Supporters say program needs time, but critics cite spending, church ties
A neighborhood program founded after the mob beating of Charles Young Jr. has spent nearly $150,000 in grant money and is nearly broke, with little to show for its efforts.
Supporters of True Our Brothers’ Keepers Community Justice Center, at 2128 N. 23rd St., say the center was never given a chance to get off the ground. Critics question how some of the money has been spent and are troubled by the director’s ties to the Unification Church, founded by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon.
The Rev. Maurice Lawrence, who pays himself a salary of $36,000 a year as director and collects the rent as owner of the renovated duplex that houses the center, said he’s doing the best he can with the resources he has.
“I’m saying we’re saving lives. You can’t put a price tag on that. . . . If we got more resources, we will do more,” he said.
Walk into True Our Brothers’ Keepers Community Justice Center, and the silence is striking.
The duplex in the Midtown neighborhood features a computing center with six computers, but no ongoing classes. There’s a sitting room with six brown leather chairs and a 52-inch projection television – all donated, according to Lawrence. An albino catfish swims alone in a large aquarium.
How the center got started
Lawrence is a pastor at the Milwaukee Family Church, 3031 N. Frederick Ave. His church is the Wisconsin location for the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification, founded by Moon.
Initially, Lawrence said, he worked in the neighborhood on his own as a man of faith. A former gang leader from Chicago who left school for the streets at 14, Lawrence said he underwent a jail conversion about a dozen years ago.
“I had a vision of what could be accomplished in this community,” he said.
After Young’s death made national news in fall 2002, Mayor John O. Norquist pushed for the justice centers, which are based on a successful, similar effort in Boston that provides links to police, the district attorney, social service agencies and parole and probation officers.
In June 2003, Brothers’ Keepers received federal city block grants of $50,000, in addition to $50,000 in February. The Potawatomi Foundation also kicked in $50,000.
Lawrence said in late July that the center has just $8,000 left. Without a quick infusion of funds, he said, he will have to lay off two staffers, unless they can work for free. Two other staffers at the center are paid through the state Department of Corrections.
That revelation about the center’s finances came just three weeks after Lawrence announced plans in the City Hall rotunda to raise public and private funds for a three-story, “mega” community justice center in Midtown.
120 people served
What has the community justice center actually accomplished so far?
Lawrence claims his program has helped 120 people. He said the center refers those who come in for clothes to Goodwill and other agencies. A few jobs were obtained through the Milwaukee Community Service Corp. About 15 youths play basketball on Wednesday nights.
Parenting classes are provided by New Concept Self Development Center Inc. which has received a total of $85,000 in federal block grants to provide parenting and anger management classes at three criminal justice centers.
At True Our Brothers’ Keepers, one eight-week parenting class was held. Three people completed the course, according to Vanessa Key, a special assistant to June Perry, the CEO of New Concept. Ten people are registered in a new class, she said.
Clearly, Lawrence has managed to garner influential support for his efforts.
“It really hasn’t been funded to a level where it had a good chance to work,” said Ralph Hollmon, president of the Milwaukee Urban League, which has a contract to keep the center’s books. “It’s like the chicken or the egg – which comes first?”
But former Milwaukee Ald. Fred Gordon, an important early supporter, said he has grown concerned about Lawrence’s ties to the Unification Church, the center’s inability to establish important community links and its staff salaries.
“You can’t pay people top dollar to do organizing, particularly in a neighborhood like that,” Gordon said.
Questions about billing
The city has questioned some of the expenses of True our Brothers’ Keepers, including a payment of about $1,733 to Vincent Knox, a community activist who had been convicted of election fraud in connection with a Milwaukee County Board recall race.
Lawrence said Knox was hired as a community organizer at the suggestion of city block grant monitor Glen Mattison.
Mattison said he suggested Knox as someone Lawrence could interview, subject to his board’s approval.
City block grant administrator Steve Mahan raised questions about the organization as early as December 2002. In an interview last month, Mahan said: “I think their concern is more about getting money than addressing problems . . . and bringing people in who can help them address these problems.”
Still, the two times Brothers’ Keepers came up for block grant funding, Mahan recommended it without comment.
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