Q&A: Peng Her Talks South Madison Promise Zone

Peng Her’s South Madison Promise Zone engages and connects residents in the name of safety, education and good, old-fashioned fun


Peng Her

Describe the mission of the Promise Zone.
The mission of the South Madison Promise Zone, or SMPZ, is to transform South Madison into a community of opportunity, with strong systems of family and community support for all children to achieve. Our goal is to partner with residents and community stakeholders to design a holistic, place-based, cradle-to-career system of education, human service, health and wellness, employment and community-building opportunities.

What progams has SMPZ put into place so far?
One of the first initiatives SMPZ introduced was Community Nights, held on the third Friday of every month at the Urban League, to provide opportunities for parents to spend time with their children, for neighbors to get to know each other and to provide a safe and free alternative for families. We have had over a thousand residents participate in Community Nights and have joined with over twenty community partners to host different events. The Goodman Library partnered with us to show movies. The UW Space Place partnered with us to host a Science Night that drew over three hundred participants.

The Catholic Multicultural Center partnered with us to host a sustainability event. We also help organize Eat, Play, Bike—a placemaking event. Placemaking is taking a public space and allowing residents to turn it into a community space. Every Thursday in June, the Urban League’s parking lot was closed to vehicles and open for residents to transform the parking lot into a community space that provided social connections by allowing residents to share their culture, skills, and abilities. Over a thousand residents enjoyed ethnic food, ethnic music and dancing, stilt walking, painting pallet benches, planting vertical gardens, riding bikes and spraying a water hose from a fire truck. Eat, Play, Bike was a community engagement event that promoted connections among the diverse residents to create safe and engaged communities. The participants, mostly families with children, were the most diverse participants of any event in Madison.

The Promise Zone is a relatively new initiative. What attracted you to this project?
What attracted me to this project was the fact that SMPZ was about trying something new in Madison ... Too often people of authority tend to think they know what is best for communities of color. I often hear them say, “Oh, I know what your community needs,” and then proceed to start implementing programs without input from the community. The whole impetus for the work of the Promise Zone is the grassroots approach that seeks and emphasizes the advice and ideas of those living and working in the neighborhoods as the basis for taking action to transform South Madison. Who better to know their challenges than those living in South Madison? Who better to identify solutions to the challenges they encounter than the people who face those challenges every day?

What are some of the biggest issues you think SMPZ needs to address?
In the summer of 2012, we administered a community survey that seven hundred residents (thirty percent of the adult population) completed. Residents indicated four main areas for SMPZ to focus on: education, employment, safe and engaged community, and health. The number one concern residents indicated was safety. However, safety concerns were not about violent crimes such as shootings … the safety concerns dealt more with the lack of cultural understanding between the diverse ethnic groups living next to each other.

How is this initiative is different from others in south Madison?
First and foremost, the Promise Zone seeks and emphasizes the advice and ideas of those living and working in the neighborhoods as the basis for taking action to transform south Madison … We created Innovation Teams, community-based action committees to identify solutions for the Implementation Plan. [This] is not a grandiose plan that tries to solve everyone’s problems all at the same time. Instead, the plan establishes programs to help one person at a time. By helping one person at a time, we are then helping one family at a time, one block at a time, and in turn we will transform all of South Madison into a community of opportunity for all
to achieve.

Where do you see SMPZ in five years?
What we are trying to accomplish through SMPZ cannot be done overnight. It took a long time to create the achievement gap, homelessness and poverty. It will take just as long to close them. It will take the whole community working with us to close the gaps so every child can achieve. However the programs and initiatives SMPZ established will help get us headed in the right direction ... It may take up to five years before we see significant changes in our programs. We need to be patient and let the programs continue to run so we can get good data to measure if the program is successful or not. In five years I expect to see improved grades for students of color, higher graduation rates, more families of color employed, neighbors who feel safe and engaged in their community and residents who are more informed about health and wellness. 

Learn more about South Madison Promise Zone on its Facebook page

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