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Madison poised to fund community members to engage youths on Southwest Side

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Mellowhood Foundation

Madison is considering providing a federal grant up to $120,000 to the Mellowhood Foundation, led by executive director Tutankhamun “Coach” Assad, left, pictured last summer with youth who are part of a foundation initiative that employs youth during the summer. The new funds would support a "People on Premises" program led by adult community members who would interact with teens in neighborhood hot spots. 

Madison is poised to direct up to $120,000 in federal funds to an initiative that will hire trained community members to engage youths in targeted “hot spots” on the city’s Southwest Side.

Ald. Barbara McKinney, 1st District, is introducing a resolution Tuesday to the City Council to award part of a U.S. Department of Justice grant to the Mellowhood Foundation, a grassroots organization that aims to empower youths and families in the Meadowood neighborhood.

Under Mellowhood’s “People on Premises” initiative, the nonprofit will hire community members who will be trained in observation, effective presence, communication and de-escalation, with the intent of establishing positive rapport; reducing incidents of violence; facilitating access to programming; and providing a nurturing, friendly adult presence around the Meadowood strip mall, Meadowood Park and other neighborhood spots.

“These are people who live in the community who have the best interest of the community in their hearts,” said Mellowhood executive director Tutankhamun “Coach” Assad.

The initiative builds upon a smaller “Parents on Premises” effort that Mellowhood and supporters piloted in 2015, 2016 and 2017 in Meadowood.

It’s also part of a movement in which the city pays community members — many who have already been contributing as volunteers — for their efforts, most prominently the city’s investments in the Focused Interruption Coalition and Madison-area Urban Ministry to provide peer support to those at risk of violence.

The grant recommended for the Mellowhood Foundation is also the latest move in a broader, unfolding initiative on the Southwest Side.

In 2015, the Madison Police Department received a $155,500 U.S. Department of Justice Criminal Justice Innovation planning grant focused on the Raymond Road corridor touching the Meadowood, Theresa Terrace and Park Edge/Park Ridge neighborhoods.

The community-driven process produced the “Southwest Madison, a Safe and Beautiful Place” plan, for which the Department of Justice awarded the Police Department and nonprofit Commonwealth Development an $850,000 grant for a two-year period to carry out strategies.

The areas around the Meadowood Shopping Center, which includes businesses, a neighborhood center and public library branch, have higher rates of police calls and contact, and merchants there have voiced concern about how youths congregating can affect customer traffic. A security guard hired by merchants was met with resistance by minority members of the neighborhood who felt the presence heightened rather than calmed tensions.

“If you’re not aware of the climate you’re in, it tends to create stresses and flashpoints versus engagement and understanding,” Assad said.

One of the strategies of the Safe and Beautiful Space plan is to build community cohesion and reduce crime in the target area. The city issued a request for proposals for a Safe Passages initiative in March.

Two nonprofits — Mellowhood and the Boys & Girls Club of Dane County — submitted proposals to deliver programming.

The city’s Community Development Division, police and Commonwealth worked with volunteer reviewers from the community to evaluate the proposals and make a recommendation to the City Council. If the council approves the grant award, Mellowhood will begin the process of hiring and training community members.

In March, the council awarded $210,850 in funds from the federal grant to four entities to provide individual and group mentoring programs that engage middle and high school youths in the area.

“The use of funds really reflects the desires of residents,” said Jim O’Keefe, city community development director. “This has very much been a community-driven effort.”

Mellowhood’s hirees will educate youths about summer activities and after-school programs, offer ideas and concerns about physical improvements and needs in the neighborhood, support positive engagement with neighborhood police officers, and encourage residents and businesses to view youths as an asset rather than a threat.

“The community gets to see people who live in the community acting as agents of change,” Assad said, adding that he hopes it will lead to a new paradigm in community-police collaboration and relations.

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