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With people of color in positions of power, Madison becomes a national model

Henry Sanders

Circle April 6, 2021, on your calendars.

I doubt that historians will focus on that date, or that it’ll be taught in any school. But mark my words — this is a date to remember. It’s when a predominantly white city handed over the keys to people of color. For the first time in Madison history, people of color wield most of the power — the official power, at least — over a city that’s mostly white.

I don’t think it’s possible to overstate the importance of this moment. With people of color holding leadership positions over so many major institutions, Madison is a national model. Let’s not mess it up.

This is a long time coming, of course. We are eight years out from the Race to Equity report that shone a light on the pervasive, destructive racial disparities in virtually every facet of life in this city including education, employment, income, wealth and incarceration. We are six years removed from the police killing of Tony Robinson. Five years from the founding of the city’s first truly multiethnic, diversity-focused media outlet, Madison365. We are a year out from the onset of the pandemic that put long-standing health disparities front and center. Almost a year out since the murder of George Floyd, which crystallized racial equity as the critical issue of our time.

Over that time, people of color have taken incremental steps. Two years ago – almost to the day – I wrote a column following the 2019 spring elections called “It’s Our Table Now,” highlighting the increasing number of people of color and women in positions of authority and a monumental power shift occurring in Madison. 

Back then I noted that we no longer just had a seat at the table, but by then had more or less taken the table over. Turns out, that column might have been premature. 

It was an important moment, of course, and felt like the culmination of several years of slow but steady progress. But at that moment I might have been thinking too small. 

Look around now: The Madison police chief and superintendent of schools, as well as the Dane County district attorney and sheriff, are all Black (or will be in a few weeks when Kalvin Barrett is sworn in as sheriff.) Black superintendents lead school districts in nearby Verona and Baraboo. The Madison school board majority is people of color. People of color hold four of the five seats that represent Madison in the State Assembly. And now, as a result of Tuesday’s elections, people of color hold the majority of seats on the Common Council in Wisconsin’s second-largest city. 

This is all in addition to the people of color sitting at the helms of some of the city’s most influential nonprofit organizations and institutions. Jack E. Daniels III is the first Black president of Madison College; Renee Moe, an Asian American woman, heads the United Way; Karen Menendez Coller runs Centro Hispano; Michael Johnson leads the Boys and Girls Club of Dane County; Lisa Peyton Caire is attracting nationwide attention for the work she’s doing at the Foundation for Black Women’s Wellness; Vanessa McDowell runs the YWCA; Ruben Anthony continues to grow the influence of the Urban League of Greater Madison; Alex Gee continues to educate the masses on racism through the Nehemiah Center and his popular Black Like Me podcast.

All of that power and influence was especially on display in 2020, as leaders of color stepped up to face the pandemic head on with efforts like the Dane County Pandemic Relief Fund and the Psalm 46 Fund, which raised almost $2 million for families in need.

So, even more than was true when I wrote that column two years ago, the table is ours.

Now the question is: What’s for dinner?

How will this new leadership use its unprecedented levels of power to serve the citizens who have entrusted them with running Madison?

Let’s start by recognizing that institutional racism won’t end overnight. We haven’t erased hundreds of years of American history with a few elections in one progressive town. There still won’t be enough teachers of color in our schools. Despite some of the business community’s true commitment to equity, people of color are still vastly underrepresented in corporate C-Suites and on corporate and nonprofit boards. Black men will still be arrested at higher rates than white men. Black women will still rank lowest on the pay scale. Our racial disparities – some of the highest in the nation – won’t disappear anytime soon.

But let’s also recognize the truth that groups who have been traditionally marginalized are now in charge, and not just in token ways. People of color have real power. That’s a fact. And that plays out not just in Common Council votes, but in what they’re voting on. 

The agenda will now be set by people who have been affected by systemic racism, not by people who’ve benefited from it.

It should go without saying, but let’s say it anyway: people of color are not a monolith. Some white progressives might be upset that their favored people of color weren’t elected, or that people of color they don’t like were elected. But we have decided that diversity and inclusion truly matter, and it’s time to live up to that commitment. Voters chose incumbents of color like Sheri Carter, who beat back a more progressive black female challenger. They chose challengers like Nikki Conklin, who beat a more conservative incumbent, and Charles Myazde, who overcame an incumbent to his left. 

Based on some of the reaction I’m seeing, it seems my white progressive friends aren’t all happy with the results. My question for them is: Are you going to cling to power indirectly by only offering opportunities to those people of color who are acceptable to you? Are you going to try to tell people of color what’s best for them? Or will you honestly live up to your commitment to diversity and give people of color a chance to lead, even if they don’t align with your views?

Don’t get me wrong — hold all elected officials accountable. Campaign for new leaders if the ones in office aren’t living up to their promises. Make your opinions known. Don’t go easy on us just because we’re Black and brown.

But do recognize this: you’ve been offering us a seat at the table for years, while making it abundantly clear that it’s still your table. Very often, it’s felt like you have invited us to sit at your table for a minute, only to send us away so you can do what you think is best on our behalf.

That has changed. It’s our table now, and we graciously and sincerely invite you to have a seat. I can’t speak for all leaders of color, but my hope is that we will work together in a spirit of collaboration — one that will set a positive example for the rest of the country.

Let me revisit my hope from two years ago when I wrote: “It’s time for boldness. Collaboration. A big, audacious vision. We have real challenges, and we’ve been saying for years we have what it takes to meet those challenges. Time to prove it, unified in purpose.”