The UW-Madison has long wanted to have a permanent, physical presence in south Madison, a neighborhood that has experienced more than its fair share of struggles and outside assumptions.
But officials at the UW were also wary of coming in with a heavy-handed approach. They wanted to be involved in a way that's respectful of local community.
"We don't want to come in to south Madison like a steamroller," says Julissa Ventura, a graduate fellow at the UW's Morgridge Center. "That's something we've been intentional about."
Last Thursday night, the UW finally realized its vision with a grand opening of the South Madison Partnership, an outreach post that will serve several functions. Located at the Villager Mall, it's in the heart of south Madison, near the Urban League of Greater Madison and Madison College's south campus.
Everett Mitchell, director of community relations in the UW's Office of University Relations and a former south Madison resident, has been a champion and organizer for the Partnership. He's proud to see the venture -- which embodies the Wisconsin Idea -- finally come to fruition.
"This is demonstrating our perpetual commitment to the community," Mitchell says. "We're spending both the time and resources to make sure that people know that the [UW] crest is not a crest that is meant for campus. That crest is meant for the state. It's meant for the city. And most importantly, it's meant for the members of the south Madison community."
The South Madison Partnership builds on earlier collaborations forged in recent years by UW officials, including former dean of students Mary Rouse and the late LaMarr Billups, a former director of community relations. The UW's Neighborhood Law Clinic, for instance, has operated out of the Villager Mall for more than a decade.
The Partnership is located at 2312 S. Park St. The space feels as though you've stepped into a UW campus classroom. Marked by the familiar crest, the 3,000-square-foot space houses a large classroom complete with the latest in AV equipment, conference rooms and offices.
That collegiate atmosphere is intentional, says Ventura, a UW Community University Exchange South Madison fellow who is credited with doing the research to find out the best uses for the South Madison Partnership space.
"We really fought hard for the space to feel like a campus classroom," she says.
The center will serve many functions. One is providing a more conducive space for the UW's Odyssey Project, a program that provides 30 adult learners with a yearlong humanities class that earns them six credits in English from the UW. The UW law clinic will also use the center to provide legal help to disadvantaged clients facing, among other things, rental housing disputes and employment issues.
In addition to bringing in UW initiatives like programming through the Carbone Cancer Center, the center will be available to local South Madison community groups such as the Dementia Outreach Group and other health groups, and religious organizations that find it difficult to find suitable meeting spaces.
The Partnership also promises to benefit the UW. Professors will be allowed to hold classes here, and the Morgridge Center will encourage students to participate in programming in South Madison, gaining hands-on experience.
"People can have the opportunity to really get off-campus and build community partnerships in a way that's equitable and beneficial," Mitchell says.
Tapping into local energy
The Partnership hopes to capitalize on and tap into energy and ideas already present in the community, including increasing awareness of south Madison's rich local food movement. Savor South Madison is a community group that supports nearby restaurants, and the South Madison Farmers' Market supports local growers.
"I think that the south Madison community has a lot of energy right now," Ventura says.
Mitchell agrees: "There's so much energy and potential among the people who live there."
In addition to students participating in the Odyssey Project, there will also be community-based learning courses taught by professors of continuing studies and open houses where south Madison youth can learn about the UW, admissions requirements and the ins and outs of financial aid.
Ultimately, this will benefit the community, Mitchell says.
"This is economic empowerment. Because it's our children, our young people, or those who are older and returning to education, if they can get the education they need to be competitive, then they will stay here," he says. "If they stay here, Madison is a much richer place. Dane County is much more diverse. And it becomes a stronger place to create and build multigenerational families."
But perceptions remain an obstacle. "Some people don't want to come to south Madison," Mitchell adds. "That's a problem we have. We need to be able to see that education is an economic investment, regardless of what side of town you come from."
A Wisconsin Idea
At the Partnership's formal launch last week, UW Chancellor Rebecca Blank recognized that this is a precarious time for the university to be launching this type of venture. Not only has Gov. Scott Walker proposed cutting $300 million from the university's budget, he briefly toyed with rewriting the school's hallowed mission statement, the Wisconsin Idea, which calls for the university to be educating and serving residents around the state.
Blank says she's dedicated to the effort. "I am very committed to fight to keep the University of Wisconsin in Madison as strong as it has been for 166 years," she told the crowd. "But I can't do that alone, and all of you are part of community groups, and you know exactly what the power of joint action is."
After her speech, Blank told Isthmus that she hopes the new venture will strengthen community ties. "I hope it's going to pull the university and this community closer together, create opportunities, not only to strengthen the programs that are here, but to create more programs and build more of these connections, whether it's admissions for the students of this community or working with the older adults."
Blank added, "We need to be in the community because we are only as strong as our partners around us. It's important to us to have these connections for the community to feel like we are with them and they are with us."
Tosuma Welch, who graduated from the Odyssey class of 2013, is pursuing an undergraduate degree at Madison College and plans to eventually transfer to UW-Madison. He also spoke at the grand opening, quoting Martin Luther King Jr.
Before getting involved with Odyssey, he was a parolee, facing an uncertain future. But his involvement with the program changed his prospects.
Says Welch: "I got into Odyssey and I never looked back."