BLACK WOMENS CONFERENCE-09-05192017135505

Milwaukee high school students talked with Cap Times reporter Katelyn Ferral — and picked up some t-shirts and sunglasses — during the Black Women's Leadership Conference in May at Madison's Overture Center.

PHOTO BY SAIYNA BASHIR

When Tiffany Williams’ husband left her last November, her life changed drastically. Her three teenage daughters struggled through the transition, especially her oldest.

Then Madison social entrepreneur Sabrina Madison gave them tickets to her annual Black Women’s Leadership Conference, which this year included dedicated sessions for teens. 

They all attended, and Williams immediately noticed a change in her daughter.

“She was smiling, she was happy, and she hadn’t been that way in months,” she said. “After that she wore her leadership conference badge for like two weeks because she was so proud she attended. Since then, she’s just been a different person in general.”

When news came that Madison will be hosting her first-ever Black Excellence Youth Conference for high school students this fall, Williams’ daughters were overjoyed.

“They were like, ‘Oh my gosh, are we going to paint again? Does she need any volunteers? Can I work for her?’” she said. “I’ve never seen them this excited about doing anything in Madison.”

PLENTY OF PROJECTS

Working by herself, Madison wouldn’t have the time or resources to put on a teen conference, she said.

She already has her hands full planning another Black Business Expo on Black Friday and is looking ahead to next year’s Black Women’s Leadership Conference. Plus, she’s looking to launch the first Black Men’s Leadership Conference in the spring.

But teens who attended the Women’s Leadership Conference, like Williams’ daughters, kept asking her, “When are we going to do this again? What’s coming up next?”

“What is my role? What is my responsibility? How can I be of service?” Madison said she asked herself, deciding that she’s “already got the model” to put on a conference. This one aims to celebrate African-American teens and offer them a safe space. 

But volunteers and partners had to step in to make it happen, including some Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD) staff.

“This is 100 percent community supported. I really should not have been doing this until next year; I truly don’t have the money,” she said. “Thank God people are pitching in.”

And community members have pitched in to the tune of about $4500, which will allow 100 high schoolers to attend the two-day conference for free. It's scheduled for Oct. 27-28.

The first day of the conference is for all high school students and will focus on “Black Excellence.” The second day is all about high school seniors.

“We want Madison and the Madison area to see our black seniors in a positive realm,” said Joann Brown, the multicultural student coordinator at Memorial High School who is helping out with the conference.

“(We’re) really striving to get our kids to be noticed and recognized for their accomplishments and show the world that we do have black kids that graduate and go on to bigger and better things,” she said.

SAFE SPACE FOR CELEBRATION

Celebrating black high school students doesn’t happen enough, Madison said.

“When we’re talking about young people, we’re talking about the negative things — like yeah, you can’t go to the mall here,” she said. “We don’t really think of black high school students being the next generation of leaders.”

Instead, she wants to encourage the kids doing well in school, give them practical skills for the future and just “allow people to connect with other people who just have similar thoughts.”

“It’s about them and about their leadership ability. It’s not like a march, no one’s been hurt or harmed. It’s not about the mall. It’s not about none of that. It’s about us saying, all y’all in this space have the ability to hit your goals," Madison said.

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That space doesn’t exist for many African-Americans in Madison, she said.

That’s was the case for Williams and her daughters, who, prior to the women’s leadership conference, “never really felt accepted or a part of anything.” The conference changed that, especially for her daughter.

“For her to be in an environment where there are other black girls and positive messages … I think that was the difference,” she said.

STUDENTS HELPING STUDENTS

Student leaders will help plan the conference and recruit students to attend, Brown said. This won’t be the first time members of the Black Student Union have put on big events; they’ve organized community dinners, black history programs and helped lead staff development on race and education, she said.

“It’s that type of work that they love to do, so this type of event just came naturally to them,” she said.

Tiara Fountain, who will be a senior at Memorial this year, is one the students who is eager to help out. She also attended the teen section of the last Black Women’s Leadership Conference and she’s excited for an exclusive teen event.

“It’s just kind of a safe space to have fun and forget about all the negativity for the hour or two where nothing else kind of matters, and it’s more of taking care of each other and supporting each other,” she said.

In the meantime, Madison is still looking for more help; photographers to volunteer time to take senior photos for the students, donations of food and school supplies, and volunteers to set up and tear down.

She’s grateful for the support she’s gotten so far. Williams is grateful for Madison’s effect on her family.

“The conference was like a new beginning for all of us,” she said.