“For me to bump into grown men and to sit down and have a meal with them or a drink with them and have them tell me what Nehemiah meant to them as 9- and 10-year-olds, it blows my mind,” says Rev. Dr. Alex Gee, the pastor of Fountain of Life Covenant Church and president of the Nehemiah Center for Urban Leadership Development. “Just to be able to sit down with these grown men who now have children and families and for them to tell me now what Nehemiah meant to them as a kid. It makes me feel like a very rich man.”
Gee’s Nehemiah Center for Urban Leadership Development, a non-profit, community-based youth and family service organization that provides a host of programs and family development services, is celebrating 30 years of making a big difference in Madison’s Black community — and in the overall Madison community in the process. Nehemiah’s 30th Anniversary Celebration will be held Friday, Nov. 11, 6 p.m. at Monona Terrace Community and Convention Center.
“We know that people for a couple of years have just been cooped up and are looking for a good reason to come and celebrate something good and so we thought rather than having a typical sit-down banquet, we would have a little dance party and we’d have a cocktail party with nice hors d’oeuvres, and just let people who have been in the program, worked for us, been on our boards, or who have supported us around the city just have a fun night mingling and re-connecting,” Gee tells Madison365.
Friday’s community-wide cocktail party will include mingling, a social hour, a chance to meet the staff, and a dance party with the popular local band Kinfolk. The large Nehemiah family — current and former staff, volunteers, and those impacted by Nehemiah — will be coming together with the community to celebrate.
“This is really about celebrating with the community that has supported this dream of mine to start this company,” Gee says. “For 30 years, this community has supported and funded and spoken well of Nehemiah and I just want to have a nice night just to celebrate the tens of thousands of people we’ve served, the great staff that we’ve worked with, and the impact we’ve made on Madison with our programs and the people who’ve come through it.”
After a few years of planning, Nehemiah had its beginnings in 1992 on Madison’s South Side with a small group of young visionary Black leaders that had a dream of building up and empowering the growing Black community in Dane County.
“I had this idea of creating this community-based, Black-based and Black-focused human service organization,” Gee says. “With [sister] Lilada and my mother [Verline Gee] both being social workers, I was aware of the fact that there were only a handful of Black social workers in all of Dane County, but we saw unprecedented numbers of Black kids going to correction facilities, mental hospitals, and just getting in trouble. The big talk in ‘92 was gang aversion. No one was talking about reentry. It was really about how to keep young Black kids from going into gangs and getting involved in gang activity.”
At the time, Gee was working at UW-Madison in the pharmacy school as a minority affairs director. “I took a leave of absence for one year to try and create this organization because the Black population had basically doubled in Madison in less than a decade and people were just trying to figure out how to make Madison feel like home for everyone,” Gee remembers.
“It’s interesting — 30 years ago, we’re having the same discussions we did back then. How do we get people to fit in? The whole idea was that if Black children, youth and families could be served by people who looked like them and had lived experiences like them that social services would not feel punitive,” Gee says. “It would be something that they will look forward to coming to because they would be seen, heard and understood. And that’s what happened.”
Nehemiah would hire African American folks with lived experience that could really relate to the children, youth and families they served.
“It just became a dream come true. I don’t know if in 1992 when we launched if I envisioned still working for Nehemiah for 30 years because I was still in my 20s. I couldn’t imagine what life would be like 30 years in advance. ” Gee adds. “So very humbly looking back, I’m thankful that not only Nehemiah is still standing, but that Madison was a community where a young Black homegrown professional could dream big and have the community come around it and support it.”
Among its many programs, Nehemiah has an African American Leadership Institute which seeks to transform the face of leadership in the community and equip Black leaders with the distinct tools needed to lead change in the community. Nehemiah’s ACE (Academic Center for Excellence) program develops the academic talents, leadership skills and character of elementary-age children. Nehemiah Reentry Services provides a wide array of culturally competent and relevant programs to meet the needs of men who are leaving jail or prison.
In 2014, Gee created Justified Anger, under the Nehemiah umbrella, with the mission to “eliminate racial disparities and create opportunities that empower the African-American community to achieve its full potential and prosper.”
“This 30th anniversary year is also a way of me saying ‘thank you’ to this community that has really honored and respected my leadership and my voice,” he says. “I feel very fortunate and very honored to serve in this community in the various capacities in which I have.
“The interesting thing is we just put our heads down and just did the work and a decade went by then another decade went by and another went by,” Gee adds. “We had hoped to make an impact and we did and it’s far greater than what I imagined it being 30 years ago.”
Nehemiah has become a vital resource in the Madison community giving loans to people who have never gotten loans, finding jobs to people who have never had jobs, and providing opportunities to people who have never had opportunities before.
“Looking back … our folks have touched lives, we’ve advocated for people, we’ve helped folks who are homeless, we’ve counseled moms who are single and struggling,” Gee says.
Gee adds that one woman sent his sister, Lilada Gee, a note that said, “There’s hardly a Black girl who came of age in the ’90s who was not somehow touched by Nehemiah’s programs and its work in the schools and in the community. “
“When you started hearing that, it makes me grateful for the community that envisioned this. It made me feel grateful for the family members and community members who helped me start this,” Gee says. “I just feel so proud of my staff and my team and the community who trusted us for services that I feel that a celebration is in order.
“I just want to exhale and celebrate with the community for the great work that we’ve been allowed to do in this community. Who would have thought 30 years ago that a small, independent faith-based Black-led social service agency that had no national funding and no state funding would still be around 30 years later having served tens of thousands of people just because we knew it was the right thing to do? That just blows my mind and I can’t wait to celebrate that fact with hundreds of people Friday night.”
Nehemiah’s 30th Anniversary Celebration will be held Friday, Nov. 11, 6 p.m. at Monona Terrace Community and Convention Center.
To register, click here.