Kaleem Caire: Unplugged

If anyone has a right to be angry, it's Kaleem Caire. If anyone had every opportunity to not make the right decisions early in life, it was Kaleem Caire. And if anyone was most likely to break out of the mold … you guessed it….

A History Lesson
Caire's relation has Madison roots dating back to 1908. His grandfather's uncle, Samuel Pierce, first arrived as a porter on the Northwest railway train, which eventually ran between Chicago and Minneapolis. He worked in the dignitary car, meeting many "higher ups," and ended up serving as the executive messenger for five Wisconsin governors from 1926 until just before his death in 1936. It was a prestigious position.

Several generations later, though, some family members didn't fare as well. "I met my dad for the first time in 2004," Caire said about his father, who now lives in Delaware, and once managed the shoe department for JC Penney on Madison's Capitol Square. Since then, he lost control of his life, and was arrested for check fraud. "He made a lot of excuses," Caire said of their first meeting, "and was in and out of prison seven times." Caire, who also found his father's photo on a wanted poster, said the "demon" of alcoholism had sealed his father's fate.

Caire's mother, meanwhile, was extremely bright and well-read, and though she dropped out of Madison's Central High School her junior year, she still tutored students at MATC in calculus. Then, in Caire's words, she "zoned out on life. She was a career bag lady who lived a great portion of her life in two bus shelters on State Street. But honestly," he added, "it was her choice."

One can only guess where Caire would be today had it not been for two aunts who happened to be driving down South Park Street in Madison nearly 40 years ago, only to recognize a two-year-old Caire, in diapers, attempting, on his own, to cross the very busy street. "They said it looked like I knew what I was doing!" he laughed. From that moment on, he was raised primarily by one of the aunts.

Caire returns to his hometown from Washington D.C., where he served as a nonprofit leader on education and community development. He has fond memories of South Madison. It was a diverse neighborhood back then, he said, a place where everyone knew everyone and looked out for each other. Ironically, his new Urban League role takes him back to that neighborhood, with the new building located in the same parking lot where Caire learned to ride a bike. In fact, he can almost see his aunt's Fisher Street apartment from his office window.

Placing Blame
Caire attended St. James Grade School, and remembers Madison's dynamics changing during his middle school years when Chicago gangs began moving to the city. That's, he said, when the Madison Police Department instituted a "Blue Blanket" policy that Caire believes targeted the black community.

"All of the sudden, we all started getting arrested," he said. "They treated us like dirt in the mid 1980s. I hated the police then. Drug wars started. I started tagging buildings with paint we stole from K-Mart. I was angry, and was painting symbols in the neighborhood, but didn't realize what they were," he said. He laughs thinking about the media reports of a rise of gangs in the area. "[They showed] all my graffiti, which had nothing to do with gangs. It was the media and police that caused early destruction in South Madison, and that created hostility." These days, Caire believes the area still needs significant improvement.

A graduate of West High School with a 1.5 GPA, Caire joined the U.S. Navy shortly afterwards. "[The Navy] challenged us," he said. But from that point forward, he said he learned to ask, "What can I do?" The experience, for him, was profound, and provided him with some excellent mentors. At the end of his term, he attended Hampton University, a historically black college in Virginia. "It was the first time I'd ever had a black teacher," he said. There, he also met his wife, Lisa Peyton, an honor student.

The couple moved back to Madison to complete their education, and Caire earned a degree in Education from UW-Madison. "When I came back, my neighborhood was defined as the neighborhood not to move into." He saw a woman killed, and learned that 56 of his peers had been jailed since he'd left.

In March, Caire returned to Madison as the President and CEO of the Urban League of Greater Madison. And it's clear he's a man on a mission.

"When crack cocaine hit, that increased violence, and the police got more violent as well." Caire believes a solution to the suspicion many feel [in their neighborhoods] can be found through a more concerted effort at neighborhood policing. "[The police] need to know people in [their districts]," he said.

"There is a saying here," he said: "'Madison is a place where men go on vacation and leave on probation,'" and to a certain degree, he believes that still rings true. "We lock up more black men than we educate. I've been stopped twice since being back," he said, once by the Dane County Sheriff's department and once by the McFarland Police (though he admits one of those stops was because he was driving a bit too fast).

Beyond United Way
Caire views his new Urban League role as an opportunity to help Madison become a great community again. "There is no common vision for our city and county. We're just dealing with damage control," he said. "We need to give people something to believe in. Madison is not a broken community, yet. There is a lot of potential."

He challenges businesses to get more involved. With all of the positives United Way has had on the community at large and on the Urban League itself, Caire believes businesses still need to push their commitment above and beyond support of United Way. "Madison has a business community which claims they're engaged in the community. But I am surprised at how many business leaders with whom I have spoken don't know how challenging life is for African Americans and Latinos (in particular) in Dane County. They've been surprised by the graduation rates, achievement gaps, and poverty rates.

"If businesses were [more] involved — as MGE, CUNA, Alliant Energy, Great Lakes and others like them are — more would know these issues first-hand and would likely do more. We need them to do more," Caire went on. "That is the only way we will solve the challenges that [face] communities of color and now challenge us all."

"We have all the signs that we're blowing up: Poverty in schools is increasing, with no viable solution. We don't know how to solve this problem, that's part of why I came back home. The Urban League is setting the standard. The staff is diverse, and we'll hold others accountable to do the same thing."

He sees the "new" Urban League as maintaining a vision for the community. "We'll move from the periphery to the center. We'll be the group that helps set that vision."

One way to improve Madison, he believes, is to reorganize and reconfigure the school system. "I don't want white families to have to leave Madison because we put their kids in classes with kids who are causing disruptions all day," he said.

Caire understands the inherent dangers in being a prominent minority voice. "When you're too vocal, some get uncomfortable because they don't want to change.

"Draw a picture of an angry black man and you're done. Start screaming with a bullhorn and you become the next Gene Parks. He got loud and [became] marginalized."

Hope Floats
Caire's outlook is nothing but positive, filled with hopes, dreams, and visions of a more amalgamated Madison ahead. He'd like to see more workforce opportunities, assure that Charter schools are available for all children, and strengthen Schools of Hope. He'd like the schools to better emphasize the importance of team sports in school, perhaps better incentivizing kids and providing role models. He'd also like to see more adult education opportunities to prepare people for higher education, and he's already shaking momentum. "We have to change behavior through changing culture," he said.

"The only way we will move communities of color out of poverty and into the middle class is to inspire both them and [city residents] to claim their present and define their future — together. I've been a lot of places and Madison is one of the few places where we can get this done. It's not broken," he said, "but it's at the tipping point. We can be the American city that others can't be. I believe we can solve the issues here."

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