Milwaukee native Eric Upchurch started strategic development consultancy ESUCEO in 2007, while still an undergraduate at UW. He also works as director of development and marketing at YWCA Madison and recently took the helm as the executive director of the Madison Black Chamber of Commerce. He’s also made a name for himself as one of the firebrand leaders of the Young, Gifted and Black Coalition.

Rank your Top 5 MCs.

  • Kendrick Lamar
  • J-Cole
  • Jay-Z
  • Kanye West
  • Me and my peeps when we havin a good time

Which motivates you more: doubters or supporters? I thought this answer would be simple: Doubters motivate me more; but as I search myself, doubters and supporters are both quite motivating for different reasons. 

I enjoy being underestimated. I think it comes from my innate passion to teach by example. You have a doubt? Well you gone learn somethin…It’s a competitive, tough love motivation.

Supporters, on the other hand, I feel accountable to. I say it in my head like this: “They believe in me. I can’t let them down.” It’s probably not always the healthiest disposition all the time; but I know it’s there. 

Doubters I want to prove wrong. Supporters I want to prove right.

What I’m learning to do now is let all of those go and be real with myself and what I believe regardless of if I fail or succeed. Still a work in progress.

What does it mean to be Black in Madison? Did you have a Big Momma? Mine was in her 80’s in some of my earliest memories. We’d go play at her house and I would naturally get hungry. She always had this perfect bowl of fruit in the center of the living room table: grapes, apples, everything. I used to think, “why is there a bowl of fruit always in the living room? No one’s ever in there.” I decided to swallow a green “grape” one day. Its fakeness violated me – dusty, unyielding. Till this day, I still prefer purple grapes. 

There are of course the normal labels assigned to me on sight: dangerous, disorganized, incompetent.  Aside from the sick norm of being looked at as either less than or too much, being Black and active in the community adds a layer of compounded daily violation – a betrayal of sorts. Being presented as “a leader” in Madison with no results? It’s the solitary confinement of taking part in a display with no substance. Like the delicious looking bowl of “fruit,” I am invited on stage. I am invited to the table – “hey, how you doin? Good to see you”. The violation comes when I realize that, given all my passion and investment, I’m only there for display.  My opinion is meant to be heard and only heard – not respected. Colleagues nod in support but their follow-up is empty. I don’t know what’s most painful: living through this oppression, or reaching for support that’s not really there, or realizing that support is actually a snare. 

It might be a little too personal, but I wind up avoiding an ultimatum: either I play make believe or go insane. As I learn more about my surroundings, I wonder how many here are unaware of their choice.

What three leaders in Madison under 50 have impressed you the most? M Adams from Freedom Inc. has written books, traveled the world organizing and educating on systemic racism, cultural imperialism, violence and more. She is a true developer of leaders and has taught me much of what I know about feminism and patriarchy. I’ve been impressed with how she, in partnership with Co-Executive Director Kabzuag Vaj, navigates a homophobic white-male-dominated culture to make real impacts on the ground level in the lives of folks right here and across the nation. She’s far from rich yet wealthy in real relationships and is a true expert in her fields. I’ve watched her be a rock for her entire family – mourning the slow loss of her mother. M Adams and Freedom Inc. bring critical community organizing and education to Madison’s future.

Greg St. Fort dropped out of a plane from New York and within a few years is the Executive Director of one of the largest co-working spaces in the region. That deserves some respect. He remains humble and eager to develop the capacity to make a difference for those most impacted by Madison’s gross racial disparities. 

With all of that said, the first and foremost impressive young leader in my book is Miss Brandi Pearl Grayson. If you can imagine it, she’s been through it. Brandi carries decades of trauma, buckets full of tears not her own, the burning desire to feed them to a thirsty soil and the harsh reality that Madison’s disparities are the blight for her Black seeds. She is a true lover of people, more than herself, and in this city, that love equals pain. That is the pain of loss, the pain of betrayal by those who know better and those who should – the pain of survival. Yet she carries it on the top knuckle of her fist in the air…with a smile, while her other arm cradles four daughters, three granddaughters, a son on the way and hearts covered in thorns. Awe does not begin to describe my amazement – witnessing her behind closed doors, the integrity, the advice, the painful honesty and reflection, the study. Brandi is educated, mindful and genuine about why she does what she does. Not to mention, she’s good at it. She couples a deep analysis with a motivation to move even the most dedicated hater to some form of action. Her survival of chaos gives her the ability to bring order and results in a nightmare of mess. Take a look at what she’s done with YWCA’s Employment and Transportation, YGB and Madtown CRT.  If Madison only knew how vital this woman is…ok let me stop. 

But really though, imagine ALL of the barriers. Add on top of that, the daily assaults, layer that on top of literal decades of survival. Do you have a love life? Sprinkle some of that on there, small town style. All I can do is shake my head at this point. I almost want to take it back, because impressed just doesn’t do it justice. Thank you for existing, Brandi.

What’s the biggest stumbling block in Madison to turning the corner on our racial disparities?  Our biggest stumbling block is power and control. Those that lack it are the most impacted by racial disparities, and those that have it are the farthest removed. That’s backwards. We want to engage the community for recommendations, but refuse to give the power to make real decisions – and then have the nerve to wonder why we still haven’t gotten it quite right? That’s because it’s backwards. If we were serious about listening to the community, we wouldn’t seek recommendations we would seek direction and respect that direction. Sadly, our over populated and territorial non-profit culture, coupled with our cut throat scarcity approach to funding, closed power groups that value time-in over impact, and the beloved egos of leaders hungry for a fix of validation create a situation where the powerful grip their vice with risk aversion and the have-nots take more risks to survive. Meanwhile, patriarchy, sexism, respectability politics and all the other isms find their place on both sides.

Let’s be clear, this isn’t about some stats on a piece of paper. This is about survival out here. And those close to the danger feel it. People will survive first and foremost. And if you get in the way of that survival, you become the problem. Both ends of the spectrum have their problems. In this era covert racism, mass incarceration and state violence, representatives of “the system” are the enemy to the oppressed and the oppressed are “a problem” for those representatives. Activists that rise up threaten that power; and there are slaves on their way to hell on earth demanding that we stop rocking the boat.

We are different people – all of us…different in our sameness. We cannot share the exact same perspective. Go stand at the lake with a friend. Notice that all of the lights on the water point directly toward you. Your friend would argue differently – that the lights point toward them. You are both right because you both have different perspectives. Your perspective should not mean that I am oppressed or powerless.

We have got to share power in meaningful ways and elevate the expertise of those most impacted. The Counsel of Communities aims to do just that.

What are your top three priorities at this point in your life? My first priority is getting ready for my first born son. That means getting his space ready, making the adjustments I need to my schedule so that I can be present and getting myself ready financially, mentally and spiritually. How can I teach my son to look inside himself – to bring knowledge from within as our ancestors taught? How can I show him what I am only now beginning to really understand? How can I show him healthy family dynamics when mine is broken? How do I model being healthy in a city as ill as this? How can I protect him? How can I prepare him? What environment can I help build that will support and love him? I want to tell him how to handle police and I want to tell the entire criminal justice system they’d better chill the f#@% out.

This brings me to another priority, my community.  Ours is damaged. We have a crab mentality where we should have a hive mentality. You kill one bee, you get attacked by the hive. There is such a power struggle for resources and status that we see more supplanting than planting. The hive builds and supports itself. Workers don’t compete for scarcity, but thrive in abundance. That’s why I’m lucky to be working with so many others on The Counsel of Communities (a form of direct democracy and collaboration), Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) making low barrier grants, loans and investments into Black entrepreneurs, and a host of other initiatives all centered around replacing our competitive approach to solutions with collaborative approaches – fostering a holistic culture vs an exclusive one. We are a living organism no different than our individual bodies have individual living cells. 

A major priority is mastering myself to practice inner peace and love. To be better at my relationships. It may sound cliché, but I truly believe that much of what we’re dealing with is related to a lack of self-love, self-awareness and understanding. People reading this might say, “of course I love myself. How could I not? I’m me!” But you are constantly changing and self-awareness is an intentional habit – not a natural product of today’s hustle and bustle. Not to mention the greater you that is the community around you. When you contribute to a society that hates and harms others, you are hating and harming yourself. Those who have witnessed this take more seriously the necessity to Know One’s self. If you think this is mumbo-jumbo, I challenge you to prove it. Spend a week asking yourself questions about yourself in those less than ideal situations. Beware, insight will follow.  

As the new Executive Director of the Madison Black Chamber of Commerce, what are the top three things you want to accomplish this year? Like most things Black in the City that boast the nation’s worst racial disparities, the Chamber is not without its challenges and barriers. Still, we are focused on re-establishing ourselves as the go-to resource for Black business in Madison. To accomplish this, we have a roster of activities, but a few stick out. We’re collaborating with chamber members and other groups to create and implement a Needs Survey to document the goals and challenges Black entrepreneurs face. We’ll utilize that information to track our impact over the years and to take a needs based approach to individualized resource development. One of those resources will be the Black Economic Empowerment Fund, making low barrier grants, loans and investments into Black entrepreneurs – not to be confused with Black businesses. See, our people are faced with a multitude of challenges before they can even dream of actually starting a viable business. I was someone who couldn’t consummate business that I’d secured because I owed the bank a few hundred dollars due to how I was surviving poverty at the time. Imagine sitting in front of the banker with your client’s check in your hand and nowhere to put it. How many others out there have similar barriers? So there’s the Need’s Survey, the Black Economic Empowerment Fund, and last but not least we have to promote Black businesses. That means figuring out ways to encourage our community to speak with their shopping by supporting our Black business owners. If you need help finding them, consult your Black business directory. 

You are one of the key members of the Young Gifted & Black organization. What is the biggest misconception about YGB? One of the biggest misconceptions regarding the circle of leaders called the Young Gifted & Black Coalition is that we don’t know what we are talking about. It’s not a surprising disposition when you consider the value and importance given to anything Black – especially when it challenges the status quo. YGB organizes around state violence, race and gender equity, community power, social justice and Black liberation. All of its members have experienced state violence – some growing up in extreme poverty. All of the founders have touched the criminal justice system, and some, the mental health complex, and all have lived through the non-profit industrial complex which profits from the vulnerable as a failed social experiment. Most of the leadership are gender non-conforming feminists, and all of been social students and activists for years. We are the 350 – locked away for an empty stomach. We are also educated carrying several degrees from African American Studies, to Psychology, to Business, and even Chemistry. Not to mention, we study and – despite popular belief – we do seek out the advice of our elders and those with experiences from which we can glean. Don’t think so highly of yourself to assume that because we haven’t approached you, we must not know what we’re doing, or be learning. That’s the mistake that too many Madison “leaders” make – and that supports the disparities. 

Did NWA help the black culture or hurt the black culture? NWA encouraged us to challenge power structures that we didn’t agree with; but there are two sides to every coin. To some, this meant challenging police brutality and other social injustices; and to others, this meant a loss of respect for elders and caregivers. The impact depends on the original disposition of the individual.

What three tips will you give your son on how to thrive in today’s society? Be open to learning. If you are not learning, you are not growing and that which does not grow is dead. The life learner is blessed because they are not blinded by their attachment to their current view of a changing world. In that way, they continuously open new possibilities for themselves and an exciting life of discovery.

Be willing to share. What good is a nugget if it stays in your pocket? Do not become imprisoned by what you have to offer. Offer it and make room for more. What you send out, you receive. Be generous with what you have. Being willing to share is not the same as forcing someone to receive. Everyone isn’t ready to receive what you have. They are on their own journey, just like you. Enjoy the pleasure of giving. Enjoy being a part of something greater.

Be diligently aware. Be first aware of yourself, son. You can be your greatest ally and your worst enemy. Know yourself and love yourself. This will teach you how to know and love others, even those untrustworthy or harmful. There will be times when you are harmful (whether you are aware of them or not). There will be times when you are angry – times when you shed negativity. Remember that you are the first victim of your negativity. Forgive yourself and forgive others as they were victims first also; but don’t confuse forgiveness with forgetfulness. Be aware that you do not become blinded by your ignorance and closed to learning. Be aware that you do not become greedy and unwilling to share, unable to receive. Be aware of where you’re at on your path and trust that you are always on your path. Be aware of your own bs and know when you have stopped taking steps on that path.

Be who you are. Let your light shine, my son. The world needs the real you. Don’t buy the hype that fitting in is in. The greatest people are the ones that shine their difference on us – giving us no choice but to grow. Be the Sun that you are and have a humble confidence in knowing that we all take turns being great. Celebrate the greatness of others (however big or small) and celebrate your greatness. Respect who you are and respect others. Practice being and loving you.

Practice unconditional love.

If Ben Carson were the Republican nominee would you have voted for him over Hillary Clinton? Why or why not? I won’t lie. I voted for Obama the first time around because, honestly, he was decent enough and Black and he had a real chance. Second time around I voted more on principle and alignment; but even then, I wasn’t as politically aware.  

Now, I vote as a social requirement (kind of like a last resort effort). However, I do not believe that any one person, or one group can know the nuances and particularities of everyone’s solutions. That’s why I would rather vote for The Counsel of Communities or some form of direct democracy weighted toward the most impacted. This would empower every individual to elevate their voice, share an understanding about their particular situation and join other of like mind.

This political system is inherently inadequate and it’s not like we don’t know this as a society. It’s just the way that things have been done so we say go vote. But who and what are we voting for? It certainly isn’t the single mother with two jobs and no time or money to campaign? Even if politicians don’t know it, they lie about the results they can bring because the political process is one of shifting approaches, goals and agendas laden with corruption. If we want the Allied community to get what it needs, then we’ve got to put the Allied community in charge of that. If we want health professionals to get what they need, students of color to get what they need, then we’ve got to empower them to be in charge of those things. I hearts vote is for the community every time. 

Name your all-time favorite movies

  • All of the Star Wars episodes (especially 4,5 and 1 where you really learn about The Force)
  • Hitch
  • The Lion King
  • The Matrix
  • Hook
  • A Goofy Movie
  • The Shadow
  • Kiriku and Karaba the Sorceress
  • Sister Act II
  • …I’ll stop there

If Captain American and Batman got into a fight, who wins? Batman. Brains over braun.