Interview with Peng Her
Peng Her is the director of the Urban League's Promise Zone
A few months ago, the Urban League of Greater Madison named Peng Her to be the director of its Promise Zone Initiative and to lead its ambitious plan to challenge the people and institutions of south Madison to fulfill the promise of the community. It’s a tremendous task, but it’s something that Her is up for.
“The nice thing since I started has been how supportive everybody has been — not just the elected officials but people in the community,” Her tells The Madison Times. “The people in the nonprofit sector of governmental agencies have been very supportive of the fact that we’re doing something in regards to trying to remove barriers for kids — especially here on the south side.
“The community people have been so supportive, too. Every day, I get a phone call from people who have ideas to help on the south side,” he adds. “There’s a sense of urgency given the economy and the challenges that were already here on the south side with the achievement gap and poverty. There’s an urgency to get things done. There’s a feeling that this has been going on way too long and that we have to address it now rather than later.”
The South Madison Promise Zone Initiative focuses on designing a holistic place-based, cradle-to-career system of education, human service, health and wellness, employment, and community-building opportunities to help families move out of poverty and arm them with the knowledge, skills, and resources necessary to help their children successfully prepare for college and work. As director, Her works to coordinate the structure of the planning team and to engage the community and to give the people in the community a voice.
“How can we remove barriers that a young person faces so that he or she can achieve whatever they want to aspire to?” Her asks. “We call it ‘cradle to career.’ We want kids — as soon as they are born — to have the resources that they need. When they enter kindergarten, we want every child to be at the same level so there is no gap in the beginning. As they progress through elementary school, middle school, high school, and college, they have support services there for them to succeed.”
The Promise Zone is inspired by lessons from the Harlem Children’s Zone in New York City, which has gained national acclaim and is being replicated in communities across the nation thanks to a new federal grant program launched last year. The journey to launch the Promise Zone started in spring 2010 when more than two dozen local public, private, and non-profit organizations convened to assess the feasibility of applying for a new federal grant program to create a Promise Zone in South Madison. Within six weeks, the coalition had secured more than $300,000 of local in-kind support and submitted a federal grant application to the U.S. Department of Education. Local philanthropist Mary Burke stepped up and committed $300,000 to move the initiative forward. Burke is the co-chair of the Promise Zone along with Madison business leader Ray Allen.
The initiative has gotten the support of influential community leaders and officials like Madison Mayor Paul Soglin, Dane County Executive Joe Parisi, and Madison School Superintendent Daniel Nerad, as well as leaders at UW-Madison and Madison College.
“We want to create this collectiveness with all of the agencies here in Madison and the city of Madison,” Her says. “We want to look at what the challenges are that the citizens of Madison on the south side face, and then meet those challenges.”
Funding is scarcer than it has been in the past, so south side agencies and entities are finding that they have to cooperate with each other.
“Agencies are finding that they have to work together more. I think there are agencies that realize that if they don’t work together that there is a real chance that they won’t get funded and they won’t be able to fully fulfill the mission of their agency,” Her says. “Just looking at best practices models around the country, you realize that by working together you can accomplish much more than with isolated impact.”
Her, who is a long-time northsider who ran for the District 18 seat on Madison’s north side last year, has been loving working on the south side.
“I really enjoy my time on the south side. Every day when I come to work [at the Urban League of Greater Madison] I look out of my office and I see so many people of color out there — there is such a diverse mix of neighborhoods here,” Her says. “To me, it’s so awesome having so many ethnic groups living together.”
The area of the South Madison Promise Zone is the three neighborhoods on the south side — Burr Oaks, Brams Addition, and Capitol View. At the heart of the South Madison Promise Zone (SMPZ) is Park Street, which is seen as a gateway to Madison that has so much potential.
“There’s so much we can do with economic development here and businesses relocating to Park Street and Fish Hatchery Road,” Her says. “We can increase the standard of living here. There’s so much we can do here from jobs to partnerships. We have a rich array of assets here — Centro Hispano is here. Omega School is here. The Villager is here. South Madison Metropolitan Planning Council, MUM [Madison-area Urban Ministry], and the Multicultural Center are all here. All of these things go hand in hand with each other. It’s something unique we have on the south side.”
The SMPZ’s goal is to return a better bang for the buck from public and private agencies operating in the community by building a comprehensive network of "cradle-to-career" services to support children and families. That starts by increasing the confidence of a community that has historically been maligned in Madison.
“When you’re always putting down a community or telling somebody that they aren’t good enough…. Pretty soon they start believing that,” Her says. “We have to start there and say, ‘We’re not doing that any more.’ A lot of it is perception.
“If we give these kids a little bit of hope and a little bit of encouragement, just imagine how much better they will do rather than always tearing them down,” he adds. “One of my goals is to give every child that opportunity and that encouragement they need.”
Her brings grassroots experience as an organizer, in Madison and within the Hmong community, to the job.
“We want to do this bottom-up as compared to top-down,” Her says. “When you talk about community, the trickle-down effect doesn’t work. It’s always got to be bottom-up. You have to go out in the community and hear what their needs are… give them a voice and an opportunity to tell us how to help them. That’s how we empower them. That’s kind of the goal of what we want to do at the Promise Zone.”
Although it has just begun on Madison’s south side, Her believes that the Promise Zone will turn into something big.
“I want to make it a model so we can duplicate it citywide. Madison is a great place to live and there is no doubt about that, but at the same time there are members of our community who are challenged,” Her says. “It’s not just the north side, south side, or east side. It’s everywhere. I think that if we can use this as a model in how we can engage the community and how we can bring resources together for collaboration and partnership, we can implement this citywide. We can make neighborhoods stronger. My goal is to really make this succeed here and to show folks that we can do it here in Madison.”
For more information about the South Madison Promise Zone Initiative, please visit www.ulgm.org/smpz