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Mellowing Meadowood: Coach Assad and a grassroots network are targeting disparities in southwest Madison

Mellowing Meadowood: Coach Assad and a grassroots network are targeting disparities in southwest Madison

Pacing a makeshift basketball court assembled in the street at the corner of Theresa Terrace and Bettys Lane on a July afternoon, Tutankhamun “Coach” Assad is living up to his nickname.

“You’re doing an excellent job, but you’re losing focus now,” he says to a 10-year-old boy waiting impatiently to sub into one of two three-on-three games. “Don’t start trying to look hard. You’re not going to come out here and front on anybody. You’ve worked too hard for that.”

More than 20 kids between the ages of 10 and 16 are either playing or waiting to play. They’re joined by a handful of Madison Police officers, including Chief Mike Koval, and several parents. But this is Coach’s show.

“You take this side and you ref that side,” he says, pointing to where he wants two of the cops to stand. Then, addressing the kids, “Be intentional about your behavior!”

Assad’s coaching this day is focused on everything but dribbling and shooting. Before each game begins, he presents spelling words to the players to decide which side will start with the ball. He reminds the kids that they have to earn playing time with their behavior and admonishes them to “stop trying to look so hard” and “get up off that curb, you’re too young to be sitting down.”

Born in Egypt to Peace Corps parents, Assad, 39, lived in Iowa and Ohio before moving to Madison in the late 1990s. He lives with his two sons in Meadowood. An injury suffered on the job at GE Healthcare has left him with a limp, but hasn’t slowed him down much.

These basketball gatherings in southwest Madison — there have been three this summer — fall under the mission of the Mellowhood Foundation. Police block the streets with their cars and erect temporary hoops. Assad rounds up the players, distributes jerseys and sets the tone. The kids love it. Playing hoops in the street in front of your friends and neighbors is a reward.

Understanding this, Mellowhood also runs a flag football program that includes teams of kids from several Madison neighborhoods.

“Football is the hook,” says John Wroten, a community organizer for Common Wealth Development, a local nonprofit focused on housing and neighborhood vitality. “They all want to play flag football, but they don’t necessarily want to make sure the neighborhood’s clean, they don’t want to make sure they watch their language or respect each other. In the neighborhoods I work in, using the n-word between each other is a common, everyday practice. Not among the kids that Assad works with.”

In Meadowood, a Madison neighborhood whose problems have vexed city officials and law enforcement for years, a network of people Assad calls “remarkable human beings” are identifying and addressing issues, working outside the city’s traditional institutions. At the center is Assad’s work with kids, mostly African-American boys, to elevate the expectations they have for not just themselves, but the community and city around them.

“In some ways, we surrender to the whims of the negative power dynamic and it bleeds down to our children, to how we carry ourselves and how we conduct ourselves and we fool ourselves into thinking that bad behavior is our culture and good behavior is some kind of aberration,” Assad says. “We’ve almost convinced ourselves on some economic and educational levels in the black community that striving is somehow the territory of only white people.”

Meadowood’s challenges

Meadowood is located west of Verona Road, about three miles south of the Beltline, made up of 50-year-old ranch houses, many of which are still occupied by the people who built them. In recent years, elderly residents have started to leave the neighborhood, giving way to young families who like the abundant shade trees, generous backyards and affordable real estate. They, like their predecessors, are predominantly white and middle class.

Clustered on two streets in the neighborhood, Balsam and Russett roads, are most of the neighborhood’s rental properties, individually owned four-unit apartment buildings. Balsam and Russett residents are predominantly African-American and low income. The Road Home, a Madison nonprofit that provides transitional housing to homeless families, operates a couple of properties there. The Bank of New York is another landlord. Some of the properties are shabby and the area has a reputation for drug dealing and violent crime.

“The majority of the apartments in this neighborhood are two bedrooms renting for around $800, $850,” says Wroten. “And they’re dumps.”

In 2007, former Madison Ald. Thuy Pham-Remmele hosted a large neighborhood meeting on the southwest side where residents complained about incidents of vandalism, break-ins and other troubling behavior in the Meadowood, Prairie Hills, Orchard Ridge and Greentree neighborhoods. Two years later, in June 2009, 17-year-old Karamee Collins was shot and killed on Balsam Road by 16-year-old Deandre Bernard using a stolen gun.

Earlier this summer, The Capital Times reported that burglaries in the Meadowood area, located just around the corner from the West District police headquarters near Elver Park, were up 31 percent from 2013.

“We certainly have had a bit of a spike in that Raymond Road corridor,” said West District Capt. Vic Wahl at the time. “We’re actually putting quite a bit of resources in investigating them and trying to do some different prevention strategies to make people aware.”

Meadowood’s troubles run parallel to those of Madison at large, specifically in the racial disparities chronicled in the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families’ Race to Equity report, released last fall, which indicated that Dane County is a great place to live if you’re white. But not if you’re black.

“We see children who don’t have hope anymore and it compelled me to start caring,” says Assad. “After taking the small steps to care, somehow I just started bumping into people who would help me not just care but help me to reach.”

Jobs and housing

One of the people Assad bumped into was Rev. Winton Boyd of nearby Orchard Ridge United Church of Christ, whose congregation collectively decided to get involved in trying to help solve Meadowood’s problems three years ago.

“We did a capital remodeling of our building and raised about a million-and-a-half dollars and from that, we wanted to set aside 10 percent for some outreach or mission work,” Boyd says.

The congregation received a proposal from public health nurse Kim Neuschel and Michael Bruce of Joining Forces for Families, a county initiative that seeks to connect families living in poverty with services, to combine resources and fund a community organizing position through Common Wealth Development, which hired John Wroten.

“When we started out a couple years ago, I did about 150 one-on-one interviews with people who live in southwest Madison, both renters and homeowners, just to see where people in the neighborhood were at, what they’re interested in,” Wroten says. “It became obvious really quickly that across the board, with the people of color living in apartments, people living in poverty, their biggest thing was not enough money to meet their daily needs.”

Wroten has found that many of Meadowood’s poorest residents are nearly unhireable, particularly when the economy is struggling, due to a lack of experience and instability in their lives.

“If you want to work in the employment program of the Urban League, you have to have stable housing and you have to be substance free,” Wroten says. “Those are significant barriers for some people. The idea that you have to be in stable housing when you’re looking for employment just doesn’t seem like the best model for me. They almost seem mutually exclusive to me. We work with people at the very front end of the continuum.”

Wroten started assembling a network to connect people in the neighborhood with jobs. He hires some residents on a temporary basis to work on neighborhood projects so they have a reference. Many of them also attend a Wednesday morning “Job Shop” program, staffed by volunteers from Boyd’s church.

“What we’ve discovered over the couple of years is what we really have to bring as volunteers, which is different from professionals, is just sort of a human element,” Boyd says. “So when people are looking for work, take the time to sit down with them to find out what’s going on, what their interests are, to try and just receive them as human beings and not just a number or an appointment.”

That extends to dealing with rejection.

“If I apply for a job and don’t get it, I’ll get a nice letter in the mail saying ‘I’m sorry but we moved forward with another candidate,’” Wroten says. “People at the lower end of the continuum will apply for 25 to 30 jobs and they never hear anything.”

Wroten follows up with employers and gets feedback for candidates, works to address problems and sends them back out.

Along with jobs, the other issue of importance to the neighborhood is housing. Common Wealth has purchased two four-unit buildings on Leland Drive where it meets Balsam, and has plans to buy more.

“If you really want to change these neighborhoods and stabilize them, you really need to get people working and some decent, affordable housing,” Wroten says. “Common Wealth holds their tenants accountable for their actions. There’s no drug dealing going on, there are no parties, there are no fights going on in the parking lots of the Common Wealth apartments because they wouldn’t tolerate it.”

Apartments rent for $200 less than comparable units in the neighborhood but are much nicer. Coupled with its conduct policies, Common Wealth hopes to not just attract responsible tenants, but keep them in the neighborhood to help revitalize it.

“It’s really hard to change the neighborhood if you don’t change the housing stock and how you do business around housing,” Wroten says. “If you’re living in a dump, as soon as you get a decent job, the first thing you’re going to want to do is get out of here.”

Jeffrey Lewis, an outreach specialist for underserved communities at the University of Wisconsin Extension, calls housing stability the most important issue in addressing race and income disparities.

“That’s the place where I would make the most investment, in terms of the housing but also in building capacity of people to live in and manage their own homes in that neighborhood,” he says. “Because the transiency, the mobility issue is huge. You can’t sustain relationships when there’s that kind of insecurity around housing.”

The network

Lewis is part of a network of people Assad refers to as mentors. Whenever Assad is asked about how his ideas are developed, he insists others are credited for the work being done in Meadowood, too. That growing group includes Wroten, Boyd, Ald. Matt Phair, attorney Sally Stix, public health nurse Kim Neuschel, management consultant Barb Hummel and Madison West assistant basketball coach Sean Gray.

“Sometimes I think he gives us too much credit,” says Middleton-Cross Plains Area School District director of equity and student achievement Percy Brown, who is part of the network. “He’ll say, ‘Percy, you’re my mentor.’ But I’d say we’re more colleagues. I always bounce back to him and say ‘We’re here together.’ I truly commend what he’s doing because there’s not much going on in that Meadowood neighborhood. These kids are out there without many structured activities offered to them and he’s just like ‘I’m living in this neighborhood, I have an obligation to do something.’”

Wroten, whom Assad credits with helping him form the football league, puts it simply.

“He’s just a dad trying to do what’s best for his kids and the kids in the neighborhood,” he says. “Anything I can do to help him do that, I just do.”

Lewis believes the relationship Assad has with his network is unique.

“His work with young people is extraordinary. But that work is sort of a starting point to build relationships with people throughout the neighborhood and build relationships that engender or provide a context where people can talk about what’s meaningful to them about the neighborhood,” Lewis says. “That’s part of what we’re looking at is, how do you build on these relationships you have with young people, with adults and with people from all kinds of racial and ethnic backgrounds? The ability to do that is really remarkable.”

Through his initiative, Boyd has interviewed several residents of the neighborhood and posted audio slideshows to the church’s website. They include a talk with Coach Assad.

“Coach Assad is trying to, very respectfully, understand what others can bring to his vision that will help build it. I think he’s pretty dedicated to not compromising on some of the core values of what he’s trying to do, but he’s gotten to meet some folks and trust folks who can write grants and they love being able to help that way,” Boyd says. “Little things like that that broaden the capacity that wasn’t there a year or two ago when his impulse and instinct was quite similar, but had a harder time putting wheels on it.”

The football factor

Perhaps the most visible aspect of Assad’s work with Mellowhood is the flag football league, which runs throughout the summer, starting when school lets out. Teams play on weekends and practice during the week. The season ends with the Community Unity Bowl on Aug. 30, at 1 p.m., in Meadowood Park.

Teams represent different Madison neighborhoods or community centers and are given historical or inspirational names: Lussier Center Red Tails, Goodman Greatness, Vera Court Vaqueros, Meadowood Message, Elver Park Sentinels, Russett Road Rebirth.

Each year, if they continue to model good behavior and help take care of the neighborhood, players are given more responsibility. The system is set up so older kids mentor the younger kids through their roles on the team.

“He’s very very intuitive about how to build these relationships toward a goal,” says Lewis. “His goal initially was around the football, but also trying to create healthier relationships among young people and those who are connected to them, their families.”

That’s great, say some Meadowood residents. But how is flag football going to solve the crime problem?

“Clearly, young people are making better decisions from having worked with Assad,” says Lewis. “There are young people who were involved in sort of informal gang activities and taking some leadership in that who are now providing leadership in the football.

“And it’s not just that they’re making better decisions, and I think they are… but their identities have changed and that’s part of how Assad works with them. He really communicates expectations, generally, but expectations specifically around how they behave and interact with one another and in the neighborhood that they respond to.”

Wroten believes the accountability central to the league is a perfect fit for helping people get jobs and stay in quality housing.

“If you’re not being a good neighbor and you’re not handling your business in the neighborhood — no profanity, absolutely zero tolerance for disrespect for the community or other people living in the community — if you’re not doing all of that, then you’re not playing when the game comes around,” he says.

When talking about the league, Assad quickly escalates to larger topics, but he can focus on the small victories when asked about how he measures success.

“To me, success is when I see a kid smile. A kid who, a year ago, wouldn’t even talk, would suppress rage that revealed itself in all these contortions and tics,” he says. “When I see children come around me and take their armor off, take a deep breath, when I see some real parental buy-in, people who see me and ask how they can help, that’s beautiful. Having people network and talk. Having a child who can talk to a police officer just like anybody else, who isn’t more important than anyone else but is certainly not less.” 

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