NASW Wisconsin Chapter Statement on Milwaukee Unrest, Police Shooting of Sylville Smith

The National Association of Social Workers Wisconsin Chapter is saddened by the violence, disorder and destruction that took place in the Sherman Park neighborhood of Milwaukee.

Sherman Park has always been a neighborhood where residents of different racial, ethnic and religious backgrounds worked together for the overall benefit of the community.

We grieve over the loss of the life of Sylville Smith and offer our condolences to his family.

We offer healing prayers to those community members and police officers injured in the weekend violence.

We are also saddened for the businesses that were destroyed both for the impact on the employees and owners and for the community members who used these businesses.

As social workers we understand, though do not condone, how anger and frustration over lack of employment opportunities, overall poverty, lack of decent and affordable housing, poor schools, minimal family support, disrespect and mistreatment from some police officers and some community business owners and other conditions can lead to violence.

We also recognize that many in the community have experienced trauma that impacts their ability to function effectively in their community.

We all need to listen and hear each other’s pain and experiences and come together to develop ways to improve the community.

To heal this neighborhood and other challenged areas of Milwaukee, we urge our elected officials and other community leaders to address the underlying issues that fuel a sense of hopelessness and despair, which can lead to violence.

We urge city, county and state government to invest in the people of Milwaukee by promoting family supporting  jobs, excellent schools, decent and affordable housing  and a police force that is the best trained in our state to work with diverse communities and crisis including mental health crisis situations.

Universal home visitation programs for first time parents, universal pre-school, comprehensive culturally responsive mental health and substance abuse treatment services, mentors and other supports for children and youth are other programs that can strengthen the community.

Institutional racism and implicit bias in institutions and individuals interacting and serving these communities also needs to be addressed.

We all need to listen and hear each other’s pain and experiences and come together to develop ways to improve the community.
Let’s hope that this weekend of violence and destruction can lead to soul searching and actions on a city, county and state level to address and change attitudes and public policies in order to provide a pathway to empowered and healthy neighborhoods throughout Milwaukee.

MarcherstadMarc Herstand MSW CISW
Executive Director
National Association of Social Workers, Wisconsin Chapter


  1. Hm. Just curious if I would hear this kind of approach applied by the social work profession to the violence of domestic abusers – without ‘condoning’ their abuse, the approach should be to understand the pain and frustration that causes them to lash out against their partners and address the social structures that cause them that pain. Let’s all ‘hear the pain’ these abusers experience. Did I get that right?

    What I’m curious about is how anybody really knows exactly what is going on in the mind of someone who’s torching a car or a business. How do we know it’s out of ‘pain and frustration’ instead of ‘just for kicks and because I can’? Where I live, we’ve had a string of arsons of sheds, garages and one home. Most likely by a white person, given the demographics around here. I haven’t heard any local social workers suggest we should try to understand the arsonist’s ‘pain and frustration’. Maybe they’re just not up on the latest professional stance on such issues.

  2. Well stated, Dave! I fully agree each person should be accountable to themselves and others.

    This statement is written from the heart and is well-intentioned.

    Marc, I am confused as to what you mean by “universal home visitation for first-time parents”–does this mean first-time parents would be required to allow the State to enter their homes and dictate how they treat their baby? Is this an accepted practice anywhere in the United States? If so, what outcomes have been demonstrated as a result of this invasion of the State into private lives?

    Also, what do you mean by “universal pre-school”? Does this require parents to send their children to only government-run public pre-schools? Would private VPK and other pre-schools be allowed to continue to offer their services? Are you opposed to home schooling, Montessori schools and faith-based pre-schools?

    • I agree that the looting and destruction is wrong and sends a terrible message. However, the underlying message that is not being received is that we refuse to hear the pain these people are feeling. We need to give each and every person out there protesting a chance to have their voices heard. On national TV. Interview them. And we need to ask not only about their pain over this incident. America needs to hear and understand what they experience every day in their lives. There is a belief out there that racism and discrimination doesn’t exist anymore. Its not true. And until we as a nation recognize the marginalization and discrimination that minorities face today and in the very recent past, we cannot understand the level of frustration that leads to these incidents. Do we need to hold people accountable? Yes. But just throwing people in jail for looting and destruction does nothing to actually solve the problem. If it the stand alone action, it will just serve to further inflame the issue.

    • Yael,

      Thank you for your heart-centered post. Yes, we do need to listen to their pain and anger. We also need for the government-run social welfare programs, schools and other resources to conduct quantitative analysis of their current outcomes in order to improve their services (which apparently are not meeting the needs of the frustrated people).

      I also understand the need to reform our corrections systems. From listening to friends recently released from prison, there is a need for trades-based education, personal growth and discharge planning/continuity of care for those incarcerated.

      If we truly care about helping people, then we need to find the best ways to do so, rather than repeating the current processes that are garnering these results.

  3. Agreed, there is a lot of work to be done to improve the conditions of this very broken system. However, I believe it starts with establishing law and order within the communities. Looting and pillaging have no place in a civilized society. This behavior, there is NO EXCUSE! To date, there have been NO consequences for this lawless and reckless behavior. That sets a very bad example for our future generations. Hold government officials accountable…YES! Hold city officials/public servants/police accountable…YES! Hold civilians accountable, for their burning of stores, assault of others, their inciting of violence…YES! This behavior is absurd and unacceptable. Lets work together to heal an extremely fractured system! Peace!

    • Dave, thank you for your common sense approach to holding EVERYONE accountable for their behavior. I am a survivor of sexual abuse, does that give me the right to behave violently toward men and a system that failed to help me? Of course not! We must not continue to rationalize conscious decisions to hurt others. Getting to the root of the issue is important but holding people accountable is what a civilized society does to maintain balance and order.

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