Community Shares of Wisconsin Celebrates Its 50th Anniversary: An Evolving Sense of Social Justice

Part 2 of 2

By Jonathan Gramling

Since it was founded in 1971 as the Madison Sustaining Fund to support jailed anti-Vietnam War protestors, Community Shares of Wisconsin has gone through a lot of changes as it has sought to stay true and relevant to its mission to promote social justice in Madison and Wisconsin. One of the initiatives to promote change within the organization was Inspiring Voices that sought to provide financial and other support to burgeoning organizations of color that may not have had the organizational sophistication — much like many or the organizations that joined Community Shares in the 1970s and 1980s —  but shared the mission of Community Shares. One of those was Rebalanced-Life Wellness Association managed by Aaron Perry, the long-time Black men’s health advocate. It has allowed Rebalanced Life grow.

“I started my organization right after I did Ironman and became the world’s first African American diabetic to do it because I wanted to help inspire the diabetic community,” Perry said. “But I quickly realized that the issues facing Black men were much more prevalent and important. But having an organization like Community Shares that gives you the opportunity and the platform to help broaden your scope, these are the kinds of things that are priceless in this community. Also sometimes with Black organizations, the funding has been so scarce that indirectly we end up competing against each other. That is sad because a lot of the organizations could be much stronger if we partnered. But unfortunately opportunities for funding end up pitting you against one another. There is no competition in Community Shares.”

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Black Men Run, a component of Rebalanced-Life Wellness Association

Rebalanced Life has become a leader in promoting Black men’s wellness.

“We have the Men’s Health and Education Center,” Perry said. “We were the nation’s first to open up a men’s health center in a barbershop. We have since replicated that in Sun Prairie. And we’re also in the final stages of replicating our barbershop health center model down in Freeport, Illinois. The SSM Health Monroe Clinic reached out to us and said that they really wanted to give us a nice shot in the arm because of what they were seeing with health disparities in Freeport, Illinois. They asked me if I would be willing to replicate our barbershop health model in Shreveport. We met with a number of Black pastors down there. And they are on their way. I would say that within the next 2-3 months, you will see our barbershop health model replicated in Freeport, Illinois. I’m also going to be traveling down to St. Louis in December to meet with SSM Health and they are looking to potentially replicating my model in Missouri, Oklahoma, and Southern Illinois. I’m pretty excited about that.”

It’s a one stop Black men’s preventative health clinic in a place where Black men are sure to go, the local Black barbershop.

“The Men’s Health Center is open from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday-Friday,” Perry said. “And occasionally, we have UW medical students come in and support us on a Saturday. On that particular Saturday when we have the UW medical students, we do blood pressure screening as well as diabetes-glucose testing. We’re pretty pleased with that. Our goal is to reach men at a location where we know they go, they trust

 

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and they respect and they feel safe. The camaraderie is there. And so we said that we want men to come in, get their hair cut, and get up out of the chair and walk right into the health center and get their blood pressure checked and get their eyes checked. If they need a diabetes test or a COVID-19 vaccination or a flu shot, we do it all.”

Rebalanced Life is also working to change the narrative about Black men in Dane County by placing them in supportive roles within the world of health and fitness.

“We are out here interacting with the community,” Perry said. “We’re diversifying. We’re running on John Nolen Drive. We’re participating in various events. We even did the aid station for Her Madison Half Marathon. It was an all-Black men aid station. When women got to that 10-mile mark in the half marathon. We brought in a DJ. We were all just ready to lift them up and get them to the finish line. That proved to be such an event that really put us out in the community because when you have 2,000 women saying how great your group is, it spreads like wildfire. We’ve been really working to improve the image and how this community sees us and not see us as dangerous.”

The Rebalanced-Life Wellness Association is on its way to making a positive impact on the wellness of Black men and the quality of life they experience in Madison/Dane County. And it is a boost from Community Shares of Wisconsin that is helping it get to the next level. Not bad for a 50-year-old organization.

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