Despite having lost the 2014 election for Wisconsin governor to incumbent Scott Walker, former Secretary of Commerce under the James Doyle administration and daughter of Trek Bicycle Corporation founder Richard Burke, Mary Burke kept her head high while hearing what the “haters” had to say. In fact, Burke believes that losing the election gave her more confidence and motivated her to start working on her newest non-profit project: Building Brave, an online community of women discovering their most confident selves. Its purpose is to “bring women together to encourage them to take risks, to get out of their comfort zones, to have the skills and the know-how, so that they can be confident doing that, and to feel that they have the support of other women” says Burke.
“(Running for governor) is the reason why I started Building Brave,” Burke says, “It was only after running and reading a book called The Confidence Code that I realized I was not as confident as I thought… it was the election and reading the book that helped me open my eyes about how I still applied a lot of gender stereotyping to myself, I realized I had actually played small most of my life compared to my abilities. … It took the campaign for me to realize it was other people who saw things in me that I wasn’t seeing in myself.”
Burke hopes to have a global, online community of 10 million women and girls as part of it. Burke and her team plan to launch this project very soon.
Burke’s nonprofit work did not begin with Building Brave. She has made donations to Road Home, a nonprofit agency serving homeless families in Dane County. She has also supported the Boys and Girls Club of Dane County. While serving on the Boys and Girls Club board she was inspired by the talents and dreams expressed by the students at the club. Eight years ago, Burke and Kate Brien, a former English teacher, founded the AVID/TOPS program. A college preparation program that aims to help first- generation students of color from low-income families be the first to graduate from college. After over serving on the Boys and Girls club Board she began to see the potential and challenges of many kids in Madison, and that is what really what led her to invest in the program.
Now, more than ever, Burke believes that the negative stereotypes surrounding students of color and low-income students should not hold them back from achieving. The obstacles and issues they face should not be brought up as an excuse by educators or politicians to take away their right to an education. “We should never ever lower our expectations (for students) because we see them as deficient… (we have) to be like ‘yeah, I know you’re dealing with a lot of issues at home, but that does not mean that I am going to lesser my expectations of you.’ That’s what we have to have, but we need the students believing it themselves because that’s their most powerful tool, and they have to realize that there is always going to be people down along the line who just don’t believe,” Burke explains.
By expanding the program to all Madison Schools, allowing for more than 800 students to take advantage of the great resources the AVID/TOPS program and their partnership with the Boys and Girls Club offers would “change the norms around what behavior is expected and believed about them… their siblings and others in their family are seeing them succeeding and going to college, and it says to them ‘yeah, I belong in college.’ That’s a lot of this, whether you’re talking about gender differences, racial differences, income differences, a lot of it is feeling like you belong. That you’re capable of it, that you’re going to be successful in doing it. We all have that fear of failure, unfortunately, we don’t want others to think that we aren’t capable. So sending that message to others in the community and to their families that says ‘yes, this is normal’… Those messages are really important, unfortunately, too often it’s easy to conform to those negative stereotypes,” Burke explains. Thus, changing the negative stigmas that society often burdens these students with, into positive ones and allow the “doubters” to see them in a new light.
The most powerful aspect of AVID is not their impressively high rates of college attendance, rather, it is how it changes the students perceptions of themselves, how their family sees them, how their community sees them, and hopefully their peers see them. This fall, 300 AVID/TOPS students will be entering their first-year of college.