Home Madison Michele Mackey, new CEO of Kids Forward, leans into change

Michele Mackey, new CEO of Kids Forward, leans into change


As the new chief executive officer of Kids Forward, Michele Mackey wasted no time reinforcing the organization’s commitment to anti-racism work.

Mackey’s first day in the new role with the statewide policy organization was Jan. 1, but they were already familiar with the organization: Mackey had served as chief operating officer, and led the organization alongside Ken Taylor beginning in 2017.

Because of their previous work as an attorney, background in law enforcement and work as interim CEO of Forward Community Investment for nearly a year, staff know Mackey as a fierce champion for racial justice, according to a Kids Forward news release. 

“I have a very singular focus on missions when that mission is about marginalized people,” Mackey said. “That has been the work that I have done and when organizations are in a place of maintenance – they’ve got their mission, they are doing really, really well on their mission, they are not in a space of change, they are in a space to continue what has been set — I’m not a good match for that. What I’m a good match for is for when you need a leader who is not afraid to take a risk.”

“The world is in a place of change. Our state is in a place of change. And Kids Forward is leaning into that change and not running away from it. So that’s the kind of place that I want to be a part of,” Mackey later added. 

Formerly known as Wisconsin Council on Children and Families, Kids Forward is a policy organization started in 1881, according to its website. It uses research, policy analysis, public education and community engagement to improve outcomes for children in the state of Wisconsin. The organization published the Race to Equity Report in 2013. 

“We really focused in on and made a commitment to ourselves to become anti-racist,” Mackey told Madison365. “What that means is that we are actively going to not only identify and speak truth around those systems but we’re going to work in our niche, which is looking at the data, looking at the experience of impacted people in a community, and then advocating strongly with compelling narrative, we hope, to change that. And identify how you dismantle those systems and what you build in their place.”

Two initiatives that Kids Forward and Mackey have been pursuing are “ReImagine Wisconsin,” and “Youth Justice Reform.” 

The two research-based initiatives show that racial equity work can be accomplished when it is made a priority in the state of Wisconsin, Mackey said.  

For instance, in order to reduce risk of the coronavirus infection, Wisconsin focused on safely reducing the number of youth in secure custody across the state, according to the Youth Justice Reform report, which was published last week. 

“What we note — and we still have some research to do in terms of what the alternatives were that folks found — but what we saw was that during that time period that the number of referrals to county youth agencies fell by half of what they were the year before. So what they were in 2019. And so there were other methods used to divert youth out of the juvenile justice system,” Mackey said. 

Mackey said Kids Forward is still working through the data analysis to publish a report on why those numbers dropped but as the organization does further research, staff are meeting to discuss how the data can lead to reform in Wisconsin. 

The ReImagine Wisconsin initiative launched last year and is part of the Wisconsin Budget Project through Kids Forward. After Governor Evers announced his proposed budget Tuesday, Kids Forward will use the information gathered through the initiative to post analysis of the budget provisions for children, families and communities.

ReImagine Wisconsin shows what an equitable Wisconsin can look like, Mackey said. 

“It specifically laid out how it is possible for us — especially since there was a recent study that shows we have more revenue coming in than we thought we would have,” Mackey said. “There is an opportunity to reimagine what Wisconsin looks like, what Wisconsin’s economy looks like, what our community looks like with providing investment into communities and into businesses that creates an equitable and inclusive economy. 

“So we no longer want to be going back, we don’t want to go back. We want to go forward. And we want there to be opportunities for prosperity for every child and every family and every community.”

Kids Forward also works on healthcare policy. The organization is working with the Foundation for Black Women’s Wellness, Mackey said, on what the healthcare system looks like in a time of crisis. 

Mackey emphasized that none of the work of Kids Forward is done in a vacuum. 

“We are dependent upon working in concert with others because while we can crunch the numbers, the numbers don’t tell the story,” they said. “It is people’s lived experience that shines a light on that story. And it’s connecting with both grassroots organizations and grass top organizations and our elected officials, that help us to design and think about solutions that will assist impacted communities.”