This month I attended Madison Magazine’s Best of Madison Business Awards luncheon, an annual event that honors local movers and shakers who’ve displayed leadership and innovation and worked hard to help make the community a better place to live and work.
Along with the awards there is a panel discussion with the honorees about their careers and about what’s happening in greater Madison. While it’s always great to hear stories of successful people and celebrate their work and efforts, I often find myself waiting for something to be said that really grabs people’s attention at gatherings like these. Something that resonates long after the event is over.
I think I heard it this month.
For the first time at a business-related event, I heard local leaders on stage talk about the academic achievement gap in Madison. It was not just a sentence or a couple of comments before moving on to the next topic, but a real, lengthy discussion about what I believe is the biggest issue in our community today.
Don’t get me wrong; the achievement gap, in which African-American and Latino students are graduating in significantly fewer numbers than their white counterparts, is what a lot of folks are talking about. But up until now we’ve heard mostly from educators, non-profits, community activists and civil rights organizations.
While various business leaders have rolled up their sleeves and become involved in solutions, this was the first time I had ever heard the issue discussed openly and at length by a panel of business leaders in a room full of CEOs, vice presidents and other prominent business men and women. We should all be happy about that, because it sends a powerful message that Madison’s business community understands how important this issue truly is. They know that the future of Madison is at stake, and that it’s time for action.
With all of the discussions about who’s idea is right and which achievement gap strategy is the best one, we consistently overlook the very people that this issue affects the most: the students themselves. They are our future CEOs, VPs, business owners and business men and women. They are the ones that we need to serve. And when a significant part of our population is not being served, it affects all of us.
In other words, if kids aren’t graduating high school and moving on to higher education or learning a skill or trade, our families, schools and neighborhoods suffer. This also means our businesses suffer if we don’t have young people that are prepared and ready to fill good-paying jobs that can help them buy a home, raise a family and build wealth. The business leaders on the panel made those points loud and clear.
Understand that my criticism is not because I dislike Madison. It’s quite the opposite; I love this community. It is a great place that has been very good to me in the more than 20 years that I have lived here. I’ve seen what we can do when people work together for a common goal. I’ve seen the innovation. And I have seen the business community grow and thrive here as well.
We’re not perfect—no community is. But we have the talent and know-how to effectively address the achievement gap. It means that all of us: students, parents, schools, non-profits, civic and business leaders need to get serious and focused. We need more discussions like I heard last week. But we have to put those words into action. NOW.
We can do this, Madison.