Suddenly, Keisha Krumm, a strong, smart, confident community organizer with a record of impact, hit a point where emotion welled up.
Speaking at an “On the Issues with Mike Gousha” program at Eckstein Hall on Wednesday, Krumm was answering a question about what motivated her to become the lead organizer for Common Ground in Milwaukee.
She said she grew up in Wichita, Kansas, and she was caption of the girls’ basketball team at her high school. They lost every game. She didn’t like it and it still galls her. But there was a bigger context in the circumstances of her life.
“In my neighborhood, we lost,” Krumm said. “When it came to opportunity for our men, we lost. We lost a lot in life.” She paused, looked down at her hands, and continued in a thicker voice.
“I’m sick of losing. And Common Ground teaches people how to win in life where it matters, to get the things done in their neighborhood that if they had a billion dollars, they would never have to worry about. So I’m committed to teaching people how to win in life.”
It was a rare moment for a leader of an organization that has become known for its political savvy as well as its determination in mobilizing people around grassroots issues. But it spoke eloquently to what drives the organization, whose network includes 50 organizations, many of them religious, with about 40,000 members in the four-county Milwaukee area.
Krumm was joined by Jennifer O’Hear, a Common Ground volunteer who has played a leading role in several efforts, most prominently attempts to pair the decision to build a new basketball arena in downtown Milwaukee with a surge of funding for improving outdoor recreation facilities for kids in Milwaukee.
That developed into a confrontational situation between the owners of the Milwaukee Bucks basketball team and Common Ground, and led the organization to oppose public funding for the arena.
It also led to the discovery by a Common Ground volunteer that many abandoned homes in Milwaukee were owned by Nationstar Mortgage, which had close connections with one of the Bucks’ owners, Wes Edens. Common Ground demanded Nationstar do something to respond to problems with its properties.
The outcomes? The Bucks got public funding, Nationstar agreed to put up $30 million over three years, which Krumm said will allow people living in about 600 homes to keep their homes, and no money was committed to renovate playgrounds. Common Ground’s efforts on the recreation issue continue.
Krumm agreed the recreation funding lost because Milwaukee’s mayor and aldermen did not show enough political courage in “dealing with billionaire bullies.”
O’Hear asked, “Why couldn’t they fund both the kids’ playgrounds and the arena?” The Bucks got what they wanted. “Why couldn’t they figure out a way to do it for our kids? . . . It makes me mad.”
Common Ground is now focusing on the spring elections in Milwaukee. By law, the non-profit group cannot advocate for or against any candidate, but it is launching a drive to increase voting in low-turnout neighborhoods and to make more people aware of its agenda.
The group’s accomplishments include creating a health insurance cooperative which now serves 25,000 people; rehabbing about 60 previously-abandoned homes in the Sherman Park neighborhood; and agitating until five large banks and mortgage lenders made major commitments to dealing with problem properties they owned in Milwaukee.
One current effort: Getting the City of Milwaukee to reverse an ordinance which bans school buses from putting out stop signs when children are being dropped off or picked up. O’Hear said Milwaukee is the only large city in the country that bars the practice. “It’s been amazingly difficult” to get Common Council action on the issue, she said.
Krumm said the organization has a hefty agenda of other goals related to needs of people in the four-county area. “People like us get dissed and dismissed when we try to go get things done,” she said. She wants to see wins.
To view video of the program, click here.