The 25 Most Influential People in Greater Madison
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Michael Johnson: Payback Man
Michael Johnson, CEO of Boys & Girls Clubs of Dane County, was humbled by this “Most Influential” recognition, and he was reluctant to accept it because he wants the focus to be on the children he’s trying to help and other nonprofit leaders and volunteers who do tremendous work on behalf of children and families.
When you come from humble beginnings (the projects in Chicago) humility carries over, but as someone whose life was transformed by education — including an MBA from the University of Phoenix and a bachelor’s degree from Chicago State University — Johnson is devoting himself to improving the educational attainment of others.
Toward that end, he’s established partnerships with local businesses and organizations. He’s launched a drive to raise $15 million to expand tutoring and mentoring programs in public schools, and he’s led the Boys & Girls Clubs’ AVID/TOPS program, which has produced high graduation rates for four consecutive years. More than 85% of participating students are currently enrolled in local colleges and universities.
The Boys & Girls Clubs were Johnson’s sanctuary growing up, and now he’s paying the organization back by “paying it forward.”
Brenda Konkel: Tireless Progressive
You might find her solutions compassionate but unworkable, but there is no doubting the local influence of a woman who didn’t let an electoral defeat stop her. Since leaving office five years ago, former Madison alder Brenda Konkel has reminded us (in both word and deed) that she’s not going anywhere, and she’s remained true to that vow, serving as both community advocate and critic of any insufficiently forward institution.
Konkel’s recent homeless advocacy is the latest example of her influence. While the thought of compact homes for the homeless strikes many as bizarre, Konkel sees a sheltering solution that offers the homeless some measure of dignity. In a community of such tiny homes, separate shared buildings offer things the individual homes don’t (electricity, water, bathrooms, and showers).
Her critics accuse her of championing victimhood, and her acerbic style sometimes causes even her admirers to cringe, but her progressive bona fides are unassailable. Her blog, Forward Lookout, chronicles the goings-on at City Hall, and with her time split between organizations like the Social Justice Center, Progressive Dane, and the Tenant Resource Center, Konkel demonstrates that you don’t have to be an elected official to be a difference-maker.
Erica Laughlin: Diversifier
As another Madisonian who works on behalf of disadvantaged populations, Erica Laughlin understands the value of diversity. Laughlin, director of the UW-Madison IT Academy, is diversifying the largely white male technology industry by providing technological career directions to pre-college minority students.
Since only a small percentage of Wisconsin minority high school graduates are considered “well prepared” for UW-Madison, it’s more difficult to build a diverse pipeline of future IT professionals. Programs like the ITA can help leverage even these low numbers, particularly now that its methodology is shared with groups like Big Brothers Big Sisters and the Madison Urban League, which is developing its own version of the ITA.
Laughlin has steadily built the ITA, which is part of the university’s diversity initiative, to serve nearly 150 students; in the past year, the program expanded to serve disadvantaged Native Americans statewide. Of the students who have completed the program, the vast majority (98%) have gone on to attend a post-secondary institution, and many have earned degrees in fields like computer science, engineering, law, and biochemistry.
The program does require some pre-college dedication, but in building a larger pipeline for the IT sector, Laughlin also gets local high school kids to focus on academic preparation, technological literacy, leadership, and community service.
Tim Metcalfe: Festive Fundraiser
Tim Metcalfe is living proof that no good deed goes unpunished. If his World’s Largest Brat Fest isn’t lambasted for serving brats made by Johnsonville, whose CEO donated to Gov. Scott Walker, its organizers have to cancel speaking invitations to people with controversial messages. Still, an event that he’d prefer to remain blessedly nonpolitical goes on, raising money for local charities and moving a massive number of sausages (more than 3 million served).
Perhaps someday the focus will be on the $1.4 million the event has raised, but the last guy to complain is Metcalfe, the co-owner of Metcalfe Markets. From his commitment to sustainability to his promotion of locally produced food to his support of education via the Boys & Girls Clubs’ AVID/Tops program, he’s one grocer who’s always ahead of the societal curve.
The needs of Madison’s homeless population have been a more recent focus. Metcalfe is committed enough to have spent two nights during the 2013 holiday season posing as a homeless man and living on the streets of Madison. After capturing the experience on video (shared on social media) and posting a request for supplies on Facebook, he helped collect an assortment of clothing, boots, blankets, and cash donations for the community’s most vulnerable people.
Joe Parisi: Public CEO
Dane County Executive Joe Parisi has rolled up his sleeves on many issues — some fundamental, some transformative. Improving the county’s fiscal position and rebuilding local roads are only the start — it’s his problem-solving that really stands out.
Nowhere is that more vital than in keeping local lakes clean, which is crucial for business and tourism. To reduce phosphorous from storm runoff, the county capital budget includes $500,000 for the creation of a manure drop-off site on County Trunk Hwy. K. One of the biggest challenges farmers face is manure management, so instead of spreading manure when their storage runs out, farmers will truck the excess to a drop-off shed, where it will be piped into a manure digester and used to generate electricity. It’s a nuts-and-bolts solution to an urgent problem and is perfectly aligned with the adaptive management encouraged by the Environmental Protection Agency.
In addition, new multi-use pavilions under construction at the Alliant Energy Center will enable Madison to keep the World Dairy Expo, which was being courted by venues in other states. Had the county not partnered with the state and entities like the Midwest Horse Fair, and also sold naming rights to help fund construction of the pavilions, America’s Dairyland might have lost a signature event.