Take Five with Alex Gee: The business case for the Center for Black Excellence and Culture

Centerforblackexcellence Panel

The Rev. Dr. Alex Gee is encouraged about early financial support for the planned Center for Black Excellence and Culture, but there is still a way to go to make the center a reality. Gov. Evers recently announced a $5 million grant for the facility, and the center has garnered support from top business executives, and city and county government, but a $36 million capital fundraising campaign goes on.

In this Take Five interview, Gee, pastor of Fountain of Life Covenant Church and founder/CEO of the nonprofit Nehemiah Center of Urban Leadership, explains the business case for the center, which labor-starved local employers might view as an investment in future workforce attraction and retention.

This center appears to offer something for just about everyone. For the Black community in Madison, the many benefits are obvious, but for the business community, I would think part of your fundraising pitch would be the center’s value for the attraction and retention of Black employees. 

“I would say, more specifically, the benefit is the attraction and retention of Black staff.”

Yes, because executives tell me they have been able to recruit Black employees, but it’s hard to keep them here because the social opportunities aren’t varied enough or diverse enough.

Rev Dr Alex Gee Headshot

Rev. Dr. Alex Gee

“Exactly, exactly. I would say recruitment is sort of easy. I’m a former UW–Madison recruiter. Retention is what’s really tough, and when you retain people, it actually makes recruitment a breeze, and for the reasons you’ve mentioned — because we have not created those cultural enclaves, those third spaces that so many communities have for various constituencies or people groups. We just haven’t done that in the community.

“As I’ve listened to hundreds and hundreds of Black people — parishioners and parents and students who I’ve recruited, community influencers I’ve listened to over the years because of our Justified Anger work — but more specifically, the several hundred Black people we’ve just met with, and they all were saying the same things. There is no cultural grounding or space that feels like a cultural home, that tells the story of our transcendence and our survival and our perseverance, and our demonstrated excellence and commitment. Those things aren’t told and when they aren’t, you don’t feel like a space is home.”

In general, how is the fundraising campaign going so far?

“I would say, for where we are this early in the year and the campaign, I’m really pleased. We’re halfway to our fundraising goal, and it’s been fantastic to see businesses partner at such key levels, at such public levels. We have not only corporate support but many of the CEOs have been part of the Executives for Black Excellence, who are supporting the center out of their own personal wallet, which is amazing. I think that is simply amazing. So, what it’s communicating to the broader community is that you are on to something. We are not retaining Black talent. Therefore, we can’t recruit. The campus is hurting. Businesses are hurting. The city is hurting, and folks need a place that helps them remember that you’re home here, that you have space here to feel at home, and the support that’s happening just reminds me of that.

“Right now, we’re working on our corporate, major philanthropic giving, but we’re getting close to the point where we’re going to need to engage everyone, the average citizen resident of the area because this isn’t something that just benefits the Black community. This will have a ripple effect on the entire community, and we all need to own it together, to own the concept together.”

Years ago, I interviewed David Anderson, the former CEO of American Family Insurance, when he was selected to our Executive Hall of Fame. I asked him why American Family does so much in the community, and he said it was because American Family wanted to make Madison a better community for its employees. That feeds into attraction and retention. As I understand, the center is essentially your vision, and since design plans can be a work in progress, is there any more planning and tweaking on the design, or do you have the facility design in place?

“The designs are pretty much in place. The next phase is just to engage another group of local African Americans in thinking through the specific space usage as it pertains to programming. So, we’ve engaged a couple hundred people in what the building would look like, what it would feel like, and to ascertain the needs. You mentioned earlier that it’s a multifaceted space, but that’s because the community has said, ‘These are the various things we need to feel at home, or to feel like we’re doing well because the lack of space like this is now having an impact on Black health.’

“The city and the mayor have adopted resolutions stating that racism is a social determinant of health, and so we have to not only create a sense of home, but a place where people can decompress from those stresses and those pressures that cause those degenerative diseases. So, the next step is to really involve hopefully a younger crowd of Black influencers to talk specifically about the innovation space, the meeting space, the theater space, and the youth and student spaces. So, that’s exciting because we want many of the members of the Black community to speak to this.”

Is the theater space going to be for people of all ages, or will it be directed at younger, more aspirational artists?

“It will serve the gamut because we want to become a regional site for professional drama troupes and community theater, so of course there will be a focus on children and teens because we want to nurture those creative skills, but it will be a place where full-grown local Black [playwrights] will put their plays on — or people from Chicago or in the Twin Cities — so we’re really excited about that because our stories need to have the benefit of center stage.

“I think that’s the other thing I want really known. I believe we’re at a juncture where we’re familiar with the issues — and we still need to state them for those who aren’t quite familiar and need footnotes on it — but we need to move toward solutions. In light of all of this, in light of the health inequities, in light of the social determinants of health, what can we do? How can we heal? Why would we stay? Our center is focusing on creating those solutions inside of our community, and that’s so much better than having them imposed from the outside. ‘Here is what you guys should do. Here is a plan for you.’ We’re actually developing the strategy within our community, which is more affirming than I can articulate.”

How much of the history of the Black community in the south-central region is going to be explored in either exhibits or displays?

“Well, this center is going to be about telling the stories of strong, Black perseverers and pioneers in science, math, and education from the entire state, not just the south-central region. Whatever Black presence might have been in Rhinelander, Wausau, Superior, Ashland, we want to tell the stories of the things that Black folks have done. I’m interviewing a woman tomorrow, an African American woman whose family has been in Wisconsin for 218 years. Her family has been in Madison for about 130 years, working and building homes and building the community and educating children. So, this will be a place that will be a game-changer for young people because they will get a chance to understand that as trailblazers, they are not the first in Wisconsin. There have been Blacks that have been trailblazing against all odds for well over 100 years in this area, and so the benefit to them is that this history will be documented in archives and digitally, and with stories and movies, books and plays, and lectures. We’re going to reinforce the role that Black people have played in shaping Wisconsin.”

Do you have local historical Black figures who were abolitionists? We hear about Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglas, but those are national figures. What about Black abolitionists in Wisconsin that we should know more about?

“Oh, definitely. So many more. So many more. People who were trailblazers on so many levels. I mean, Ms. Betty Banks lives here in Madison. I believe her grandfather was an attorney and her grandmother was an educator. They were college trained but couldn’t practice here in Wisconsin. They were contemporaries of W.E.B Dubois. He actually came to Madison to visit them, and Betty’s grandfather was actually part of the Niagara Movement, which was a kickoff of the great social justice movement for Black people in this country, but he couldn’t make it because he was ill. But these are stories that we want people to know — that folks in Madison were connected and in discussions with people who shaped our modern civil rights movement.

“So, we’re connecting people to that and not being bogged down in the negative media images, but to talk about the roles these folks played is very important — the historic Black community along with the Jewish and Irish communities and what happened to them and how they recovered, and just historical folks who brought change when there wasn’t the hope of inclusion and advancement that so many of us take for granted today, or that’s available today. I don’t have all the specifics … but Blacks first came to Wisconsin as slaves.” 

Many people don’t realize that slavery existed in the North, too.

“It did, and in the good, old state of Wisconsin, right near Platteville. Territorial Gov. [Henry] Dodge actually had slaves who worked in his mines. He eventually freed them because he promised them, but he went on to become our governor. A territorial governor held slaves in the north, in Wisconsin.”

Do you have anything to add that I haven’t asked about?

“I would say a couple of things. The beauty of this is that it’s been Black led, Black designed, and Black inspired. I would say I’m the chief visionary, but I’ve been listening to the needs of the Black community for decades. And when I say I’ve listened to hundreds of people, I mean hundreds and hundreds of Black people that I’ve listened to, interacted with through other processes — surveying people, talking with people. So, this is not just my dream. My dream is to make Madison a great place for everyone. One of the most important things is that it’s not my vision to ask people to support me. I want people to support the Black community.

“The second thing is that if we’re going to be an inclusive community, if we’re going to live up to our state motto of ‘Forward,’ it can’t be mere rhetoric. It can’t be mere talk. We’ve got to have actions to show that. As a Black influencer, I’ve been a professional in this community for over 35 years, and most of what I’ve seen for Black people has been designed by the broader white community. ‘This is what you need,’ and most of it is remedial. This is about excellence and not offering it but instigating it, teasing it out, creating an environment for it to be showcased. So, the benefit is that Black people will want to live in Madison, be proud to call Madison their home. That will have a profound impact on home ownership, employment, and Blacks who are available for advancement inside corporations.

“To the point that Dave [Anderson] at American Family made, this is a focus on making the environment better because if Black people won’t stay here, they won’t live here and they won’t work here. But what’s unique is we’re not just investing in the Black community, but we are listening to those who have invested in the Black community. We are carrying this agenda forward and honoring the Black people who are leaders — not Black leaders, not Black influencers, but leaders and influencers who happen to be Black who have worked to make this community safe and well for everyone. We deserve to feel at home.

“The center is about the folks who could have left Madison in a huff, who are staying around for this last hurrah to meet with up-and-coming and younger Black people and newer Black people to say, ‘Let’s give this another try.’ What I want people to understand is these folks, these Black influencers young and old, have not given up on Madison, even though many times we have all felt that Madison has given up on us at some point in time. We are still at the table — a table we have set to show that we know how to create an inviting environment. We just need the broader community to get behind us and stand with us to make this happen.”

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