Sabrina “Heymiss Progress” Madison’s first annual Black Women’s Leadership Conference was a big hit last year, and this year promises to be even bigger: double the attendees, three days of events, an after-party and a chance for high school students to participate.
But Madison said one of the most powerful moments from last year, and one she’s most excited to repeat, is having participants walk over to the state Capitol building to pose for photos.
“Just the representation of black women down there on State Street. You just don’t see that, you don’t see groups of black folks,” she said. “This is not a march, this is not about being poor ... It’s a very positive event tied around leadership.”
This year the conference, which runs from May 18 to May 20 at the Overture Center, Madison Museum of Contemporary Art (MMoCA) and Edgewood College, is themed “Progress, Empowerment & Collaboration.” Madison wants to equip African-American women with the tools and support they need to thrive.
At last year’s inaugural conference, Madison realized just how hard support is to come by. She met a woman attendee who was shocked to find that so many professional African-American women lived in the city and were eager to show her kindness. The woman has lived in Madison for 14 years.
“That’s when I decided that we had to do it again, because it just very much bothers me that these are sort of first-time experiences,” Madison said. “I just want to create an environment where people feel supported.”
She chose collaboration as one of this year’s themes to demonstrate the need for women to cooperate and pool resources.
“Collaboration is key, because I don’t have some huge budget, so I have to collaborate in order to execute it,” she said, noting Madison Gas and Electric and A Fund for Women helped make the conference a reality.
The event starts Thursday, May 18, with an opening reception at the Overture Center located at 227 State St. from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. featuring visual artists and live music by Cigarette Break and Triology.
On Friday, the day will start with keynote speaker Nancy Hanks, chief of elementary schools for the Madison Metropolitan School District, named one of the 100 most influential African-Americans in the country by Root in 2016.
Discussion from a panel titled “The State of Black Women in Wisconsin,” moderated by Cap Times education reporter Amber Walker, will act as a guide for Madison’s work in the upcoming year.
“We want to use it as a blueprint from here to May 2018,” she said.
Other speakers and panels, including a talk by Madison about building a personal brand and a keynote address by writer and performer Dasha Kelly Hamilton, will fill the rest of the afternoon. Afterward, attendees can make their way to MMoCA at 227 State St. for an after party with music, appetizers, prizes and a chance to help create a collaborative art piece.
On Saturday, events will move to Edgewood College at 1000 Edgewood College Dr. for the last day of the conference.
Kara Stevens, author and founder of The Frugal Feminista, will be the keynote speaker. Madison decided to invite Stevens after reading an article about black women's wealth.
“Her keynote is directly tied to how to change your mindset about money and how to start creating wealth for yourself,” Madison said.
After the keynote, participants can attend workshops on topics like collaborative entrepreneurship, wellness, African-American voices in the media and building thriving relationships.
All workshops will be thematically connected to Solange Knowles’ album, “A Seat at the Table.” Madison wants each session to provide women with a tool to help them feel more comfortable making space for themselves.
“(There are) women who don’t know how to simply assert themselves and actually be at the table, so I wanted them to have a little bit of a jumping off point,” she said.
It’s Madison’s way of making sure the conference has tangible takeaways.
“(At conferences), we hang out, take a couple notes, take a couple selfies, but we don’t think about each tool,” she said.
There are also workshops specifically geared to the 50 high school girls who will be at the conference, including topics like mindfulness and art therapy.
“Their sessions are so dope that I’m definitely going to creep into a few,” Madison joked.
Madison is already planning for next year’s conference. After another year with Trump as president, she’s anticipating a need for rest.
“I would imagine this year is just going to get more stressful, with so much drama between his administration and black women,” she said.
She’s planning a retreat with a focus on wellness and renewal of mind, body and spirit. For local African-American women, the national political climate is compounded by living in Madison, a predominantly white city with many racial disparities, she said.
“I want to be conscious about helping women deal with being a black women,” she said. “It will literally just be about saving yourself through all this madness we’re experiencing.”