Those old sexist ads

I just saw pictures of old sexist newspaper ads on the Buffalo News website. The ads included the usual hair, appliances, men’s shirts and men are so much smarter than women. What I found was that no one looked like me or anyone in my family. Back in those days, African-Americans didn’t buy shoes, have children, wear clothes or eat. So no one thought to market anything to us. It was as if we didn’t exist. I am part of the first generation of African-Americans who appeared in ads for the general public. In the black media, we existed. I remember seeing OJ Simpson running through airports. I remember the Miller Lite All Star ads with retired players.  Now there are ads featuring us all over the place. There are gay and lesbian themed African-American ads.  There are interracial couples with their little beige children.

This is the new America. The one that some people find threatening.  Father knows best is gone but somehow those old guys from the sexist ads have reappeared.

Some assembly required for leadership

Some assembly required, indeed. Some people are looking at this title and wondering, what are you building, Kenyatta? A robot? So, today, I answered the call for the Milwaukee County Mental Health Board. When I had received an earlier invitation from the Mental Health Task Force, I put it away, and probably even deleted the email. I strongly considered myself a grassroots worker who was not concerned with systemic change. But several factors suggest that is not entirely true.

I was part of several quality improvement groups that Milwaukee county had created. Many of us who were peer support specialists said that we were undervalued and often told to perform menial tasks. I remember a woman who worked at the crisis resource center bragged about her expertise as a dishwasher. No amount of dishpan hands will make you a peer support specialist.

One of my big moments was addressing the Grassroots Empowerment Project during one of their Empowerment Days. I remember advocating for higher reimbursements for dentists who care for people who are living on Medicaid. The empty mouths of young people who were on SSI informed my plea. The medications people take may damage their teeth and their behavior, getting into fights, may damage or even destroy their teeth and people simply neglect themselves and their bodies as I discovered before I sought help.

A sustained effort was chairing the City County Supportive Housing Commission which approved several projects. However, there was a contradiction for me. Even while sitting up there with all these highly paid specialists, I was at great risk of being evicted due in large part to my low wages as a peer specialist.

As a system, we need to ensure that Milwaukee County employees and people working for agencies contracted by the county are paid living wages. In the past, use of restraints was a major problem in the mental health complex. It was discussed at the Mental Health Board meeting that I attended. So that is one thing to pay close attention to as we transition from the mental health complex to the smaller community facilities that will replace it. The other thing that advocates should pay attention to is what Milwaukee County does with the money that taxpayers will be saving as the system moves towards more community services. What community services will we be paying for and what is the quality of those services? Forward.

Drawn to Secularism

I have been a member of the First Unitarian Society of Milwaukee since the 1990s. Like many people, I was drawn to the many progressive things that the church members did. They were affirming the right of gay and lesbian couples to marry and have children. They supported the right of women to control their own bodies and led a clinic protection coalition when right wing anti abortionists threatened to close down clinics. They marched against American interventions in the affairs of other nations. And I was also drawn to what the Unitarian Universalists did not have, which was a religious creed. No one was forced to believe in the existence of god, which I never have. I have never read more than a few pages of the bible and don’t believe in any form of supreme being.

I also joined the Freedom From Religion Foundation a few years ago because I found that public officials routinely brought their religious views into the lives as mayors, senators and other forms of elected office. They violated the separation of church and state. In that way I felt that they violated my rights.. I am excited when I read of ordinary heroism done not in the praise of some being I consider imaginary. I am able to nourish my friendships and work on doing good for its own sake. I am part of a struggle to help transform the Unitarians from a largely white middle class denomination to a one which welcomes people of color and affirms that my life as an African-American matters. I want to know that these are people who will have my back. That is what I believe.

Time and again

I just finished reading a pamphlet about the difficulties faced by people on probation or parole who are re-incarcerated without committing any new offense. This is a serious problem in Wisconsin. There are thousands of people behind bars who don’t belong there.  Wisconsin is known for many negative statistics concerning African American men and these are especially glaring when it comes to criminal justice. Black men are over represented in the prison system as inmates both for people who committed crime and for those who whose probation was revoked.

We are the poster child for the problem of mass incarceration. Instead of seeking alternatives to incarceration we have a system which rewards probation and parole officers who use technical violations as excuses to send people back to prison. We have people who went back to school and began earning college credits winding up in prison. We have a system which does not offer due process, and offers incentives for people to make false accusations to send their former friends or spouses back to prison. There are bout 3,000 people sent to our state prisons every year because of “revocations” and I would bet that the vast majority are black or brown. We also have the problem of Truth of In Sentencing a horrendous law that was passed several years ago in fit of “tough on crime” which ended ended probation and parole for new people who are being convicted of crimes.  Truth in Sentencing is applied to  11 crimes that apply to the majority of prison inmates. When you examine charts you find a tremendous increase in the number of inmates Wisconsin due almost entirely to truth in sentencing. which increases the length of prison sentences.

These issues need to be discussed to look at the cost to society, the failure to reward people who are truly attempting to turn their lives around and the stress that it puts on people who are caught up in the system and whose technical violations could be resolved in alternative means.

I recommend becoming involved in groups like WISDOM a statewide network with EXPO an organization of former prisoners who have direct experience. You can call 414-831-2070 to find out how you can help.

Shot while in the hospital

I just listened to a story on This American Life about Alan Pean, a young African-American man who experienced a severe psychiatric breakdown while living in Houston, Texas. Alan was a college student who had previously survived a couple of episodes of manic depressive disorder. Alan came from a high achieving family with doctors including his father.

Alan found that his mind was overpowered by a delusion  that caused him to jump off the balcony of his third story apartment, make his way to his car and crash through the gates. He drove toward St. Joseph Hospital, a major medical facility in downtown Houston. He crashed and totaled his car into the hospital and somehow told the emergency room staff he was having a manic episode. But he was never treated for his mental disorder. His father who is of Haitian descent arrived a few hours later and also told the staff that his son was having mental problems and yet Alan was still not evaluated by a psychiatrist.

His father left to try to arrange getting Alan help for his mental illness and shortly afterwards the staff had trouble with Alan and called for security. This turned out to be Houston police with guns who were not trained in dealing with psychiatric patients. Alan was tasered, then shot and almost killed and later charged with assault. Although the charges were later dropped there is a disturbing pattern of mental patients being shot or tasered by  police who have little or no training in dealing with them.

There is a New York Times article about the incident involving Alan Pean. People need to be aware of these kinds of incidents and understand that psychiatric patients need help, not bullets. They need people trained to deescalate and force is the last thing you would ever want to use to help someone recover his or her mind.

This story raises other questions, such as what if Alan and his father had been white? Would the outcome be different? Would the hospital staff  you turn to for help be able to recognize that when a white person says he needs mental help, they would hear the person and attempt to provide help? What prevents them from hearing the same statements from people of color? What information is available about the hospital you use and their policy about the use of force? How equipped are they to handle people with a mental illness? Is the person the staff calls for help going to be an armed police officer? And finally, what safe alternatives are there to hospitals for people with mental illness and how widely known are these alternatives?

Adventures in exercise



Despite the fact I am mostly introverted, I do have my moments of fun in the community. I usually find some money for a gym membership. I have belonged to the Jewish Community Center, several branches of the YMCA, Bally’s and now the latest is Planet Fitness ever since they opened a branch near our office. I have been dissatisfied with the rather worn down Bally’s that I have belonged to for more than a year. The Bally’s was taken over by Blast which promised to invest money into the business. Thy have done nothing to the equipment, the locker rooms or anything else. Their only advantage has been convenience, they are not far from our house.

Recently I learned they had closed one of their branches and the one I have been going to may be next on the list.  Now I have a reason to tell them goodbye. Well I signed up to Planet Fitness yesterday and the results have been impressive. I spent time in an exercise chair and an exercise bed. Those were very relaxing. I also got stuck in something called a body enhancer which demonstrated the difference between my girl friend and me. She would not step inside a gym but in the things she does, she thoroughly reads the instructions before doing anything.

Me I figure I don’t need no stinkin instructions. Which was how I ended up stuck inside the terrifying, not body enhancing machine for 10 minutes. I almost thought of yelling for help but I figured there were probably simple instructions on how t escape printed somewhere. Well, it’s all good, I got out without breaking the enhancer. It turned out the massage chair was more my style, anyway.


Tonight I attended a screening of the 53206 movie at the First Unitarian Society. The movie showed the impact of the mass incarceration of African Americans focusing on a few families in this impoverished zip code. The zip code has one of the highest rates of incarceration in the country. I remember years ago being at a sign of hope in the community, a business incubator that was intended to help small business formation by African Americans. The businesses are long gone and what remains is the empty building.

The 53206 movie was shown at a Unitarian church in downtown Milwaukee to a packed crowd many of whom I did not know. There was an organizer from the 53206 project and talk about the lives being wasted and the depiction of a family hoping and waiting for their father figue and husband to return. He was denied parole, which is the most common result of parole hearings in Wisconsin. The governor plans to cut the parole department staffing even more.

The situation is complicated by the fact Wisconsin passed a truth in sentencing law in the late 1990s mandating that prisoners serve the full term of their prison sentences. But there are thousands like the man in the movie who are eligible for parole like the man in the movie but find the door slammed shut time and again. There is a lot of discretion still in the system and there are alternatives to long prison sentences but the fact we are not using them means that people are making money keeping things just the way they are. Who will have the courage to speak up? We signed cards tonight asking for changes but this is a long term project.