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Black Thought Wall launches in South Madison: “It’s an opportunity for the Black community to share our thoughts, our hopes and our dreams”

Madison becomes first city outside of California to construct Black Thought Wall


South Madison is now home to Wisconsin’s first-ever Black Thought Wall where the Black community is encouraged to share their thoughts and dreams, what makes them feel safe, and what the world would be like if all Black people were truly free.

“It’s an opportunity for the Black community to share our thoughts, our hopes and our dreams,” Vanessa McDowell, CEO of the YWCA-Madison, tells Madison365. “We are inviting the Black community to come and see it and participate in answering the questions whenever they see fit.”

Thanks to the generous trust and transformative collaboration with Alicia Walters, creator of the Black Thought Project in Oakland, Calif., the YWCA-Madison, along with local Black artists and community leaders, has constructed a Black Thought Wall on the north side of the Villager Mall in the heart of Madison’s south side. It’s a special place for the Black community to write their thoughts and dreams as they stop by and answer the questions on the wall. A dedication and a blessing of the wall was held by YWCA-Madison on Monday, Oct. 19.

“Our intention was to create an ensured environment that centers our experience where we feel safe, invited, encouraged, honored, and witnessed,” McDowell said at the dedication ceremony. “We encourage you to share your thoughts and hold and honor each other for our collective courage and vulnerability. We invite you to bring your precious Blackness, the beauty of our community into this public space.”

Vanessa McDowell, CEO of the YWCA-Madison, at the Black Thought Wall

The idea for a Black Thought Wall in Madison started at this year’s YWCA Racial Justice Summit, held for three days on Sept. 29-Oct. 1, which was built upon the theme of “Reconstruction Period: Centering Blackness” and featured many great speakers and presenters from around the country.

“We were in the midst of planning for our annual Racial Justice Summit this year where our theme was “Reconstruction Period Centering Blackness” and really wanted to have an opportunity to do something that was more actionable with ‘community’ around the theme,” McDowell remembers. “One of the keynote speakers for the Summit was Alicia Walters and her podcast was about her Black Chalk Walk that she created in Oakland, Calif.”

The Black Thought Project built and installed a wall for Black people at the corner of Grand and Telegraph in Uptown Oakland. 

“We did some research on it and tried to figure out how we could do a Black Chalk Walk here in Madison and we checked to see if she would agree to coaching us through it and bringing it here to Madison,” McDowell says. “It all worked out. She agreed to be our keynote speaker and bring the project to Madison. This is the first time that it has gone outside of Oakland, California. We’re very excited about that.”

McDowell says that Operation Fresh Start graciously agreed to construct the actual wall. “The Madison Arts Commission gave us some funding for the artists that participated in the dedication of the wall,” McDowell says. “We did a call to the community from the Racial Justice Summit to community partners and individuals to be co-stewards of the project.

There are three questions on the wall:

What do you love about yourself?

What does your healing look like?

Imagine a world where All Black people are without fear or limitation. Tell us about it.

Chalk is readily available for anybody to write whatever may come to their minds. Community members can write as much or as little as they like.

Black Thought Wall

The Black Thought Wall is a chance for the Black community to come out and be vulnerable and share, but also an opportunity for the non-Black community to protect, honor, and witness.

“For those who are non-Black, we ask that they witness, protect, and honor the space,” McDowell says. “And hopefully, they will engage in conversation of what it would actually look like to center Blackness in non-Black folks and having real conversations about anti-Blackness that may be something that is happening in our city and our community … and talk about how we can uproot some of this stuff that has been ingrained in us in a white supremacy culture we live in.”

It’s up to our community to protect and honor Black lives, she adds.

“It’s really cool to see something like this in Madison. It’s not something that you would normally see here. It’s an inspiration for all ages. We even had kids that came and wrote on the wall. We’re very excited about it.”