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Open Letter to Red Cross for refusing to help some Milwaukee Residents

“This is where we’re implementing it now. It’s been across the entire area, so outside of those zip codes we’ve already been doing this kind of a process. Now, we’re doing it consistently because we’re regionalizing.” – Patty Flowers, Regional CEO of the American Red Cross of Wisconsin

In the most segregated metropolitan area in the nation, the American Red Cross of Wisconsin is segregating its response to helping families in need. A new policy, which apparently went into effect last week, was not announced to the public until December 27.

The local Red Cross will now force residents from selected zip codes in the city (53204, 53205, 53206, 53208, 53209, 53210, 53215, 53216, 53218, 53233) who need their services to meet Red Cross volunteers at a local police station or at the Red Cross office.

The zip codes just so happen to be in heavily non-white neighborhoods. The average non-white population across these ten zip codes is 81.1%, according to 2014 data from the US Census Bureau.

Living in a city that is notorious for its long history of racial segregation makes this policy even more egregious. These areas occupied by people of color have had to suffer the indignity of redlining, racial restrictive covenants and other long-term discrimination for decades. As a result of forced segregation, and massive de-industrialization these areas have suffered economically in ways that the rest of the region cannot see nor seems to want to understand.

This policy is metaphorically pouring fuel on a fire that has raged for far too long. The residents of many of these neighborhoods live in homes that are more likely to suffer fires. They have depended on the Red Cross for assistance and until now have been able to receive these services under the same conditions as their peers throughout Milwaukee.

Now, due to no fault of their own, they are forced to find a way to get to the local police station or the Red Cross office to be served by volunteers. The Red Cross has offered no rationale for this change in policy other than to say, “we’ve already been doing this kind of a process.”

I challenge them to show evidence of this type of process anywhere else they serve in the state of Wisconsin. Why were these specific zip codes chosen for this policy? They claim, “We’re always looking at ways to keep people safe and warm.” Why then are you forcing people who come from the most impoverished neighborhoods to go out of their way to receive your services?

I grew up in the 53206 zip code and currently live in 53216, two of the zip codes impacted by this change. This policy continues a pattern of marginalizing people of color in Milwaukee. It sends a clear message that you don’t deserve the respect other residents receive. To issue a policy of this nature without thoughtful consideration of how it would be received is disrespectful.

On the website for the Wisconsin Red Cross under volunteer opportunities, they list the ability to join a Disaster Action Team, to respond to single-family fires with a disaster action team supervisor. They say nothing about avoiding volunteerism in certain zip codes. They have not issued an official press release related to this new policy on the website either. They are attempting to say this is a statewide policy, which seems absurd in light of the fact that only these ten Milwaukee area zip codes are included in the new policy.

On their website they claim to respond to an emergency every eight minutes and say, “the American Red Cross goes wherever we’re needed, so people can have clean water, safe shelter and hot meals when they need them most.” Apparently the new policy changes the definition of going “wherever we’re needed.”

I find it hard to believe that an organization, which has volunteers around the world, even in war zones, is now afraid for the well being of their volunteers in certain neighborhoods in Milwaukee. Red Cross volunteers have assisted residents in flood-ravaged states in the South. They are currently assisting people impacted by the devastating fires in California.

How many of these residents were forced to go to the local police station or Red Cross office to receive help? One of the Fundamental Principles listed in their Mission and Values is that The Red Cross, “makes no discrimination as to nationality, race, religious beliefs, class or political opinions. It endeavors to relieve the suffering of individuals, being guided solely by their needs, and to give priority to the most urgent cases of distress.” I can’t see how this policy aligns with that principal.

The policy change is wrongheaded in so many ways. It will make it more difficult to achieve their goals of receiving donations from people of color in the region. This will be the case even if they come to their senses and retract this policy. As a community leader and advocate I felt compelled to address this issue. The disenfranchised of Milwaukee have enough issues to deal with already.

To pile on with this policy in the middle of winter is unforgivable. Shame on you Wisconsin Red Cross.

About The Author

Reggie Jackson

As the Community Relations Writer for the Milwaukee Independent, Reggie Jackson covers a range of African American issues. He is also a former Board Chairman of the Dr. James Cameron Legacy Foundation, and serves as the Head Griot for America’s Black Holocaust Museum (ABHM) in Bronzeville.

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