That was the main takeaway from “Madison in 20 Years: Future Planning in the Century of the City,” a discussion moderated by Madison Alder Maurice Cheeks at the American Family Dreambank last week. Cheeks’ vision along with the audience’s participation led to the consensus that the future of Madison and Dane County is held within the hands of the people it occupies.
Cheeks began the night with an icebreaker asking each attendee four questions: Their name, age, number of years in Madison, and a single word to describe the city. Attendees who ranged from teenagers to retirees described Madison with synonyms like: “Growing”, “Innovative”, “Cold”, “Rural”, “Microcosm”, “Expensive”, “Movable”, “Example”, “Progressive”, “Racist”, and “Quasi-livable.”
Cheeks said the point of the exercise was to acknowledge that this was “Everybody’s City” and the various conceptions reflected not only the diversity of opinion in the room, but the wide-ranging opinions throughout the city.
“It takes a sense of community to create an environment for success–and an acknowledgement of the mutual interdependence within the community,” Cheeks said. “People always ask me how my daughter is and I respond: She’s alright if your child is alright.”
With this sense of interdependence, the focal point of the night remained on the collaboration and enjoinment of ideas amongst the audience. The audience members were each asked to respond to several prompts on the projector, brainstorming in small groups. The first prompt was to respond to the statement: “What is our present day reality in Madison?”
Each of the groups had different answers, noting the abundance of innovations and their contrasts with the inequities in the city. The audience noticed a consistent nature of not being desperate enough to make true progress within the city.
Noticing the 15-year-old local entrepreneur and actor Ajani Carr in the audience, Cheeks invited him to come up and pose the next two question prompts to the audience. Cheeks noted that 20 years from now, AJ will be roughly the age that Cheeks is today. The answers ranged widely again on the second question as AJ asked the audience, “What are we afraid of becoming?”
“People are afraid of losing that sense of community and also not being able to afford it,” one audience member said.
“We fear an increase of violence.” said another, noting Madison’s growing population.
The third question was the hardest for some: “What do we aspire to become?”
One audience member said, boldly: “We should aspire to be what we claim to be now.”
“I aspire to be number one…the number one city in the world,” another said.
“If you want to push Madison forward, you’ve got to have conversations with people you wouldn’t normally have,” Carr said. “There aren’t enough different opportunities for different people.”
“More important than being a combination of buildings, cities are a mass of connected humanity. At their best, they maximize human creativity and human potential,” Cheeks said. “Madison is very adept at creating a structure of upward mobility…for most people. We have to be a city that creates upward mobility for everyone who chooses to call this place home.”
Cheeks ended the night with a follow up to AJ’s last prompt, by challenging the audience. He instructed everyone to reflect on their ambition for the city and then asked everyone to write down an answer to the question, “How are you going to get to work on that?”
The Alder highlighted the importance of being a public servant and what that means for Madison’s future. This sense of interdependence is something that developed over time, for Cheeks, starting within his upbringing. As a young biracial kid growing up in Matteson, Illinois, he remarked about his limited access to adults with careers outside of construction workers and teachers, let alone someone with a political background.
“I don’t recall really knowing anyone who had a college degree outside of my teachers,” Cheeks said, remembering how his parents stressed the importance of becoming the first in his family to graduate from college.
“We didn’t have a lot, but I grew up in a household that prioritized giving back. I’m confident my parent’s commitment to model that ethic is why my two younger brothers and I have all committed to serve our community in our own way,” Cheeks said.
Despite their dedication, his parents didn’t have the experience to help their sons navigate through college, similar to many of Madison’s first-generation college students.
“I didn’t have any particular direction 20 years ago about what I was going to be. I thought to myself ‘Someday I’m going to try to navigate this world’,” he said, relating his experience to many realities that Madison’s youth face today.
As a boy, his focus was using basketball to propel himself into secondary education. That was his ‘ticket’ and ‘dream’…similar to many of Madison’s youth today. He recalls training even before school started in the morning and being a starter on his high school team. However, after tearing his ACL several times, that dream eventually faded away. Luckily for him, his love for computers and tech, sparked in middle school, led him to a career with Apple which brought him to Madison. He is now the VP of business development at a global big-data company based in Madison.
His journey into politics wasn’t immediate nor specifically pursued either.
“There were three major flashpoints in my life that told me government could be a part of the solution,” he said.
Recalling the first flashpoint, “I remember my dad saying ‘we’re not going to hoop in the morning before school. You’re going to stand with me on the picket line’,” Cheeks continued, quoting his father. “‘I want you to see what it looks like for a working man to try to get a raise, and know that the reason why I’m pushing you to college is because I don’t want you to have to someday sit out here and argue over a quarter on your paycheck.’”
Cheeks recalls a long night of learning life lessons about the importance of unions in establishing a middle class and creating opportunities for families like his. He also joked about the memory of another young man bringing a CD of the hip-hop group ‘Hot Boys’ and that being the soundtrack of the union strike that night.
While he was in college at Eastern Illinois University, Cheeks, who described himself as very removed from politics still in college, had friends who told him to come to an event that their US Senator was hosting, teasing the idea that this guy could possibly be the first black president.
Acknowledging that there may be people in the audience who feel like they don’t know enough to get involved in politics, Cheeks said with a laugh, “Twelve years ago, I didn’t even know who our senator was.” But after seeing Barack Obama speak in a small auditorium on his campus in 2006, Cheeks resonated with the ‘Hope and Belief’ Obama had and related that his own upbringing.
“I saw how strongly he [Obama] believed that government could be a part of helping people, and that government could play a serious role in shaping a stronger society,” Cheeks continued, “He felt, through his job in government as a politician, that he could make the world a little better.”
In addition to his experience on the picket line, and his meeting Senator Obama, he described his juxtaposed experiences volunteering in the schools and volunteering on the Wisconsin Governor’s race in 2010.
“It became evident to me that for as much as it matters who is in state and federal offices, so very much of the quality of life issues that we think about in a community come directly from decisions made at the local level,” Cheeks said. “Issues like the quality of our schools, the cleanliness of our lakes, the safety of our jails, the beauty of our parks, the safety of our streets, and the infrastructure for growth in our city are all decisions made by local officials.”
Alder Cheeks took these cumulative appreciations for the importance of politics and his desire to maximize opportunity within Madison, and in 2013 ran for local office himself. This past spring, Alder Maurice Cheeks was re-elected to his third term representing District 10 on the Madison Common Council. Securing 83.8% of the vote, he was elected with the largest margin of victory in a contested aldermanic race in the last 20 years.
Before his venture into politics he served on the board of Omega School, which is a local school that helps Madison area adults attain GEDs. He also volunteered as an algebra tutor at Memorial High School, and reminded the audience that the majority of Madison’s public school students are currently minorities. He highlighted the importance of being a public servant and what that means for the community…and there being several ways of doing just that. One brother of his began serving in the United States Armed Forces as a Marine. His other brother is a special education teacher & 3x Special Olympics state champion basketball coach.
“There are a lot of ways to be a public servant…running for office is just one way and it’s not for everyone,” Cheeks said. “We have to reimagine the structures of society… and acknowledge that the way we shape our community to live up to our standards is by individuals like you finding the issue that matters most to you…and then you working to make that dream come true.”