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In Disparate Community, Local YWCA Works to Make Racial Justice Within Reach

YWCA of Southeast Wisconsin

As the nation marks the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, one Milwaukee organization consistently works to keep issues of racial justice front and center.

The YWCA of Southeast Wisconsin offers classes, like its six-part Unlearning Racism: Tools for Action course, and other resources that tackle issues of race. It often works with businesses, government workers and nonprofits to address issues of race.

Martha Barry is the group’s Racial Justice Director. She says the racial justice programs try to dispel misinformation and myths. 

"I think you can't grow up in this society and not be imbued with lots of myths in terms of race," she says, "so (we're) slowly moving people along a continuum, wherever they start, trying to move them ahead."

Since Dr. King's time, Barry says we have made progress as a society in terms of advancing the conversation on race and challenging laws and policies. She also says there's been progress on the individual level, where shouting racial epithets is no longer socially acceptable.

Of course, she notes, that doesn't stop people from thinking them. And even though we've elected a black President, Barry warns that there's a long way to go before the "content of their character" trumps someone's race.

"Progress is a hard word in a city like Milwaukee where there are so many disparities," she says. She says work still needs to be done in areas like jobs, housing discrimination, and transit.

"Where racism has its greatest hold is on the institutions that appear to have race neutral policies but still have a disparate impact on people," she says. "The structural racism that runs within our society is where people feel very hopeless that they can make any difference, and that's where we have to change and invite people into the conversation."

That's where the YWCA offers videos, small group conversations, listening pairs and other means to help people become an active part of the conversation. This, she says, is often more difficult for white clients.

"For white people in particular, it's not a conversation topic at dinner every night, so getting people comfortable having those conversations is often where we have to start and move things along," she says.

People can also make a difference on issues of race through their vote - which she says has been challenged after the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling invalidating certain parts of the Voting Rights Act.

"It’s hard on people not to have access to the ballot box, because that’s where often changes can take place," she says. "So I think progress comes slowly and sometimes it’s not as definitely not as fast as we’d like it to be."

The YWCA will also be hosting an Evening to Promote Racial Justice on Dec. 3rd, featuring Harry Belafonte, who was a key architect of the March on Washington.