“There is just so much going on in this area … the potential is huge. We are going to continue to have conversations with different organizations to support them in any way we can and we are hoping that will grow,” says Brenda González, director of community relations for the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “I want this to be a trusted space for everyone in the community that continues to grow in a way that soon we will have to look for a new place — an even bigger place.”
Tucked into the Villager on Park in the heart of Madison’s south side, the UW South Madison Partnership, founded in 2015, is a UW-Madison initiative designed to meet the South Madison community’s needs and foster mutually beneficial relationships. González oversees the space, which recently underwent an expansion and now includes five private offices, a computer lab, eight classrooms, three conference rooms, co-working spaces, a kitchenette, and an open gathering space.
UW South Madison Partnership partners with 22 community organizations and works with campus partners across eight schools and colleges, five divisions and two institutes, in addition to the Division of Extension. A wide group of community and campus groups use the space. Some of the partners that have been there since the start include UW Odyssey Project, the Wisconsin Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center, and the Neighborhood Law Clinic.
Many people in South Madison are familiar with the facility, but there are still some who are getting to know the South Madison Partnership Space.
“Because of COVID and everything that has happened in the last two years, we haven’t really had a lot of opportunities to do marketing. At the same time, it’s not needed because word of mouth has really been great. And we have been pretty busy here,” González says. “We’re not at capacity yet, but we have been making so many incredible connections and partnerships.”
This particular day at “the space” on a Wednesday afternoon is relatively quiet. There are a handful of people around the building including Dr. Fabu Carter, Senior Outreach Specialist for the Wisconsin Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center.
“But there are many days that are very busy. And we’ve had people who have told us that ‘This is the first time that I’ve ever actually really feel like I can open the door to the university,'” González says. “People in the community are curious why we are here and we’ve had folks who came in just to say that.
“But it’s just a great area to be in. Just look around … we have the Urban League [of Greater Madison] right here, the [South Madison] public library, the Nehemiah Center [for Leadership Development], Centro Hispano in the back, Boys and Girls Club, One City Schools, Just Dane, Literacy Network, Omega School, the YWCA,” González says. “It’s a beautiful space of many opportunities and more to come with the [Urban League Black Business] Hub coming and the Center for Black Excellence [both being built within the next year or two]. I think it’s going to be transformational.”
UW South Madison Partnership Assistant Director Merry Farrier-Babanovski, who helps manage the facility, grew up in the Southwest (Santa Fe, New Mexico, specifically) and moved to Madison in 2015 where she was a graduate student in education policy at UW.
“I was a grad student/TA for the first three years that I worked here. I really got to know Madison through this job and this has become my home and I feel very connected to this part of the city. I feel really lucky,” Farrier-Babanovski tells Madison365. “It just feels like a neighborhood – there are families, there’s diversity. It feels like a community. I know that’s kind of cliche but it really feels like home.”
Lane’s Bakery & Coffee, a South Madison staple serving delicious homemade treats since the ’50s, is a homey destination that is just a few steps away, for example.
“Lane’s Bakery is my hook when I want people to come and see the South Partnership space. It helps to have delicious donuts nearby at Lane’s,” González laughs. “When I ask people to meet me there to discuss the South Madison Partnership and mention Lane’s, they are always, ‘Yes, of course, I’ll be there!’”
The south side of Madison is the most diverse part of the city but has also long been the most neglected section of town. But that all has been changing over the last decade or so including the UW bringing its resources to the heart of South Madison.
“Looking at South Park Street, it goes directly to UW campus,” González says. “There needs to be a very easy way to say that everybody is welcome there and we want to make it happen either through the trust and the connections from the South Madison Partnership or directly … I hope someday that we aren’t needed because everybody feels like they can go in any space on campus at the university.”
As part of its mission, the UW South Madison Partnership strives to “facilitate new equitable, mutually-beneficial partnerships that create a positive impact for both the community and UW-Madison.”
“We are hoping to have more feedback from the community. What can we co-create? That’s a very important concept that we want to continue to push. We want to be able to really think about that connection with community … that our conversations are bidirectional,” González says. “So hopefully that will continue.”
“There are so many different things that happen here and we do have different goals. We do want to be a collaborative but we also want to be that gateway to the university,” Farrier-Babanovski says. “One of the cool things is that I feel like this is what is supposed to happen – you’re supposed to have easy access and an easy way to get connected with the university.”
González says that it is really important to pay tribute to those in her position as previous community relations directors at UW who have come before her who have helped to lay the groundwork and pave the way for what we now see today mentioning LaMarr Billups, Dawn Crim, Everett Mitchell and Leslie Orrantia who all advanced the idea of having a place for the university to connect with community partners in a space that is more accessible and responsive to community needs.
“There is just so much going on in this area … the potential is huge. We are going to continue to have conversations with different organizations to support them in any way we can and we are hoping that will grow,” González says. “The potential to have the Black Business Hub coming, that is a great opportunity for maybe the business school to bring some of the resources. There are so many things that I’m hoping will continue to increase that commitment.
“The Chancellor’s commitment to the community is so important. Her office is supporting this initiative,” she adds. “It’s very important for me to continue to highlight it because it is a commitment from the university; it’s not one office or one department … it’s really from central office.”
As winter turns into spring and summer and Madison, along with the rest of the world, emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic, the UW South Madison Partnership Space will start to be an even more vibrant and essential place in South Madison.
“We want to continue to be welcoming to all different people from all walks of life. It’s important the way that the UW South Madison Partnership feels to people. It should feel at home, it should feel vibrant and it should feel warm. It should feel like community,” Farrier-Babanovski says. “There is nothing better than it being a really beautiful day in South Madison and people are out and talking and enjoying each other … that’s the way it should feel inside here, too. It should be a mirror of all the positive qualities of the South Madison community.”