This re-print is from Racewire, published by Color Lines magazine

MILWAUKEE, WI - Easter Dethrow is a substance abuse counselor who works the streets of Milwaukee rather than the halls of Washington, D.C. Around town, he's known as the man closest to the reality of those struggling to overcome their addictions.

Dethrow, a former abuser who now works as minister for three African American churches in Milwaukee's central city, doesn't hesitate when asked the main issue confronting treatment programs for substance abusers, or what are generally referred to as Alcohol and Drug Abuse (AODA) programs.

"Money," says Dethrow. "There's no funds. People want help, but there's nowhere to take them. There's no beds available for people."

But when the national media come to Milwaukee to discuss AODA, they don't stop at Dethrow's ministry, which does not receive public funds due to concerns of religious independence and whose message of increased funding is not politically popular. Instead, they head to Faith Works Milwaukee-an evangelistic residential treatment facility for men that has been portrayed as a national model for President Bush's "faith-based" initiative to funnel public dollars to overtly religious social service programs.

For the past year, Bush's plan has been mired in controversy. But the U.S. Supreme Court's June 27 decision upholding publicly financed vouchers for religious schools breathed new life into Bush's faith-based plans. The decision's repercussions go beyond schools and bolster the conservative agenda to redefine and privatize the entire public sector-from education, to welfare, to housing. Given the court's decision, one unanswered question is the extent to which religious groups will be allowed to overtly proselytize using public taxpayer dollars, as long as payments to religious groups are disguised as vouchers to individuals.

Shortly after the court decision, Bush visited Milwaukee and, speaking at an African American church, extolled school vouchers, "compassionate conservatism," and his faith-based initiative. He has directed five cabinet-level agencies to provide public dollars to religious groups that infuse their programs with proselytizing-as well as allowing discrimination toward those of another faith or those who violate a church's teaching on homosexuality, extramarital sex, or interracial dating. Bush is doing an end run around the Senate, which has refused to pass a House-approved bill that permits religious-based discrimination in hiring.

Congressional Democrats are particularly upset at efforts by the Education Department to subvert last year's federal law on after-school programs, giving a green light to religious discrimination in hiring.

Equally troubling, Bush's faith-based initiative is a classic case of diversion. By focusing on the need for religiously based social services to receive government funding, Bush obscures the reality that public services are woefully under-funded and that his administration has little intention of changing that.

The term "charitable choice" has been used to describe legislation allowing religious groups to receive taxpayer funding of programs such as job training or drug treatment that have as a main component a strict faith in God or Jesus as Savior.

Faith-based and charitable choice remain a cornerstone of Bush's domestic agenda for a variety of reasons: to placate Christian fundamentalists; to further the conservative goal of privatizing public services; to woo black churches and improve his eight percent vote from African Americans in the 2000 elections; and to divert attention from the fact that his administration's focus on a military buildup and tax cuts for the rich leaves little money for social programs.

For the African American community, Bush's faith-based initiative poses particular problems. Many realize the political downsides, but the lure of money is powerful.

Rev. Timothy McDonald, president of the African American Ministers Leadership Council, which has about 60 ministers in 30 states, argues that Bush's faith-based initiative is a clear attempt to silence African American churches and to divert them from their traditional role as a "prophetic voice" for social justice. "They are trying to buy the allegiance of the black church," he says. "And that is to the advantage of the Republican Party, because the black church has been a major thorn in their side."

Although some black churches might receive funds under the faith-based initiative, the major winners will be religious right and fundamentalist churches with connections to Republican power brokers, McDonald notes.

A look at Milwaukee shows how the controversy is playing out in a city where, for more than a decade, Republicans have been experimenting with how to win over the African American community.

Faith Works

It is not surprising that Milwaukee is home to faith-based initiatives. The Bradley Foundation, considered the country's most powerful conservative foundation, is based in Milwaukee and has used the city and state to promote conservative causes. The foundation has found-and funded-allies not only among Republicans but among the city's African American leadership. The Bradley Foundation, under the leadership of former director Michael Joyce, bankrolled Wisconsin's school vouchers and welfare-to-work initiatives, as well as financing overtly racist projects such as Charles Murray's book The Bell Curve.

Faith Works represents another cause Joyce has championed-funneling public money through conservative church organizations. But for such a nationally controversial program, it has maintained a low profile locally. What is most striking about Faith Works is not what it is doing-currently, there are only about seven men at the treatment facility-but what it isn't doing.

Faith Works, for example, is not working with other AODA or religiously based collaborations. It is not setting up a model that can be easily replicated. It is not involving itself in larger policy debates such as the Treatment Instead of Prison campaign by local churches. It is not adhering to the same licensing and certification requirements as other AODA treatment providers. Most of all, it doesn't seem to ask the right questions about why so many people need AODA treatment and what needs to be done to address the problem.

It's hard to escape the conclusion that Faith Works is mostly about a well-connected, well-funded, religiously conservative group whose program is being used to promote initiatives that funnel government dollars to religious fundamentalists committed to proselytizing.

"They [Faith Works] were brought in and set up, period," says Mary Rowland, a pastor at Reformation Lutheran Church who also works on AODA issues with Milwaukee Inner City Congregations Allied for Hope (MICAH), a group that has led the fight for public funding of AODA programs and the Treatment Instead of Prison campaign.

Faith Works, housed in a former convent, was brought to Milwaukee in 1998 and soon after received state funding through the Republican administration of then-Gov. Tommy Thompson, now serving as Bush's Secretary of Health and Human Services. Overall, it has received roughly $1 million in taxpayer dollars through the state's welfare program and the Department of Corrections. This January, U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb struck down the state's use of welfare funds to the program, saying the money constituted "unrestricted, direct funding of an organization that engages in religious indoctrination."

The case made national headlines as the first ruling on lawsuits challenging faith-based experiments originating with then-Sen. John Ashcroft as part of the federal welfare reform act in 1996. According to court documents, Faith Works openly engaged in religious proselytizing, requiring residents to attend prayer sessions and Bible study. Bobby Polito, the original director who left a year ago to work in the Bush administration's faith-based initiative, had distributed to all staff a "Faith Works Statement of Faith" which began, "The essence of this ministry is to develop a community of believers. … We are serving the Lord in evangelistic outreach."

In an indication of how the Supreme Court ruling on school vouchers affects other social programs, on July 29 Judge Crabb upheld the group's programs funded through the Department of Corrections. The corrections money did not go directly to Faith Works but instead was funneled through individuals who voluntarily chose the Faith Works program.

Faith Works has a capacity of 35 beds and since its opening has served about 140 men, most of them African American or Latino. Following the court ruling, recruitment was halted. The new director, Jeff Figgatt, hopes to renew recruitment soon and views the legal issues as more a blip than a fundamental obstacle - especially given the Supreme Court decision on school vouchers.

The organization plans to expand its residential AODA treatment, possibly adding a clinic, literacy/GED programs, and housing for adolescent women too old for foster care.

"Faith Works is not just about AODA," says Figgatt. "It's about helping to restore the community."

Even its critics mute their concerns because the need is so great: why criticize anyone who is trying to make a dent in huge problems of poverty, substance abuse and unemployment? But add in Faith Works' proselytizing with public funds and its vanguard role in Bush's political agenda, and concerns proliferate.

Figgatt says he is not involved in partisan politics and projects a sense of amazement that Faith Works is perceived as part of a conservative Republican political strategy. "We have to get beyond that perspective, that somehow this is a political thing," he says. "We are apolitical and non-partisan."

But for a nominally apolitical group, Faith Works has an impressively well-connected board. The chair is John Hiller, a Republican activist who this spring ran the successful Milwaukee County Executive campaign of Scott Walker, a highly conservative Republican legislator. A founding board member is Republican state Sen. Robert Welch, a conservative who unsuccessfully tried to unseat U.S. Sen. Herb Kohl (Democrat).

The Buyout and the Brainwash

Theresa Thomas Boyd, co-pastor at the non-denominational Christian church Matters of the Heart, argues that Bush's faith-based initiative is being used to win African Americans over to a conservative agenda by portraying the Republican Party as sensitive to the needs of the African American community.

"It's a buy off, but to me it's more of a brainwash," says Thomas Boyd, who is also a community organizer with Wisconsin Citizen Action. "The buy off is the money, and the brainwash is that there's always a different, underlying agenda."

Part of that agenda is to win African Americans over to "a laundry list" of conservative causes, such as anti-abortion and anti-sexual preference. Part is to divide the black community and undercut its ability to fight for a common agenda.

"It is so evident to me that they [the Republicans] are keeping the leaders divided so they don't come together to look at what is really happening. It's a classic divide and conquer. And if you ask me, they're good at it. "

Thomas Boyd notes that school vouchers have fostered significant divisions in the African American community. "We have pastors and churches that don't even speak together, don't have fellowship together, or, even now, talk against each other," she said.

Thomas Boyd fears that, as with school vouchers, the Bush strategy will win converts among some African American churches that are eager for funding to support their programs. Black politicians who think they will improve their power and influence by being on "the winning side" are also susceptible to the Bush strategy. This June, for instance, Milwaukee Alderman Terrance Herron said he would switch to the Republicans because he agreed with their positions on welfare reform, school vouchers, and fiscal matters.

Thomas Boyd also cites the transformation of Howard Fuller, an African American leader who gained prominence 20 years ago in struggles against police brutality and who now describes himself as a "one-issue" person focusing on school vouchers.
Last year at their annual conference, the National Black Caucus of State Legislators debated the implications of the faith-based initiative.

"It was a very contentious discussion, a very hot and heavy session at the conference," remembered Chuck Bremer of the NBCSL. "I do not think this is as much about making good policy as it is a political issue. In my opinion, it is another trick to slip us into vouchers. And you know how gung-ho the Bradley Foundation people are about vouchers, which did not end up helping poor kids in Wisconsin."

Back on the streets of Milwaukee, meanwhile, Easter Dethrow is thousands of miles from Washington's policy debates, doing the best he can to find help for substance abusers. And Bush's faith-based initiative has little to offer.

There's a 30-day wait for men at residential treatment centers and a 60-day wait for women, with a total of only 115 beds funded by the county for low-income residents. Estimates are that 3,000 to 4,000 low-income people in the county seek treatment each year. While Milwaukee County has been able to cobble together about $13 million in AODA treatment programs, the money "does not meet the need," especially for people with children, according to Paul Radomski of the county's Health and Human Services. Nowhere in Bush's faith-based plan is there a call for significant monies for treatment of substance abuse.

For too many, prison seems like the only alternative. As with other states, Wisconsin's prison population has reached record levels because of sentencing requirements that send drug addicts to prison instead of treatment, and because of policing policies that focus on abuse in the central city rather than more affluent suburbs. In the last three years alone, for example, the state's inmate population has risen 14.5 percent, to 25,177. The prison explosion has particularly devastated the African American and Latino communities.

Dethrow knows that treatment works, and that residential treatment works best of all. "But they don't have enough beds for people," he says, shaking his head sadly. "Seems like they're putting more money into corrections."

He tells the story of a woman he knows who is trying to get into treatment. "She told me she might just go and steal something, just to go to jail, 'cause she's tired of using. But that's not right, that's not normal. She needs help, not jail."

Barbara Miner is a journalist based in Milwaukee, WI

Re-printed with permission from Race Wire,


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Issue Number 15
November 4, 2002





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Other commentaries in this issue:

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Bogus Election "Study"
Black Majette vote grossly inflated, analysis reveals By Bruce A. Dixon, Associate Editor

Guest Commentary 1
Harvard Professor Lambasts THE CRISIS Editor
Martin Kilson says magazine bolsters NAACP foe

Guest Commentary 2
Land Struggles and Democracy in Zimbabwe
by Chris Lowe

Wellstone: The best of them all

Permanent war, permanent Uncle Toms
NAACP for peace
Solitary killers and mass muderousness
Prisoners of the American gulag

Belafonte’s courage
Race and war hysteria
Baraka’s verse
Unpaid debt in Zimbabwe

Commentaries in Issue 14 October 17 , 2002:

Permanent War: Permanent State of Emergency

Trojan Horse Watch: Bob Johnson’s message invades Black radio...Rep. Harold Ford: mess of the blue dog...The Trojan Horse TV show

Briefs:The Four Eunuchs of War...The most dangerous game...Smack, Blow, and Blowback...Lethally stupid and more...

IRAQ, WAR & COLOR RACISM: By Dr. David Graham Du Bois, Guest Commentator

A Jewish Peace Activist on Baraka’s Poem: Urban Legends by Rachael Kamel, Guest Commentator

e-MailBox: The Real Rosa Parks...NAACP challenged on war...Plato and the Emperor George...Deceitful billionaire busted...Anglo-Saxon alarmed

RE-PRINT: Harry Belafonte on Colin Powell...CNN Larry King Live Interview with Belafonte

Interview: Educate and Advocate - Henry Nicholas on social justice in America

You can read any past issue of The Black Commentator in its entirety by going to the Past Issues page.