Age of change in Madison

A look at a few initiatives that have launched...
Age of change in Madison
Proud and progressive: (L–R) Tenah Hunt, Torry Winn, Erica Nelson, Michelle Robinson and Wenona Wolf.

In October 2013, Madison, Wisconsin, was dealt a tremendous blow.

With the release of the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families’s Race to Equity Report, the proud, progressive city learned it had once again come in number one, but this time in the most devastating way: The data revealed Madison was one of the worst places in the country to live for people of color.

“The assumption going in was that there would be disparities,” says Erica Nelson, the project’s director. “I did not expect, and the Race to Equity team did not expect, that they would be so vast. And so striking. Or in every single category or domain that we looked at.”

Two years earlier, Nelson, a Wisconsin native and University of Wisconsin-Madison alumna who lived much of her life on the East Coast, had just begun thinking about her alma mater city’s racial divide. She’d come back to Madison intending to work as a state public defender at a time when civic leader Kaleem Caire’s Madison Prep School proposal was hotly debated, making the achievement gap regular front-page news. Her attorney friends were all buzzing about the 2009 Disproportionate Minority Contact Report, and other similarly damning data such as the Urban League’s The State of Black Madison 2008 missive. Nelson had interned at the WCCF in college and was familiar with its Kids Count Data Book for the Annie E. Casey Foundation. So she approached the agency with her idea to get all this information in one place and dig in–but it wasn’t just straight number crunching. For at least nine months, as they collected the data, Nelson and her colleagues went out to talk with the affected minority communities about the findings.

“We sort of bridged the quantitative with qualitative, so it was a combination of both data and listening to people’s lived experience,” says Nelson, who estimates her team spoke with up to seven hundred community members over nine months before the Race to Equity report was released. “And I think that it wasn’t something that the African American community didn’t know. In fact, they knew the data themselves, and they were experiencing various poor outcomes as compared to whites in many cases, and they were aware of that. I think it was the broader white community that was completely unaware of what was taking place and what the dynamic was.”

But that shock sparked an awakening, an arguably unprecedented level of countywide motivation, engagement and collaboration. In the past two years since the report’s release, there’s been clear movement toward solutions on multiple fronts, spanning schools and colleges, businesses, governments, organizations, faith-based groups and average citizens. It has sparked an age of change.

Companies and nonprofits have restructured their core values and strategic plans to reflect equity and inclusion as priorities. The 2015 election season drew more candidates of color than ever before and city voters elected the first two African American females to the Common Council. A mayoral debate centered on racial equity and was infamously interrupted by the Young, Gifted and Black coalition, whose organization has influenced Madison to keep its focus on racial injustice, particularly within the criminal justice system. Pastor Alex Gee wrote his now-famous “Justified Anger” think piece for the Capital Times, catalyzing the Justified Anger Coalition and its Our Madison plan. The plan focused on education, economic development, incarceration, family and community wellness, and leadership capacity and development. Dane County executive Joe Parisi launched his Access to Opportunity initiative and announced an expansive four-year plan to increase racial equity. The City of Madison established a Racial Equity and Social Justice initiative “as a core principle in all of its decisions, policies and functions.” Madison Region Economic Partnership, or MadREP, unveiled the Madison Region’s Workplace Diversity and Inclusion Survey to give companies an annual measure and tools to do better. A new nonprofit news website, Madison365, was launched to cultivate more writers of color to tell stories long underrepresented by white media. All of these efforts, and so many more, are a direct result of the Race to Equity’s damning findings.

“My guess would be there have been maybe forty or fifty new initiatives around equity in the last two years,” says Nelson. “I’ve been meaning to come up with a really long list and catalogue it all. I think that would be really important to provide to the community and say, listen, it’s going to take a long time to make improvements in terms of the numbers. But this is the first step and we’re taking it on, as a community. We’re taking this challenge on.”


The YWCA of Madison exists for this very reason–its tagline is “Eliminating Racism, Empowering Women”–and the organization has a long history of racial justice work with community partners, including WCCF. In fact, it was at the 2013 YWCA Racial Justice Summit that WCCF released the Race to Equity report. Since then, it has been inundated with requests for help.

“The YWCA has been doing some sort of racial justice training for almost fifteen years now,” says Colleen Butler, YWCA Madison racial justice director. “But in the last two years, the demand for that training has kind of gone through the roof.”

In response, the YWCA held four trainings for about seventy-five volunteers with the intention of empowering community members. It also developed the Race to Equity Toolkit, a series of free resources for anyone–book groups, church groups, PTOs, office committees–looking for specific training to facilitate conversations.

“We’ve had people from all over the place. People who work for the school district, interested community members, people from faith communities,” says Butler. “We’re a pretty small team here doing the racial justice trainings and we just didn’t have the capacity to meet the demand, and so our goal was to increase the capacity so there were more people in the community who could help support the conversations that people were wanting to have.”

Businesses in particular have relied on the YWCA’s resources in the report’s aftermath. Scores of local companies and organizations have put their employees through some sort of YWCA racial justice training, whether individually or as part of networking and civic groups. Downtown Rotary Inc., for example, launched its Large Impact Project in 2015, utilizing the YWCA’s Creating Equitable Organizations, known as CEO. The training program takes a cohort of twelve Rotary businesses through the process of identifying clear ways they can create more diverse and inclusive work cultures and develop strategic planning initiatives. The Madison Police Department went through YWCA’s CEO training and, in the fall of 2015, a Dane County grant allowed the YWCA to extend this four-hour training session to law enforcement personnel in Sun Prairie, Middleton and Fitchburg as well. And for the October 2015 Racial Justice Summit, keynote speaker Rachel Godsil of the Perception Institute, who is a national expert on implicit bias, flew in a day early to conduct a large training session with Dane County law enforcement, MPD and others who work in the criminal justice system. Another keynote speaker, Shakil Choudhury, spent a pre-conference day with the Madison Area Diversity Roundtable to discuss implicit bias and talk about ways that the membership organizations could continue their work around creating inclusive organizations. Butler is also encouraged by the racial equity impact assessment tools that both the city and county governments have integrated into their work because, she says, real, sustainable change needs to come at the policy level.

“I think that we are taking really critical steps in the right direction, but it takes a long view. And I think that’s hard for people, because there is a sense of urgency around this, as there should be. But we can’t throw things out if they don’t work in the first year because it takes a really long time to truly move the needle in sustainable ways,” says Butler, who’s worked at the YWCA for fifteen years. “But I do believe that there is more community momentum, there’s more commitment, than I’ve ever seen.”


When the Race to Equity report was published in the fall of 2013, it coincided with another critical release: the Madison Metropolitan School District’s new Strategic Framework, the MMSD’s approach to raising student achievement and narrowing or closing achievement gaps. According to superintendent Jen Cheatham, who was then in the first year of her term, the timing couldn’t have been better.

“In many respects, when it came to the education metrics in the Race to Equity report, I don’t think anything especially surprised us because we had been so closely examining our own data and had created an approach to address it. I think it was, if anything, kind of wonderfully reinforcing of the direction that we were headed in,” says Cheatham of the strategic framework plan, which outlined five priority areas: coherent instruction; personalized pathways; family, youth and community engagement; thriving workforce; and accountability and school support systems. “Literally every action we’re taking that’s articulated in the strategic framework is an action we’re taking to address racial disparities, plain and simple. There’s nothing in it that is not related to that goal.”

MMSD’s 2014-2015 annual report details the district’s targeted focus on systemic equity over the past two years since both reports were released. The purpose of the schools reports was intended to be far more operational and measurable than “simply launching myriad initiatives.” Cheatham says the district has worked closely with the YWCA to help as many people as possible better understand the racial disparities that exist with a focus on repairing harm, building positive relationships and a positive school climate. Just raising that awareness, she says, has been critically important. MMSD has also made a concentrated effort to engage with families on a deeper level, reaching out to groups such as the African American Parents Leadership Council. Internally, the district has revamped its approach to creating and selecting principals and screening teacher selection, realigning its compass at every turn to one with equity and diversity.

“We’re intentionally identifying talented staff of color who want to become teachers someday and working with them to get their teaching licenses,” says Cheatham, “as well as recruiting our own students to become future teachers.” In the summer of 2015, MMSD and the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Education, in a partnership known as Forward Madison (supported in part by a $1.2 million grant from CUNA Mutual Foundation), launched its TEEM Scholars program, in which eleven high school sophomores are preparing to enter UW-Madison and become teachers, with guaranteed employment at MMSD when they return. The program also provides mentoring support for every new teacher in the district plus leadership coaching for new principals. And with its planned Personalized Pathways program, intended to expose students to viable careers, coursework has been revamped. The priorities focus on career exploration, eighth and ninth graders develop individualized academic career plans, and local businesses can sign up to provide students with workplace opportunities such as internships. These partnerships with area businesses, government boards like Workforce Development, organizations such as the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce and schools, including Madison College, are critically important because it’s about far more than graduation rates, says Cheatham. These are workforce development and economic development strategies. So far the results are promising, with ACT participation rates higher than ever, English language learners showing improvement on almost every metric and the four-year graduation rate for African American students at La Follette High School increasing to 75.3 percent.

“I think the other thing that was really powerful about the report was it showed all of us that the disparities that exist in Madison and Dane County are not just related to education. They existed across virtually every metric, from health to incarceration rates, which helped us understand that we’re part of a much bigger societal challenge,” says Cheatham. “We often say that we have an incredibly important responsibility, but we cannot do it alone.”


When Dane Buy Local executive director Colin Murray approached MMSD in 2014 to brainstorm how member businesses could work with students of color to eliminate disparities, he learned he wasn’t alone in his desire to do something. Anything.
“They laughed and said they had this exact same conversation yesterday with Downtown Madison, Inc.,” says Murray, adding that officials told him they’d work on a plan and get back to him. Murray expected he’d hear something in maybe six months. “Six weeks later she calls and says: ‘We’re ready.'”

That first year, ten local businesses participated in MMSD’s Workplace Learning and Entrepreneurship Initiatives, offering students opportunities such as internships, mock interviews and career presentations. At a November 2015 Dane Buy Local breakfast meeting at Turner Hall, MMSD announced it had increased its program to thirty opportunities for local businesses and developed a website for companies and organizations to more quickly match themselves with students.

“Their goal is, within four years, that each student that graduates will have gone through some type of internship at the high school level,” says Murray, who is no stranger to racial injustice. Before Dane Buy Local he worked for the Madison Times, where he first developed awareness of how differently Madison’s people of color experienced the city. Murray, who is white, got it on a deeper level when he helped an African American female coworker hunt for an apartment some years ago. At every viewing appointment, he says, the rental agent would speak only with him, not her. When he’d object that he was “only the chauffeur” and they needed to address his friend, the apartments would suddenly become unavailable.

“I was shocked,” says Murray, adding that his friend, however, was not. “I’d heard about this before, but it was the first time I really experienced it firsthand, and that just emphasized in my mind just how prevalent preconceived notions are, even here in Madison, Wisconsin. As a city, we’ve got a long way to go. And the [Race to Equity] report just really brought that point out as well.”

Murray says it was three or four years ago, at a breakfast meeting, that he looked out at the one hundred or so Dane Buy Local members and was struck by how blindingly white the room was. That’s when DBL formed its Diversity Committee, chaired by Kent Yan, to strategize and operationalize solutions. The committee works on various projects and problems, and there’s no shortage of them. (According to a recent Madison365 report citing the Minority Business Development Agency, forty-two percent of minority-owned businesses in the U.S. are likely to be denied a loan, compared with sixteen percent of non-minority businesses. Twenty-five percent of Madison is comprised of people of color, but only five to ten percent of the eight hundred Dane Buy Local members are.) After the Race to Equity report was released, Murray attended a mayor’s meeting with other Madison business leaders who asked for their buy-in. Dane Buy Local has been all too happy to give it, Murray says.

“We’re trying to do everything that we can to be inclusive, to open the doors and bring in as many as we can,” says Murray, citing collaboration with the Latino Chamber of Commerce and Wisconsin Women’s Business Initiative Corporation so minority business owners “feel like it’s a safe place that they can open up and be involved. But it takes time.”

Time, and authentic change.

“Something we have to recognize is that these outcomes we’re seeing right now are the result of centuries’ worth of oppression. So in terms of making it sustainable, it’s going to be really important that we know we’re committed to the long journey of undoing a lot of the yucky stuff,” says Angela Russell, diversity and inclusion manager for CUNA Mutual Group, whose position was created after Bob Trunzo took over as CEO in 2014 and immediately added inclusion as a core value to the company’s mission. “To have our CEO leading the charge on diversity and inclusion sends a huge message, because commitment has to come from the top. When I was interviewing for this job, one of the questions that I asked almost every person that interviewed me is, is this window dressing? And what I’m really happy about is that at CUNA Mutual, they’ve done a lot of work around making this real. They want this diversity, equity and inclusion to be woven into the fabric of who we are. That’s going to be what sustains us and this movement for the long haul.”

In the two years since the report’s release, CUNA Mutual Group has worked steadily and methodically to operationalize equity for its 3,700 employees. It formed a grassroots Employee Advisory Group of thirty-five to forty employees from around the country to strategize diversity and inclusion; one of the first things that group did was attend a two-day YWCA Madison training. CUNA Mutual Group formalized eleven employee resource groups, giving them each visible support and a budget; these are affinity groups, including African Americans, women in leadership, women in technology, women of distinction, Latinos, veterans, Asian American professionals, single parents, Young Professionals Society, LGBTQA and domestic abuse awareness. The company engaged in implicit bias training and mapped out potential bias at each point along the way and strategized mitigating that bias. For this year’s Martin Luther King holiday, CUNA Mutual Group is organizing a team-based day of service for employees–and these sorts of efforts are not just for the workforce.

“A lot of the outcomes that we’re seeing by race have a lot to do with financial wealth over time, and CUNA Mutual Group is a financial services and insurance company. We have a role to play in improving the wealth of communities and individuals across the country,” says Russell, and the company’s policy owners are diverse; CUNA Mutual Group needs to reflect that as a business strategy. Perhaps most notably, CUNA Mutual Group’s philanthropic arm, CUNA Mutual Foundation, doubled down on its community giving efforts after the Race to Equity Report was released.

“I saw it as a wake-up call. I knew before the report that there were disparities, but I had no idea the disparities were that large,” says Steve Goldberg, executive director of the CUNA Mutual Foundation. “So I did a lot of talking and visiting with some key leaders in the community, especially from the African American, Latino and Hmong community, to try to find out what we could do to make a difference. It made us look at organizations that were already active in the area of racial equity where, if we made an additional investment in their infrastructure, it would strengthen their capacity.”
That led to the foundation awarding four grants of $100,000 each to the Urban League of Greater Madison, the Boys and Girls Club, the YWCA and Centro Hispano.
“I’m really proud to live in Dane County, I’m a lifelong Madisonian, I’ve paid attention to the great ratings that we’ve gotten. But the Race to Equity report made it compellingly clear that the Madison area is a great place to live if you’re white, and it just, it alarmed me,” says Goldberg. “I’ve been [at CUNA Mutual] for a long time and this initiative is one of the most enthusiastically embraced, at all levels of the company, that I have ever witnessed.”

The road ahead is long. It’s also just the beginning. The Race to Equity team is working on the next phases, which include designing a two-generation strategy “road map” to address the disparities from a policy perspective, with a focus on enhancing employment and earnings, supporting working parents and ensuring success in school. It has also turned its sights to Madison’s Latino population and Latino leaders in the community, crunching data and talking about it with affected people in the same community engagement hybrid it used for the first report on African Americans. It has also launched a community ambassadors program. This is a group of representatives from four to five neighborhoods who collaborate on issues within their community, meet with elected officials and business leaders and support each other at the grassroots level. Additionally, the Race to Equity project awarded its first $500 and $1,000 secondary education or vocational school scholarships to Dane County high school students whose winning essays answer the question: “What does racial equity mean to me?”

“It’s been really amazing and I’m very hopeful, but I think we have to keep in mind that we have a lot of work to do, and this is just the beginning. It’s really important to be sustainable about it and think in the long term,” says project leader Erica Nelson. “Respond with a sense of urgency, but maintain it over the long haul to make real, significant, long-lasting change in the numbers.”