This article was originally published on July 6, 2017.
Across the street from rows and rows of Allied Drive apartments, I arrive at Sina Davis’s house, a cute new home on the corner of Allied Drive and Percy Julian Way and a half-block away from Gene Parks Place. I have my 5-month-old Baby Luna and a ton of baby stuff in my arms.
“Are you sure it’s OK that I brought her?” I ask, laughing, already knowing I’m at the point of no return.
“Oh, please,” Davis responds. “I’m so excited that you brought her here! What a treat.”
Davis gathers a bunch of blankets and we plop Baby Luna down on the floor with some toys next to us in the living room and Davis looks at me, smiling. “So why in the world would you want to interview lil ol’ me for anyways?”
“Lil ol’ me,” as modest as she is, has been a true champion of the Allied community and is responsible for many of the positives initiatives and programs and, well, general good vibe of the area of town on the southwest side that many Madisonians have simply labeled “troubled” and never thought about again.
I reached out to her alderperson, Maurice Cheeks, who has grown very fond of her and he said that her legacy in Madison has been cemented by countless contributions to building community, empowering mothers and youth, advocating for change, and elevating the voices, issues and needs of her community.
“For as long as I’ve known Sina Davis, she has been a constant instigator for change and progress for her community,” Cheeks tells Madison365. “Working alongside her for four years, I’ve witnessed her contributions to the safety, health, livability, and voting access of those in the Allied neighborhood. She has been at the heart of the progress that her neighborhood has felt, and her influence will be foundational to the progress that will be seen for years to come.”
That is some very worthy praise for someone who spent a good portion of her life battling poverty, drug addiction, homelessness and the constant feeling that she’s not worthy and, sometimes, sadly, just downright worthless. But right now, Sina Davis is really feeling worthy. She is feeling happy. She is feeling loved.
Family, friends, community members and leaders of the city of Madison came out big for Davis on Sunday, June 25, at the Allied Drive Boys & Girls Club and showed her incredible love at “A Celebration of Life, Love & Service for Sina Davis.”
“Looking out there and seeing people from all parts of Madison, it was good for me at this time in my life in getting sick and doctors saying this and doctors saying that. It just gave me something inside that just rebooted me,” Davis says. “For real. It made me feel worthy … because there were plenty of times in my life when I didn’t feel worthy. And that’s a terrible feeling.”
Davis has been living with incurable ovarian cancer for a couple of years now and is not sure how much time she has left.
“If I make it to Sept. 17, it will be three years,” she tells me. “They gave me two years. In May, the doctor told me I had 3-6 months. I have taken every chemo and every clinical trial that I could take. Seriously. And I asked them, ‘Are you sure? Are you sure you gave me every clinical trial?’ But too much can kill you, they say.”
Community leader Lisa Peyton-Caire – an educator, women’s health advocate, non-profit leader, social entrepreneur, and founder and president of The Foundation for Black Women’s Wellness – organized the incredible event honoring Sina Davis at the Boys and Girls Club.
“I met Sina 5 years ago and we immediately clicked. I knew right then that I was in the presence of leadership. I’ve never met a more genuine and passionate leader or a more determined woman who moves so quietly but so powerfully in so many ways that make a real difference,” Peyton-Caire tells Madison365. “Sina serves when no one’s watching, and she never hesitates to step up to ‘make it happen,’ whether it be advocating for more public investment and quality food access in the Allied Drive neighborhood, or securing resources to improve the health of children, families and mothers.
“She just steps up, shows up, and does the work – and not only does she bring others along with her in the process, she empowers them to lead, too,” Peyton-Caire adds. “She is one of the most powerful women I know, and this community owes her a great honor. We all do.”
Cheeks wants to honor Davis – community leader, devoted mother, social justice advocate – with a street name in the Allied Drive Neighborhood and has been busy getting an online petition together and people signed up.
“Alderman Cheeks talkin’ about trying to do a street name after me. Boy, please. That’s going to be a miracle,” Davis laughs. “That would be cool, though. That would be amazing.”
Meanwhile, Baby Luna starts getting vocal in her play area on the floor.
“Do you want to feed her?” I ask.
“Are you sure she’s hungry?” Davis responds.
“I think so,” I reply
“I would love to,” she says.
Davis tries to feed Luna a couple times but she doesn’t want to eat. “She’s not hungry,” Davis says to me, looking at me a bit unamused. “Sometimes, you just have to let them talk. Let them be babies. C’mon, Daddy!”
Davis shifts the focus of the conversation on over to her daughter who is 18 years old and a recent high school graduate.
“My daughter, Angel, is an inspiration to me. She just graduated high school, she’s working at the Boys and Girls Club and starts school in the fall. She wants to go into the medical field,” Davis says. “I’m very proud of her.”
It was with her daughter in mind that Davis first came to Madison from Chicago nine years ago during desperate times. Davis says she was “drowning” in Chicago and there was no way she could possibly make a better life for her (at the time) nine-year-old daughter when she was really just trying to save her own life from drug addiction and poverty.
“I didn’t come here to start over. I didn’t come here for a new life. I came here to visit while my son was incarcerated and I was early in my recovery and I was like: Why go back? Because I was already drowning,” Davis remembers.
“Chicago was rough. I grew up on the south side,” she adds. “I stayed at Ida B. Wells [public housing project]. I moved in when I was five years old.”
Despite all of the trouble that she would get into, Davis stresses that it wasn’t because she didn’t have a good mother or father. “Both of my parents were there. My dad used to get in trouble if he didn’t come home when the butter melted on the biscuits. My mom used to tell me to get home before the lights came on,” Davis remembers. “I had great role models. I just made poor decisions when I was young. The streets will swallow you up alive. They will chew you up and spit you out and think nothing of it. That’s what it did to me.
“I was addicted to crack. Crack was the thing. Alcohol was there. I used to drink to come down. But it was crack cocaine. I smoked it for breakfast, lunch and dinner. That’s no joke. You don’t get out of the bed unless you know where you’re hit is coming from,” Davis adds. “You don’t go to sleep unless you know in the morning where you are going to get that fix. That is real. That is so real. Doing drugs was a big part of my life. There was nothing else but me and those drugs.”
They had closed Ida B. Wells down and Davis had moved into another unit, still unable to escape the powerful hold drugs had over her. Her sister had temporary custody over her daughter, Angel. She had really reached the bottom.
“I look back at that time now and I’m like: Really? Really? Thank you, God, for getting me out of that isolation. That loneliness. No self-worth. There’s nothing else in life,” Davis says. “I lost my will when I started running the streets because I lost all my goals and my dreams, in a sense. My son and my daughter were the good things in my life.”
Once she made it to Madison, she knew she wasn’t coming back.
“What am I going back to Chicago for? I might as well try a new life [here]. Maybe it will be better. It’s gonna be better. It couldn’t be worse,” she remembers thinking. “I was so caught up in my addiction. I was trying to save my life. Madison was the change I needed.
“I didn’t know what lied ahead, but I knew what was behind me,” she adds.
Davis literally had next to nothing when she came to Madison. “I came here with four pairs of pants and three tops and I didn’t look back,” she says.
She landed at the Salvation Army, who was there for her for clothes and food and a bed to sleep in while she was getting on her feet.
“When I was homeless I had my luggage just like you have your suitcase to go to your 9-to-5 job,” Davis remembers. “You would have thought I was an executive person going to work with my suitcase. We didn’t have space at the Salvation Army. We had to carry our bags with us.”
She first lived on her own in Allied Drive, the area’s bad reputation didn’t scare her away. Not after the hell that she already had been through. She had many chances to leave the area, but she wasn’t having it.
“I landed on Allied Drive and this is where I want to stay. I didn’t want to go to Sun Prairie. I didn’t want to go to Verona. I wanted to go where I started off at and where I’ve seen a change,” she says. “I didn’t want the pushers and hookers because I done left that crap. So if I can help change or help people get involved, then that’s what it’s all about.”
Davis founded Mothers in the Neighborhood in 2010 as a program of the Allied Wellness Center where about 25 local mothers from Allied Drive would meet as a discussion and support group in the community. The main purpose of Mothers in the Neighborhood is to provide support and access to resources and work toward improving lives of all families in the community. Over the years, Mothers in the Neighborhood have hosted educational speakers and sponsored workshops throughout the Allied Drive community.
“I remember the first time you and I met. I was so happy. So honored for you to take time out to see little old us and do that story,” Davis remembers of me and my days with The Madison Times and covering her new Mothers of the Neighborhood group on Allied. “You were the first! I was like, ‘Yes, we can do this. Somebody can see and hear us.’”
Mothers in the Neighborhood is unique because the participants themselves are living the same struggle that they are working to alleviate and they understand what it feels like to lack access resources. They have chosen to step into leadership positions in order to improve their community’s quality of life.
Meanwhile, Davis was also an outreach worker for Porchlight in downtown Madison, who strive to decrease the homeless population by providing shelter, housing, supportive services and a sense of community in ways that empower residents and program participants to positively shape their lives. “I enjoyed working there with the homeless population,” Davis says. “I worked hard. I had to get up at 6 and Porchlight was so great to me. The staff was just excellent.
“Outreach was not a problem for me … to go out and talk to people,” she adds. “Because that’s what I did, I ran the streets a lot. Getting people out and getting them involved.”
Dana Pellebon, director of housing at Porchlight, tells Madison365 that she feels very lucky to have worked with Davis over the last five years at Porchlight.
“Sina’s dedication to her clients, her warm smile, and her can-do attitude was always inspiring to me personally. She has patience that I have rarely seen with anyone. She can talk to people and connect with them when no one else has been able to break through to them,” Pellebon says. “She is hard working and quite literally one of the best people I know on the planet. There isn’t a day that goes by where I am not grateful to have met and worked with Sina.
“Her daily life inspires me to do better, learn more, and help people,” Pellebon adds. “I love you, Sina.”
On top of working at Porchlight and founding Mothers in the Neighborhood, Davis helped start the Allied Community Cooperative and was an active leader of the Allied Neighborhood Association. Davis was a consistent advocate for the Allied neighborhood at city meetings and became a true champion of the Allied Drive community.
“We have a full basketball court coming up. We have movies in the park now. We finally got the food carts to come over here after a couple of years of having it everywhere else but here,” Davis says of revitalized Allied Drive. “The food carts come here every Wednesday and the mothers take leadership of that. I’m very optimistic about Allied Drive. We don’t see too many people putting their bundles in the rocks anymore around here.
“The residents have acknowledged that there is a neighborhood watch and the guys who was out there on the corners acknowledge that there is a neighborhood watch,” she adds.
Because of her sickness, Davis has not been to get out and about in the community like she once was. “I know, we as community leaders and residents, with our eyes open … have made a difference here on Allied,” she says. “Not that it wasn’t a little scary at times, but I never dreamed how much we could get accomplished here just doing what should be done.
“You should know your neighbor. Why would I live next door to somebody I don’t know or interact with ever?” Davis asks.
“Just yesterday, a neighbor – one of the ladies that just moved in over there – came over here and welcomed me,” laughs Davis. “That was nice. They were here before me; but I was here before them. I just said, ‘Thank you.’ It made me feel good. Who wants to live next to somebody you don’t know or across the street from people you don’t speak to. That’s where the problem really lies.”
In the neighborhood (and well beyond now), Davis has been known for her signature “BOOM!” line that she says (or writes on Facebook) when something good happens. How did that start?
“One year, I was invited to a big New Year’s Party and somebody asked me if I was going,” Davis says. “I was in a really great mood and I said, ‘I can’t make it, but BOOM, Happy New Year! Cuz I felt great!’ I felt I was worthy to say that. And it’s been boom ever since.
“Boom!” she adds, smiling.
I wander back over by Baby Luna because she is getting vocal again and making loud noises during the interview.
“Mr. Dave. It’s OK if she make a sound once in awhile,” Davis leans over and says to me. “That’s what babies do.”
I pick her up anyways and start rocking her.
“You are so doomed,” Davis says. “Daddy, is soooo doomed. You gonna get him, girl!”
I sit back down and I ask Davis how she is feeling health wise right at this moment.
“I’m tired. The cancer is eating me up. It’s doing whatever cancer does to people,” she says, softly. “But all the dying part and the crying part is over because I’ve been through it. I took two years of, ‘Oh, God. I’m gonna die.’ I’m tired of that.
“I’m not as active as I used to be. I don’t do morning appointments anymore … ‘cept this one,” she smiles. “I’ve accepted what I have … and I think that’s good. And I’m just going with the flow.”
So many people love her and so many people have been inspired by her, I tell her, and that must make her feel really good.
“Yes. That’s good medicine,” Davis says. “That feels good.
“To see all of those people out there for me on that day at the Boys and Girls Club. I felt really good. It’s hard for me to explain. That was overwhelming. To me, that was medicine that the doctor really couldn’t give me. I just felt worthy,” she continues. “I didn’t think I was worthy of all that. It was an honor to be among all of those people who were leaders and scholars and game changers. Having them talking about me and acknowledging me for the work that I do … the little work that I do … that was amazing. I didn’t know that I had made that big of an impact.”
So many people on Allied Drive and in greater Madison, in general, look up to Sina Davis as a community role model. What advice does she have for them – especially the kids – who are searching for some guidance and wisdom?
“Don’t give up. Just keep going. If things don’t work, don’t give up. If you can’t get in through the front door, go in through the back door,” she says. “I don’t know what to say but just don’t give up. Just stay focused. Just keep going. Even when you’re knocked down, get up. That’s what I did.
“I learned in treatment, to be aware is to be alive and that the same behavior gets the same results,” she continues.
“The best encouragement and motivation you can get is from people,” Davis adds. “I learned that the healing of anything is possible with the support and love of other people.”
People should make a point to do it more, I say.
“Yeah, they should,” Davis replies, “and do it while people are alive instead of when they are gone.”
Baby Luna is getting legit cranky at this point. This interview has been a long one although I didn’t want it to end.
“She keeps you on your feet. That’s good!” Davis tells me before pivoting over to Luna and picking her up and getting her to smile. She looks in Luna’s eyes. “You’re going to teach him so much. You just don’t know it. He just don’t know it. Look at her! I’m daddy’s little girl!”
We give a good, long hug and then we are heading out the door.
“You have a wonderful little girl right there … so precious,” Davis says. “She’s going to grow up really fast … you know that, right? Take care of our girl, you hear? I mean it.”