The 2015 Forward Festival, an entrepreneurship-focused festival now in its sixth year in Madison, kicked off on Thursday morning with a challenge to 12 panelists gathered at the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery.
The challenge was this: to lay out a plan for bolstering socially-conscious entrepreneurship in Madison.
The inaugural Social Good Summit featured an expansive group of panelists including Zach Brandon, president of the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce, Brandi Grayson, employment services director at the YWCA and organizer with the Young Gifted and Black Coalition, M Adams, co-director of Freedom, Inc. and another organizer with Young Gifted and Black, Greg St. Fort, executive director of coworking space 100state and Madison Alder Samba Baldeh.
While some may have deemed the panel unwieldy, organizers said its size was necessary to adequately addressing the subject at hand.
“We wanted to make sure at the outset that we included a whole variety of perspectives,” said Amy Gannon, founder of women-focused entrepreneurship group Doyenne Group and moderator of the panel.
Gannon asked panelists a range of questions on socially conscious entrepreneurship, including how to measure success, the role of financial measurements in non-traditional businesses and the strengths and weaknesses of Madison in fostering businesses and organizations with social justice aims.
The most vibrant part of the conversation came when panelists discussed the strengths and weaknesses of social justice initiatives in Madison.
Brandon quoted one of his favorite passages from a decades-old Madison promotional book: “In order to grow the business of a community, you must first grow the humanity of a community.”
“We’ve probably fallen down in the last 60-some years in living up to this problem,” Brandon said.
A few panelists pointed out the strengths of the Madison community, however.
Recently elected Madison Alder Samba Baldeh pointed out the increasing diversity of the Madison City Council.
“They’re diversifying their lawmakers, they’re being inclusive,” he said of Madison voters.
Christina Libs, senior launch manager at local tech company Zendesk and founder of MOOV, a volunteer organization, shared an opinion that Madisonians, on the whole, are socially conscious and service-focused.
“The people that live here understand this idea of benefiting each other, helping each other out,” she said.
Grayson, well known for her organizing work with the Young Gifted and Black Coalition, disagreed with many of her fellow panelists’ positive statements, pointing out the quality of life disparities between white Madisonians and residents of color.
“We are definitely living in two different realities,” Grayson said. “We are failing a huge group of our population.”
Grayson shared a few of her ideas for encouraging socially conscious work (and social justice in general) in Madison. She suggested Madisonians donate to smaller, grassroots organizations and understand money is given with no strings attached, so organizations feel empowered to make statements that some may deem uncomfortable or unwelcome.
“We have to move from this place of ‘Oh, I’m just doing this from the goodness of my heart,’ and really look at the work that needs to be done,” she said. “And it needs to be not from a place of financial value and capital and profit, it has to be from a place of humanity, the place to serve someone who’s vulnerable.”
M Adams, of one Grayson’s colleagues at Young Gifted and Black, said the city should divest money from public safety initiatives and put money in black-led grassroots organizations.
“If money is a finite resource and you’re putting all your money in those things that oppress communities, you’re going to continue to oppress communities,” she said.
Will Green, founder of Mentoring Positives, a Dane County said he believes some minority-led grassroots organizations in Madison are overlooked.
“We have to look at where we’re putting funds and make sure it’s really hitting what you want it to hit,” Green said.
The final question for the panel was, “What’s one concrete thing that we, as a community, can do that would push us down that path (of social justice)?”
While each panelist’s answer varied, there was a general consensus around the need for different communities to communicate and respect one another.
“Let’s be engaged, let’s be part of the public discourse, let’s talk to each other as a community,” Baldeh said. “I think that’s a way we can break down the fear, the profiling, all the barriers.”