Home Madison Forward Community Investment interim CEO Michele Mackey thrives through transitions

Forward Community Investment interim CEO Michele Mackey thrives through transitions

Michele Mackey. Photo supplied.

Michele Mackey, interim CEO of Forward Community Investments (FCI), says it is difficult to fit the various careers and life skills she’s developed onto a single piece of paper for a resume. 

Mackey says her niche is finding strength and building organizations in times of transition. Her careers have led her all over the nation in the Air Force, as a lawyer, in law enforcement and in nonprofits. In each of her careers, she says, she was fighting against oppression while becoming more aware of the systems fighting against people. 

Mackey, who worked for FCI as the Managing Director of Community Development from 2015-16,  says her entrepreneurial personality combined with her desire to take on big change in the world has prepared her for the new role as interim CEO. She has been the Chief Operating Office for Kids Forward, a nonprofit organization that promotes access to opportunity for children and families in Wisconsin, and she will continue with that role in a resource-sharing agreement with FCI. 

Mackey took the interim position after 16-year executive director Salli Martyniak left in December. 

In this new partnership Mackey hopes to use community information and data to help target investments and encourage policy decisions. 

“Think about the unique expertise that Kids Forward brings in terms of policy levers and the unique expertise and connections that FCI has in terms of financial levers. And what if we all could figure out a way to move different things together. And this (partnership) just gave us an opportunity to not only share my expertise but to share the expertise that is embedded in these two organizations,” Mackey says. 

Mackey also highlighted the shared missions and histories that the organizations had working side by side including tackling issues addressed in the Race to Equity Report, issued by Kids Forward in 2013, when the organization was known as the Wisconsin Council on Children. 

In the wake of COVID-19, Mackey says there are already examples of which the new partnership is flourishing including helping businesses, owned by people of color access relief funds from the federal coronavirus aid package and working with child care providers to stay open.

“The theme of my career up until this point has been trying to look out for folks who are marginalized and oppressed, and serving in that way,” Mackey says. “I think it’s very much just a part of my DNA.”

Before FCI

Mackey grew up in the Army. Her father was a commander and their family relocated every three years, living all around the country. As a young girl she remembers Easters and Thanksgivings in the military mess hall, sitting on her father’s lap listening to the conversations of captains and generals. 

“Some children learn about their parents’ restaurant or learn about how to work the farm. I learned about leadership and service,” she says.

Mackey always thought she would be in the military – that the military would be her avenue to serving the public. But one night when she was 16 years old, surrounded by military leaders including her father, that plan was uprooted. 

“My dad had gotten up to the kitchen and get soup or something and all his captains were sitting there and they asked me what I wanted to do and I said, ‘well, I’m going to grow up and be an Army Ranger just like my dad,” Macke says. “And they laughed at me.”

They laughed at her not to be cruel, Mackey says, but because up until 2018 women could not be Army Rangers. And although it broke her spirit, she says that was a moment when she really started to think about what it meant to serve, and what our responsibility to others looks like. 

Mackey says that conversation, and growing up in the military, has shaped her life. 

“I would find myself in these spaces like Silicon Valley where you had this image, and then you find that there’s oppression and poverty in those spaces,” she says. “And I would just find myself called to assist in giving people voice and giving them an opportunity for self-determination. Because I’ve been fortunate to be in spaces of power, to open that door so that others can have a sort of power to hear their truth and power acknowledgement.” 

As an African American woman with a Cuban background she moved through the world as a person of color but it wasn’t until she started working financial crimes with law enforcement that she realized the true reality of race and how it can “determine your outcomes from one small moment,” she says. 

“My idea was that I was gonna throw the big guys in jail, like the corporate folks in jail who didn’t necessarily look like me,” Mackey says. “And it turned out that the system is that — yes, you have these big folks with means, but very often, who winds up going to prison are the little folks who have made a mistake but also we’re just in environments with very little opportunities.”

She then moved to Madison and started working for the law center of the Coalition of Wisconsin Aging Groups. Over the course of two years — with a temporary $100,000 bump in funding — Mackey and a team worked to develop new systems and processes such as an interactive website so adult children could help their elderly parents switch their medications. Mackey helped develop a funneling system to the Attorney General’s office to help prosecute fraud against seniors. The law center went from having a team of 10 to a team of 25 during her time there. 

“It was very meaningful. You just needed that one phone call where some person who could not get the prescription drugs that day because of a switch and they were in tears and end up the adult child is trying to help but is frustrated and then you’re able to help resolve that and not just for that individual but we could then make tweaks for the whole system,” Mackey says. 

Every career experience has shaped her but, she says it all started with her childhood growing up in a military family. 

She recalled summers where unit picnics flew flags of Puerto Rico and Guam, and people of different demographics and economic backgrounds came together for a shared purpose. “They were committed to something bigger than themselves,” she says.  

And she sees those experiences and skills translate to the current COVID-19 crisis. 

“You’re seeing our hospital system come together when they’re usually competitors,” she says. “You’re seeing neighborhoods. People go from one neighborhood, the other neighborhood to drop off groceries for people. There are translatable skills, translatable background, translatable experiences, lived experiences.”