Innovation Inc.

Unique programs across the Madison area provide inspiring and interesting models for successful kids and community

100state co-founder Niko Skievaski helps combine new ideas and community involvement.

100state co-founder Niko Skievaski helps combine new ideas and community involvement.

PHOTO BY TIMOTHY HUGHES

Co-working spaces are a radidly growing trend—some 2,500 Madison workers set up shop in these facilities across the city—but 100state co-founders Michael Fenchel and Niko Skievaski wanted to create something more. Sprawled across the fourth floor of the old Madison Children’s Museum and branding themselves “A Creative Community of Passionate Problem-Solvers,” about sixty vetted members share space and collaborate on projects. 

“First and foremost we want people who want to work with other people, who want to be part of something more than what they can do on their own,” says director Joe Sweeney. “Our community is here to solve problems, to innovate and collaborate. And if we see the same problem coming up with the government, with small businesses, with nonprofits, that’s where we need to see innovation because that’s where solutions are needed.”

100state holds free brainstorming sessions for any company or organization that asks, providing access to its members, who run the gamut from medical engineers to global startup entrepreneurs. A wall in the main room tracks ongoing collaborations with businesses across the community, and free computer coding classes are held on Thursdays. Its 100 Conversations with 100 People You Should Know project sparks new partnerships, like that with Urban League CEO Kaleem Caire: Now a mentoring pilot program has launched to connect Urban League kids with 100state members to learn things like blogging, social media and coding.

“I think we’re uniquely positioned to give back and help make Madison a better place,” says Sweeney.

Indigenous Inspiration

Reverend Dr. Alex Gee founded the Nehemiah Center for Urban Leadership Development with a key guiding principle: that South Madison’s African American professionals could give back to the community by serving as both examples and mentors to its children.

PHOTO BY ADAM RYAN MORRIS

Alex Gee’s Nehemiah Center helps professionals give back.

 

Among the many programs and services provided at the nonprofit, two innovative initiatives address Madison’s achievement gap under the guidance of people students can
relate to: Academic Center for Excellence, or ACE, and Learning is Our Greatest Hope For Tomorrow, or LIGHT. The six-week, full-day, cross-cultural ACE summer program prepares K–5 kids and their parents for the academic school year, focusing on not only reading and math skills but confidence and conflict resolution as well. LIGHT matches volunteer mentors with high school kids for tutoring, college-prep guidance and relationship building.

“What we do is not as special as how and why we do,” says Gee. “Nehemiah was designed by people who were indigenous to South Madison. The whole idea was that through cultural affirmation, we could attract, engage and empower the kids.”

For Gee, it’s personal. His mother, a high school dropout and divorced single mom, moved to South Madison from Chicago in 1970 to a community that welcomed and supported her. He says she utilized social services and neighborhood support to not only earn her high school degree, but also to become a dean’s list student at UW–Madison and raise two children who also went on to earn multiple UW–Madison degrees and become community leaders. Unfortunately, he says, that same welcome mat is not extended today.

“I have an earned doctorate degree, but that all started with a woman on welfare being welcomed into this community. I literally felt like they cheered us on, and it breaks my heart because Madison does not do that anymore,” says Gee. “My sister and I had the right conditions to grow, and so Nehemiah was created to duplicate those conditions.”

Farm to Future

From State Street to South Madison to the School of Business and beyond, Madison-area organizations are discovering new ways to foster knowledge and creativity.

PHOTO COURTESY OF GOODMAN SEED TO TABLE

The Goodman Community Center’s Seed to Table program connects students with valuable food experiences. 

For struggling high school students at risk for dropping out, farming and food production have become an alternative way out of trouble and into the workplace. Goodman Community Center’s Seed to Table program offers an opportunity to earn both credit and money. An accredited full-day curriculum, Seed to Table teaches urban agriculture and culinary arts through practical experience on the farm, in the kitchen and in the classroom. The recipe for its success? Making subjects like science, math and history relevant and accessible. Culinary Math, for example, focuses on taking measurements, reading recipes, cost analysis for ordering food, inventory management and payroll. English classes study books such as Cooked, a memoir about a former gang member turned successful chef.

Each year about twenty summer-school students and twelve school-year students plant and harvest vegetables, tend chickens and keep bees, producing a portion of the food that feeds the on-site child care, preschooler, elementary and middle school campers and TeenWorks students; accommodate community center meals, senior citizen lunches and Ironwood Café customers; and donate to the food pantry. They not only farm and prep the food, they also gain valuable restaurant and catering experience, working events for 150 to 200 people and even earning a paycheck for after-school or weekend work.

“In general, the students really like the opportunity to be able to earn money from what they’re learning in school to help their families now,” says Seed to Table director Keith Pollock. “But we really push students to think about going on to college and what goals and aspirations they have.”

Gemstone in the Rough

Education expert Tammy Conrad was a struggling but skeptical high school-educated mom when a Families and Schools Together, Inc., parent partner first approached her back in 1989. Today she is an international FAST trainer with a master’s degree, and she creits her FAST experience for that. More importantly, she says it provided critical support that allowed her to foster genuine relationships with her children and the community.

“I just think it’s fascinating that something that looks so simple is so complex, and so incredibly powerful,” says Conrad of the program founded by then UW–Madison professor Lynn McDonald. “It really makes changes not just within a family system but in a school system and a larger community.”

Although the nonprofit, evidence-based parent-empowerment program is twenty-five years old and is now in thirteen countries across the globe, FAST communications director Amy Hutchinson calls it a “gemstone in the rough,” saying many who could benefit from the program still don’t know it exists. FAST brings together multiple families, teachers and community members for eight weekly meetings to share meals and participate in structured social activities, scientifically proven to reduce behavioral problems in children and improve academic performance. FAST, along with a handful of partner organizations, was recently awarded a large federal grant called Investing in Innovation, which will reach more than four thousand families with kindergarten-age children to improve low-performing schools in disadvantaged communities.

“FAST helps parents find a support system within their community and make connections with the school,” says Hutchinson. “People need people, and when others reach out and show they care, it has a huge impact on the lives of parents and children.”

Camp Creativity

PHOTO COURTESY OF THE YOUTH ENTREPRENEUR CAMP

For one week each summer, twenty-five kids entering seventh, eighth and ninth grades attend Youth Entrepreneur Camp at UW–Madison’s Grainger Hall, exploring every aspect of business development and taking field trips to area businesses for behind-the-scenes learning. Each student develops his or her own business ideas: How do you choose a business? What are your passions? What have you learned over the years that might translate into a business? Students then work in teams on a lemonade stand competition à la The Apprentice, with all profits funneling into a scholarship fund that allows low-income students to participate in the camp.

“What’s so interesting about the camp is the diversity,” says camp director Julie Wood of the UW–Madison Small Business Development Center. A Department of Public Instruction scholarship also helps steer students of color and low-income students to the camp, creating an eclectic mix of students that more accurately reflects the community. Area businesses have also stepped up to fund the program, including Findorff Construction, Midwest Prototyping, Wisconsin Biotech Happy Hour and Credible Consulting, along with a handful of private donors. At the end of the week each kid has a business card, a professionally developed idea, a presentation for family and friends and, ideally, a burgeoning sense of inspiration.

“We track how they see themselves, their self-perception and their entrepreneurial knowledge, and it always increases greatly,” says Wood. “Parents just love the camp.”

Scene Changer

More than just a twenty-five-day wilderness expedition targeting at-risk, disconnected and court-involved teens and young adults, Forward Learning Youth and Adults aims to support entire families with education, after-care and a curriculum based on restorative justice principles.

“Whether it’s mental health issues or alcohol or drugs or depression or anxiety or anger, or they’re just kind of lost, going with the flow of life, they don’t really have a whole lot of traction in anything,” says co-founder and co-director Jessie Kushner. “We wanted to create a program that would focus on the whole family.”

The expedition includes eighteen days of backpacking Minnesota’s Superior Hiking Trail, a ropes course, a solo two-day expedition, nightly group meetings and two days of community service. Participants are taught tools for conflict resolution, communication and gratitude expression while, back at the drop-in center in Madison, parents participate in skills and support groups. The expedition wraps up with a family seminar at the end, and afterward alumni have access to mediation services, mentoring and a licensed therapist on staff.

“Co-founder Troy Gosz and I believe that you can’t just parachute somebody out of their environment, try to make their life better, and then put them back in the same environment,” says Kushner. “Sometimes the parents making a subtle shift can be enough to make the whole scene change.” 

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