Coming home to Madison, Wisconsin after a public speaking engagement in Atlanta, Sabrina Madison expected to see another Black woman at the organization that booked her, especially since the organization served people of color. However, when she arrived, Madison recalled, “it was all white women looking back at me. And I was so disappointed.”
In early 2016, Madison had been speaking in cities across the United States and noticed that Black people, particularly Black women, did not receive the same access and opportunities as white people. There was an absence of women of color in leadership positions, and seeing the all-white crowd in an organization that served people of color really hurt.
Two weeks later she quit her job at Madison Area Technical College.
“I'm like, I'm just going to go to work for Black women, I'm going to create leadership opportunities for us,” Madison said.
Madison emphasized centering Black women and families. Wisconsin ranks among the highest states for Black poverty, with Black Wisconsinites being 5.3 times more likely to live in poverty than their white neighbors — the second highest poverty disparity in the country.
More specifically, in Dane County, Black women earn $15,000 less annually than white women.
“The city still has a ways to go for the average Black person,” Madison said. “It's difficult to retain Black folks in a community where you may feel unsupported.”
Under her brand name “Heymiss Progress,” Madison created the Black Women's Leadership Conference, a conference for Black women across Wisconsin looking for leadership opportunities. The conference has sold out every year since its inception, attracting people from states ranging from California to North Carolina. Following the conference’s success, Madison created the Black Business Expo and the Black Excellence Youth conference.
But, in 2017, still traveling the country as an entrepreneur, she realized a key environment missing in Madison was a co-working space that centered Black women.
“[It looked like I had] to create a space where when I walk in, I feel comfortable,” Madison said. “The Black woman that I serve feels comfortable. Their kids feel comfortable.”
In October 2017, Madison launched the Progress Center for Black Women, where she is the CEO. Through a fundraising campaign, the center opened its doors in Fitchburg in November 2018, serving the community and testing out new ways to help people. A nonprofit, the center focuses primarily on entrepreneurship, professional development and financial health, helping members through a variety of specialized programming and support services.
One of the center’s programs, Under One Roof, provides both immediate interventions and long-term strategies to help support people in need.
“Someone coming to us who needs a little bit more support, whether it's financial, whether it's mental health, [we] just really wrap our resources around them, and support them with education, sometimes with funding, just really helping them reach some sort of short and long term goal,” Madison explained. “We [also] do a bunch of community stuff, like we have kids who visit our space and hang out because we might do some pop ups with our progress van. So a little bit of everything.”
Another program is The Financial Health Academy, an individualized six to eight week program launched to assist those struggling financially. With funding from the UW Credit Union through United Way, the center pairs financial health programming with mental health professionals, addressing two major concerns.
The program includes the entire family, which Madison said helps alleviate the stress of doing it alone and creates generational knowledge around financial health. At the end of the program, each family is given $1000 to invest toward financial security.
Although anyone can take part in programming, Madison said the center focuses more on registered members since they spent more time with them and are able to personalize programs to meet their needs.
Members are able to take advantage of the co-working space, and a private membership site exists for people to network and engage with one another. There are different tiers of membership, ranging from $25 to $50 a month that grant access to different programs, though Madison said that if someone is unable to pay, the Center often provides them a complimentary membership.
Problems that drove people to the center were exacerbated during the pandemic, which also created a host of new problems. In response, the center shifted 100% of its time to respond to the immediate mental health and financial needs of the community.
“[When the pandemic hit we had] folks reaching out, feeling isolated and you can just hear their mental health has taken a hit,” Sabrina said. “[We had] folks who were just calling us just for conversation. And so what happened is that we shifted all of our financial, all of our resources to respond to those immediate needs, like eviction prevention, transportation, food, household cleaning products, etc.”
Last summer, the center made the move to Capitol Square, becoming the first Black-directed and owned space downtown.
“When we created the Progress Center, there was not another space in the area that was created by a Black woman, led by Black women where there was no white leadership directing me like I was, am the leadership,” Madison said. “Folks have created other spaces since then. But we were literally the first one.”
Her hope is that the center's downtown location can lead to more businesses owned by people of color in the area, especially on State Street where she observed a glaring absence of Black culture or Black-owned businesses.
Newcomers to the center — who often come from word of mouth — look for help with anything ranging from domestic abuse to confusion about how to complete tax forms. The center not only works to address people’s struggles but also to improve their overall wellbeing.
“We're nosy,” Madison said. “We want to know what else is going on in your household, [we’ll help] you generate more income. Make sure that you don't face eviction again. So we really look at our work like that, like, we take a holistic approach to the work.”
Looking to the future, the center's next big goal is to launch a capital campaign to buy their own building. They just launched a program called F.O.C.U.S., an eight to ten week accelerator designed to help Black entrepreneurs get familiarized with key aspects of running a business while providing a supportive atmosphere where they can thrive.
Madison highlighted how the program was built with the entrepreneurs it will serve, which will ensure it more effectively helps entrepreneurs and their needs. The orientation for the program starts the last week of June.
Gavin Escott is a photographer and staff writer for multiple desks at The Daily Cardinal, focusing on city and state news. Follow him on Twitter at @gav_escott.