Community Shares of Wisconsin Celebrates Its 50th Anniversary: An Evolving Sense of Social Justice
(L-R) Community Shares of Wisconsin Executive Director Cheri Dubiel in front of Main Street Industries, which now houses their offices; Black Men Run, a component of Rebalanced-Life Wellness Association; Aaron Perry, the head of Rebalanced-Life Wellness Association.
By Jonathan Gramling
The year was 1971. The Vietnam War and the protests against it were still going strong in 1971. The Counter Culture, which had started in the Mifflin Street area was beginning to transition to the Williamson Street area, nicknamed Willy Street. The area was one of the poorest in Madison with plenty of dilapidated, affordable housing and a lagging commercial area.
In the spring of 1971, the U.S. bombing power supported the invasion of Laos by South Vietnamese forces and the anti-war movement raged once more with over 20,000 people marching up Wisconsin Avenue to the State Capitol. And of course demonstrators were being arrested.
“We were founded in 1971,” said Cheri Dubiel, the executive director of Community Shares of Wisconsin. “And we were originally known as Madison Sustaining Fund. The people who formed Madison Sustaining Fund were anti-war protestors who raised funds to bail other anti-war protestors out of jail. And then they had some money left over after their main efforts were completed and decided to use the remainder of those funds and continue raising funds for different local non-profits, especially social justice non-profits and those working to eliminate poverty. Many of them were located in the Willy Street area. It was originally called ‘The People’s Tax.’ And the original donations were collected at different local community coops back when there were a lot more of them. There were Yellow Jersey and others.”
Madison Chip was established at the Willy Street Coop and other coops — Willy Street Coop is the only one that continues the tradition — collected money in canisters at the check-out lanes — to distribute to progressive non-profits. And the collection of funds expanded to workplace giving.
“In 1988, the Madison Sustaining Fund merged with Aid to Wisconsin Organizations and we became Community Shares of Wisconsin,” Dubiel said. “There is currently a Community Shares in Milwaukee. They are very small. And so we are statewide except Milwaukee. But we still have donors in Milwaukee too. We don’t tread on their territory.”
Another type of giving was instituted by Crystel Anders, the long-serving executive director.
“I was the associate director, when we started doing The Big Share,” Dubiel said. “The Big Share and workplace giving are philanthropy focused on the average everyday person versus major gifts from wealthy people. We have always been, at our heart, an organization focused on raising money from the average person in the community and focused on social justice.”
While Community Shares has a paid staff, at front and center of the decision-making process are the member agencies who pay an annual membership fee, but then have few other duties except to operate the agency and help raise the funds.
“There are 70 organizations that are a part of Community Shares,” Dubiel said. “And we have maintained a member-representative board structure. And so from the beginning up until today 50 years later, every one of the groups that are members have a seat on our board of directors. It’s a huge board. Our executive committee, which is 12 people, meets every month whereas the full board meets quarterly. Most things are generated at the committee level and then come to the full board for a vote. We have a very strong committee structure. Our executive committee is a great collection of local non-profit leaders like Hedi Rudd, and Justice Castañada. Bernie Hoes is our board chair and Denise Jess is our vice-chair.”
In addition to growing the number of agencies that are involved, for the past two decades, with varying degrees of success, Community Shares has also sought to diversify and to become relevant to the needs of agencies that serve or are controlled by people of color.
“At the time, 20 years ago, we talked about cultural competence and diversity because that was the language that was used and so we worked with Harold Gates for a long time,” Dubiel said. “And then, in about 2014, we did a new member recruitment focused specifically on groups working on racial justice. This was as a result of the Kids Forward racial justice report. People of color knew all of that. But it became more of a public understanding in Madison that there were two worlds taking place. In 2014, we started talking about how we could integrate more groups run by people of color. We did a member recruitment specifically focused on groups run by people of color. But we didn’t have much response. Shortly after that, Crystal started the Inspiring Voices Program. And we pretty much ended the Inspiring Voices Program. And what we’ve done now is integrated all of those groups. They were all invited to become full members of Community Shares. Right now, all of the past Inspiring Voices groups are regular members, all those who chose to join. The number of groups run by people of color now is a lot higher. And it is more than just a diversity effort. We’re doing more than just changing the faces of the people who show up to board meetings.”
But while the number of organizations serving people of color grew dramatically, Community Shares also wanted to make sure that there were no vestiges of structural racism that prevented Community Shares from being totally accessible to the causes that were at the forefront of communities of color.
“When I became executive director following along Crystal’s path, we hired Dr. Angela Rose Black,” Dubiel said. “She has done a lot of education with our staff and board. And we are now working with The Nina Collective. They are working with us in determining some permanent changes to our membership structure so that we can ensure that donors can support the groups that are the best match of the values of Community Shares versus this list of criteria that has existed in the past for what makes a group eligible. And so those eligibility criteria, because we have been focused mostly on workplace giving, came from the state employees ‘workplace giving campaign because at that time, there wasn’t much value in being a member of Community Shares if you weren’t participating in workplace giving because we didn’t do a lot outside of that. But now as we have evolved and started doing more fundraising outside of workplace giving, we no longer need to have our criteria focused on workplace giving. So now, in that criteria is a lot of things like audits and a lot of specific types of paperwork and board lists that sort of thing that has been helpful in some ways for donors to determine who they should donate to. But it also kept a lot of groups out, especially smaller groups that were just starting out. And in the past five years or so, a lot of those smaller groups starting out are run by people of color. And we believe they shouldn’t be focusing on their paperwork. They should be focusing on their work.”
One of the those agencies that came into Community Shares through the Inspiring Voices initiative was Rebalanced-Life Wellness Association managed by Aaron Perry, the long-time Black men’s health advocate. Perry feels that coming into Community Shares was a good choice for Rebalanced-Life.
“I’ve always seen what Community Shares was doing, always have been a supporter,” Perry said. “But when we had the opportunity to join, we jumped at it because they offer a lot of opportunities over the years for grants. They are the ones whom I see first if they have grants that are available in the community. Community Shares will share that information with all of their members. That is priceless because a lot of times when these grants are announced, you only have two weeks to apply. Having Community Shares put that information out is one of the major benefits of being a member. There is an annual membership due, which isn’t much. But what you get in return more than makes up for that. Obviously once per year, they put all of the funds together and distribute them. And once per year, we could see a check for $1,500-$2,000 for being a member. And those funds really come in handy.”