Sabrina Madison — better known as Heymiss Progress — calls herself a “socialpreneur.” She founded The Conversion Mixtape, became a fixture at poetry slams, and went on to speak at leadership conferences around the country. She recently founded the first Black Women’s Leadership Conference, slated for May 20.
Name your top 5 MCs. “Can I kick it?” Hip Hop is a way of life. My top rappers ushered me into the most beautiful and the most challenging parts of my life. Together, they sort of represent how myself and many other kids/young adults felt when we first read Malcolm X’s autobiography: free.
Gil Scott-Heron: how he put the truth to jazz moved me from being angry at my pops after his death to exploring forgiveness and seeking knowledge on just how destructive the crack epidemic was on Black families.
Nas: Illmatic dropped when I was 15 years old and about a month or so pregnant with my only child. I knew I was having a son before my doctor confirmed it and I made a conscious decision to create a better life for him. It started with rapping to him (over and over) as he grew inside of me: “Whose world is this? The world is yours, the world is yours”
MC Lyte: I was 10 and stayed in trouble with my moms for having a smart mouth when I first heard Lyte As A Rock! I remember thinking “She’s cold!” She set the tone for girls like me who were just cool being ourselves and not trying to imitate everybody else.
Rakim: He’s a genius. More than any other artist, his flow first showed me how to listen to what my life is trying to tell me.
Kendrick Lamar: Many reasons of course, but the greatest reason he’s in my top five is because how aware he is of his influence. That’s love.
What motivates you more, doubters or supporters? I haven’t really thought about doubters or supporters in that way. Neither drive me to be a better person. Every day I wake up, I gotta decide what kind of person I want to be. Doubters don’t always come out in the open. Instead they may spend time doubting you behind your back versus coming at you with the reasons behind their doubt. That doesn’t allow me to grow so I’m not interested in entertaining it. Supporters create a positive environment and I have mad respect for those who have supported me over the years. Those who have supported me have also sat me down and kept it real with me. So at the end of the day — I’m attracted to the positive energy supporters bring with them.
What does it mean to be Black in Madison? Ahhhhh. To be Black AND to be a Black woman AND to be a Black mother in Madison means that I better keep my peace protected. The micro aggressions on any given day can be enough to make you snap off! I’m not interested in being anyone’s pet Black woman/mother and that’s exactly how Madison will try to come for you.
It means on some days going toe to toe with folks who would prefer to think of Black people as lazy, criminal, and unemployable.
It means not allowing myself nor my son to be boxed in by the negative statistics.
It means still witnessing firsts. You know — “the first Black person to do ____”
It means being pitted against other Black women over and over and over and over like it’s a game and we’re the pawns.
It also means taking advantage of the beauty in this city and finding creative ways to invite Black people into social spaces.
Simply being a Black woman and mother in Madison means that every single day I’m just trying to live my life while tackling this madness of systems, policies, and attitudes that aim to destroy the Black family
What three leaders in Madison under 50 have impressed you the most? Hmmm. I think that word “leaders” can sometimes cause tension where there should be more collaboration. For me, I pay attention to how people use their influence. That influence, whether positive or negative, has an impact on the people who follow and support them. The three people whose influence on the greater Madison community I’ve most been impressed with are:
Ananda Mirilli: We were in a Social Change class together back in the day at MATC and let me tell you — We gave em hell! I’ve always known her to be passionate about members of the community in a way that actually involves them in the work versus simply telling them what they should do. I love how she uses self-reflection and conversation. It tells me that she’s conscious and responsible with the impact she has on others.
Michael (Mike) Ford: You cannot be a hip-hop head and not get to know this brotha’s work! He is the Hip Hop Architect. Hip hop is a culture and it’s brilliant the way he teaches how that culture influences the spaces all around us. He is influencing how others think of hip hop and moving it from being under attack to appreciating it’s artistry. As we know in Madison — Hip hop doesn’t always get the respect it deserves.
Dr. Sagashus Levingston: I have so much love and appreciation for this sista! She’s created a space for the women who others may simply overlook because of their personal circumstances. “The single mothers, teen mothers, the women recovering from addiction, women in the sex industry…” to name just a few. She’s doing the work also from a love ethic and it’s evident as one of the women connected to her work recently shared her joy with me of being involved and being clean again! That’s the sort of influence that moves the Black family forward in a positive direction.
I also have to name Carola Gaines though! She may or may not be under 50 but the influence that she has on too many to name is unmatched. Her style of leadership, support, and influence definitely has worked to propel many into leadership positions across Dane county.
What’s the biggest stumbling block in Madison to turning the corner on our racial disparities? One of the biggest has to be this idea of not wanting to be uncomfortable or cause others to be uncomfortable. Madison seems to want to ride off into the sunset with things remaining just as they are. Folks will talk, meet, brainstorm and expel hours of energy discussing the racial disparities but when it’s time to show up to actually ACT — in Future’s voice, “where ya at?” Acting is more than showing up to a rally. It’s more than selfies on the square. It’s more than hashtagging #blacklivesmatter. It’s more than ordering another t-shirt. Acting means checking yourself and your own biases. It means calling racist practices out and demanding they be stopped at your job, church, university, club, etc. It means more than simply calling yourself an ally.
There are plenty of diverse groups of folks doing the work to turn that corner but we’re creeping real slow around that corner because there’s too much worrying about saying the wrong thing. Too much time spent trying to tone down one’s message to keep dollars coming through. Too much shutting down folks whose truth makes the wider Madison community feel uncomfortable. Too much money pitting Black folks against each other. There’s just too much being cool with mediocrity.
What are your top three priorities at this point in your life? Growing and excelling in entrepreneurship, spending more time with my mother and family, and finding creative ways to serve Black families
How did you get the nickname Miss Progress? My pops. He called me the progress that came from his struggles. As a child I didn’t think much of it. After his death when I was 10 years old I learned that he was using drugs and had cocaine in his system when he died. I had always only seen him as the smartest man I knew on earth. As an adult competing in poetry slams, I picked the name back up as a throwback to my pops. It was a way to include him in my own progress and in some respects every time someone calls out to me “HEYmiss Progress,” I am reminded of his love.
You’re hosting a conference next month for women. Why did you feel the need to create the Black Women’s Leadership Conference (BWLC)? I was fed all the way up with walking into spaces created around leadership and being the only Black woman. I was fed up with walking into meetings and not only was I as an entrepreneur NOT on the agenda — but Black women weren’t included at all! I was fed up with attending conferences in Madison and they not be culturally relevant. I was fed up with seeing only the same handful of Black women in spaces when there were Black women present.
Instead of complain about this issue I decided to do what I do on the regular — create a solution! I literally jotted down what a conference would look like geared towards leadership and Black women on a break during a speaking engagement. That’s how ticked off I really was. Here I am being invited into a space to lead a workshop around a specific topic and the only other Black woman in the room was someone who has been exposed to numerous leadership opportunities already.
I am thankful to be invited into spaces to lead workshops and keynote pretty dope events. Yet I also feel that it was all in preparation to lead a conference geared towards the very real needs of Black women. What has stuck out to me more and more this last year or so is that Black women aren’t even considered in the early stages of an idea or planning. It can be hard walking into a room and even brothas in leadership positions aren’t including me. But that has happened more times than I can count. I can pick up the phone and call on brothas at any given moment and they’ll show up for me — But I want brothas AND everybody else to naturally and genuinely include Black women. Don’t include me by default just to say you’ve reached out to a Black woman.
Black women come to me on a regular basis to help them resolve issues in the workplace. To seek out opportunities for professional development. To find grants for a project. So I knew that we needed this sort of conference. I want to lay the foundation to help propel other Black women into leadership. To help them move forward in their professional and educational goals. I want to connect them to Black women who are influencers and creators. Black women who won’t throw shade but will help them to access the strategies to accomplish their goals. I’ve gotten the support of MG&E, A Fund For Women, American Printing, and the DreamBank. Their support allows my vision to benefit women in a real impactful way. Black women will not only attend four power sessions, but they’ll leave having had a professional headshot taken! Tickets sold out in 8 days and I’ve got Black women attending from Madison to Milwaukee. The response has been overwhelmingly supportive and the comment I keep hearing over and over is: I need this!
Tell us your favorite thing about living in Madison. It has to be the drive down John Nolen Drive when there’s no traffic after midnight. The peace and beauty is real!
You are an advocate for women. Are you supporting Hillary or Bernie? I lived in Milwaukee during Clinton’s presidency. Through the shift from AFDC to W2. Through the crime bill that escalated the incarceration rate of Black men. Men who were also my friends and family. Hillary supported the policies that worked to further destroy Black families. She does not have my support and thus far in her campaign she’s proven not to deserve it. My son schooled me on why he’s supporting Bernie Sanders before anyone else did. I trust his judgement and will follow his lead.
Who is your favorite author and why? Without a doubt – bell hooks! Her body of work around Black people and love saved me. Her book All About Love gave me my first working and healthy definition of love. Her love trilogy also serves as the foundation for the Conversation Mixtape. A forum I created along with a few friends to create social spaces for conversation over drinks and good food between Black men and women.
Why has spoken word caught on with our youth like it has? It’s a place of refuge. It unlocks their minds and provides them the space to have their thoughts heard. The stories being delivered on stage can be empowering for the audience. Also the very nature of spoken word may create a supportive family for young poets.