Three weeks ago, one of our Urban League board members forwarded me excepts from an article written by Paul Fanlund of The Capital Times newspaper titled, "Can Madison Spotlight It's Urban Problems Without Tarnishing Its Image?" This board member, a white male, mentioned feeling "offended" by the comments that were made in the article, which appeared to place the blame for Madison's "urban challenges" on the backs of African Americans moving from places like Chicago to our capital city. While I understood the context of Fanlund's column, I couldn't help but think how alienated a parent or child who moved here from Chicago, and is working hard to live well and do well in our schools and community, might have felt while reading it.
Last week, Fanlund published a follow-up article, “Urban League leader blasts hand-wringing about city's image,” which provides excerpts from the conversation he and I had last week in my office about his original column. He did a good job capturing key elements of our conversation (although "blasts" is certainly an inaccurate word to describe the peaceful conversation that we had).
I explained to Fanlund that if the Greater Madison region is going to be relevant and thrive 20 to 30 years from now, then we must begin focusing our time, attention, energy, and resources on casting a clear and compelling vision for that future right now. I also shared that, in my view, the best way to prevent people from focusing on our city's "urban problems" is to get them focused on and excited about a bold vision for the future that strengthens our region, empowers and benefits our citizens, unifies our community, and articulates how our problems and challenges can be solved.
We have much to be proud of and build from to establish a compelling vision for the greater Madison region. We have world-class higher education institutions that are producing cutting-edge research, life-changing innovations, and graduating thousands of bright young professionals every year who could be our future entrepreneurs, innovators, leaders and workforce. We have a growing industry of businesses that are embracing and leading innovation in their fields, and companies that are working to re-position themselves to succeed in our new, more open and competitive global economy.
We are anchored by a relatively safe city with a beautiful landscape that's magnified by five large, natural reflecting pools (lakes) that connect us to our past, promote our natural living environment, and project a feeling of peace and calm over our capital city. We have policy, business, education and community leaders who want to see our region and its people do well. We also have an emerging diversity of citizens, leaders, and workers who are driven to be recognized and valued for their strengths and assets, and desire to be empowered by, involved with and have a say in efforts and decisions that will shape our present and future. And we are bolstered by a metropolitan population of 500,000 people who generally care about humanity and show it through their unique willingness to give abundantly to help each other when needed, whether it be their time or money.
Yes, we have problems just like any other city or region in the country. However, we have the ability to solve them before the possibility to do so gets away from us. So, let's get excited about the future together. Imagine what we could accomplish as a city, county, and region if our educational institutions, businesses, public agencies, nonprofits, citizen groups and professional organizations, and residents worked together with a common purpose to create the grand vision of Madison's future. Imagine how much more effective and collaborative we could truly be in addressing the persistent racial achievement gap in our public schools, if we had a common understanding of what we wanted our children to achieve and be prepared for in their future.
I, too, like John Nolan, the famous city planner who crafted a glorious vision for our capital city in the early part of the 20th century, but he was one man — not a community. He also lived in a time period where people of color and women didn't have much say in the decisions that shaped our capital city. That's changed now, and we look forward to being a part of the leadership and being at the table. We want to know what you and your children want for our city and its people, and what opportunities you see we could and should be manifesting and taking advantage of.
As a native Madisonian whose family relocated to Madison from New Orleans and Chicago in 1907, and Gurdon, Arkansas in 1934, I believe the vision for greater Madison should take full advantage of, and inspire investment in, our greatest assets and opportunities for growth and advancement: our people, neighborhoods, schools, colleges, businesses and industry, natural environment and innovation. It should include the voices of all citizens in shaping it. Cities like Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and counties like Prince Georges County, Maryland where I returned to Madison from, are bringing their communities together to craft visions for their future. Other cities, such as Vancouver, Canada, which desires to become the Greenest City by 2020, and Austin, Texas, which bills itself as the Live Music Capital of the World, are leading the way with vision and capturing the attention of the nation and the world as they do so. We can do the same thing, and we have leaders and community members who can help us get there.
So, let's be better and let's get started on it. Let's craft our vision together, cast it wisely and widely, apply it to all that we do, and make it stick. Until we do, we'll all be doing our part to make Madison better ... but better for what? Better why? Better how? Better when?
If you have thoughts about how we get started, please share them with me: email@example.com.
Kaleem Caire is president and CEO of the Urban League of Greater Madison.