It’s a Wednesday afternoon at Ford’s Gym on Winnebago Street, a “Rocky”-style gym filled with “regular old-school dudes,” Sabrina Madison says. That’s why she likes it.
Head coach Andrea Nelson leads Madison through her boxing drills. Wearing boxing gloves, Madison punches while stepping to the left, stepping right, taking quick one-two punches, then punches while stepping forward and stepping backward. At the end of her session, she gives whatever she has left to the heavy bag hanging from the ceiling by a chain.
She’s sweating from the effort, but she laughs when she mixes up her footwork. After all, this counts as time off for Madison. Her seven-day schedule and everyday support for black women doesn’t allow for free nights and weekends.
Just a few days earlier, she told a group of black middle school girls that they just had to say the word and she would advocate on their behalf.
“I love getting in people’s face and saying, ‘Hey! These girls want to do this thing and they need this money,’” she told them. “I love that.”
“Some people call me a pit bull … it’s basically because I get what I want and I’m very matter of fact about it.”
Her friends and colleagues agree. They say Madison is an entrepreneur, unapologetic about being herself and focusing her work on black women. She’s willing to critique the powerful. She doesn’t care whether you like her, yet people use words like “charismatic” and “warm” to describe her.
Madison’s innovative ideas and tenacity have taken her far, from a dysfunctional family, early grief and teenage motherhood in Milwaukee to creating a host of programs and spaces for black women in Madison. She quit her job at Madison College in 2016 to work for black women and hasn’t looked back; she hosted her first Black Women’s Leadership Conference later that year and founded the Progress Center for Black Women just a year later.
But after spending her days speaking up for black girls, women and families in a predominantly white city, throwing punches provides self-care and an escape.
“It releases so much when you’re doing work like this, and people are sharing with you and there’s so much racism,” she says. “It’s just such a great release.”
In constant motion
Sabrina Madison — known her nickname “Heymiss Progress” or simply “Progress” —naturally wakes up by 5 a.m. every morning and spends about a half hour catching up on news from sources like the Los Angeles Times, the Baltimore Sun, the Chicago Tribune, the New York Times and local outlets.
She often stops for her regular Moka order (the employees know it as “The Sabrina”), then it’s on to an ever-varied schedule.
On a recent Friday morning, she heads first to John Muir Elementary on the west side for “Read Your Heart Out,” an event that brings community members into schools to read aloud to kids.
The second she steps into a second-grade classroom, an African-American boy half-asks, half-exclaims, “That’s Sabrina Madison?!”
She’s just as surprised that he knows her by sight as he is to have her in the classroom.
Jennifer Greenwald, a teacher at Muir, explains the kids know Madison because they studied her story. The school holds an annual black history event and this year chose to celebrate local figures, Greenwald said. Second grade was in charge of black activists, so students wrote a skit about movers like One City Schools founder Kaleem Caire, Mentoring Positives founder Will Green and Madison.
Prompted by their teachers, the kids recite part of the skit for Madison.
“Sabrina Madison is a Madison activist,” one child says.
“Actually, she works from what she calls a ‘love ethic,’” the next little girl recites.
“Looooooove ethic,” all the kids repeat, forming their hands into hearts around their chests. That’s a reference to feminist bell hooks, one of Madison’s favorite authors.
“Growing up it was just her and her mom, and they struggled to get along,” the skit continues. “Now she runs the Progress Center for Black Women. And helps black women be who they want to be.”
“Who. They. Want. To. Be,” the kids repeat in chorus.
As Madison reads to the kids sitting on the floor in front of her, she peppers them with comments and questions.
“She is a growing business owner,” Madison says, pointing out the entrepreneurial efforts of the woman in the story. “She built an entire shop right here in the forest.”
“Girls can do everything boys can do right? Sometimes better?” she asks, and when the kids don’t immediately agree, she keeps asking. “Right? Right?”
Entrepreneurship and empowerment — even if it’s just casual questions to a group of second graders — are ways of life for Madison.
Her fourth annual Black Women’s Leadership Conference is coming up in the spring, and she’ll launch a black women’s leadership accelerator, AMBITION, in the fall. She’s growing an entrepreneurial program called blkCOLLAB and is gearing up for a small-dollar grant program to help women who find themselves in financial straits. She’ll be shifting from her wildly popular one-day Black Business Expos to a new strategy, renting out a temporary storefront and letting black entrepreneurs rotate through the space.
This summer, she’s organizing yoga sessions for black girls. For International Black Women’s History Month in April, she’s hosting four Saturday activities, including a mother-daughter tea and a girls art afternoon. In May, the center will have teams of black kids compete for a prize of hopefully $5,000 to solve a community problem.
In January, she hosted her own living room-style discussion with the mayoral primary candidates to zero in on the issues important to black families. She spoke up for Ali Muldrow and Ananda Mirilli as Madison School Board candidates. She does consulting work and keeps up a prolific social media presence, posting about her work, community issues and funny stories about her grandmother. She staffs the Progress Center along with a recently added part-time assistant, and raises the money to make it all possible.
Desmond Webster, a friend who met Madison through his work at Forward Community Investments, praised her ability to execute.
“There are a lot of people with great ideas … with Sabrina, she actually has the capacity to do it,” Webster said. “I’ll be having pancakes with her and all of a sudden, two weeks later, these (ideas) are real.”
Some of her goals and programs have taken longer than anticipated — AMBITION originally had an earlier start date — but Madison is also frequently pulled in different directions to advocate for black women.
“Sabrina doesn’t stay in a lane. If she sees something that matters and is important to what she cares about, she’s going to take it head on,” said Mindi Giftos, managing partner at Husch Blackwell’s Madison office and a supporter of Madison’s work.
When a video of a homeless woman suffering through bitterly cold conditions this winter shows up on Facebook or a Madison Metropolitan School District teacher uses a racial slur, community members reach out to Madison, tagging her in comments or messaging her. She is often contacted directly by people she doesn’t know who ask for her help when they face discrimination at work, eviction or financial crises.
When Ruby Clay found out that a teacher at Hamilton Middle School used the n-word in front of her seventh-grade daughter, she was beside herself. Madison was the first person she thought to call.
“She literally listened to like five seconds of what I had to say before she was like, ‘I’m on my way,’” Clay said.
When Madison arrived at the school, Clay had tears in her eyes and was in “mama mode,” Clay said. Madison helped Clay gather herself.
“I need you to pull it together ... I know you’re upset,” Clay remembered Madison saying. “Here's what we have to do, here’s what we’ll ask for when we go in there.”
They went in with three demands. Madison did most of the talking, but made sure every decision was made with Clay’s agreement. Eventually, the teacher resigned.
Clay’s conclusion: “She’s amazing.”
Madison attributes her work ethic to her history as a single mom living in Milwaukee.
“Once you’re a teen parent, that’s all you do is hustle because you ain’t got no money,” she said with a laugh.
When Madison was 14, her family didn’t have money for necessities like deodorant, food or decent shoes for her brother to run track. So she blurred the birth year on her high school ID and conned her way into a job at a Catholic newspaper.
“I remember my mom selling food stamps just to buy laundry soap,” she said. “Whether we were hustling to get change for candy or we were hustling to get food — most little black kids who grew up really poor, the hustle is just there.”
Yet despite her tireless advocacy and crowded schedule, she’s serious about taking care of herself. A tattoo on her right forearm instructs her: “don’t break the chain,” a reference to a strategy attributed to Jerry Seinfeld. Each day he worked toward the goal, he crossed out the date with a large X on his calendar, and did it every day so as not to ruin the streak.
Madison has such a calendar in her apartment, and draws a satisfying X on a day if she does something for herself: an afternoon off, a session at the gym, a day trip to Milwaukee.
Michael Johnson, CEO of the Boys and Girls Club of Dane County and a good friend of Madison’s, remembered when she announced plans for the Progress Center for Black Women. Some people asked what would happen if someone started a center dedicated to white women.
“She’s been inclusive of all, but she’s unapologetic in saying this is the demographic that I want to be of service to,” Johnson said.
Ask Madison’s friends to describe her and they will use the term “unapologetic” over and over, as if they conferred beforehand.
A small example: Webster pointed out that Madison does not code switch, or alternate between languages or dialects. Madison speaks the same way to small groups of black girls in the privacy of her Progress Center as she does to audiences for the many panel discussions she’s asked to attend.
Webster said he’s often the only African-American in workplace settings and thinks that “to reach these goals in my career, ‘Oh, I have to code switch.’”
“She’s like, ‘No. I don’t need to acknowledge the premise of code-switching. It’s saying that ... who I am is unacceptable or needs to be calibrated to fit in to this environment and I just don’t accept that,’” Webster said.
She’s not waiting for approval or permission from white people. She creates her own opportunities, her supporters say.
“I will support that child ‘til the cows come home for the simple fact that she is a mover and shaker, she doesn’t wait for people to open the door for her. She builds it and then she opens the door for others,” said Jasmine Banks, who works at Operation Fresh Start and has participated in Madison’s expos as the founder and CEO of natural body care company Perfect Imperfections.
On a Monday at the Progress Center, Madison hosts a group of girls from the Goodman Community Center’s Girls Inc. program. She explains to them that people trying to help the black community don’t often focus on empowerment.
“A lot of times here, folks just sort of give us stuff, give us resources, throw things on top of us,” she says. “It’s about, ‘I got this free food I’m going to give it to you, come get it at eight o’clock every Wednesday night.”
She tells the girls she built the Progress Center so she doesn’t have to “listen to white men tell me how to do it,” and it feels good.
“When I’m out in the public, my swag really be on 10, especially if I’m in a space where I’m talking about what I’ve created,” Madison says to the girls.
Madison’s careful about funding, to make sure she, not white leadership, stays in control of her center. She ignores advice to abide by respectability politics and doesn’t allow herself to be tokenized by white Madison, she said later.
“I am not looking to be accepted by whiteness, I don’t need whiteness’ co-sign,” Madison said. “If whiteness never recognized me, such is life.”
She’s not waiting for approval, Johnson said, so she’s willing to push back. He has witnessed her call out “very influential people” in a meeting. Madison said that after the death of Tony Robinson at the hands of a Madison Police officer, she sent a “reply-all” email response sharply criticizing a message from Chief Mike Koval.
“I would say if you are looking to get something done authentically, she is the person that you want to work with,” Johnson said. “But if you are phony, fake and not real, she could be your worst nightmare.”
Madison said she speaks her mind because after dealing with so much in her childhood, not much can scare her.
“I’ve already had all this craziness, this madness, this hurt, this pain,” she said. “I’m just going to do what I got to do, I’m going to say what I need to say … I’ve already had a bad life, so there’s nothing anybody can do to me now where I’m afraid.”
She corrects herself with a laugh: “The only person I’m really afraid of is my grandmother.”
When she was a child, Madison’s family moved around Milwaukee a lot but settled for a while in the Sherman Park neighborhood on the city’s northwest side. Madison’s father lived in Chicago and died of an overdose when she was 10. She had a rough relationship with her mother, who many years later was diagnosed as a schizophrenic with bipolar disorder. Her brothers sold drugs and eventually wound up in prison. She was a mom at 15.
Her mother would regularly call her names like “bitch” and “whore” and leave her at friends’ or relatives’ places for weeks at a time. There were men constantly cycling in and out of the house for what Madison later identified as prostitution.
“I’ve already experienced so much bad. Seeing my mother being beaten with a gun, suffer from black eyes for probably three or four years, us having to literally escape the abuser two, three in the morning,” she said.
Madison is open about this past, telling pieces of her story on panels, to the Girls Inc. girls, to the teen moms who meet her at the center. It’s this vulnerability that helps others trust her, Webster said.
“Yes Sabrina’s exciting, she’s bold, she’s intelligent,” Webster said. “But you’re really missing everything with Sabrina if you don’t appreciate her decency and her warmth.”
“You could meet her and then you would think about her like, ‘Who is that? I want to go to her events and I want to help her out,’” said Molly Richardson, Madison’s part-time assistant.
After reading to second-graders at John Muir, she sits down for lunch with Memorial High School students who also volunteered. In less than two minutes they’re laughing and she’s razzing them for getting pencils thrown at them.
“I didn’t get not one pencil to the face,” she says. “Y’all came in there with the wrong energy.”
By the end, Madison’s taking a picture with the group and telling a girl: “I want to see you within like two weeks at the center.”
Creating black space
Around 2008, Madison moved to Madison. She didn’t know anyone in the city, but found a job at Goodwill Industries and then rushed to find an apartment because she wanted a better environment for her son, SaVance Ford.
“It was really, really important for me to raise him where he would not have the same outcomes that his father had,” Madison said. Her son is 24 and his father has only been out of prison for about five of those years.
But it didn’t take long for her to realize “something was wrong with this damn city.” Plenty of statistics prove Madison’s persistent racial disparities, but she sensed something less quantifiable.
People she encountered assumed she lived in the Allied Drive neighborhood, which mystified her until she realized there was a large black population there. People warned her to stay away from Badger Road — which drew her there, because she thought “black people must live on Badger Road.” Black women seemed isolated. She considered leaving when her son was in high school.
“People call themselves such a liberal city … when in reality you’ve created this system of racism where black people don’t win,” she said.
Maia Chen is the owner of art and greeting card company Sweet Sorrel, featured at Madisons’ Black Business Expos. Chen grew up in Madison and remembers struggling to find places to hang out.
“I felt like a lot of places where black and brown kids find to be themselves always end up getting shut down,” Chen said.
Banks, the owner of Perfect Imperfections, has lived in Madison all her life, and agreed that it has long been hard for black people to find a space to comfortably exist.
“People can say as much as they want that you can be yourself,” Banks said. “That’s a lie.”
Black women are ridiculed for their hairstyles, language they use, clothing and style, she said.
Sensing that problem, Madison started carving out her own spaces for black folks. That started with “Word is Bond” poetry slams and her “Conversation Mixtapes,” regular gatherings for black people to discuss love and relationships.
By that point, Keena Atkinson was in her early 20s and “just began to accept” that there weren’t many places for her to hang out as a black woman in Madison when she discovered the poetry events and Conversation Mixtapes.
“I was telling everybody, ‘Oh my God, you have to go here,’” Atkinson said.
Former Mixtape participants talk about the diverse attendee mix, from PhDs and CEOs to those living in their mother’s basement.
“We didn’t have to worry about being loud … didn’t have to worry about using Ebonics,” Atkinson said. “We were just cool. We were just being who we were. We could connect around what our mamas did when we were growing up.”
But that progress wasn’t enough for Madison, who was working at Madison College at the time. She was so agitated by the time she quit in 2016, she said, she couldn’t even stick it out through the end of her last day. She loved working with students, but some coworkers were like a “walking microaggression,” she said.
So she left to work for black women and hosted her first Black Women’s Leadership Conference months later, followed quickly by the first Black Business Expo. She eventually brought all her projects under one roof when she announced the creation of the Progress Center for Black Women. It found a home a year later at 5936 Seminole Centre Ct., Suite # 211.
The center is a sea of gray and white, but the velvety furniture offers splashes of deep teal and rich purple, with flashes of gold and silver. It’s stocked with books by black authors (hardly surprising, as she has 1,116 books in her home library by her last count), decorated with pieces by black artists. Little black dolls sit in the bookshelf. She calls it “my little Atlanta.”
She schedules meetings at the center whenever she can. It’s her sanctuary from the overwhelming whiteness of Madison.
For Atkinson, it’s a place she can visit with her kids without someone asking, “Are you lost?” or saying, “We need this table for somebody else.” She donates to the center every month, “regardless of what my income looks like.”
Madison is in talks with affordable housing developer Movin’ Out to build a permanent center, hopefully as part of a project with 40 units of affordable housing. After that, Madison hopes to build five centers throughout the country. Her first target outside of Madison is Austin, Texas.
In the meantime, Madison is helping other women carve out black spaces. Atkinson got sick of walking into yoga studios and being greeted with surprise or even asked if she was in the wrong space. She decided she would become a yoga instructor, but didn’t have the resources to do it. Madison helped her make it happen.
“How many black single moms who are living at the poverty level are able to quit their job for a month so they can go to yoga teacher training for 200 hours so they can become a yoga teacher?” Atkinson asked.
Asked about her legacy, Madison’s friends and supporters have big ideas for her.
“We’re all trying to get on Sabrina Madison’s TV show ... I’m serious about that,” said Michael Ford, the Hip Hop Architect and friend of Madison’s. “I can see her rising to the ranks of an Oprah Winfrey-type personality.”
The Boys and Girls Club’s Johnson envisions the Sabrina Madison Elementary School of the Arts or the Sabrina Madison Social Justice Center.
“If she continues to do stuff that she’s doing, in her 50s I think there’s going to be hundreds of women who will say, ‘My life is better because of the Progress Center for Black Women,’” Johnson said.
Madison jokes that she’ll know her work is done when she can walk into five black-owned stores around Madison to pick up a t-shirt, jeans, jewelry, hair product and something to eat.
Yet even as Madison works to build black spaces and advocate for change, she’s been known to encourage black residents to leave town, especially if their kids are struggling in school. One morning at the center, she gets a phone call from a friend who moved her daughter to Texas — and she snaps her fingers in delight with the good news of this little black girl flourishing in school.
Chen said Madison can’t be the only person pushing back on the “toxicity” of Madison for black people.
“I really believe in what Sabrina is doing and it’s really good for Madison,” Chen said. “I just want it to be able to flourish the way it should. It worries me because of what (the city of) Madison does to things.”
Webster said the city has a choice: it can continue to be a politically correct, mid-tier regional city that makes safe choices or it can work to draw people from outside the state.
“That requires making investments in people like Sabrina. And I’m not saying just put her on a stage and let her talk and clap and then everyone eat your salad,” Webster said. “Make the seven-figure investment. Make the eight-figure investment.”
“There’s a movement happening in this community. I don’t know if people can feel it,” Banks said.
Like a train picking up momentum, there are slow but positive changes coming for people of color, and Banks said Sabrina’s a part of that.
“People need to get on board,” Banks said.
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