RACINE — Racine Women for Racial Justice (RWRJ) was formed by women who wanted to do more than talk about racial justice. They wanted to work to attain it.
Recently, they hired a part-time executive director for the first time, rented offices and raised money to help a disadvantaged youth without a support system, and began preparing a leadership conference for area women — all with the intention of meeting that goal.
RWRJ’s plan for the immediate future calls for increasing its engagement with women of color by creating leadership, volunteer and collective action opportunities within the organization.
Additionally, its goals include providing community-wide education and training to promote civic engagement, increase awareness of systemic inequities, advance racial justice and promote transformative change.
The group’s first such trainings are scheduled for March 20 and 27. It will take place via a Zoom webinar from 10 a.m.-1 p.m.
The two-part workshop called “Women on the Frontline: Engaging in Racial Justice Work,” covers the fundamentals of engaging as an advocate, activist, ally or agitator.
With plans in the works for a “Justice Watch Committee,” RWRJ has already begun to monitor the local judicial system.
Recently, members of RWRJ became involved in the criminal case of Traoun Oliver-Thomas, an 18-year-old Black youth who was facing substantially more prison time than a white co-defendant who had been charged with a more significant offense for their roles in committing the same crime.
Concerned by the disparity in the sentencing recommendations for the two defendants, Oliver-Thomas’s attorney, Jamie McClendon, reached out to RWRJ.
Information about the case was disseminated through Zoom calls and the community rallied around Oliver-Thomas, writing letters to the judge and virtually attending the sentencing. The organization also covered court fees and restitution on behalf of Oliver-Thomas, who was stuck in jail for months because he couldn’t afford an ankle bracelet that would have been part of his bail.
While Oliver-Thomas still received a longer sentence than his co-defendant, McClendon credits the attention from RWRJ with bringing much-needed awareness to how Black people are consistently treated more harshly by the local judicial system.
A recent study from the Wisconsin Supreme Court found that Black men were 28% more likely to be sentenced to prison than white men, and Hispanic men 19% more likely to be sentenced to prison. Those disparities are even worse in southeastern Wisconsin, with Black men here being more than 50% more likely to be sentenced to prison than white men accused of similar crimes.
“I have seen this repeatedly in my ten-year career as an attorney in Racine and this is the first time there has been an opportunity to bring the community into the discussion about how race influences sentencing decisions,” said McClendon.
McClendon has recently joined the RWRJ Board of Directors and will help focus the organization’s efforts around youth justice, including the new Racine Youth Development and Care Center.
Slated to be built in a predominantly Black community, prospective neighbors of that facility were never consulted before the decision was made to locate it in their neighborhood.
In an effort to make sure all voices are heard on this matter, RWRJ will facilitate a free online information session with Racine City Council President John Tate II on Wednesday, March 10.
Mary Pucci, president of the RWRJ board of directors, announced that Kelly Scroggins-Powell had accepted the position of executive director.
Pucci and Scroggins-Powell founded the organization together in 2019. Pucci will retain her current position as president of the board of directors.
“We found very quickly that with so many urgent issues facing our community, we needed someone who could devote significant time to prioritizing and executing our work,” explained Pucci. “Kelly was the perfect person to step in and we are beyond grateful that she was available to do this.”
Scroggins-Powell has an extensive background in non-profit start-ups and management, bringing needed leadership to the young organization.
One of Scroggins-Powell’s first tasks was to develop the group’s strategic plan, which will focus on growing and strengthening the organization, establishing connections and partnerships with other social justice groups, increasing its engagement with women of color, providing educational opportunities and responding to specific instances of racial injustice.
The RWRJ is a young organization but has big aspirations for the future.
As the organization moves forward, Scroggins-Powell said they will be working to strengthen the organization and build its capacity.
Just as one example, the RWRJ will be looking to add women to its board of directors but also to obtain training for board members to ensure it is working effectively.
They will also be looking to create opportunities for young women to gain knowledge and experience so they, too, can grow into community leaders.
Scroggins-Powell said one idea the organization intends to explore are internships and/or work-study programs for young women.
The RWRJ also recognizes there are other racial justice groups working in the community, in the region, and they look forward to building relationships with those organizations.
“We have no intention of working alone,” Scroggins-Powell said. “We intend to work collaboratively, in cooperation, with other justice groups, with the community, with stakeholders, in order to be part of the solution because we recognize there are many other organizations in the city doing great work.”
In addition to the many goals RWRJ has for the future, is the recruitment of women of color for leadership roles.
“Our strategic plan speaks to the power of women,” she said. “We know when women work together, with singleness of purpose, of focus, there’s nothing we cannot achieve.”