It’s 2:45 p.m. and students leaving Toki Middle School stream past crossing guards on Whitney Way headed toward the Meadowood Shopping Center on Madison’s Southwest Side.
Some days, the shopping center can be a chaotic place, with some youth getting loud or into fights, stealing from the Walgreens or intimidating shoppers.
But on this Wednesday, several adults from the neighborhood, including Liz Borchardt, Shawna Hunter, Florenzo Cribbs and Nate Williams, wait at the rear of the Walgreens, greeting the students — most by name — asking about their day, exchanging hugs and teasing them playfully.
Students react like they’re seeing a favorite aunt or uncle: Several linger, some pass by after a brief exchange. Many crowd into the Walgreens, followed by Hunter and Cribbs, who bring a familiar adult presence. For the next several hours, the adults will remain around the strip mall and the neighborhood, making themselves visible and continuing to interact with the changing cast of youth.
“I love it. I love every moment of it, even when it gets a little sketchy,” Hunter said. “We know their parents, their cousins, their families. I know temperaments. I allow people to be themselves and make choices.”
The effort, staffed through the nonprofit Mellowhood Foundation’s People on Premises, or POP, is one of the more promising initiatives funded through an $850,000 federal grant intended to help stabilize a neighborhood that suffers from high rates of poverty, trauma and violence; support youth and parents; build trust between residents and police; and keep youth out of the criminal justice system.
The grant was secured by the Madison Police Department and the nonprofit Common Wealth Development.
“We have to look at safety as a community-led thing,” Common Wealth executive director Justice Castaneda said. “There is a way.”
Many families around the Meadowood Shopping Center, which includes a neighborhood center and public library branch, struggle to pay the rent or find transportation to jobs. Schools in the area report large achievement gaps between black and white students, and between those who are poor and those whose families are better off.
At Toki, 49% of students are from low-income households. At adjacent Orchard Ridge Elementary, it’s 61%. Minorities outnumber whites at both schools.
The area has long seen high rates of police contact, and merchants have complained that congregating youth can affect customer traffic. Some hired security guards, which some residents said only heightened tensions.
In 2015, the Police Department got a $155,500 federal grant to plan an initiative focused on the Raymond Road corridor that cuts through the Meadowood, Theresa Terrace and Park Edge/Park Ridge neighborhoods.
As part of the planning, the police, Common Wealth and an advisory team began with small steps: holding a “baby shower” with clothes and strollers for parents of infants, a Juneteenth celebration, and a portable trailer stocked with chairs, tables, grill and P.A. equipment to serve events.
A community-led plan secured the $850,000 two-year grant dubbed “Our Neighborhood: A Safe and Beautiful Place.” The neighborhood advisory team awarded the money to four initiatives that focused on mentoring, plus community policing, a Families and Schools Together (FAST) program, and Mellowhood.
“Youth are at the center of everything,” said Jeffrey Lewis, a retired outreach specialist for underserved communities at the University of Wisconsin Extension, who is advising and doing research for the initiative.
The initiative has emphasized mentoring to reduce youth arrests, improve school attendance and connect youth to the neighborhood, said Stephanie Bradley Wilson, a former Madison police officer and now director of health equity and violence prevention at Common Wealth.
Don Lang, a retired appellate state public defender, got involved with the Madison nonprofit Intentional Mentoring because, he said, he’d met many people in his career whose lives could have turned out differently had they received more attention and direction as youth.
A grant to Intentional Mentoring has let Lang continue a relationship begun two years ago with Lonell James, now in the eighth grade.
Lang has helped Lonell get to school and events, visits his classroom and helps with school work. He’s introduced him to canoeing, kayaking, hiking and other outdoor activities, and taken him to the state Capitol, Vilas Zoo, Badgers and Mallards games and other places. For the youth, most are firsts.
“It helps me stay organized and get a lot of my work done and helps with things I don’t know,” Lonell said.
Through the grant, Intentional Mentoring can support 20 one-on-one relationships, said director Katie Mae Imhoff-Smith. “Every single mentorship is different,” she said.
All told, more than 60 youth will be engaged in individual or group mentoring through a Safe and Beautiful Place, Bradley Wilson said.
Usually, residents only see police officers when they’re responding to calls or emergencies, said South District Police Capt. Mike Hanson, who led the West District when the city secured the federal grant and stayed with the initiative.
Community policing involves patrol officers parking their cars and making themselves visible, walking in pairs on random patrols over brief periods in specific spots several times in a day. The approach encourages casual engagement to build trust, although officers stop criminal behavior if they see it.
About 70 officers volunteered to take training and 20 are actively participating, Hanson said.
“I believe community engagement can break those barriers that are between the community and the police,” said Officer Rayvell Gillard, a former Meadowood neighborhood officer now on patrol who volunteered for the initiative.
Officer Michael Weidemann, who’s new to the department, volunteered because “I love engaging with kids.”
In warm weather, that engagement mostly occurs on the street and in parks, and the reaction can be mixed. When it gets cold, patrols are less frequent. Officers still walk the streets, but most of the people they meet are in places like neighborhood centers and libraries.
On Thursday, Gillard and Weidemann visited the MSCR Meadowood Neighborhood Center and then the Meadowridge Library before strolling nearby streets. By chance, at the library, they meet members of the POP staff for the first time and the interaction is a comfortable mix of humor and serious conversation. Children in the library see it.
“I think that was great,” Weidemann said later.
“They were very accepting of us,” Gillard added. “It was positive (for the children) to see both groups together.”
Through the POP initiative, Mellowhood hires community members at a minimum $17 an hour. The workers are trained to observe, communicate and de-escalate tense situations. The intent is to establish a positive rapport, reduce violence, connect youth with programs in the neighborhood, and provide a nurturing, friendly adult presence in the area.
“Directing dignity wages at undercover superstars creates true vibrancy,” said Mellowhood executive director Tutankhamun “Coach” Assad.
Monday through Friday, POP staff in clearly marked clothing meet briefly to discuss the previous day and possible challenges that await before fanning out into the neighborhood.
“They essentially just engage,” Assad said. “You build trust during times of calmness, so that when things aren’t calm, you have that trust.”
“Us being here has changed the dynamic — a lot less theft, a lot less horseplay and fights,” Cribbs said inside the Walgreens teeming with students. “We take away the boogieman factor. We are allies, not enemies.”
The relationship with police is delicate and evolving. POP staff make clear their role is not to act as “snitches,” and Mellowhood’s operating procedures detail how and when to communicate with officers, Assad said.
POP’s potential is “huge,” Hanson said. “They’re doing phenomenal work. It helps the Police Department galore. If this is successful, it could be replicated in so many neighborhoods throughout Madison.”
Still, a Safe and Beautiful Place has generated some tension and suffered some setbacks.
Assad, a fierce advocate for empowering residents, argues too much of the $850,000 is going to the pockets of people outside the community rather than to residents serving there. Of the money, $159,600 is going to project management, $76,000 to the researcher, $475,000 to community initiatives, $130,000 to support community policing and $10,000 to training and travel.
He said Hanson and Common Wealth used Mellowhood to help secure the federal grant but then spread untrue rumors about Mellowhood to undermine its chances of getting funds. He said the choice of Bradley Wilson, a former police officer, to manage the initiative raised concerns in a community suspicious of law enforcement.
“The community gets used, and that happens too much,” Assad said.
Hanson balked at the characterization.
“That is very far from the truth,” he said, explaining sound management and technical assistance is needed to ensure the initiative meets strict federal standards and that the grant requires evidence-based programming and a researcher. “Why would we want a grass-roots organization in the neighborhood to fail?”
Bradley Wilson, whose 31-year career ran from neighborhood officer to lieutenant, said no one recruited her and that she sought the administrative position because it fit her interests and skill set.
There’s been one clear setback. Recently, the Wisconsin Youth Company dropped out because it couldn’t get enough middle school families to participate in a FAST program, which requires a considerable time commitment from families. The leadership team and advisory group are now figuring out how to use about $100,000.
As it all unfolds, Lewis is studying how community policing helps reduce crime and improves the public’s view of police, and how well the initiatives engage youth. It’s important to build capacity and cooperation among organizations because federal funding will end in September and there will be competition for resources, he said.
“The No. 1 goal is sustainability,” Hanson said.
Later that Wednesday afternoon, POP staff go to Orchard Ridge for dismissal and walk some children home or to other destinations. Borchardt’s twin daughters, Antalasia and Anyiah, high school seniors, take elementary school girls to nearby Good Shepherd Lutheran Church for a Mellowhood homework and life club. Borchardt, POP’s supervisor, assigns them to write about an active shooter training they’d received in school.
Eventually, the staffers retreat to tables near a big window facing the parking lot at the library branch, where they can see what’s happening outside and interact with youth inside.
Then, the adults and some children go to the church to reconnect with Borchardt’s daughters and the young girls, including some who have already suffered traumas like the loss of a parent to incarceration or gun violence.
The group relaxes in a basement room. Borchardt reads the short essays aloud. They have a free-flowing talk about an upcoming pre-Thanksgiving meal to be prepared by the POP staff. The film, “Harriet,” the story of freedom fighter Harriet Tubman, which POP staff and children saw together earlier in the week, is another subject of conversation.
Two younger girls cozy on a pillow on the floor, mostly listening. Tyler Stump, a volunteer from Blackhawk Church who’s been with the group all afternoon and will soon join the POP staff, is made welcome. It’s like an extended family in a living room.
Soon, it’s after 5 and POP staff will end this workday in 20 minutes. Liz asks the children, “Do you want to end it or hang out and talk?”
They chime back, “Hang out and talk!”
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