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With assist from Jewish community, Common Ground seeks social change

By Austin Greenberg
of The Chronicle staff

July 30th, 2008

On the evening of July 21, Howard Karsh and 75 neighborhood volunteers walked door-to-door in the Sherman Park neighborhood, surveying residents.

The volunteers, 15 of whom were Jewish, interviewed 750 Sherman Park residents about any police interaction they have had, crimes they have been victims of, and their general quality of life.

Howard Karsh

Howard Karsh

Those surveys are now being collated and the issues raised by residents will be addressed by a new local social action initiative.

Crime is one of the foci of Common Ground of Southeastern Wisconsin, which was founded last April with a convention that drew more than 2,300 people to the Midwest Airlines Center. Though not a religious organization, Common Ground’s membership is comprised largely of faith-based organizations.

The goal of Common Ground is to fight for the needs of people in Milwaukee, Washington, Waukesha and Ozaukee counties.

In order to accomplish this goal, Bob Connolly, a co-founder and managing partner of The James Company, a Milwaukee-based Christian consulting and fundraising firm, spent four years putting together an organization capable of representing such a wide cross-section of people.

It began as the Greater Milwaukee Sponsors and became Common Ground in December 2007.

Diversity = power

Including members of the Jewish community, as well as other faiths, was a priority, said Connolly in a telephone interview.

“Part of our power is our diversity,” he said. “It was a very intentional strategy to bring together Jews and Muslims and Christians and people in the sectarian world.

“It’s also part of the problem in Milwaukee,” Connolly continued. “People from very diverse backgrounds — economically, politically, religiously — don’t talk to each other. [In Common Ground,] we’ve got conservatives, we’ve got liberals, we’ve got moderates; we’ve got everybody.”

The Jewish community is represented in the organization by Rabbi Marc Berkson, spiritual leader of Congregation Emanu-El B’ne Jeshurun, and Karsh, a community organizer and social activist in Milwaukee for the last 50 years.

Both men have served on the original board of directors for the last three years, during which time hundreds of interviews, listening sessions and focus groups helped determine which issues Common Ground should focus on.

Bob Connolly

Bob Connolly

That research resulted in the identification of eight areas of concern: crime/police and guns, health care, housing, jobs/economic development/poverty, mental health, education, youth activities and immigration.

The organization is a member of the Industrial Areas Foundation, one of the oldest and largest social action organizations in the country.

IAF-affiliated groups have successfully lobbied the state of Massachusetts to extend affordable health care to more than 300,000 people, built 3,000 middle and low-income housing units in New York and passed living wage bills in communities around the country.

In January 2006, IAF sent a full-time organizer, Mark Fraley, to lead the initiative’s effort in southeastern Wisconsin. 

‘Building relationships’

Over the last three years, Karsh grew impatient, feeling that the group was holding too many meetings and not taking any action.

Connolly fondly recalled Karsh’s anxiousness to get going, but stressed that the strength of Common Ground is in the relationships it has built over the last four years.

“We have to be patient because we want this organization to be here 50 years from now,” said Connolly, citing the IAF’s model for organizing.

“Too many groups that try to make social change are gone in a couple of years.… They spend all their time focusing on the issues and not enough time building relationships amongst people and building an organization that’s going to last.”

Karsh, for one, has become a believer.

“I have never been a part of anything that is so put together as this organization,” said Karsh, who is beginning to see and implement the action he has been planning the past few years.

Other issues that Common Ground is planning on addressing in the near future include the city’s Earn and Learn program, and it is looking into developing a health insurance initiative.

Paula Simon

Paula Simon

This is encouraging information to Paula Simon, executive director of the Milwaukee Jewish Council for Community Relations, who said she has met “frequently” with Fraley over the last several months.

“What I am very intrigued by is the work that the [Greater Boston Interfaith Organization, also a member of IAF] has done [in the health care arena],” said Simon.

“My board was very intrigued by the opportunity to engage with Common Ground,” Simon continued. “I think the hesitation we have is whether they identify issues that resonate with our population.”

Education and health care are two issues that Simon would like to see Common Ground address, and she said her board will likely decide whether or not to join the initiative during the council’s program year, which runs from September through June.

Simon also noted that MJCCR has its own initiative called Social and Economic Justice (formerly Domestic Public Policy) that is working on issues similar to the ones Common Ground is planning to address.

Finding social justice issues that the Jewish community is concerned with is not as easy as it used to be, said Karsh, noting that the community’s growth in affluence and suburbanization have contributed to its lack of participation.

“In my own personal opinion,” said Karsh, suburbanized Jews “have sensitive spiritual feelings, but physically they have a more isolated experience.

“It’s hard for anybody to believe that there is going to be these kinds of issues in Mequon, and if they did believe that, they’d move to Fredonia.”

Extra information not found in the print edition:

The Industrial Areas Foundation was founded in 1940 by Chicago native Saul Alinsky (1909-1972) with the help of a loan from the Marshall Field Foundation.

Alinsky is considered the “father” of community organizing. In the 1930s he organized the “Back of the Yards” neighborhood in Chicago that led to the improvement of the Union Stock Yards. The horrible working conditions of the stockyards were chronicled in Upton Sinclair’s 1906 novel “The Jungle.”

In 1969, Hillary Clinton, also a Chicago native, wrote her senior honors thesis in political science at Wellesley College about Alinsky entitled, “‘There Is Only the Fight...’: An Analysis of the Alinsky Model.”

Due to the controversial nature of Alinsky’s methods and politics, the White House had the thesis sealed during the Clinton presidency. MSNBC reported in May 2007 that the paper is now available for public viewing at the Wellesley archives.

Saul Alinsky’s life was chronicled in a 1999 documentary called “The Democratic Promise: Saul Alinsky and his Legacy,” produced by the Chicago Video Project and Media Process Educational Films and narrated by Alec Baldwin; and also in a 1989 biography by Sanford D. Horwitt entitled, “Let Them Call Me Rebel: Saul Alinsky: His Life and Legacy.” Horwitt wrote the 2007 biography “Feingold: A New Democratic Party” about Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wisc.).