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Monday, March 01, 2021

Common Council puts $250,000 towards Black cultural center

The Madison Common Council allocated $250,000 towards the development of the Center for Black Excellence and Culture (CBEC) during a meeting last Tuesday.

Members of the Common Council voted 17-2 in favor of allocating the package, which will support predevelopment costs of the estimated $20 to $25 million private project to be located on Madison’s South side.

The $250,000 will come from the $2.5 million 2021 Small Business Equity and Recovery program, which the Common Council created in October of 2020 to aid local businesses owned by people of color.

The CBEC facility aims to provide a mixed-use, communal space that celebrates Black cultural history in Wisconsin and promotes the growth of Black businesses and community leaders, according to the project’s website

CBEC was founded by Dr. Alex Gee, founder of the nonprofit Nehemiah Center of Urban Leadership and pastor of Fountain of Life Covenant Church. Dr. Gee, a Madison resident for over 50 years, believes that the CBEC is a necessary step towards reducing the stark racial disparities in Dane County. 

“[Madison] is a great place for some. But no one says this is the best place in the world for Black people,” Dr. Gee said in an interview with The Cardinal.

Madison, which consistently ranks highly on lists of the best places to live in the U.S., has some of the most widespread racial disparities in the country. Black residents of Dane County fared worse in most benchmark categories, such as child poverty, educational achievement and incarceration than did Black Americans living elsewhere in the state or nation, according to a 2013 report.

“Our systems work wonderfully for whites, but not for Blacks,” Dr. Gee said. “Too few people have tied that to the lack of cultural reinforcement and cultural space.”

Dr. Gee stated that he realized the importance of having a Black community center while working at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the 1980s as a recruiter for minority students. He pointed to UW-Madison Multicultural Student Center as a source of inspiration for his current project. 

“When I would recruit people [to UW-Madison], they would ask, where's the Black community?” Dr. Gee said in an interview with The Cardinal. “UW-Madison realized that recruitment and retention could not happen if there was not a cultural home or hub for its multicultural students.” 

Kaleem Caire, founder and CEO of the nonprofit One City Schools, also spoke during the Common Council meeting about the importance of establishing a Black community center in Dane County to help begin to address systemic discrimination. 

“It’s very hard as an African-American to find a place for yourself in this community,” Caire said during his address to the Common Council. “Many [Black] people say ‘I do not feel like I belong in Madison, Wisconsin.’”

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Ald. Nasra Wehelie, District 7, echoed Caire’s remarks and stated her support for the additional allocation of funds.

“I’ve lived in Madison for over 30 years and always felt like an outsider,” Ald. Wehelie said. “I think the Center will be really key for the growth of our families, our kids and all of our Black families.”

Dr. Gee and his team have conducted several community outreach programs to determine public desires for the CBEC, an effort he believes will be key to addressing the needs of the Black community.

“Too much has been designed for Black people, but not by Black people, that people scratch their heads and say, ‘Well, why isn't this working? And why aren't people showing up?’” Dr. Gee said. “The Center is where we think for ourselves. Because we know what we need.”

The CBEC plans to seek additional funding through a combination of private and public funds, according to Caire. 

The CBEC organization has not announced an official date they plan to open, however, individuals close to the project have stated that they hope to conclude construction by the summer of 2025.

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