Many social and equity justice initiatives came out of the aftermath of the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families’ Race to Equity report of 2013 shining a light on the city of Madison and its worst racial disparities in the nation. After decades of inaction, people were appalled and finally moved to action. Felicia Davis, director of the DSS Community Center on Madison’s north side, would like to see some of that attention being paid to the Brentwood neighborhood.

“We have to stop creating programs to combat racial disparities that are not fixing the problems,” Davis tells Madison365, “and invest in those grassroots programs that are.”

Davis’s DSS community center – named for the first initials of the names of her three children – has provided an important outlet for the over 200 youth that reside in the Brentwood neighborhood area. She has been pretty adamant about empowering her neighborhood and getting residents involved in efforts to strengthen families and build community.

“When I started the community center, I really wanted to identify the community that needed our services,” she says. “I didn’t want to go to a community that already had a community center. I found out that Brentwood was in need of a community center and there were people who were trying to organize stuff, and we had a lot of youth that were getting in trouble.

“The Dane County Health Department had done a study about the kids in the community and the need for a community center. All told, there were a few different studies done on Brentwood,” she adds. “The city staff had also identified Brentwood as an area that had been underserved for some time and that it lacked safe, public spaces and structured activities, especially for neighborhood youth. A community center is something that was really needed.”

Brentwood is a diverse neighborhood on Madison’s north side that overlooks Warner Park to the north and borders Sherman Avenue to the east. It is a struggling community having higher concentrations of poverty than much of the rest of the city and the housing is a mix of single-family homes and multifamily rentals. Davis explains that Brentwood was a community that always had a lot of seniors but it grew into a community with more families.

“Brentwood is comprised of over 400 low-income rental units and about 200 homeowners,” she says. “It’s a pocket of community residents that’s kind of hidden.”

 Felicia Davis, director of the DSS Community Center on Madison’s north side
Felicia Davis, director of the DSS Community Center on Madison’s north side

Currently, DSS Community Center partners with existing organizations in the area like Warner Park, Lakeview Library, and St. Paul Lutheran Church to host its many programs. It’s a community center with no facility.

“I try to keep focus on meeting the need and providing the opportunities for our kids so they don’t end up dealing with teenage pregnancy, being incarcerated, and dropping out of school,” Davis says. “I don’t have a lot of education and experience with Politics 101 in Madison so I’m not certain who the right people to talk to all the time about getting the money I need to do what we want to accomplish here.”

Davis says that she wants to provide a place where kids have productive things to do and have role models. “It is important for them to see leaders who look like them,” says Davis. “A lot of times organizations create programs and they put an unfamiliar face to the program. You can’t fix a kid. They need to have somebody they can relate to. How can you help somebody get through something if you can’t relate and have never been there yourself?”

The Brentwood neighborhood has a community center that provides resources for middle school and high school students in the area. DSS’s study hall provides the time, place and assistance to ensure children complete their homework effectively and correctly. Students are provided access to computers and help with homework as needed. DSS’s “Rec Time” supports social skill development, provides access to computers, games and open gym. Students are also provided dinner. During DSS’s “Club Hour,” youth have the option to participate in culinary arts or talking circles where we discuss different topics that the students choose (bullying, drugs, future goals, homelessness, etc.).

There is science club for middle and high school students led by UW-Madison students. There’s a gardening club in the summer time. All program are provided for free through DSS.

“What I’ve done is really focus on expanding the programs,” Davis says. “When I first started, I had about 13 kids. Now I have over 100 kids that I serve.”

Kids from the DSS Community Center
Kids from the DSS Community Center

In 2014, DSS organized a Neighborhood Committee that consist of residents who live directly in Brentwood and residents created a name for the committee called “Neighbors Empowering Neighbors” and a mission statement was formed collectively:

“Empower neighbors to stand and unite the Brentwood community by encouraging families to help one another. The Neighbors empowering Neighbors Committee provides support for families and connects them to the necessary resources. By uniting our voices we stand together against the crime, poverty, and division throughout the neighborhood.”

Davis founded the DSS Community Center in September 2012 to bring together Brentwood residents, city officials, service providers, a local church, donors and community leaders to develop creative, effective and sustainable recreational and educational activities that will take the kids off the streets and provide them with positive and attractive options.

“There’s a neighborhood piece for every neighborhood center, so I go door to door to meet the residents and find out what challenges they are facing and what they want to see in the community,” she says. “They find out what I’m doing and then they come and volunteer and help me supervise programs and go on field trips.”

But they are a neighborhood center with no physical home. Summertime, Davis says, is the best time for them. “That’s the only time we have a sense of ownership because we go out to the park and doing our activities and doing our community gardening program,” she says. “Last summer, we hired about 12 youth worker positions. That went great. We had our own space.”

But when the cold weather comes, then they have to find spaces in the community to operate. “I’ve had some really interesting experiences with that,” Davis says.

Pushed further, it turns out that “interesting” means “not that great.”

The residents who are people of color are totally into the work she is doing to empower that community. The white people, she says, are not so much. “The white people seem supportive, but they don’t seem like they are focused on low-income and minority and poverty,” Davis says. “A lot of places that I try to take the kids … a lot of times minority kids aren’t accepted. I notice that when we go certain places, they are being watched like crazy. They are under a scope. It’s uncomfortable.

“That’s another reason that we really need our own home facility. We need our own location where the kids can feel a sense of ownership,” she says. “And that’s what they always ask me. ‘Miss Felicia, when are we going to get our own place?’”

Millie Mallard with kids from DSS Community Center
Millie Mallard with kids from DSS Community Center

For the past four years, Davis has been meeting with Brentwood residents every Friday. “We’ve created a support group so a lot of the residents will come and talk about their struggles and challenges they are facing – if they can’t pay their rent, if they are getting evicted, if they are suffering from depression,” Davis says. “It’s a sense of family for us.

“Residents get empowered when they see an African-American woman behind all of this. I will get phone calls from people who are really excited about it. The residents have become really involved,” she adds. “It’s creating a sense of family for us. Right now, we’re planning a Thanksgiving dinner party and then a Christmas party at the church.”

But they need more resources and more funding. “I would love to be able to see our organization funded like other community centers are funded throughout Madison,” Davis says. “All of our kids in Madison matter. One side of the community shouldn’t be getting more support than the other side. And it’s not like I’m duplicating services here. It’s an area that’s been identified that’s in need and we are working to serve that area. I can only serve so many youth at one time without a facility. If we had a facility, we’d have about 200 youth in that building, no problem.”

“What I’m not understanding is if Brentwood has been identified by the city staff and by the mayor’s office as an area that’s on their to-do list, why hasn’t anybody reached out?” she asks. “I actually applied for Emerging Opportunity Funding in January and we didn’t get recommended for funding.”

Evjue Foundation and Madison Community Foundation, among others, have supported her efforts but Davis thinks there is a lack of support from the city and overall philanthropic community.

“But I do know that leaders in the community know that I exist and what I am doing and they know that they have identified Brentwood as a neighborhood that has been underserved and is need of a community center,” she says. “I’m trying to reach out to as many people as possible to connect us to more resources.”

“I’ve identified a location in the community – a house – and I’m going to get it rezoned and we’re going to provide early childhood education programs in there. It’ll be a daycare center and it will focus on some of the younger elementary school kids. The vision is to have our middle and high school programs running full blast at Warner Park and have our elementary school programs and our day care center right inside of Brentwood. Hopefully, that goes well.

“We’d like to be able to bring in more motivational speakers to talk to the residents about the policies that govern their communities and make them aware,” she adds. “I think if people understand what can be done when they become more active in their communities and schools, they will be amazed. I’m all about empowering the residents and to take a stand and be a voice in their community.

In the meantime, Davis will continue to be a fundraiser, a grant writer, a program coordinator, an accountant, a community builder, an organizer and more.

“I’d really like to bring more African-American women leaders to the forefront. That’s been my motivation for years,” she says. “That was my motivation to start the community center. I’d also like to help kids like me and make sure that they don’t face the difficult challenges I had to face growing up as a teen. I was homeless from 12-19 in the city of Chicago up until I came to Madison. Madison saved me. I want to do the same. I want to open up doors for these young people. They have so much potential.

“Being a center without walls can be difficult, but we have been up to the challenge,” Davis adds. “I would just like to see more support.”