His needs were real. His desperation was real.
Unfortunately, the money wasn’t.
After a month in jail for trying to pass counterfeit bills, Eric Upchurch returned to homelessness — but also a full-time job and a full-time class load at UW.
A tireless tenacity has gotten Upchurch a degree from UW, a leadership role in the Young Black and Gifted Coalition, his own business (a couple of them, actually), a new gig at YWCA, and a well-deserved reputation as a social justice crusader.
In fact, his experience is part of what makes him an effective advocate for social justice and a change agent in our community is the fact that he has actually been there. He’s been homeless, he’s been desperate, he’s faced poverty … and he’s come out of it stronger and smarter.
It’s one thing to have good intentions, and there is plenty of that in Madison. It’s a whole other thing to be able to viscerally and intrinsically relate to the people you are trying to help because you’ve been there before yourself.
At one point not too long ago, Upchurch was homeless and hopeless, facing a daily bout with poverty and uncertainty. Today, he’s the founder of ESUCEO, a strategic development company helping businesses and individuals reach their goals through business planning, business development, fundraising, investments, and consultation. He is a core member of the Young Gifted and Black Coalition, a circle of young leaders determined to end state violence and raise the voice of communities of color. And most recently, he became the director of development for the YWCA where he works to advance race and gender equity to create a more inclusive community.
“I love the real-life potential to actually be able to do some really impactful work and be a key player in that,” Upchurch tells Madison365 in an interview at Colectivo Coffee on the Capitol Square. “We have the potential to shift how social justice work is done here in Madison and how it looks being able to engage the other big players in a way that really addresses the goals that they haven’t realized yet and the changes they want to see. We have the opportunity to make real change. The sky is the limit. I’m ready. I can see it. I’m glad to be a part of it.”
Among other things, the YWCA of Madison helps people improve their financial situations through job training and transportation, and supports people in housing and shelter. Part of Upchurch’s job is to let you know about it.
“My purpose is to focus on the organization’s development in terms of better ways for the programs to be offered to reach our mission,” Upchurch says. “I also work in development in terms of funding sources and figuring out who are going to fund these great programs … connecting with donors and engaging with volunteers. Just expanding and growing our mission’s reach and engaging folks that really want to do this hard work: eliminating racism, empowering women, focusing on people of color.”
Tied in with all that, is the marketing aspect of his job. “We need to make partnerships with great organizations in this community,” Upchurch states. “We need to figure out ways that we can continue to reach those that are the most impacted and let them know the inspiring stories, the resources that we are offering, and let people know about the kinds of challenges our clients are going through and the challenges that Madison needs to overcome.”
Upchurch helps people in dire situations — situations he found himself in not too long ago.
Upchurch grew up in challenging circumstances on the east side of Milwaukee and went to high school on the south side at Bradley Tech. “The school had some struggles, to put it nicely,” Upchurch says. “People would skip their classes to go to other people’s classes … and somehow that was OK.”
Upchurch got involved in the college-prep PEOPLE program and was accepted at the UW. His freshman year he decided to start ESUCEO Inc. for wholesale marketing. “I got some spam mail telling that if you middleman merchandise through the distribution chain, we’ll pay you,” he remembers. “Connect us to merchandise people want to sell, we’ll pay you.’ I saw this as an opportunity. I figured I could do this myself. I started my company and I started looking for sellers and buyers.”
Despite his innovation, Upchurch was really struggling. He was 20 years old and had no money, no safety net. “I was surviving poverty. When your stomach is hurtin’, you gotta eat,” he says. “I would grab things from Walgreen’s. Never got caught but would always be worried that they would catch me.
“Things were really bad for me at that point,” Upchurch adds. “I was served an eviction notice. Some friends of mine connected me to some fake cash and, of course, I got caught with it.”
Upchurch was charged with two felonies for counterfeiting. It was his first offense and Upchurch says his public defender was sure that he would get the first offender’s program. In a year, he was told, it would be like it never happened.
“That didn’t happen. The district attorney at the time said that they wanted this to be on my record for the rest of my life,” Upchurch remembers. “They told me that they would drop the felonies down to misdemeanors, but that I would have to agree not to try to get these expunged.”
Upchurch took the deal and served a two-month sentence which turned into a one-month sentence with good time.
Life resumed when he got out, but it wasn’t any easier as s a full-time student with a full-time job and the worry about what his future would hold with misdemeanors forever on his record.
“I wasn’t having a typical college experience. There was so much stress and much of it was money-related,” Upchurch remembers. “Definitely wasn’t having the college experience of people around me … Badger games and canoeing and excessive drinking. Surprisingly, during this time, I was getting my best grades. I had a 3.2 GPA at that time.”
Upchurch graduated from UW-Madison with a bachelor’s of science in consumer affairs/business. “I was young and not closing enough business deals with my business and I saw another eviction notice. This started a period of homelessness where I was either couch surfing or staying with people,” Upchurch remembers. “I spent a few years like that and it was hard on me psychologically.
“Homelessness and poverty occupies your mind all the time. It’s hard to have fun. It creates a tunnel vision that can either make or break you,” he adds. “It’s hard to see outside of your need and because of that it’s hard to be open to other resources that have the potential to help you. I got to a point where it was just hopeless.”
Upchurch used meditation to keep himself grounded during these troubling times. And he never stopped trying to do business with his company ESUCEO Inc. “I was writing proposals and potentially had some really good deals on the table. I was close many times,” Upchurch says.
Volunteering at Freedom Inc. really got Upchurch’s passion for social justice going. He also became the community organizer and strategic consultant for Operation Welcome Home (OWH Wisconsin). His passion for social justice grew as he got more out into the community and he really began to see ways that he could make a difference.
“I always knew the world was effed up and that I wanted to do something about it, but I didn’t have as developed analysis as I do now around issues specific to the black community,” Upchurch says. “I didn’t see racism that much when I was growing up in Milwaukee. When I saw it, it was blatant. The structural racism and the covert racism is a lot harder to see. I was definitely surviving it without knowing it.”
Upchurch landed a job as the AmeriCorps Street Outreach Specialist for Briar Patch Youth Services. “I was doing light case management work and street outreach focusing on the homeless community in Madison with a special focus on runaway homeless youth,” he says. “Between working with Briarpatch, working with Operation Welcome Home and my own business proposal experience … that gave me the confidence to say that I am qualified for this director of development position at YWCA.”
Right around this time, the Young Gifted and Black (YGB) Coalition hit the scene in Madison and Upchurch knew he had to become a lead organizer in the movement. The Young Gifted and Black Coalition is a circle of young leaders determined to end state violence and raise the voice of communities of color. There’s never been a movement like it in Madison before. They are an energetic and grassroots, but also probably one of the more misunderstood groups in Madison.
People say a lot of things about YGB.
“They’re just some kids with no jobs spouting off.”
“They don’t respect their elders.”
“They don’t have solutions.”
“There’s way more than that!” Upchurch laughs. “People are like: they don’t read, they don’t study, they don’t engage the community, and they don’t have jobs. All they have is a bullhorn.
“From what I hear, people didn’t think that we studied this at all,” he adds. “They didn’t think that we actually had any analysis. They didn’t know that we actually engaged the community in developing that analysis to find solutions and put forth the demands we put forward as YGB.”
Oh, and they do consult elders, he says. “We’ve been getting mentorship from previous movement folks, Black Panthers, and leaders of SNCC, elders in the community,” he says. “There’s been some discontent with some of our elders. We’re making our moves and trying to be out there in the community. But the bottom line is you have to provide services. The only way you are going to really reach the community is if you are actually providing a service.”
Upchurch says that YGB is setting up a woman’s care day that will focus on black women, but all women are welcome. “It will be a day care of women,” Upchurch says. “They get a massage, have some good food, and just relax.”
YGB has also hosted law clinics and community gatherings and community barbeques that focused on homeless folks. “We are moving beyond protesting and because more and more people are willing to help us, we have the capacity to provide real services to people and be more helpful,” Upchurch says. “We’re always working to raise more awareness on issues.”
Upchurch says he knows for a fact that he wouldn’t have become director of development at the YWCA if he wasn’t part of YGB. “YGB let people know who I was,” Upchurch says. “Without being loud, nobody would know who were. But because of that, we were able to get in doors.”
The YWCA has recently hired three core YGB members to important positions. “When the YWCA started it was all white nuns and even in recent years the diversity was never like this,” Upchurch says. “Now, they’ve made a huge effort. That’s what made me want to work for them. I wanted to advance the movement and I didn’t want to be co-opted. I saw that the YWCA was hiring folks who really are the most impacted and changing their lives — [helping people go] from homelessness to earning $20 an hour.”
Upchurch is excited about the merging of his two passions – YWCA and YGB — at the upcoming YWCA Racial Justice Summit Oct. 1 where YGB will lead a workshop titled “State Violence and Race Today: Teach-in with Young Gifted and Black.” The YWCA Racial Justice Summit is full of important community collaborations like this.
“If we want to get to where we need to be in this city there’s going to need to be collaboration, but it’s going to have to be with the right people,” Upchurch says. “We have the highest concentration of non-profits here [in Madison] – 4,000 or something — some crazy amount. We know that there are people out there who want to do good things. The breakdown is that they really don’t know how. The other breakdown is that people think they know how but they are actually creating more harm and more barriers.”
It Takes Trauma
Upchurch says that Madison has a lot of resources and activism to make inroads on racial justice.
If it wants to.
“If we could get people out for Tony Robinson anywhere near we get people out for Walker-related stuff at the Capitol, we could do some tremendous things in this city,” Upchurch says. “Sadly, I think it takes trauma to force people into the movement. People who are really dedicated to social justice movements have often been directly impacted by tragedy.
“That’s what I appreciate about Madison365 … y’all are putting it in people’s faces and it has to be uncomfortable sometimes,” he adds. “That’s the nature of the beast. We’re in a city that is the worst in the country for a specific group of people. It shouldn’t feel good to be in that city. So, you all are doing exactly what we want to accomplish at YGB and at the YWCA and that is raising awareness of what’s really happening and talk about solutions. Letting people know that – whether they can see it or they can’t — this impacts us all.”
With the YWCA, Operation Welcome Home, YGB, ESUCEO, Upchurch does not have a lot of free time. But that’s the way he likes it. “I have a lot of things going on. I’m always working. But I feel like I’m in a situation where I cannot not work my ass off to make a difference,” he says. “I was talking to [YGB spokesperson and YWCA Director of Employment Services] Brandi [Grayson] and we talked about how we get discouraged sometimes. We get burnt out. People sniping at us. And we say to each other, ‘Why do we do this? Why are we working this hard?’
“Brandi tells me, ‘When you see injustice; you can’t do nothing about it. Because if you do nothing about it, a part of you dies,’” Upchurch adds. “That drives it home for me. I might not have all the answers in the world, but I have to do something. I’ll be OK if I change some lives.”