|Early staff of the Nehemiah Community Development
Corporation: Dr. Rev. Alex Gee (l-r), Kevin
Evanco, Fabu Carter, Rev. Jackie Gee, Rachmaan Weatherby
and Jean Conklin
Nehemiah Celebrates 25 Years of
Foundational Work in South Madison
Quarter Century of Service
By Jonathan Gramling
Back in the mid to late 1980s into the 1990s, Madison’s economically
challenged neighborhoods came under more intense stress as the Reagan
budget cuts — fraying the safety net — the crack cocaine epidemic and
sudden population growth particularly in neighborhood along the Beltline
Hwy. corridor took hold.
In the midst of this sat Union Tabernacle Church — which changed its name
to Fountain of Life Church — with Rev. Alex Gee as its pastor. One of the
troubled neighborhoods was Sommerset-Eric Circle, which was located
just down Badger Road from Union Tabernacle. Union Tabernacle got
involved and the work of the Nehemiah Community Development
Corporation was born.
Nehemiah started out with a grant from the Madison Community Foundation
and donations from Madison area churches. The first year was spent
growing the community connections for Nehemiah that would allow
Nehemiah to grow into its mission.
“The Madsens were very instrumental in introducing us to the Madison
Community Foundation because Norma had friends there,” Gee recalled. “And that’s when I developed a relationship with Gary Schaeffer, Jane
Coleman and Bob Koch. Those established business leaders and Madison Community Foundation leaders took me under their wings. And they
connected me to Leadership Greater Madison. So it wasn’t just a granting opportunity. They really put me on a track of really garnering the
respect of the broader community because my vision wasn’t to be a Black leader. It was to be a leader who happened to be African American.
And I’m not taking anything away from African American leaders. But I think the power of Dr. King was that he was a clear leader among
African American people. He had the ability to sit down with heads of state and what we found at the end of his life, the ability to talk about the
war and economic sanctions. It showed that he could speak to broader America. So often, African American leaders are pigeon-holed in
special roles that have to do with minority services and we are rarely mainstreamed. And I felt that some of the support that was given to me
by those folks helped me to mainstream.”
After the first year, Nehemiah got its first fee-for-service contract that allowed Nehemiah to lure Gee’s sister away from Nehemiah and retain
his mom Verline Fleming, one of the few African American MSSWs in Madison at the time, to provide services.
“Children Come First was a coalition of services that ran for years. A number of us were in that. And I think we were one of the few African
American led organizations. We hired therapeutic mentors. Some of them put in up to 40 hours per week working with children. We saw some
great results. That was Nehemiah’s first contract. That got us established in program delivery for kids.”
And with some of the funds that they earned in the program, Nehemiah started the Acadenic Center for Excellence Program, known as ACE.
“We also got a private donation for $20,000 and we started ACE on faith,” Gee recalled. “We hired Fabu and Kevin Evanco to be director and
assistant director. I think for that money, we also bought a van so that we could pick kids up. We ended up raising money halfway through. That
was enough money to get us through one semester. But we ended up getting support from churches and individuals. Back in those days, we
had enough to at least start a program. We were young. We were gutsy. We felt invincible. We just jumped in and did it. Fabu and I sat down
and designed that program. We saw something comparable at a conference in Chicago. I said, ‘Fabu, we can do this.’ We replicated it. We
scaled it down from what they were doing in Chicago.”
ACE has been a foundational program for Nehemiah over the years.
“The children who were their participants still keep in touch with them,” Gee said. “And now Lilada has young girls in the work that she does
in Verona and some Madison schools, the daughters of her former participants are in the programs. We’re impacting generations, which is
really, really important. That’s what we wanted to do. That’s the whole thing back to serving and leading. You have to stay around to do that. My
mentor said, ‘If you are going to work with kids, you must commit 20 years.’ And 25 is a little longer than that, but we’re right there.”
Nehemiah also received a grant from Dane County that allowed it to expand its work to communities like Sun Prairie and beyond.
“It was called the Community Support Specialist,” Gee said. “We hired six full-time people to join the JFF teams. Jackie Hunt was in Sun
Prairie. My mom supervised that program with Andre Jones. They job shared. We also hired Christine Inthachith and Estela Miranda, which
meant that we were then tapping into and doing work with the Southeast Asian and Latino communities. We have since pulled back because
we realized that it was important to have focus. But it’s important to note that there were times when I heard three different languages at our
Nehemiah also got involved in reentry work around this time. Men started showing up at Fountain of Life Church wearing ankle bracelets. And
the church started offering peer support groups and counseling. Its programming evolved from those volunteer efforts.
“I was finishing my dissertation for my doctorate and was focusing on fatherlessness in the Black community,” Gee said. “I called Jerome at
the end of it just to get an extra page or two, to say, ‘Do you think that there is a role between reentry and fatherlessness?’ And he started
sending me the links to the Dept. of Justice website and told me to read New Jim Crow. And that opened my eyes. Here I am studying about
fatherlessness and becoming an expert on reentry. I never considered the role of mass incarceration. That was the ‘a ha’ moment. I created a
group called Man Up with Jerome. Anthony Cooper and Aaron were participants in it. They now run it as employees. So I would say around
2006-2007, Jerome and I started holding meetings for men who were formerly incarcerated. It was for Black men. It had a spiritual base. And it
was really about not just addressing issues of addiction, but we focused with these men on the issues of fatherlessness because that was the
thread. And so folks like Willie were in the Man Up group and now he maintains this building. Aaron has been hired. Jerome was hired. Coop
was hired. Terry Crawford was hired. We started hiring these men to give back to the community because they have never worked in a Black-
led organization that was addressing men who were working to reintegrate into the community.”
Over the years, Nehemiah has grown and contracted with the availability of funding. Currently, it has about 15 part-time and full-time staff and
an annual budget of about $750,000.
“We have ACE, Rites of Way and Reentry, which has several programs like housing, employment and case management,” Gee said. “We have
a plethora of programs. We have a loan fund where we have raised $100,000 to work with Black entrepreneurs. Of the three loans that we
have given so far, each of the entrepreneurs had been incarcerated. These created a barbershop, landscape and stone removal businesses.
The gentleman who runs the Madison Dollar Store on Allied Drive, we gave him loans for fixtures.”
As Nehemiah sits on Badger Road with a new Madison College South campus soon to be built down the street, Nehemiah will increasingly look
to economic development as the path to solve some of the issues that the African American community faces.
“I’m pushing to create more entrepreneurs to attract more African Americans to our city who want to speak in and help redesign and redevelop
our community,” Gee said. “I think having a bigger say so and getting more involved in having a political voice are important. It’s really about
empowerment politically and economically. We have grown leaders in our program because they came to us because of a need. But I think
there is a group of African Americans that no one really speaks to, to say, ‘We’ve talked to people who told us what they need when they come
back to the community from prison. But what do you need when you are a tenured professor here and you are Black? What do you need if you
are s doctor? What do you need to see in your community? What would help you thrive? What makes you proud? What do we look at and say
that we did this together?’ It can’t just be the jail or a social service program or some type of support for folks who are struggling. What shows
that the Black community is thriving so that in this next phase, we have some strategies that are going to help the Black community to thrive,
which helps the overall Madison community? My goal is we want to attract folks who are very accomplished and still feel disenfranchised in
this city who are Black. We want to work together and really make sure that we have obvious, tangible examples of the Black community really
thriving in this community. Unless that happens, we’re never going to eradicate disparity.”
As the South Madison area becomes more developed, Nehemiah Center for Urban Leadership Development will be uniquely positioned to steer
that growth for the development of the communities that live within it. And that is true community development.