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WUWM's Susan Bence reports on Wisconsin environmental issues.

Community Groups Take Action As Milwaukee Leaders Sort Out Childhood Lead Program

Hunger Task Force
Canvasser Orean Harper shares lead information with an Amani neighorhood resident.

Long before Bevan Baker resigned as public health commissioner in January, the agency said it was taking appropriate steps to educate families how to protect themselves from lead in paint, soil and water. While the city of Milwaukee posted information on its website, placed ads on buses, and mailed leaflets with water bills, some community groups worried word wasn’t getting out to families. So, people stepped forward to inform people in person.

Information Station

That’s what happened at All Saints Family Care Center on West Villard Avenue this summer. Several community organizations gathered to inform families about lead risks and provided actionable steps to avoid lead problems. Tips included how to get their children tested for lead and how to properly install a filter on a faucet. 

After grabbing all the information she could find at the event, Betty Pryor realized lead is even more complicated than she realized. Pryor’s home of 45 years is among 70,000-plus households whose drinking water is delivered through old lead pipes. Children figure prominently in Pryor’s life and her family home, as her grandchildren and great-grandchildren spend time there.

Credit Matt Stienstra
Community groups joined together this summer to help inform the public about lead risks and actionable steps to avoid lead problems.

“I’m going to have the window sills checked, I was thinking about painting, so this will help,” she says. “Also, we had some remodeling done a number of years ago and it might even be in the soil around our house.”

Credit Christopher Ovide
Dr. McKinney-Whitson entertains children so their parents can learn how to protect their children from lead.

Dr. Veneesha McKinney-Whitson practices family medicine at All Saints Family Care Center. Its physicians routinely check the lead levels of children starting at age 1. McKinney-Whitson says she hopes to increase the medical center's lead education.

“It comes down to really educating [people], which we can’t always do a lot of in the room or during an office visit,” McKinney-Whitson says.

Delivering Info

Four miles to the south, a 16-week-long lead education program has been underway in the Amani neighborhood. It’s one of the areas of Milwaukee with the greatest concentration of lead service lines. Twenty-five percent of young children tested for lead were found to have high levels.

Credit Milwaukee Health Department
This map shows elevated lead levels of children tested in 2016. The darkest color indicates the areas where greater number of lead exposure were detected. The canvassers especially focused on those areas in the Amani neighborhood, which falls with part of the 6, 7 and 15th aldermanic district. (Click to Enlarge)

This project screams collaboration: Milwaukee’s Hunger Task Force used United States Department of Agriculture grant money and worked with the Dominican Center, a trusted group in the neighborhood that recruited Amani residents who were trained to knock on doors and share information about lead. 

Orean Harper has visited twice with Bobbi Davis, who lives off Locust Street. Davis raised her son in this house, now she’s raising her grandchildren.

Davis felt she already knew plenty about lead “because I watch the TV a lot and read up on social media, but then when they came out, it gets serious here. They bring out a lot of information that you don’t know.”

Richard Diaz, who works for the Dominican Center, installed a water filter for Davis.

Credit Hunger Task Force
Marsha Ashley (left) and Orean Harper and their colleagues canvassed the Amani neighborhood. They anticipate reaching 900 families in the process.

“We’ve probably given out close to 250 filters. Still, so much work to be done,” Diaz says. “We just connected with some students from UW-Madison that are going to be donating some funds to us to purchase filters."

Harper says she and her colleagues are making a difference in their neighborhood. “Because you know how word travels – she tells somebody else, and they tell somebody else,” she says beaming with pride. “That lets us know our work is going good and it’s effective.”

One more week of door-knocking remains, but the team is already close to doubling its outreach goal. 

But That's Not All

Other community groups are doing their share of canvassing, but also want to affect public policy.

Credit Matt Stienstra
If canvassers don't find someone at home in the Amani neighborhood, they leave this flyer.

Robert Miranda, spokesperson for the Freshwater For Life Action Coalition, has persistently asserted city leaders are diminishing the danger posed by lead in water, by pointing to lead paint as the primary culprit of contamination.

Additional groups have joined Miranda to form the Get The Lead Out Coalition.

Miranda says they have compiled data from local state and federal sources, mapping what he calls a strong correlation between elevated lead levels in children to construction projects in Milwaukee.

“Now, we are able to challenge the government’s attempt to try to sway the public into thinking that things are under control, things are improving, and we need to move on,” he says.

During Mayor Barrett’s 2019 budget address this week he stated, “My budget adds new positions to the Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program. This coincides with a renewed commitment to all aspects of lead safety.”

Robert Miranda plans to state his case at a community presentation this weekend.

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