A Q&A with Maurice Cheeks
You worked for Apple, then led software sales for the local video game developer Filament Games. What motivated you to run for office?
My background is in technology, education and entrepreneurship, but I ran for office because I suddenly saw the need. In the summer of 2010 I read an article [in Madison Magazine] titled, “Is Madison Wearing Mom Jeans?” and it startled me. I am one of those Millennials who opted to move to Madison not because of a physical job, but primarily because this is where I wanted to live … I knew that if I was going to stay, I wanted to contribute to ensuring that we were not resting on its laurels as the article’s author, Rebecca Ryan, posited. After finding several ways to serve the community through volunteer work, I was encouraged by a friend to consider running for local office as a way to contribute to impacting the city’s future.
You’ve been on the city council for almost two years now, but you’ve also recently taken on a new job, too.
Yes, I was recently hired as the director of the Wisconsin Innovation Network. In this statewide role I work with entrepreneurs, investors, policy makers and other thought leaders to help foster innovation and entrepreneurship throughout Wisconsin. I work closely with leaders in Madison, Milwaukee, Appleton, Ashland, Eau Claire and so many other places where there is a dedication to seeing our state continue to grow its high-tech economy.
How do we develop the next generation of young, civic-minded leaders?
This is actually more straightforward than many people assume it might be. My generation is somewhat skeptical about institutions like government and politics. However, we are eager to do good in our own communities, and we are eager to see the fruit of our labor. One way that I see this in action is through my work on the executive board for the Madison chapter of the New Leaders Council. We work to recruit young people with leadership capacity and train them on how to be civic leaders. Whether it be serving on local boards, running a nonprofit organization, helping with political campaigns or running for office, these young leaders want a seat at the table and they want to work alongside authentic and passionate leaders who they can learn from. This is why we provide these next-generation leaders with mentors who have already had success in the areas that they are interested in.
How is the city council changing and adapting to meet the needs of a twenty-first-century Madison?
In my view, the council is recognizing the pressing need to hold a grand vision for the future of our community …Practically, one change that I see is we have a significant number of alders who are making this their full-time work. This is occurring because many alders are retired or unemployed or have the flexibility to commit over forty hours a week to this $8,000-a-year duty. This trend makes me nervous, as I work to recruit young and diverse people to run to serve alongside me. Getting great people to sign up for this level of sacrificial commitment is not easy. Getting this balance right will be a critical equity issue for the future of our civic leadership.
Why are we seeing such deep racial divides and disparities in Madison?
Madison is not alone here; we are seeing deepening racial and economic divides in most of the country. What is unique is that Madison has all of the pieces to be able to be a national leader in closing these divides. We are one of the initial cities to accept the president’s My Brother’s Keeper challenge, which is a call to action for municipalities to work together to close the opportunity and success gap for minority boys and young men.
I believe that city government has a leadership role to play within the community to convene organizations, identify effective strategies and promote collaboration in an effort to accomplish our shared goal of improving life outcomes for our young people in a measurable way. If you walk through our public schools you will see that Madison’s adult population will look appreciably different in ten to fifteen years. Knowing that, it is great timing for us to be working together right now as a whole city to ensure that Madison is indeed becoming a stronger, more vibrant and more inclusive city than ever before.
Would you ever run for a higher office—county, state, federal?
I never thought I’d be in any elected office. Growing up I wasn’t involved in student government or any college political clubs. Yet, today I find myself in love with local government. As a local elected official I get to help make a community great in all of the ways that people immediately appreciate. When someone thinks about their quality of life, they tend to think of things like safe streets, clean parks, plowed snow, beautiful libraries, good transportation options and strong neighborhoods. It is an absolute thrill to be able to pour my time into the pursuit of improving people’s lives in this way. I can definitely say that I’m planning to run for a second term on the council in the spring of 2015. I don’t pretend to know what the future holds after that.
What would you change about the city?
The first thing that came to mind was the weather, but that is not actually true. I love experiencing all of the seasons. I think Madison could stand to be increasingly ambitious. I want us to believe in ourselves a bit more, be willing to take bigger risks and be more optimistic about our capacity to solve big problems together. I hope that I model that sort of behavior in my own life.
What’s the first thing you do every day?
First thing in the morning I take my dog Trixie outside. From there I typically sit on the back porch for a few minutes while I respond to email on my phone.
What’s recorded on your TV?
I stopped paying for cable and TiVo almost ten years ago, but my wife and I enjoy watching Modern Family and The Good Wife on Netflix and Hulu.
How do you unwind?
By listening to audiobooks while doing work around the house.
It’s 10 a.m. on a Saturday. Where are you and what are you doing?
Probably just leaving the barbershop (JP’s Hair Design) and heading home to make Saturday morning breakfast for my wife and me.