Madison College’s Brunch Series: Black Spaces: The Importance of Personal and Economic Spaces


Dr. Jimmy Cheffen Jr, Madison College African-American Community Liason, Community Impact Lead in the Division of College Culture and Climate (l-r), Michael Ford, owner & chief architect, BrandNu Design Studio and Julian Walters, owner, Eminent Development Corporation

by Jonathan Gramling

For Julian Walters, who grew up in the city of Madison, finding Black spaces was hard to come by. Walters — who is one of the speakers at Madison College’s Brunch Series: Black Spaces being held on May 4th at Goodman South Campus, had to look hard for those spaces that he felt comfortable and safe in.

“Growing up in Madison, there were very little to minimal outlets for Black spaces in the professional realm, specifically real estate,” Walters said. “It was almost non-existent. When you talk about education, we talked about news outlets. That was also minimal as well. UMOJA magazine did a lot of the heavy lifting for a long time, at least when I can remember growing up here. It highlighted Black news and excellence. But outside of that, you didn’t really see it. And there wasn’t a lot of day-to-day representation through the education system as far as teachers go. It was very minimal growing up.”

In the Madison public schools when Walters was growing up, the Black spaces were almost non-existent.

“I didn’t even have a Black teacher,” Walters recalled. “It would have been nice to have a Black teacher. I had a Black principal and will acknowledge that. Nancy

Evans was my principal at Wright. But up until Ms. Evans, the teachers weren’t Black. We had school bus supervisors and people like that in supporting roles. But the teachers were always white. They did what they knew and the best that they could. But I couldn’t say that I even was able to identify how off-putting that was or how non-normal that was.”

Walters did get some breathing room through the UW-Madison PEOPLE Program.

“PEOPLE Program was a great program,” Walters observed. “PEOPLE was probably one of those first programs that I attended as a student that gave me representation. There were former students leading the different break-out sections and served as counselors. There were also a lot of white faces there too. There is nothing wrong with white faces, but those people in the PEOPLE Program were there to enhance their experience at UW-Madison and give people the opportunity to attend UW-Madison, which was great. I didn’t end up going to UW-Madison. But the opportunity and the experiences I had going through that program were invaluable, especially growing up in Madison and having that through the course of the school year.”

Walters excelled at basketball during his years at Memorial High School and that led to him getting a scholarship to Alabama A&M University where he continued his basketball career and then attended North Carolina Finch University as a graduate transfer.

And it was at these HBCUs that Walters experienced a different reality.

“The first time you step foot on an HBCU campus and you professors, deans, counselors, and classmates look like you, it is a surreal feeling,” Walters recalled. “And it’s not even that it just looks like you. It’s the culture as well. It’s the food that you like to eat. It’s the music that you like to listen to. It’s the public events that the school is putting on for the student body and the surrounding community and the events in the community. It’s all inclusive to what you see usually only at home growing up in a predominantly white town. To have that as a majority of your experience, the majority of the spaces that you walk into is something I couldn’t advocate for enough. I always tell students whom I mentor, I tell them that they have their whole life to be a minority. Go experience being a majority for once and see how that feels. Go enjoy being somewhere where you are welcome and not tolerated. That experience changed my life honestly.”

It is these Black spaces that allowed Walters to develop his sense of self that would also give him the personal growth and confidence to excel in the business world. While Walters is completing his MBA in a Morgan State University online program, he is also deep into Madison’s development world.

“I’m a real estate developer,” Walters said. “I have a project that I am working on now that I was awarded through the city of Madison last year. It will be a 44-unit affordable housing project with 11 units set aside for youth who have aged out of foster care and experience homelessness and have been affected by the housing crisis that a lot of us have been affected by. Just Dane is going to be my non-profit partner who is going to have a housing advocate onsite for these families and work directly with them and enhance their economic position, whether they are interested in trade schools, education, job readiness, and job training. They are going to have a tailored family plan to help their growth. The other 33 units will be below 60 percent AMR. They will be affordable for people to enjoy the space. We’re focused on energy to create a sustainable, energy-efficient building so that it is operating for the forseeable future. And we have a lot of cool amenities like in-unit Wi-Fi, co-working space for people to work at, a community room, a work-out facility, underground parking, roof-top gathering space with a pergola. It will look like a market-rate unit where people can call home. It will be aesthetically pleasing. It is much needed in Dane County and the Madison area.”

It is a project that Walters is especially proud of because it will have a positive impact on Soth Madison where he grew up.

Michael Ford, the owner and chief architect of BrandNu Design Studio, is also concerned about Black spaces. While he recognizes its need in terms of personal growth, he feels that it is also important to have Black spaces for professional growth as well. Ford grew up in Detroit, which is about 86 percent Black. There were plenty of personal Black spaces to grow. But Detroit’s dismal record of Black-owned businesses underlines the need for professional Black spaces as well.

“Moving to Madison from Detroit was definitely a different type of effort to find Black spaces,” Ford said. “I moved to Madison in 2010. I think the best space I found were barbershops where I got to go and connect with folks. And then Sabrina Madison had her Conversation Mixtapes. Those were the spaces that we found immediately when we moved here. But those spaces, again the barbershop definitely catered to a certain audience. People came to get haircuts. It was a cross section of people from the community, mostly men. Conversation Mixtapes was great, but not a permanent location for it. The masses were not going to those locations. They were for people seeking a service like a haircut. Mixtapes was open to everyone, but it wasn’t a physical location for people to come to. There were no Black Spaces, but there were a few safe spaces that people were crafting that I was aware of.”

Black spaces, as was said earlier, are important for business development as well.

“Business ownership is a definite part of having Black spaces,” Ford emphasized. “For African American communities, the average time that a dollar spends its time in the Black community or circulates in the Black community is less than six hours. That number hasn’t changed for a while. How do we create African American owned spaces and places where we also are the business owners who also have a stake in creating, building, and planning for those spaces so that our money starts to circulate a little bit more than six hours in our community. So ownership, not just of the space, but also of the various entities that are creating those spaces is important.”

Ford isn’t content with just owning the spaces, he feels that it is important to create the spaces as well.

“Organizations like the Boys & Girls Club have huge initiatives to introduce people to the construction trade,” Walters observed. “And cities like Milwaukee have the Acre Program where they introduce underrepresented communities to the development space. Michael Emem, one of the panelists, is a graduate of the Acre Program. Owning the building is one thing. But having architects, contractors and people who actually play a part in creating those spaces is also vital in helping to enrich that community, not just bringing services, but also the opportunity to create support as we build Black Spaces.”

Walters has seen the progress that Madison has made through the years.

“I didn’t see a lot of this stuff coming up,” Walters observed. “And now you are starting to see things and kind of forward traction in big ways in Madison. That is something that I am proud of as a Madisonian.”

This didn’t all happen by accident or was destined to happen. It comes through intentionality to make a change in Madison.

“Even with just the social events, they are all necessary,” Walters said. “They have to be intentional and they don’t have to not include a group. But the groups that are partaking and attending these events need to be aware and accepting of the intentionality behind it. So when I am having a block party and it’s to highlight Black businesses and Black food trucks and all of the great excellence that Madison has, it doesn’t mean that white people or other ethnic groups can’t come. It just means you need to be supporting and being aware of what we are trying to do and an ally of it. And so I think all of those things combined is how you continue to come up with these spaces.”

Madison College’s Brunch Series is intended to generate discussion about those “Black Spaces,” but also to generate action and change.

“It’s all about economic development and our work in the community impacts this,” said Dr. Jimmy Cheffen Jr., who is part of Madison College’s community outreach initiative. “It’s important for us to think about how we interact with the community, especially as development goes. A lot of our community members need help and they need learn the steps in the decisions to do it. I think it was awesome that our first one is talking about Black Spaces where we talk about real estate development, commercial development and architecture. And one of the friends who helped me curate is Mike Ford, the hip hop architect of BrandNu Design Studio. We’ve been talking a lot about how Black people in architecture, development and commercial development are unseen. And we talk about how these white companies call him and try to take over these developments. There are Black architects out there. There are Black developers out there. There are Black commercial and real estate developers. And then on the other side, we talk about the steps to do these things, especially in development. There are the steps in how you get the money for the project, how you obtain capital. There are all those steps that you take before there are ‘shovels in the dirt.’ There are steps that we are unaware of. We need to start talking about it, especially if we’re going to start having a discussion about economic development.”

Ford has some definite goals that he wants this session to accomplish. One is to increase the number of Black architects in Madison.

“Sadly, we only have 12 Black architects who are licensed in Wisconsin,” Ford observed. “That’s not just 12 currently practicing. That’s 12 ever. Right now, nationwide, we have less that two percent of architects in the country who are Black. I’m hoping that it allows us to learn more about Black architects and positions Black architects to help with not only the great projects on that panel, but also to help other people who have similar dreams. Pastor Gee has his long-awaited project that he has been dreaming about for so long, the Center. There are other people in the city who have dreams. Let them find out the resources to help them bring their dreams to fruition or what steps to take to give them the resources and the people who can help them do it.”

The second goal is to encourage people to become part of the growth and change.

“I am hoping to build some confidence in people stepping out and taking that first step,” Ford said. “They will hear from people on this panel, but also learn about other resources they can turn to.

Julian’s project is amazing right now.”

Cheffen feels that the first brunch in a series of events will lead to something powerful.

“I’m really excited about the event,” Cheffen said. “I’m happy for the community involvement. A lot of people want to talk about this. And I think we have a great start with our panelists. They are well-known and movers and shakers in the community. I am thankful for them wanting to be involved. I think it is something that we should be talking about. I work at Madison College on the Community Impact Team. This is part of our strategic plan, to get people to start talking about economic development.”

Cheffen envisions the second Brunch happening this summer. As Walters said, it’s about intentionality. And it is the intention of the Madison College Community Impact Team to generate the knowledge and the interest so that Black spaces are created that lead to the vitality and health of the Black community and beyond.