There’s a part of Milwaukee where every residential block has multiple numbers of men who’ve served time in prison - the 53206 zip code on the city’s north side.
"If you’re just looking at the surface of what’s here, you’re going to see a lot of boarded-up houses, you’re going to see people, or young men especially when it’s warmer outside, standing around," says Sister Patricia Rogers, executive director of the Dominican Center of Women. Located at 24th and Locust, the center helps women and men in this neighborhood learn to read or get jobs.
A third of the area's working-age adults are unemployed. And nearly 4,000 black men here are either in prison, or have been. Rogers says incarceration is this community’s greatest problem.
"When you think of 7 percent of African American children have one parent incarcerated, that’s a lot. And then we have parents who are incarcerated that did have jobs at one time, so the financial piece that’s not coming back into the community because of this incarceration, it’s just leaving this area devastated," Rogers says.
Dennis Walton, 39, has lived in the 53206 zip code his entire life. He says his childhood there was beautiful and peaceful, but the neighborhood began to change when he was in his 20s.
"I saw the total destruction of my community. I saw an influx of drugs. I saw an influx of crime. The jobs were being dismantled from our community," Walton says.
Walton says he got caught up in street life, and admits he served time in jail. But he says his strong family helped him turn his life around. He went to college, then came back here to work as a community organizer.
Recently, Walton helped establish the Amani United Neighborhood Association – a sprout of renewal and hope.
"For too long we’ve dealt with a top-down type of perspective to where agendas are already created and dictated to the community instead of organizing the community around those issues and allowing the solutions to come specifically from the individuals," he says.
Walton says the social problems in 53206 took decades to develop, and solutions will take time.
One group working to find solutions is the so-called "53206 Committee," a group of religious leaders who gather monthly to talk about the problem of black male incarceration.
The group knows that many men here need jobs, but too many employers won’t hire ex-offenders. So that’s something they hope to work on.
Richard Shaw, the pastor at St. Matthew CME Church on North 9th Street, says changing sentencing laws for some non-violent crimes would make the area safer.
"Because when you have individuals going into prisons for non-violent crimes, they’re gonna pretty much come out violent because of the environment within the prisons," Shaw says.
But those are big goals – sentencing reform and more jobs for felons. Not easy or likely to happen soon.
So what you find today in 53206 are programs to connect with residents, so they can share the burdens they carry.
Mothers whose sons died on the street.
Aimless men with criminal records.
Grandmothers raising grandkids.
Despite those realities, Sister Patricia Rogers says more people here need to know they can demand better.
"In fact, we were told at one time, because the question from the community came, why is it that we have so many incarcerated people in this area and why are there so many sex offenders? And the response was, it’s because you’re the area of least resistance. And so that’s what we’re fighting against," Rogers says.
Long-time resident Dennis Walton sees more neighbors engaging with each other in positive ways.
"There is progress, you know. Residents are mobilizing, they are organizing, they are educating themselves," he says.
There are other small, though meaningful victories.
Late last year, Children’s Hospital opened a primary care clinic in Walton’s neighborhood. And its residents helped draw up plans for the renovation of Moody Park. A sign hanging from a chain-link fence around the park shows a rendering of the new park and notifies residents construction will start in the spring.