can we DO? –  yet again.

But what do I expect? A nice tidy solution to inequality and violence in the city from an hour long panel discussion? If only.

I suppose sometimes the elephant just seems so big. But there’s still only one way to eat it.

Let’s dig in, Milwaukee!