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United Way’s Boardwalk Academy Looks to Flip the Script on Nonprofit, City Leadership

The Boardwalk Academy Class of 2019. Photo supplied.

Thursday, May 29 is the graduation ceremony for the 11 participants who finished the United Way of Dane County’s Boardwalk Academy training program.

For the past four years, the Boardwalk Academy offered voluntary participants the opportunity to develop and strengthen skills needed to serve on nonprofit boards, city commissions or committees. Keetra Burnette, the Senior Director of Stakeholder Engagement of United Way, liked that idea but she wanted to make it better.

This year the participants of the seven-week program were hand selected after a three-tiered application process. People were encouraged to apply if they had experienced homelessness, were underemployed or have relied on a food pantry to feed their family. Burnette said people who have had to navigate poverty and desire to serve the community are the ones who should be at the table when making poverty-related solutions.

“Take Madison metro for an example. If you aren’t a person who completely relies on the bus system, not the people who are riding the bus as an option but the people who have to use the bus to get from point A to point B, you don’t know what the challenges might be,” said Burnette.  

Often times, the people who are on boards that allocate resources dealing with poverty-related circumstances have never had those life experiences, Burnette said. Boardwalk Academy participants, on the other hand, understand the nuances, complexities and conflicts with the resources offered to people.

Zakiya Catlin, a participant in this year’s class, has had numerous negative experiences while renting apartments, nearly leaving her homeless and involved in two separate lawsuits. She wants to take the knowledge she has gained at Boardwalk Academy and her life experiences to help youth navigate the early stages of adulthood, whether that involves rights as tenants, college debt or financial literacy.

Zakiya Catlin hopes to help youth navigate the early stages of adulthood. Photo by Mackenzie Krumme.

“I am certain, in my neighborhood alone, there are Spanish speakers, people of color, older people and people with disabilities who do not know their rights as tenants. I feel like there is a lack and I want to affect positive change,” said Caitlin. “No one should make you feel less-than because you are asking for a livable condition.”

Like Caitlin, many people in the class have a vision and specific passions they want to peruse, she said. Aligning with the goal of the program, the material is centered around participants being engaged and active at board meetings, commissions and committees.

Burnette said the individuals need to feel comfortable in these sometimes-sterile environments, have the confidence to look at intimidating financial documents and understand how their experienced based testimony is valuable.

“A lot of times people feel like they were recruited (to the meeting) because of the color of their skin,” Burnette said. “But when they enter those spaces they don’t feel that [their] voices are valued or heard. This leads them to be silent.”

Previously, the class was free for participants and United Way paid presenters to teach at one of the Boardwalk Academy’s evening classes. This year, however, the stipends are flipped. The presenters are volunteers and the participants are paid $25 an hour to complete the training.

There is also a licensed childcare provider and transportation to and from the training. Dr. Al Felice, a cultural counseling psychologist, attends the sessions as a volunteer to support participants and help them navigate the issues, wounds and histories that this environment might conjuror up, he said.

Unlike other years when there were strained efforts to recruit participants, Burnette said, with these new incentives 30 people applied and 11 were accepted. As a mother of two toddlers and working full time, Caitlin said not needing to worry about a ride and someone watching her children was essential to completing the class.  

“That really helped to balance my home situation. I don’t know if I would have been able to participate without those things,” Caitlin said.

The two-hour sessions, held on Thursdays, offer a range of topics such as; Speaking Up: The value of your voice, the power of your perspective; Public Speaking Tips & Tricks and a Storytelling Workshop in order for people to articulate their experiences. Other sessions focused on what nonprofit boards, committees and commissions are and how they are structured.

In the future, United Way would like to create a Beyond Boardwalk Academy made up of solely Boardwalk Academy alumni invited back for more professional and personal development in addition to hearing about their experiences and challenges on different boards in their communities.

“This is the opportunity to build the future leaders of our community,” said Burnette.

Burnette hopes United Way can offer this course two times a year. They are in need of sponsors for the program and sponsors for individuals. Anyone seeking members for a nonprofit board and would like to learn more about the graduates can visit unitedwaydanecounty.org.