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Leaders focus on challenges for Madison

Zac Brandon, Noble Wray, Jen Cheatham, Maurice Cheeks, Michael Johnson (Photo by Phil Haslanger)

Key leaders from Madison sat on the stage, voices from the business community, the police, the schools, city government and non-profits. They had been asked to define the two top issues facing the community.

The increase in violence and inequality, said Maurice Cheeks, a Madison alder who represents a West Side district that includes prosperous areas like Nakoma and struggling areas like Allied Drive. “If we don’t turn this around, the future of our city does not look good,” he said.

The lack of belonging in our community is the overarching issue for Jen Cheatham, the superintendent of the Madison public schools, including what she called “the exclusion of people of color outside the circle of care and concern.” More specifically, she added, a lack of coordination in services and a need for greater risk taking to have quicker and more nimble responses to needs.

Noble Wray, the former chief of police for Madison, focused on the need for the community to be seen as a “sacred” place, where there is belief in the community for everyone, not just the leaders. Focusing on crime, he said that African American males do not believe that the criminal justice system has justice for them, called for greater personal accountability, echoed Cheatham’s theme of belonging, urged the more holistic approach to drug crimes now taking hold in dealing with opioids, and the need for a collective effort on all these things.

For Zac Brandon, president of the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce, making social mobility possible for more people is an essential need. He said part of that involved personal behavior – education, staying out of trouble, etc. But another part, he said, is systemic, specifically dealing with race in all the various systems that people encounter as they try to move up in the world.

So then Michael Johnson, president of the Boys and Girls Club of Dane County, took the audience into the leadership of the 5,400 businesses in Dane County. For him, a critical issue is the “lack of inclusion, vision and accountability.” He noted the scarcity of people of color on boards, in corporate leadership. Along with that is the failure to invest in meeting the community’s needs: “We know what the issues are, but we refuse to invest in them,” he said. “Where we always fail is in how we fund it.”

Henry Sanders, CEO of Selfless Ambition, asked the panelists what things the church community can do to help.

For the schools, said Cheatham, it involves both money and people. There are $50,000 in unpaid lunch bills, she said. Churches could help cover those. There is a need for tutors (especially tutors of color). Selfless Ambition will recruit volunteers for these based on the areas of greatest need:
● 9th grade Algebra tutors, particularly at La Follette and East High Schools;
● Middle Schools of Hope – tutors in literacy and math, particularly at Sennett, Whitehorse, Blackhawk, Toki, and Cherokee;
● Elementary Schools of Hope – tutors in literacy support, particularly at Mendota, Leopold, Glendale, Allis, Sandburg, and Lincoln.  

Wray called for more listening to neighborhoods, to access information in new ways, to focus on those who can help deter others from crime. Brandon talked about “the power of belief, the power of unity, the power of aspiration” in getting things accomplished,” while Johnson said everyone simply needs to do more.

At the end, Cheeks talked about his biggest fear for the community. “My biggest fear,” he said, “is that when this event is over, it is going to be like every other event that I go to. I’m afraid that our community is going to be complacent. Our city needs you to be discontent with the reality, with the trajectory that we are on.”