Problem #1: The black brain drain is real in Madison. That’s not a secret. Way too often, African-American professionals and college graduates can’t wait to leave the city. It’s hurting Madison.
Problem #2: White Madisonians believe that there are only two or three “black leaders” in Madison. All questions and concerns regarding race must be addressed by these two or three people and only these two or three people. That’s not a secret either.
Both of these problems have been going on for far too long and Madison’s Nehemiah Center for Urban Leadership and Rev. Dr. Alex Gee are adamant about changing that with a new program that they hope will transform the face of leadership in Madison and equip African-American leaders with the distinct tools needed to lead change in Madison.
“I noticed that many kids born and bred here in Madison left the city and did not see us as a viable place for their skill sets and ideas,” Gee tells Madison365. “The other thing I noticed is that Madison typically pictures two or three people when they think of leaders in the black community – none of whom are female. And they are all my peers and my age … nobody in their 20s or 30s. I realized that while we constantly talked about racial disparities, nobody was talking about leadership.
“We weren’t looking to leaders for fixing the ideas and when we did, we went to the same set leaders and not younger leaders who had more history here and more on-the-ground experience,” Gee adds.
With that in mind, Madison’s Nehemiah Center for Urban Leadership – in partnership with Justified Anger – launched the African American Leadership & Capacity Development Institute (LCDI), a program designed to prepare and connect emerging African-American leaders. On June 12, Gee hosted the graduation ceremony for Cohort #2 of the Justified Anger Leadership Institute, a six-month program that is open to African-American professionals who work in Madison-area private, public, and non-profit organizations.
“These are folks who have great thoughts and are strategic and they don’t think like the established old guard,” Gee says. “They are young and radical and Millennial enough to think out of the box. We need that in Madison right now. But being isolated in Madison and being disconnected from the established black leadership creates a very lonely and isolated space for them. This is a way to bring them into that network and ask them their thoughts.
“The idea for the program is: Let’s grow our own leaders. Let’s invest in them. Let’s expose them to people who are in various segments of Madison,” Gee adds.
The cohort in the program gets a chance to hear from African-American faculty and leaders who talk to them about topics which include: history of African-American leadership locally and nationally; systems change; self-care and personal leadership development; and collective impact. In addition, the cohort has monthly social gatherings with Madison’s established leaders to further the goal of building relational capital between and among participants and guests.
Gee says they are also trying to teach his students how to let their employers know that it’s not their job to diversify their organizations.
“That’s got to go all the way up to the board chair,” Gee says. “We’re also trying to think about how to be a socially conscious business in Madison rather than everybody doing the same thing all the time. These people know the people and they know the lay of the land and they can help steer their companies to not just doing what everybody else is doing, but doing what it takes to make a difference right in their own backyards.”
Justified Anger and Nehemiah’s mission statement says that because there is a need and desire for a stronger Madison for all, that they have focused on strengthening the African-American community. The Justified Anger Leadership Institute is a first for Dane County – an African-American faculty investing in emerging African-American leaders, focusing on personal, organizational, and community leadership.
“This [type of program] should one day be a requirement for organizations that would love to internally grow and support their minority employees,” Willie Glenn, a member of Justified Anger Leadership Institute cohort #2 who works at Madison Public Library, tells Madison365. “Alex Gee is a visionary for creating this concept, while Mrs. Miller definitely led us graciously through some very tough but rewarding subject matter. I am more than happy and grateful to have taken part in this historical movement.”
“Mrs. Miller” is Annette Miller, the lead faculty for the program, who has been intensively working with the cohort for the past six months.
“The JA Leadership Institute is a key program in this community because there are no leadership and professional development programs that seek to build the knowledge, skills and abilities of our area community leaders who are African American,” Miller tells Madison365. “There are key areas of development that are vital to the well-being and growth for leaders who also have racial, ethnic, and cultural identities that often are overlooked in leadership development programs.”
Moreover, Miller adds, many organizations do not know how to develop the talent of their diverse employees.
“Our program focuses on African Americans and the curriculum teaches leadership concepts which include generous space for how to lead with a black consciousness that allows them to be unapologetic for who they are and how they lead,” Miller says. “Furthermore, this leadership program allows the participants to develop their knowledge and skills of unconscious bias, microaggressions, communication, professional development, and how to lead and manage through conflict. I am honored to work with the students to watch them grow and develop into the leaders they aspire to be. It has been a great first cohort for me to teach and I am excited for the next cohort this fall.”
The students are also very excited to participate in the course and are looking forward to using the skills they learned from the program in greater Madison.
“The JA Leadership Institute was a great experience. This program not only helped me in my professional growth but also personal growth,” Marcus Fleming, a member of cohort #2 who works at Urban Land Interests, tells Madison365. “This program made me want to strive for more and go beyond all the obstacles that would block my growth. I know I’m a better leader, father, husband and friend because of it.”
At M3 Insurance Solutions on John Nolan Drive on June 12, each of the students made a Capstone presentation in front of their peers, their bosses, the head of M3 and leaders of United Way at the graduation ceremony for Cohort #2 of the Justified Anger Leadership Institute. Cohort #2 participants had worked together to develop and implement community-based projects that they believe will address a community issue that they’ve collectively identified and determined to work on and is aligned with Our Madison Plan. Cohort #1 members were in attendance and cheered them on.
“They all did research and made great presentations,” Gee says. “It was also a chance to show other employers that we have some really sharp people in this community and they are only a small representation of other folks who you don’t see.”
Madison, Gee says, is just losing way too many young African-American professionals.
“I’m realizing that there are young Madisonians who were born and bred here and grew up in the homes where social justice was the evening meal and they don’t see themselves in this community,” Gee says. “If we don’t develop them and give them access and resources to be a part of the change, they are going to wind up in Dallas or Atlanta doing really cool things.”
Gee and I take turns listing off young, talented, smart and creative black people who have left the city.
“We could do this for awhile!” Gee interjects. “We can’t have this. We have to start asking ourselves why we are losing all of these talented black Madisonians. We’re losing way too many because they don’t see themselves as part of the power structure.”
Gee says that this particular course is one of the responses to the Justified Anger Our Madison framework and it was important that it had a grassroots component to it.
“I love deferring to these folks. I love investing in these folks,” Gee says. “Justified [Anger] has been really careful. We don’t want to be known for programming. We want to be known for resourcing folks. This is an opportunity to resource. We’re developing leaders.
“What Madison really needs is not outside federal representatives coming and telling us what’s wrong. If we’re going to address Madison’s racial issues, let’s bring new blood to the table. Let’s build capacity,” Gee adds. “What do you all think? What’s working for you? What do you need?”
Maaneb de Macedo has been a longtime public health nurse in Madison. She is also a member of cohort #2.
“I have held a wide variety of roles in the health field in Madison, but the JA Leadership Institute has empowered me to find a meaningful role that is expanding my role and serve to our community,” she tells Madison365. “At this time, I am excited about working with JA and the court advocacy project so as to be an active JA leader in Madison.”
The idea to have the Justified Anger Leadership Institute first came to Gee a couple years back in graduate school.
“I traveled overseas a bit while I was in school and looked at how you rebuild some of the poorest communities in the world,” he says. “And you do it by investing in recognized leaders and listening to them and resourcing them because they can mobilize people and share ideas and they know the lay of the land.”
A few years ago he shared the concept with Carrie Sanders, who was on the Nehemiah board of directors at the time. The need to develop emerging black leaders was evident and the program idea was hatched and they began to organize what they wanted to see. They knew they had to create leaders from the grassroots level.
“Madison will anoint black leaders who come to the community who sometimes don’t really know the community and do not have the buy-in,” Gee says. “We realized that we needed to grow leaders. Let’s grow leaders who know Madison and who love Madison. And if you’re new to Madison, let’s bring this person into the program so she gets to meet established black leaders and emerging black leaders in her peer group along with grassroots leaders.”
It’s a little different strategy than the usual white Madison anointing the two or three “black leaders.”
“We have to understand that there are leaders that happen to be African American,” Gee says. “Black people don’t call black people ‘black leaders.’ Black people call leaders ‘leaders.’ White people in this community call us ‘black leaders’ … which means that it narrows our focus and influence.
“All of the leaders that came through [the program] we reinforced that ‘You are a leader that happens to be black.’ That might seem minor. But it’s huge,” Gee continues. “What that means is they can do more than just minority outreach. They can help companies grow. They can think about strategy. Some of these folks are great analysts, strategic thinkers.”
Gee is fully aware that he is one of those considered to be a “black leader.”
“White people have called me a ‘black leader.’ Black people do not call me a ‘black leader.’ They call me a leader. That’s a huge distinction,” he says. “It also begs the question: Why does this community have the need to call black people in leadership ‘black leaders’? Because if I asked them: who are the white leaders? Is [Governor Scott] Walker your leader? Is [Mayor Paul] Soglin? For some, it is, for some, it is not. But they realize that they don’t begin to know how to answer that question because they don’t have to and haven’t ever had to.”
With the June 12 graduation celebration over, Cohorts #1 and #2 of the African American Leadership & Capacity Development Institute are now in the books. Not only do the cohorts become close within the groups, but also between the groups.
“The cohort comes in as individuals who have little idea how to break into Madison’s leadership structure and they build camaraderie with each other,” Gee says. “They write papers together, they study together, they bare their souls together. They talk about what’s happening in the workplace together and they build strategies for that.”
They become good friends. They share networks. They help stop the black brain drain.
“Each cohort helps root people in Madison,” Gee says. “‘Naw. you’re not leaving. What do you need to stay? Let’s go out. Let’s get a bite to eat. Let’s talk.’”
As the now older guy in the room, Gee realizes that it is imperative that he exposes the young leaders to his friends and networks, too.
“My rule of thumb is that if I don’t introduce a mentee to my circle, then I’m not really a mentor,” he says. “If my circle is Dr. Gloria Ladson Billings, Dr. Jack Daniels, and Gen. Marica Anderson – then I need to bring the people I’m mentoring into those circles, as well. That’s part of what we do.”
Justified Anger Leadership Institute Cohort #2 member Rachel Azanleko-Akouete says that after going through the program, she is committed to challenging the status quo in constructive ways in order to produce sustainable results.
“I am also aware of the fact that I am black, I am a woman, and I am a young professional,” she tells Madison365. “The JA leadership institute training provided me with a safe space to learn from many other black professionals who are also going through some of the challenges that I encounter in my professional career. It has also provided me with resources that I needed to continue to authentically advocate for health and racial equity while practicing self-care.”
According to the guidelines, participants in the program should have a minimum of five years of professional employment, have potential for advancement, and hold a position that includes at least one of the following: decision-making, program/department management, or supervisory responsibilities. It’s a group that doesn’t judge: Some of the folks have been incarcerated or have previously been, at one time, on the fringes of society.
“That’s really important to have people from all walks of life because the skills we are giving teach people to navigate and succeed in Madison … and nobody is really doing that,” Gee says.
With the graduation of Cohort #2 over, Gee is already starting to think ahead to cohort #3 in fall. He says politics will be a key issue for the next cohort.
“As we increase this training, I want to bring judges in and start thinking about how we think strategically about political office,” he says. “I want to have a training for anybody that might consider running for Common Council or School Board or County Supervisors. I want to begin to mentor them.
“People need to know that they can do this, too! It’s just important that they have the mentorship like I once did,” Gee adds. “People showed me how to do many things 25 or 26 years ago that made a huge difference in my life. They helped me believe I could and they put a structure around me to do it.”
But aren’t you worried that one of these young whippersnappers is going to replace you as a Madison “black leader”?
“I am aware that nobody is really doing this for the young black leaders today. I’m also aware that older people are worried about being threatened,” Gee says. “I’m not threatened by these folks. I’m 54, man. I want part of my legacy to be that there are 25 people who can do what I do … or better. My legacy will be doing for folks what a handful of people did for me back in the early ‘90s.”