George Hinton and Jennifer Harris hope the SDC’s Institute on Poverty & Systemic Racism will help influence policy change. (Photos provided by Social Development Commission

This story was originally published by Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service, where you can find other stories reporting on fifteen city neighborhoods in Milwaukee. Visit

After realizing that the work it has been doing is not the work it was created for, the Social Development Commission, or SDC, started working to restructure itself.

The first step in the organization’s restructuring is taking a new approach to its research arm with the Institute on Poverty & Systemic Racism.

According to Wisconsin statute, the SDC was created to “study, analyze and recommend solutions for the major social, economic and cultural problems which affect people residing or working within the local government unit.”

But over the years, the commission started focusing on meeting the immediate needs of the community.

“We were told straight out that we weren’t doing what we were supposed to be doing,” said George Hinton, the CEO of the Social Development Commission. “And so, the board went into a strategic planning session and heard historically what we were supposed to do, and we concluded that we’re doing little to nothing that was supposed to be done as a commission. SDC has got the weird name Social Development Commission because in fact, it is the commission on poverty.”

Through the institute, the SDC hopes to get back to its roots and influence policy change.

“We understand that the transactional services we are known for are vital to our community, so we won’t stop them,” Hinton said. “But we are shifting energy to focus on research that can create transformational change.”

The SDC offers career, education, emergency and financial services such as G.E.D classes and emergency rent assistance, among services.

The institute’s first project, Dismantling Racism Invigorating Equity Together, will examine the impact of structural racism on Milwaukee’s African American community.

According to Jennifer Harris, the institute’s research and policy manager, the project has been three years in the making and is the result of ongoing conversations between it and its academic collaborators at Marquette, the Medical College of Wisconsin and UWM regarding solutions to the traumatic stress commonly found among urban residents in Milwaukee and other cities.

“Our goal with this study is to gather data that illustrates the challenges and needs faced by Milwaukee’s African American community, particularly in impoverished neighborhoods,” said Harris, who will oversee the institute. “Ultimately, the data we collect will be used to evaluate how our programming here at the SDC is meeting the African American community’s needs in addition to informing elected leaders how changes to public policy can address challenges faced in the community.”

The project will survey residents of Milwaukee’s inner city to gather information about individual life experiences, their health status and their living environment. African Americans ages 18 and older who live in Milwaukee are welcome to inquire about participating in the research study. Participants will be reimbursed for their time.

“You can’t take the person out of the context of their lived experience when treating them,” said Terri deRoon-Cassini, a professor in the Division of Trauma & Acute Care Surgery in the Department of Surgery at the Medical College of Wisconsin and principal investigator on the new study, in a news release. “Not everyone has the same lived experience. If we’re going to achieve equity in health outcomes, we need to understand the different environments and different experiences that everyone has in life and the impact those differences have on people and their health.”

Harris and Hinton hope that the work of the institute will be a beacon for change in Milwaukee and surrounding cities.

“We’re taking the engineer’s approach to problems in the city by breaking them down to the root,” Hinton said. “So rather than giving someone services when they’re released from prison, we want to make sure they never end up there in the first place.”

Because there are other research institutes in the city, the group said it hopes to complement what’s already being done in that sphere.

“We aren’t creating new research, we’re going to be taking research from around the world – it’s already been done – and bringing it to Milwaukee,” said Harris. “So, we don’t have to start from scratch. We just validate that the model fits into what we see. People are doing much better in certain areas across the world than we’re doing in the United States so we can pull that in and start using that to build models for us.”

For more information

For more information on the Institute on Poverty & Systemic Racism or its first project, you can visit

If you’d like to participate in the study, you can follow opportunities on SDC’s social media.