After a week of criticism over a policy which would have stopped volunteers from responding to emergencies on-site in certain areas, the Red Cross says they've rescinded the policy.
In a press conference Wednesday, Mayor Tom Barrett announced the change.
"I thought it was in the Red Cross's best interest and community's best interest for them to rescind the policy," Barrett said. "When [Patty Flowers] called me earlier today to give me the news, I was obviously very pleased."
The policy originally drew criticism because the ZIP codes selected were in predominantly black and Latino neighborhoods. Barrett says this was a misstep by the organization not meant to discriminate.
"Initially they made a decision and they didn't understand the ramifications of the decision and how it would be perceived," Barrett said. "I believe Patty and the organization were working out of good will. They recognized this is not what they intended with how it was perceived."
The original policy had the public concerned about the Red Cross's motives. It also raised concerns from the organization's partners.
"This recent activity on their part is very concerning to us," said Nicole Angresano, Vice President for Community Impact with the United Way of Greater Milwaukee and Waukesha County.
Angresano says they donated nearly $900 thousand dollars last year to the Red Cross. She calls them a "tremendous partner" and believes the policy had no malcontent.
However, she thinks the decision may have been poorly thought out.
"We're very concerned about the racial implications and quite frankly, the ZIP codes that were picked are going to impact the most at risk, most critically underserved communities in this area," Angresano said. "We've been very explicit with the Red Cross about our concerns around this."
Angresano says if the policy was not changed, the United Way board would have had serious conversations about the future of their partnership with the Red Cross. However, with the backtrack on the policy, she's happy they're fixing things and admitting they made a mistake.
"It sends the right message that none of us, not even the United Way, is perfect and makes decisions without error," Angresano said. "Sometimes we have to take a step back, reflect on what we're hearing from the community and acknowledge, maybe we just missed the mark. [They] didn't do it for the reasons that are maybe being attributed to [them] but [they] erred in [their] judgment. [They didn't have enough community feedback before [they] made this choice. Now, [they're] going to right this ship. I think that shows a lot of integrity on the part of the Red Cross."
The Red Cross denied an interview today after rescinding the policy but Flowers, the regional CEO, released the following statement:
"In an effort to continue to serve people affected by home fires, we recently implemented new procedures in Milwaukee that we now understand were insensitive to the communities we serve. We apologize for this mistake and will immediately return to the way we have responded to home fires in the past, consistent with American Red Cross practices and values nationwide. While the resource constraints we have are real, and we have experienced a shortage of volunteers, we will redouble our efforts to recruit more volunteers and work with local leaders to help us do that. The Red Cross will continue to help people in need after a home fire as soon as possible regardless of zip code."
Barrett says they'll do whatever they can do to help increase volunteers for the community to ensure all residents get the same treatment regardless of where they live.
"I think this is positive," Barrett said. "I think our community has an understanding now that the Red Cross needs more volunteers in order to serve the City of Milwaukee and surrounding areas. We're asking people to step forward and contact the Red Cross so that they can serve as volunteers at the scene of fires."