There are many words you could use to describe Sabrina Madison: community activist, entrepreneur and now, alder. The founder and CEO of the Progress Center for Black Women, Madison was appointed as the alder for District 17 in October after the previous alder resigned.
Having lived in the city since 2007, Madison also created the Black Women’s Leadership Conference, the Black Business Expo and the Black Excellence Youth Conference. Additionally, she serves on the mayor’s Guaranteed Income Taskforce, sits on the board of the Overture Center and is a member of a committee that selects future United Way board members. Prior to being appointed as alder, she served as the chair of the Economic Development Committee.
Madison, who intends to run for a full term in April, spoke with The Daily Cardinal about conversations she’s had surrounding the permanent men's homeless shelter — which borders District 17 — as well as her new podcast and her plans if elected to a full term in April.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
How have the first four months in office been?
Oh my gosh, some days it feels like I just got appointed. Other days, it feels like it's been more than four months. It's been just a lot of learning, making sure I got the right contacts for the appropriate city offices, getting caught up on all the development in my district. Thankfully, I already knew how to reach out and make connections and know how to find people for various answers.
When we spoke in October, you mentioned one of the reasons you ran for alder was because of conversations surrounding the homeless shelter that kind of veered into fear mongering. Have you seen any of the dialogue concerning the shelter change at all?
The conversations that I’ve had with constituents and from folks who are either currently working at the shelter or work at a city county agency that serves the shelter are more solution focused. They’re folks who want to be involved in preparing or helping out with the future permanent space in District 12. Periodically, I might get an email where it's just noting that someone might have set up a camp on a street where traffic is heavily passing by, and for whatever reason the camp is abandoned, so I may get an email saying [it] needs to be cleaned up. But for the most part, the conversations that I have had with constituents have been more on the solution focused side.
So, by and large, it seems that most people are amenable to the idea of the shelter being there?
Early on, I saw a lot of confusion because some people thought the men were just getting kicked out of the shelter in the morning. People didn't have the full facts, so a lot of my early time has been spent getting people the right information. What I've noticed is when they have the right information, they’re sort of like, “Oh, that makes sense." Like when I said, “Hey, they don't get kicked out — the shelter is just an evening shelter, and they get bus passes to travel to the Beacon [another homeless shelter],” people were like, “Oh, I get it now.”
I think as people get the correct information and know who to go to for what and how they can be engaged in the process, naturally, the conversation doesn't hover around fear mongering at all. It's more like, “Oh, I didn't realize this.”
You said a lot of the dialogue with the community has been about solutions [to improving the shelter]?
The solutions have come from the constituents. They have come from people who want to see the permanent shelter be something that's really good, useful and purposeful. For the folks who want to be engaged in the conversation, they don't want the shelter to become a building that's set aside from the neighborhood or the community. Some of them want the community to have some sort of access or entry into the building — they want it to feel more collaborative.
I'm not as well-versed on all of the permanent plans, so I don't know if that's doable or not, but I do know that the conversations folks who are interested in that permanent space are having are about what will make for a great purpose-built shelter. How does that building become part of the community versus being just this building set aside that no one goes to?
How's everything been with the Progress Center?
We celebrate five years this November! Thankfully, downtown Madison is really stepping up to help us with plans because a lot of our activities will happen downtown. Part of the only way I could take this job is because my staff are already in a groove where they’re flexible with moving around their schedules to accommodate mine — when I can be available for us all to work on projects together. Once I get through April, I may have a thank you celebration for dealing with my ridiculous schedule as of late.
I’m also working on my for-profit and permanent space plans, so I'm also in the process of having conversations about buying a building.
Is buying the building personal? Or is that related to the Progress Center at all?
A little bit of both. When I created the Progress Center back in 2018, I took the entire summer of 2018 to travel across the country and look at other models of Black-owned businesses and Black-led nonprofits. Some of the examples I saw were that the for-profit owned their building, and they would sometimes lease space at a lower rate to the nonprofit.
I don't intend to be the full-time director forever. At some point, I'm going to hire either a co-director or director, so I want the nonprofit that I created to be safe for the long haul. I was already planning to start a second business, and I'm going to buy a building for my business and lease a portion of the building to the nonprofit.
This second business is separate from the Progress Center?
Yeah. My for-profit life is ‘Hey Miss Progress,’ where I still do some consulting and speaking. I'm not sharing all the details yet, but the plan is to buy a building that will house my for-profit business and to find a building large enough to also house the Progress Center.
On the topic of community spaces, one of the things we talked about when you were running for alder was how many people were telling you they wanted a community forum, a senior center. Has there been any kind of movement on that front?
I chatted with the library folks about what will be included in the library space, and I found out that there will be community space within the Imagination Center that seniors can have access to and rent out at no cost. As a candidate for alder, I have a listening session coming up with senior housing development in my district, and I'm working to reach out to a group that works with mostly seniors of color to also arrange a listening session with them. Once I found out that there will be something in that Imagination Center that meets some of the needs that those early folks told me about, that was good to learn.
So far, what's been the biggest concern when you've talked to constituents? Has there been one concern that's above the rest?
The most consistent is speeding up and down Portage Road. Traffic and engineering are already working on that, and they've been part of the conversation with the constituents who let me know about the issue. For the most part, I've not had an issue where I have not heard back from city staff to work on it and that I felt was difficult to resolve. Probably my biggest concern is where we're going to be with a tight budget and not having money to do all the things we need to do. I'm hopeful that with Wisconsin having this huge surplus, some of that hits Dane County or Madison because I would love to see the expansion of CARES. I would love to ensure that the permanent shelter has all the resources it needs. I’d love to attract more affordable housing builders out to my districts — all sorts of things.
I saw that you launched a podcast last week. What was the idea behind that?
I have all these dope conversations with people all the time, and I really wish others could hear these conversations. The other thing is, when we hear about the most popular people, we hear the same stories over and over. But on the podcast with the mayor, we're talking about her learning how to read through Wonder Woman comics, [and] with Judge Mitchell we’re talking about how he texts his wife in the middle of the day. Those are the things that I want to talk about. And with Judge Mitchell's, there were a couple Black men in my network who hit me up who were emotional after listening to that episode.
I wanted to have conversations with some of the dopest people that are in my network about their own progress and how they got there, but more importantly, the listener will take home some gems or something useful.
I wanted to share those two episodes because I knew both of those folks [Judge Everett Mitchell and Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway] were going to be on the ballot on Tuesday. I want to officially have a launch event sometime in March or April.
Are you planning for this to be a long term podcast?
Yeah, I'm doing it in seasons. The first season is about elected folks. Coming up, I've got former alders Scott Resnick and Shiva Bidar-Sielaff, and I'm trying to get the Mayor of Milwaukee, a Milwaukee alderman and [Representative] Francesca Hong. The second season will likely focus on mothers/mothering folks.
For the podcast, the reason I wanted to start with elected folks is because I’m also exploring my own various identities. One of the reasons why I wanted to do a season on mothers was because I was a teen mom. I want to talk not just to other teen moms, but to people who are mothers or are mothering types to people in the community because folks who are mothers, they make a big impact that we don't always give credit to.
You're running for a full term right now. Do you have any big plans if elected?
I definitely want to organize a stakeholder group. In my work at the Progress Center, I've learned over time it's really good to have a consistent group of people you can go back to, to share information and receive information. There's no way for me to chat with everybody in the district, but if I have a little bit of everyone from within our district, then that means I have a better idea of what's happening, what people's needs are.
I also plan to organize a business walk because I still have not found a really good list of local-to-our-area businesses in our district. In District 17, we have a lot of corporate and national chains. There are some pockets of locally owned businesses within the district, but it's difficult to find them all and find one central list. Once we get past April, I’m going to make those connections and get out and talk to those folks. There were neighborhood groups, but they’re not really operating anymore. I want to make sure that we have a good business group because our district does not have a business district organized. I'm also going to continue to do my office hours because those have been really good with great turnout.
Something I definitely want to continue to do is network and partner with Sandburg Elementary School because I met with them very early on to put together a book fair in partnership with the Madison Reading project and with the Madison Metropolitan School District. Continuing to do education partnerships.
I met with the Dane County supervisor, April Kigeya, Mayor Rhodes-Conway and [Dane County] Executive Joe Parisi earlier this week about city county collaborations among the Common Council and the Dane County supervisors, especially around events involving young people. We shared an idea where we could organize spaces for young people within our respective bodies. Maybe we have a young person be an alder for a day — the City of Milwaukee has a youth council — so figuring out what that might look like. I'm somebody who spends a lot of time with young people at the [Progress] Center. I'm excited to bring some of that into this common council space.
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.