Jim Gaillard, born and raised in Milwaukee, left his lower northside community in his teens to attend Oshkosh High School, as part of an academic talent search program called A Better Chance (ABC). He and 11 other students recruited from across the nation (DC, NY, NJ, and Chicago), lived in all-white communities. They studied together, played basketball together, and today—while they are spread all over the country—remain in contact with one another.
“Going from an all-black, lower-class community to living in a mostly white, middle-class community, was quite an experience, but it’s one that helped me assimilate and navigate in the world. I wouldn’t trade it for anything. And, the bond that I and the nine other guys and one young lady forged during those high school years is one that can never be broken. We learned to support, encourage and depend on each other,” he said.
Jim attended Marquette University, but ended up dropping out during his junior year, to later pursue a career in the trades. Always good at mathematics, he became an apprentice electrician with the City of Milwaukee and progressed to journeyman electrician. He is now a master electrician and the co-owner of Pyramid Electric, sole proprietor of WHIRE Electric and vice president of a non-profit organization called Ezekiel Community Development Corporation—Project Hope (Ezekiel CDC).
Today, he and partner, Don Utech, operate Ezekiel CDC. The program trains workers in the construction trades, including electrical, plumbing, and carpentry, and pays trainees while they are learning. They rehab boarded-up inner city homes which are, in turn, sold to first-time homeowners. Profits from the home sales are used to purchase other homes to rehab. An important component of the program is that many of the workers are or have been incarcerated and receive training through a work release partnership with the Wisconsin House of Corrections. Inmates learn job skills that, once released, enable them to seek employment that pays family- sustaining wages.
Jim’s passion for the program is a labor of love. He’s made connections with the Mayor, Common Council members, community leaders and business partners, but one of his proudest moments was giving his life to Christ and getting baptized because he attributes his transformation to God.
“There’s so much that I want to accomplish in this city. Too many of people in our community— especially our young people—have no hope. No one has ever poured into their lives, told them they were significant, or showed them a better way of life. I want to give hope to as many of them as I can. I want to motivate and encourage them, and expose them to a lifestyle they never knew existed. I can’t pay God back, for God has everything and can do anything, but I felt in my spirit that He has groomed me to ‘pay it forward’ to others because of where He has delivered me from,” he said.
Ezekiel—Project Hope is also part of the team that is working to revitalize the Amani neighborhood. The Amani Housing Strategy, an initiative developed in partnership with residents and community partners – including Northwestern Mutual, LISC, Dominican Center, Amani United, Milwaukee Christian Center, and Ezekiel CDC is addressing the need for quality and affordable housing in the neighborhood, located just northwest of downtown. The plan is designed to improve existing and new housing stock and expand the range of quality developments in the neighborhood. The plan will be piloted on a single block which began this past summer and continue through 2020, to not only ‘spruce up’ the neighborhood, but an important component is referring individuals to participate in the job training component.
“The Amani Housing Strategy will not only improve the physical infrastructure of the Amani neighborhood, but our goal is to help instill a sense of community among residents, with the goal of improving safety, health and economic opportunities for individuals living in the area.”
“It’s not enough to go into a neighborhood, paint a few porches, repair a few roofs and leave. There are real needs within some Milwaukee neighborhoods. We are grateful to the commitment of our partners who realize that a neighborhood revitalization project doesn’t just involve buildings but understand that revitalization efforts must engage the people living there. We are also working with residents to train them in the trades with the goal of helping them earn family-sustaining wages. The ultimate outcome would be to see them not only invest their own dollars into the area, but become homeowners, taking care of their properties,” he said.