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Sabrina "Heymiss Progress" Madison describes herself as a motivational speaker and poet. She's also an administrative specialist for the School of Health Education at Madison College, and the founder and facilitator of the Conversation Mixtape. Approaching its one-year anniversary, the Conversation Mixtape is a discussion group for black men and women of all marital statuses designed to help them better understand one another and improve their relationships. 

The Mixtape is limited to black men and women, because Progress — as most people call her — noticed a disconnect within those relationships, specifically, and she wanted to find a way to bridge the gap. It was meant to be a one-time conversation, but it's continued to evolve. Her intent isn't to exclude other races and ethnicities, and as others express interest, she hopes to someday host similar events with a multicultural scope. For now, she's started with what she knows.  

The Cap Times: How did The Conversation Mixtape begin?

Sabrina "Heymiss Progress" Madison: I've always been a social person, so I’m comfortable talking about anything with anyone, it doesn't matter. I started noticing here, folks complaining: "Black men don’t say hello to me on the street when I’m out." Or black men said, "There’s not any good black women here." There’s just this huge disconnect between the two sexes — and there’s not a lot of us here in Madison, and as a whole, we’re not doing so good anyway. A lot of it was miscommunication; it was holding onto old myths and things like that. We need to better understand each other.

So, we were online, talking about the Madonna-whore complex, and the conversation had gotten to 300-400 comments long. I said, "This is ridiculous. Let’s meet, let’s have lunch and dinner, and let’s invite some friends." We did that, and 12-15 people showed up just to talk about that topic. By the end of the night, we came to understandings.

I always say it’s breaking down the madness so we can get back to love. And people were like, "We've got to do this again next month."

And it’s modeled after a book?

Yes! How the conversation started online was, I was reading Hill Harper’s book, "The Conversation." In the process of writing his book, he had conversations with his friends. He was trying to understand, why hadn't his personal relationships worked, why was he still single, how was he going to meet a wife, what was he doing that was wrong? It’s a great model.

What kinds of things have you talked about in the Mixtape?

This next one, we’re talking about expectations. How to deal with those. We've talked about everything from bad oral sex to erectile dysfunction to child support issues to cheating. We've talked about interracial dating, we've talked about, "Are white women better?" Here in Madison, a lot of black women feel like they see black men in good relationships with white women, not necessarily the other way around. One of the last weeks, we talked about how to sustain your marriage. We talk about finances. There’s nothing you can’t talk about. We talk about poverty, about discrimination, how that’s stressful. I can’t tell you there’s anything we haven’t touched on. If there is, believe me, it’ll come up at some point.

Do you choose a topic for each session?

We pick a topic, for example, (recently), it was "Commitment, Fidelity and Love: The 'She’s Gotta Have It' Effect." In Spike Lee’s old movie, "She’s Gotta Have It," this woman is in a relationship with three different men. Each man fills a different need, so together: perfect guy. We were talking about that and how do you have a committed relationship and remain monogamous when this person doesn't necessarily meet all those needs? Do they truly need to meet all those needs?

Do you feel like this is needed specifically in Madison, compared to other communities?

I think every community needs one. I grew up in Milwaukee, and, knowing that low marriage rates and high poverty have a very close relationship — you look at Milwaukee, the black community, poverty is just out of control there. And there are not many married black couples there. If we look at the economic situation of black folks across America, I feel like that exists. It may not exist to the extreme that Milwaukee does, but it exists. For me personally, even though I did not grow up in a two-parent household, I witnessed two-parent households deal with struggles that someone in a single-parent household also dealt with. And they deal with them in a much healthier way and, I think, in a way that sustains the family and the community.

I think that if we can learn how to get back to that kind of love that our parents enjoyed, where an argument over you spending an extra $40 doesn't end the relationship … those things didn't break up black families back in the day. Today, relationships end for petty things. People don’t know how to be together, how to resolve those. I honestly think more places need it, because more communities need stronger families. I think stronger families make stronger, tighter communities and it helps lessen the effects of poverty, stress and a whole other host of issues.

Why is this important specifically for the black community?

For me, I was born black. (Laughs.) I’ll always be a black woman. And I think we can only help what we know first. I don’t know why white Americans or Asian-Americans or Hispanic-Americans, I don’t know why their divorce rates are high. I can definitely pick up a book and read it. But I’m not immersed in that life. I will always be immersed in black life, as an African-American. But I want to know for me, too. I was struggling, and I’m still struggling with that — why haven’t my relationships worked? I’m also figuring myself out.

I thought it was important for our community here, because we are failing. We are failing across the board. Education, economics, everything. We’re at the bottom. And I truly believe that when you have a partner, someone there with you to deal with those stresses, your health is better, your livelihood is better. We can definitely address education disparities, economic disparities. But if we don’t address what’s happening right where we eat, sleep and breathe every day, then we’re never going to resolve all this other stuff.

(This community) needs to be restored, it needs to be healed. And I truly believe if black folks want to be in a place where they’re taken more seriously, they’re doing better educationally, financially, then they have to have a strong household. That has to be the foundation for all of these other things that exist outside our home.

I've read the Moynihan Report that was released in the '60s. He said back then, if we don’t address these issues that are eroding the black family, we will end up everywhere that we are today. All these policies that we have, all worked to erode the black family. At least my little bit is, let’s figure out the black relationship.

We could talk about all these other disparities, and that’s fine. They deserve attention. But if we’re not working on those together, we’re going to still have little black boys, little black girls without black fathers and black mothers in the same household. That has to be solved.

Who comes to the Mixtape — married and single people? Are there a variety of ages?

We have everybody. We have transgender couples, a woman getting a Ph.D., stay-at-home moms who don’t have any education outside of high school. I always say we have GED to Ph.D., and we have everyone from volunteers with no income to high-level executives. We have couples who are going through separation, people who are divorced, sometimes several times. We have single people, we have pregnant people. We have pregnant people who aren't with the father. We have single dads. You name it, they all come out. There’s not a lot to do for black folks in Madison (laughs), so people will migrate. You give me a class or education background and I can tell you exactly who represents that in the Mixtape. That’s the beauty of it; there is no room to be elitist, there’s no room for any of it. It breaks that class issue, too. There’s more happening than just relationships.

It’s evolved, too. You’re doing more events, and you've got things happening on social media.

I did put up a page (on Facebook). I have to work hard to get black men out, even though when they get there they probably talk the most. But I’m always working to make sure we have a balance. Now I think I’m at a point where I can do other events for other groups. Because I get approached by the Hispanic community and there are a couple white, married couples who have said, "We really want you to do this." So I’m going to do it and see what happens.

So you will expand it.

I will. Through September-October, I’ll continue to do the African-American Mixtape as we’ve been doing it today. I think maybe the end of August, early September, I’ll do an open one where everybody’s invited. Doesn’t matter what you look like or where you come from. And then I think around October we’ll open up the Mixtape to everybody. But I really, truly think because of where Madison is, the Race to Equity report — black folks are still at a point where trust is still an issue.

You want to be able to discuss these things very raw and open and you don’t want to be uncomfortable. I get that. I’ve always been at a point where I’m comfortable talking about everything; I don’t care who’s in a room. But not everybody is like that. I think Madison, there’s still a lot of distrust between the two communities. I think around fall I could host it and change the format a little bit. But I think I may always have to do an all-black one, at least for another year, because there’s just so many issues in the city. People don’t feel they can trust folks who don’t look like them sometimes.

What does the average Mixtape night look like? What’s the format?

We get there, from about 7-7:45 p.m. people are just conversing, getting food, getting drinks, introducing themselves. I always have little questions on the table, something to force people to talk. At about 7:45, I say, "Hey, there are sheets of paper on the tables. Any question you've ever wanted to ask the opposite sex, or same sex, drop it in the hat." And that hat fills up quickly. Most of the questions are within the topic, but the goal is, let’s talk openly. One of the first questions this past month was about staying in a relationship when there’s cheating. We go for about an hour, then we take a break and I ask everybody to get up, talk for 15 minutes and sit back down with someone you've not met before. Then we do questions again. It’s supposed to end at 11:30, but people want to talk and we’re willing to keep going. The last one ended around 1 or 1:30 a.m.

Where do you see it going from here?

The way that Madison exists today, I think we’ll have to host an all-black Mixtape for some time, because the city is not where it needs to be for it to exist any other way. But I do see the Mixtape folks who participate coming to a more multicultural Mixtape. We’ve got a long way to go to get relationships where they need to be, and there are still topics we need to talk about.

In August instead of doing a Mixtape, we’re going to do a financial planning workshop, because people are struggling and we have so much talent in those groups that we all have something to offer each other from our personal lives. We’re going to come up with some date nights. We’re going to do a parenting night on how to organize chores and things like that. We’re going to look at the family and what the family needs to be successful and start tying workshops around those things. I think the Mixtape as it exists today will exist, still, and it’ll just be me going outside of it and hosting these other events.

Are there other things you want people to know?

The Mixtape is definitely geared toward black men and black women. It’s not necessarily to exclude anybody, it’s just because we are admitting that our relationships aren't healthy to the point where we’re together and we’re in long-lasting relationships. That’s the goal, is to get us back to love, that everlasting love, that love that holds you through all this other stuff that we’re dealing with. It’s about getting back to love. In order to do that, you have to hammer out all this other stuff. 

Jessie Opoien covers state government and politics for the Capital Times. She joined the Cap Times in 2013 and has also covered Madison life, race relations, culture and music. She has also covered education and politics for the Oshkosh Northwestern.