In Milwaukee, Building a Movement for Justice, Driven by Young People

  • Building a Movement for Justice

A youth-led campaign is showing us what it looks like to divest from the police budget, and invest in a community’s priority solutions.

By Shaquana Boykin, OYUnited-SparkAction Digital Engagement Fellow

How do we support system-impacted young people? Provide them opportunities that will change their lives! It takes intentional investments that can provide young people the tools that they need to make the necessary transformation they desire. It’s not rocket science. Just a desire to know they are all worth it!” 

– Youth Justice Milwaukee, Dec 10, 2021 Facebook Post

“Defund the police” has become a powerful, and sometimes controversial, call-in for communities and states across the country, but what does it really look like to divest from law enforcement budgets and instead invest in community priorities? 

The Milwaukee OYUnited Community Action Team (CAT), known as Urban Underground Milwaukee, has been working to show what investing in non-law-enforcement responses can look like through advocacy and organizing with their youth justice initiative: Youth Justice Milwaukee (YJM). 

To learn more about their work and the wins in Milwaukee, I talked with Darrin Madison, an OYUnited Community Leader in Milwaukee who supported the campaigns to divest from police and invest in communities.  He gave me a little glimpse into the OYUnited CAT team and its members’ passion and determination to provide access and support to all Opportunity Youth.   

To Madison and his peers in the CAT, defunding the police doesn’t just mean reducing police force, it means investing in communities to create and restore pathways to jobs, opportunity, and health. It means funding solutions that young people and adult allies identify as most pressing. 

“[Our goal is] building power for the movement to close youth prisons, and bigger conversations about what young people need and where we are investing as a community,” Madison said. 

Although every community is different, and has differing levels of local and state funding, the CAT is learning from cities and communities in the country about what is working and efforts to achieve their goals in a youth-led social justice campaign. Through their membership in the OYUnited community, and in the Youth First National Network, they are able to share lessons and questions with other communities and young leaders. 

YJM coalition is a collective of people who were incarcerated as youth, the families of those who were or are currently incarcerated as youth, local advocates, and national justice experts that was formed in 2016 to address the current crisis with youth prisons in Wisconsin.

To understand the work YJM has done around youth justice in Milwaukee, we must understand the local demographics. The state’s biggest city, Milwaukee, has a population of over 600,000. It is also the most racially segregated city in the country. Milwaukee currently ranks fourth among major cities in the US in for child poverty (43 percent of its children live at or below the poverty definition) 

YJM uses data, storytelling, policy advocacy and the power of partnerships and activism to achieve its goals. They supported LiberateMKE’s successful campaigns in 2019 and 2020 to reduce Milwaukee’s police budget and instead, invest in community programs. 

In the 2021 budget, the fruits of their collective organizing include the reduction of 120 police officer positions, with funds going to non-law-enforcement supports, and $2.9 million for a program to increase affordable housing by funding alternative homeownership programs, such as down payment assistance and shared-equity models including cooperative models. 

According to the LiberateMKE  2021 Campaign Impact recap, “Over 80 community partners and individuals signed on to our letter and the Common Council unanimously voted on a resolution to create a non-police response to mental health.” 

This builds on “Milwaukee Defunding the Police Efforts” in 2019 that reduced the 2020 police budget by $900,000 and increased funding for summer jobs for young people, affordable quality housing, and non-police community violence prevention services. The coalition’s budget wins included:  

  • $72,000 to increase the hourly wages of 130 Earn and Learn Summer Youth; 
  • $300,000 to create an emergency housing program for people who are displaced by lead hazards, domestic violence, homelessness, or sex work; and  
  • $240,000 to the Health Department to implement the Birthing Moms Pilot Project, to protect families from the hazards of lead in homes and water.  

(For more information, see 2020 LiberateMKE Successes [PDF]).  

YJM’s work advocating for changes to the city budget also builds on their earlier success advocating with a coalition to close youth detention facilities Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake High Schools. In 2018, Milwaukee Act 185 was introduced and passed unanimously by the Wisconsin State Legislature. This bill did several things, including ordering that the Lincoln Hills/Copper Lake youth incarceration facility be closed by July 1, 2021.  

Now, the CAT and its allies are working to make sure that the state does not simply replace a troubled youth prison with facilities that are similar to prisons, and instead support young people better, to reduce contact with law enforcement, and focus on non-police mental health responses.  

YJM continues to push for:  

  • Expansion of 24-hour school, work, and community-based services that respond to what youth need before harm is done;
  • Increased use of restorative practices to avoid prosecution or reduce confinement; 
  • Full implementation of practice models that align with brain science regarding emerging adulthood; 
  • Elimination of policy and practice that contribute to the criminalization of poverty; and  
  • Ongoing accountability to youth, staff, and community through intergovernmental 

cooperation and transparency. 

“We over invest in security and police officers and minimally in school social workers and psychologists, which are imperative for young people. There are so many young people that are, thanks to the current structure of how we have invested in education, being pushed out of schools into our streets and into crime,” says Darrin Madison. 


Youth Justice Milwaukee

Youth Justice Milwaukee (YJM) is an initiative of Urban Underground, and was formed in 2016 to address the growth of youth prisons in Wisconsin, and the impact of incarceration on young people, families, and communities.   YJM seeks to learn from and incorporate models and approaches from other jurisdictions and states that have closed youth prisons and replaced them with better, fairer, and more cost-effective continuums of services for young people who met the youth legal system. YJM is a collective of members who were incarcerated as youth, the families of those who were or are currently incarcerated as youth, local advocates for youth, and national experts on youth justice. 

Urban Underground, the OYUnited Community Action Team (CAT) in Milwaukee, was founded in 2000 and joined the OYUnited Community Action Team network in 2019. Urban Underground promotes the next generation of leaders committed to building safe and sustainable communities. They advance their mission through youth-led social justice campaigns in the areas of health, education, public safety and youth justice reform.  

For more information on the Milwaukee CAT, visit their landing page on 

Related Links:  

A passionate advocate and youth organizer, Shaquana Boykin works closely with the SparkAction team to enhance Opportunity Youth United’s digital presence by producing content, coordinating social media, and launching creative events and activations.

Darrin Madison, an OYUnited Community Leader in Milwaukee who supported the campaigns to divest from police and invest in communities.

© 2018 Opportunity Youth United