Desmond visit brings attention to Wiley's book, efforts to fight cycles of poverty

April 9, 2019

The following story appeared in The Post-Crescent on April 9, 2019

Desmond's 'Evicted' sets Appleton man on a journey to fight poverty, education shortfalls

APPLETON - You'd be hard-pressed to find someone more invested in Matthew Desmond's upcoming visit to Appleton than John Wiley.

Two years ago, Wiley was so moved by "Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City," the Desmond book chronicling the bleak realities of poverty and housing insecurities in some of Milwaukee's most troubled neighborhoods, that he spent thousands of his own dollars to purchase and distribute the book to community leaders in the Fox Valley in an effort to spur conversations about similarly troubling issues here.

That experience set Wiley, a retired Appleton business executive, on a new journey, one focused on kick-starting a grassroots movement to refocus community and education efforts to give students who struggle in the traditional school setting a better chance at success in adulthood. What began as a series of essays he wrote for himself eventually grew into a book, "Bottom Half Teens: A Caring Community-Driven Solution to Rescue Young Lives Trapped in a Broken System," that lays out a battle plan that calls for, among other things, a massive expansion of apprenticeship programs in high schools, starting as early as a student's sophomore year.

Wiley's book rolled off the presses in early March, and since then he's been a frequent visitor to city, school and community meetings across the Fox Cities and has been knocking on doors of law enforcement, business, nonprofit and government leaders, all the while handing out more than 1,200 free copies of his book and pushing for the start of community conversations on the issues he's raising.

"I've had a very positive response from people who have read the book so far," Wiley says. "In my conversations, people seem open and curious that someone has a values proposal that engages parents, teachers and their students."

The 76-year-old Wiley says his journey started when he read the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Evicted." It opened his eyes to the bleakness for families stuck in the cycle of poverty.

In his book, Wiley credits Desmond for inspiring his new activism. In his book's dedication, Wiley writes that the Desmond book "helped me understand what poverty looks and feels like."

"Evicted" was selected last year as the Fox Cities Reads book, a challenge to the community to read the book and engage collectively in public conversations. As part of the program, overseen by the Fox Cities Book Festival and area public libraries, Desmond will be in the Fox Cities for two days in April. He has two speaking engagements set, the first at 6:30 p.m. April 11 at Menasha High School and the second at 10 a.m. April 12 at the Lawrence Memorial Chapel.

Wiley argues that drastic changes are needed to reach segments of the teenage population that he believes are on the road to the lifetime of poverty that is so starkly illustrated in "Evicted."

He's not so worried about the honor students, the college bound. They'll find their way, Wiley believes. But it's those teens who feel a disconnect at school, who often come from dysfunctional families, who don't see college as an even remotely viable option, that he worries about. With no workplace training, no post-graduation mentoring and no job experience, they're often looking at low-paying service jobs as their only viable options.

Wiley is talking to anyone who will listen. He attended a recent meeting of a task force studying Appleton's next steps for its troubled truancy court and said he was frustrated that no families dealing with truancy were part of the conversations. He handed a copy of the book to the Appleton police chief. He's gotten it into the hands of Appleton Area School District administrators. He's giving them a chance to read it, and hopes it will spur new conversations.

In the book, Wiley calls on businesses and schools to collaborate to give students the ability to opt into a paid apprenticeship program as early as their sophomore year, continuing through graduation.

He envisions a partnership that would start small, perhaps 25 sophomores per school -- in the Fox Cities, that means 11 public high schools -- being accepted into the apprenticeship program the first year, then adding 25 to that number each year for the next 10 years. By that calculation, 6,600 students would be participating by the 10th year.

Wiley envisions the program starting in the Fox Cities, then expanding across Wisconsin and then the nation.

Students who are unmotivated by a traditional school experience and often have grades in the bottom half of their class need another option, Wiley argues. The apprenticeship program given them a chance to learn a skill and get workplace training -- while earning money -- so they are ready to succeed after high school. They'd attend school for part of the day, then work part of the day. It would be a path toward being ready for the job market upon graduation.

"You can't not give kids a chance," Wiley says.

This passion to help those who struggle isn't new to Wiley. He helped launch a Boys and Girls Club in the Fox Cities and once chaired a juvenile violence task force in Appleton. But reading Desmond's powerful "Evicted" lit a fire in him. Someone, he said, needed to step forward. He did. Now he wants others to follow.

Wiley hopes his book is the beginning of a new conversation, a grassroots movement with buy-in from students, parents, schools and employers. The financial cost to taxpayers would be minimal, he says. The investment would come in the needed collaboration and follow-through with the business community.

"It has to be the community," Wiley says of addressing the issues of poverty. "It's our standards, it's our values that allow this to happen."

Wiley's history is that of an entrepreneur and business leader in Wisconsin. He was a teacher for four years in Waukesha before joining chambers of commerce in Oshkosh and then Neenah-Menasha. He then helped found and build the Menasha-based Outlook Graphics, working as part of the management team for three decades. He then owned and operated Elipticon Wood Products in Little Chute. Now he's retired, and looking to spark change that will reap rewards long after he's gone.

"Every kid needs to be loved, every kid needs to be important, every kids needs to be valued," Wiley says. "Every kid needs those things."

Desmond's "Evicted" made him think hard about what we as citizens are willing to tolerate, he says. He's hoping his book will have the same effect on others.

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