Common Ground gives Milwaukee, Marquette an opportunity to reinvest in communities

On Oct. 31, Milwaukee social justice organization Common Ground got some good news: Chase Bank had chosen to commit more than $2.5 million to its latest city initiative.

The decision made Chase Bank the fifth of five big banks to join with the businesses, colleges and congregations of Common Ground in its “Milwaukee Rising” campaign, which has now raised $33.8 million to rehabilitate foreclosed homes in the Sherman Park neighborhood to help stabilize the Milwaukee housing market.

Kathleen Scott, associate organizer for Milwaukee Rising and a Marquette alum, said the campaign to convince the five banks, also including Wells Fargo, Bank of America, Deustche Bank and U.S. Bank, to invest in the neighborhood took two years to achieve. She said the rehabilitation will be a project twice as long.

“We are trying to rehab at least 25 homes per year over the next four years, for 100 total, on a block by block basis,” Scott said.

Scott said she has been with the organization since 2009, and that her Marquette education propelled her into the current work.

“With a Marquette education, you’re encouraged to do work that betters the community, so I asked myself how I could do that,” she said.

The Marquette connection does not end with Scott, though. Many faculty members are part of Common Ground, and others, like Alan Borsuk, a senior fellow in law and public policy at the Law School, are not directly affiliated but have worked with the group independently. Borsuk said he participated in a Common Ground event last spring.

“I give them a lot of credit on the education front … they spend a lot of time finding out what they’re talking about,” Borsuk said. “They’ve met with people from schools, community, politics … everyone I’ve talked to has said they’ve met with them.”

One of the things Borsuk admires about the organization is that it is nonpartisan — a sharp contrast, he said, to other community organizations.

“They haven’t set an agenda, and they’re systematic in finding information,” he said.

Borsuk said the progress the organization has made is remarkable and that he is impressed with its accomplishments.

Robert Masson, associate professor of theology at Marquette, is also involved in Common Ground and a member of the steering committee for the organization on campus. The committee is comprised of representatives from administration, faculty and students.

Masson said Common Ground has draws for both students and faculty because it is not interested in protesting for the sake of protesting. Instead, it aims to help look for practical solutions to some of the pervasive and serious problems in the Milwaukee community.

“Lots of people were wringing their hands about the foreclosure problem, but nobody was doing anything to get it solved,” he said. “(Common Ground) managed to get the parties together to do something constructive instead of sitting around not doing anything. It’s a concrete way to organize the community in response to issues that the business and government sectors aren’t responding to.”

While some appreciate what the organization is currently doing, some — like Scott — are grateful for what the organization has done in the past.

For Scott, Common Ground changed her perception of what nonprofit work is. She was introduced to community organizing in a class she took at Marquette taught by a Common Ground volunteer.

“I never knew that community organizing was a viable career path until I took the class,” she said.

The class Scott took, “Community Organizing” (SOWJ 2600), will be taught next semester by Bob Connolly, volunteer interim staff director for Common Ground.

Connolly said he hopes more Marquette students consider the course and the organization.

“It gives them a realistic vehicle for changing the world,” he said. “You can’t change the world unless you have strong organization and a broad diversity of people who understand how to fight for power.”