“I don’t know if we are the best-kept secret in Madison,” says Hedi Rudd, manager of First Impressions at Badger Rock Neighborhood Center on Madison’s south side, “but there’s a whole lot going on here.”

If you live on the southside of Madison, chances are you know Rudd, who has been an integral part of the diverse and vibrant south side community for years whether she has been organizing elaborate signature south Madison events like International Community Night and Family Science Night for the Urban League of Greater Madison or community-building opportunities with the South Madison Promise Zone or capturing those events (and more) on her camera with some beautiful photography. Since May, Rudd has been working at the Badger Rock Neighborhood Center, where she does many of those things that she has done in the past, but so much more.

At Badger Rock, she helps to manage the facility. She greets people as they come in. She does communications. She works on event planning and organizing. She manages the social media and does some development work. She works on growing relationships and partnerships in the community.

“Don’t forget about my photography!” Rudd interjects.

An avid and very talented photographer, Rudd is often seen at community events telling the stories of the people of Madison’s south side through her lens. Rudd has her own business as founder and owner of Hedi Lamarr Photography.

“The photo taking opportunities have been expanded because I’ve had a little more flexibility in my day. That’s been awesome … watching that grow,” she says. “But, yes, all in all, I’m wearing a lot of hats like I’m used to doing at previous jobs.”

The Center for Resilient Cities
The Center for Resilient Cities

The Badger Rock Neighborhood Center, located on Madison’s south side just off Rimrock Road, is a hub of community activity and is located in an inviting space that hosts community events, group gatherings and classes where neighbors of all ages are encouraged to get to know one another. It is part of The Center for Resilient Cities, a Wisconsin-based nonprofit committed to revitalizing urban communities. Also housed in the building is Badger Rock Middle School, a public charter school with an interdisciplinary, project-based learning program focused on environmental sustainability. Three-quarters of the students live in the nearby neighborhoods.

It has also been the home of Growing Power, an innovative urban agriculture program with a year-round intensive food production outdoors and in greenhouses using sustainable growing practices. The urban farm at Badger Rock attracts a wide variety of volunteers and Growing Power’s monthly community dinners bring dozens of neighborhood residents together to share meals made from produce grown on site.

A young woman discovers her interest in urban agriculture as a student at Badger Rock Middle School.
A young woman discovers her interest in urban agriculture as a student at Badger Rock Middle School.

“When you think of first impressions, you think of it as one time and it’s over … but I look at it like every time somebody walks in the door I want them to have a different experience,” Rudd says. “I want them to feel welcome and feel like this is a place they can consider home. The way I look at Badger Rock, the closest model will be Neighborhood House [on Mills St.] where it’s the community owning the space and helping to provide the programming.”

It’s not like the Boys and Girls Club of Dane County, Rudd says, where there is a constant flow of activity. “We have the student population here that we serve and we’re working on building the relationship between the center, the community, and the student population,” says Rudd of Badger Rock Middle School which currently has 75 students.

“That’s our focus right now. The things that we do here are rooted in the food justice/social justice area,” Rudd says. “And one of my favorite sayings is, ‘If they feel like they belong, then they’ll believe.’ That’s what we’re trying to do here.

“We’ve been here for a while and there’s been a lot of activity, but now it’s really time to have the community that surrounds us feel like they belong here so they will believe in the work we are doing,” she adds.

The Badger Rock Neighborhood Center hosts Community Nights every month. This picture is from September's get-together.
The Badger Rock Neighborhood Center hosts Community Nights every month. This picture is from September’s get-together.

Do you feel like that’s not the case sometimes?

“I think it takes a lot of time. This building popped up and I think people still don’t know what we do here per se,” Rudd says. The Center for Resilient Cities has just been around since 2012. “The guy from Adams Outdoor Advertising came by a week or two ago and he just walked in and said, ‘What is this place?’ He didn’t know who I was and I didn’t know who he was and we got to chatting and now we’re working on putting on Halloween Party here together.

“But he didn’t know what we did here,” she adds. “And if he’s a business that’s been here longer than us and he had no idea what we did here, how many others are there?”

Rudd is excited about the Halloween Party that will take place tonight and will be hosted in partnership with their newfound friends, Adams Outdoor Advertising. It’s the first time the Badger Rock Neighborhood Center will be open on Halloween during trick-or-treat hours. It’s all part of Rudd’s plan on working on getting the nearby Southdale Neighborhood folks, the neighborhood Rudd lives in, to come across Rimrock Road to the facility. “It’s easy for the kids on this side of Rimrock to come over here, but the reason I thought about having this Halloween event was because my daughter told me that there was no place to Trick or Treat over in the Southdale Neighborhood,” Rudd says. “So, as I’m trying to get people from Southdale to come to Badger Rock, I thought the Halloween Party was the perfect idea.

“We’ve got some crazy disco ball lights. We’ve got this beautiful space here. We’ll have some music, treats, Peng’s buying pizza,” Rudd says. “Peng” is Peng Her, the assistant director at Center for Resilient Cities who Rudd has worked with at the past for the South Madison Promise Zone. “It’s gonna be fun. This place has never been open on Halloween before, so it should be interesting!”

Diego and Lorenzo of the Badger Rock Middle School Class of 2015 graduates.
Diego and Lorenzo of the Badger Rock Middle School Class of 2015 graduates.

On Nov. 11, Badger Rock will have their annual Thanks for Giving Dinner. “Over 400 people will be here having a free Thanksgiving dinner. That’s gonna be huge,” Rudd says.

It’s all about building resilience in neighborhoods and creating conditions for people and families to thrive. Community engagement, connected systems, and restorative environmental design are at the core of their work toward building this resilience. It’s the work that Cora White, recently retired director of Badger Rock Neighborhood Center for the Center for Resilient Cities, had been doing for years. Now, that work falls on the shoulders of Rudd, along with Executive Director Marcia Caton Campbell, Assistant Director Peng Her and Badger Rock Principal Hong Tran.

“I love working with Peng and Marcia and Hong. They are so dedicated,” Rudd says. “The kids are awesome, too. Some days are good, some days are worse … middle school, you know. Being there for the kids is what really makes my day. Harvesting something from the garden and cutting up vegetables for dinner … that’s very special. I love getting to interact with the community and to share the excitement of everything that goes on here. That’s a cool thing.”

The Center for Resilient Cities takes pride in meeting people where they are and listening to them as the best experts of their own community’s strengths and challenges. They started out by engaging the residents of the Badger Rock neighborhood in regular meetings that fostered discussion about their needs and wants for the site and soon learned that a neighborhood center, a school, and public meeting space were among the community’s top priorities. Currently, they are working on a community survey. “We had people going door to door and we’re getting ready to mail them out right now so we can have some data as we move forward,” Rudd says. “This will help us with applying for grants for some of the stuff we want to do and/or working to improve and add programming that we need. It’s good to know what people want and what people think.”

What does resilience mean? What does sustainability mean? Those are questions that Rudd has been pondering since she took the job at Badger Rock earlier this year. Questions that she is finding more and more answers to every day. “There are plants in the main hallway over there that don’t look like they are doing so well and everybody can see them,” Rudd smiles. “I’ve been learning how to keep them alive and to thrive. You just watch.

“To me, that’s what this is all about. So many people don’t have a clue, including me … and I live here, too, about a lot of this stuff about resilience and sustainability. But that’s why I’m so excited. If I can learn this stuff, and get excited about it … anybody can,” she says. “We’re fighting this big racial and social justice piece on the outside of the community, but in here we can look and see ourselves as the people who can grow the food, bring the food home, learn how to cook it. That’s so incredibly empowering.”

The Badger Rock Neighborhood Center sits in the middle of a gigantic food desert that is south Madison, but that doesn’t concern Rudd. Every day, she sees dozens and dozens of young people learning how to grow and make their own food and live healthy sustainable lives. “The gas station and Pitcher’s Pub are the two places you can get food around here. That’s it,” Rudd says. “That’s what makes this place in this part of town so empowering. This is cool. I love it.”