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MANDI Awards Feature: The Dominican Center, BMO Harris Cornerstone Award Finalist

By Emma Brauer

The mission of the Dominican Center, is to build a better future for residents of the Amani neighborhood in Milwaukee and begins with the residents themselves. The Executive Director, Sister Patricia Rogers, said this sentiment is at the heart of the organization.

“The biggest thing is — if you’re going to volunteer or even work at the Dominican Center — you have to be willing to involve the residents in all decision-making,” Rogers said. “That says it all for me, because it’s not what we want to do in the community, but the fact that we want to join with the residents for them to be able to do it.”

This resident-led philosophy originated back to the Dominican Center’s founding in 1995. Sisters Ann Halloran and Anne-Marie Doyle wanted to work with women in the Amani neighborhood of Milwaukee to understand their particular needs and support them.

“Bad policies, along with fading economic and employment opportunities, locked people of color in geographic locations and isolated them from education, job opportunities and affordable healthy housing,” Dominican Center’s communications specialist Christina Chronister said. “In addition, years of racial injustice, subpar education, mass incarceration, poor housing and lead poisoning left deep scars in Amani.”

This historical context offers insight into the motivating force behind the Sisters creating the Dominican Center.

“They asked the women what they needed and saw a need to provide female residents of Amani with a means of education to earn their GEDs or HSEDs in order to make a better future for themselves and their families,” Chronister said. “From there, the Sisters listened to residents and expanded their offerings to other women's programs, financial literacy, home ownership and repair education and health and safety programs.”

Over the past 25 years, the Dominican Center has expanded the population it serves to include all residents of the Amani neighborhood, implementing programs such as Amani Youth In Action and the Adult Education Program. Finalized in 2017, the Dominican Center has been working on a Revitalization Plan that has three prongs: safety; education and family well-being; and housing and economic development.

The goal of the Revitalization Plan is “to provide a resident-informed path to an improved quality of life,” according to the Dominican Center’s website. Guided by Amani United, a group of Amani residents committed to the vitality of their community, this plan seeks to foster peace, cultivate in families a sense of wellness and desire to learn, and promote a healthy infrastructure.

The approach to implement these goals aligns with the resident-first philosophy of the Dominican Center. The emphasis is on communication among the neighborhood and the confidence of residents to take on leadership positions across community projects. In 2019, the Dominican Center and Amani locals distributed 250 “Slow Down” signs to advocate for safe roads, held 11 clean-up service days to engage residents in the care of their public spaces, enrolled 52 students in the Adult Education Program, and facilitated the purchasing of lead water filters for 57% of the neighborhood.

The staff and volunteers organize their efforts toward projects that demonstrate concrete effects. At the same time, they make sure that anyone beginning to work for the Dominican Center understands that the lifeblood of the organization is the residents, who are empowered to take ownership of what happens in their community and to drive change.

“People come in, and they have ideas about what is needed and about how to solve it,” Rogers said. “So, really learning how to listen to and talk with the residents and allowing them to go through the learning process is a real change for volunteers that come in.”

The Dominican Center provides the resources and platform for Amani community members to mobilize around the matters they find most pressing. Rogers said this idea is what she and the organization hope to draw attention to with the MANDI Awards exposure.

“It gives a chance for people to really hear and understand what it means to be resident-led, and I think a lot of organizations do not understand that,” Rogers said. “So, to try and get that concept out is very important.”

The Dominican Center is celebrating its rich history with a 25-year anniversary luncheon May 3. For more information, visit https://www.dominican-center.org/.