Greater Milwaukee Foundation’s latest ‘A Milwaukee for All’ centers lived experience

Savion Jarvis, a senior at Golda Meir High School, has a vision for Milwaukee. One that sees people coming together in community and collaboration. Jarvis is not alone in this; it is inherent in the Greater Milwaukee Foundation’s approach to building a Milwaukee for all.

The Foundation recently held its final “A Milwaukee for All” event of the year titled “Community Philanthropy: Leading from Lived Experience.” The convening featured Ellen Gilligan, president and CEO of the Foundation, in conversation with Tonya Allen, president of the McKnight Foundation.

Approximately 150 people attended the event, with half staying for an interactive talk-back session to share their experiences and ideas for further action. In a post-event survey, more than 70 percent of respondents indicated that their awareness of racial equity and inclusion issues deepened on some level because of this event and over 90 percent learned new ways to incorporate community voice in initiatives.

In a program where Gilligan and Allen also joined local leaders Kevin Newell, Glenn Carson and Clintel Hasan in a roundtable discussion, several key themes emerged, from the power of community philanthropy to the value of centering lived experience, to reframing and co-creating community narratives.

Continue reading for their key thoughts or watch the full program.  

Community philanthropy

Allen’s approach to community philanthropy is guided by her concept of radical love. The root word of philanthropy means the love of people, she said, and the root word of radical is radics, which means to get to the root of something.

“I often think of philanthropy as a loving behavior, a loving act, how we show up in community to meet people’s needs because we deeply love them,” she said. “If you are demonstrating love and that love says, ‘I'm going to get to the root of a problem to fundamentally rechange and restructure the system in which you're operating,’ then you’re operating in what I believe is community philanthropy, this notion of executing and delivering radical love.”

Gilligan said it’s about making sure that the resources and support help people thrive, referencing the work the Foundation did through the MKE Civic Action Team during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.  

“For far too long communities have been asked what they need and what they want and what their aspirations are, and it has fallen on deaf ears,” Gilligan said. “We in philanthropy have both the opportunity and the obligation to do things differently, and I hope that we are doing things differently in Milwaukee.”

Center lived experience

Carson is the director of the Milwaukee Community Schools Partnership through United Way of Greater Milwaukee & Waukesha County. Community Schools is a collaborative strategy that works around the success of students and is rooted in relationships, Carson said. 

“In our community school model, we focus on the whole child. So, really making sure that a lot of those barriers that our families face, when they step into our school buildings, those barriers don't exist for them,” Carson said. “We really try to also make sure that those resources and partnerships are right there at the school.”

Resources include medical and dental screenings for students and information on employment opportunities for parents.

Newell is founder and CEO of Royal Capital, a development firm and partner in the ThriveOn Collaboration, which includes the Foundation and the Medical College of Wisconsin.

As part of the collaboration’s work, the partners established a deep and ongoing engagement process with residents and community stakeholders.

“Lived experience is such a critical component on how we approach our work at hand,” Newell said, adding that during these sessions, residents reinforced the idea that ‘What you do for me that doesn’t include me, you do to me.’

Hasan is the strategic initiatives manager at Milwaukee Succeeds, an embedded initiative of the Foundation.

Through the Design Your Future fellowship, Milwaukee Succeeds asked young people to create an improved high school experience for Black male youth. By letting youth voice lead – and by compensating them for their time – Milwaukee Succeeds received blueprints of equity-based programs that it uses to inform its work.  

“There’s all these different checks and hoops that people have to go through, but when you really trust community and trust that they know what is going to be the best decision to fix things that they’re directly impacted by, then you’re going to make things go quicker,” Hasan said.  

Reframe and co-create together: asset vs deficit   

“We have to understand that ‘the how’ is often times delivered through the folks who have lived experiences,” Newell said. “We have to understand that we have to remove the often, common skepticism and suspicion that comes along with folks who have those lived experiences, remove those barriers, remove those gatekeepers from around them.”

He continued, “Give them the capital, let them deploy the capital and understand that you’re probably going to get the best results from having somebody with that lived experience. They understand the solutions better than somebody who just has the relationships up top.”

At Community Schools, students, parents and community members are part of the decision-making, Carson explained. In addition to impacting policy, stakeholders have a say when meetings are held, if child care is available and so on. This structure gives everyone the opportunity to engage and get involved.

Allen noted that people shouldn’t be defined by their deficits and challenges. Instead, she encourages people to talk about their aspirations and using those to reframe the future. Be builders of the future instead of trying to fix the past, she said.

Hasan said that getting at the root and understanding the role individuals and institutions play is key in making change.

“Actually understanding what are all the roles that individuals and institutions are playing, so that when we talk about transforming systems, we actually know what our role is in that and it's not perpetuating the status quo,” she said.

As Jarvis put it, “It takes those sit downs and those meetings and that brainstorming what’s working here, what’s not working here for us to really understand our differences but also our similarities. I think that’s what will make us better in the long run.”

Get engaged and involved

  • Watch past “A Milwaukee for All” events on our YouTube page 
  • Join the 2023 Community Adviser and Ambassador Network cohort. For information and questions, contact Kelly A. Martyka at or 414-336-7024.
  • Support the ThriveOn Collaboration through the Greater Together Campaign
  • Learn about Youth Forward MKE Coalition within Milwaukee Succeeds