More than JustDane

Photo by JustDane

Local voices are key for nonprofits to make an ongoing impact in any community. Though other regions can inspire efforts in our area, an initiative that works halfway across the country won’t necessarily translate over 1,500 miles. And even in cases where only part of a program works, the rest can’t be forced through. What JustDane is doing for Dane County continues to be effective because of the time they spend seeking out relevant perspectives before filling in the gaps surrounding services for people who need them most, all while empowering other visionaries and volunteers. In the best cases, those empowered individuals grow into their own nonprofits.

Better known as Madison-area Urban Ministry (MUM), JustDane has been around for 50 years functioning, among other things, as an incubator and fiscal agent for innovative ideas and projects. Executive Director Linda Ketcham says, “The goal is to support them so that they can build their internal capacity and achieve their goal, which is to become their own nonprofit free and clear of us.” Over the years of working with so many nonprofits, JustDane has instilled itself in the community as a resource for connecting people and businesses to the nonprofits that can help them most.

Photograph provided by JustDane

Each successful nonprofit born from JustDane’s model speaks to a broader mission of creating a just and equitable community, something that has been their aim since the beginning. “There was a United Church of Christ congregation called Pilgrim United Church of Christ,” says Linda. The church had been working to address issues in its neighborhood surrounding gentrification, racism, and economic injustice. “But, as happens sometimes, congregations get older. It gets harder to keep doors open, so they decided to dissolve as a congregation. But because they felt strongly about social justice, they went to another United Church of Christ congregation in town, First Congregational United Church of Christ, and asked them if they were to hand over their assets to that church, would that church use those assets to build some kind of social justice ministry.” The congregation agreed and formed a committee, Servants on Errands.

The new committee got to work immediately to research what was needed in the community, particularly in terms of fair and affordable housing and racism. “One of the things they identified as a need was for a neighborhood center in that Wilmar area,” says Linda. Since the neighborhood association had been meeting in the church, the church turned the building over to the association to create the Wilmar Neighborhood Center, which, along with the old Pilgrim United Church of Christ, is still there today operating after-school programs, a food pantry, and other community activities. In 1971, Servants on Errands officially became founded as MUM, and in 1973, MUM officially became incorporated as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit.

Almost immediately, MUM found their executive director: Chuck Pfeifer. Linda recalls when she first met Chuck for lunch, “He told me that when he accepted the job, Alice Schacht, who was really the chair of that Servants on Errands committee, gently took his hand in hers and said, ‘Good, then all we have to do is figure out a way to pay you.’” But that didn’t scare Chuck away. He oversaw several key initiatives during his tenure, including Project Home, the Men’s Homeless Shelter at Grace Episcopal Church, and the community health center.

Photograph provided by JustDane

“Chuck’s successor came in 1998, Mary Kay Baum,” says Linda. “And Mary Kay was there for eight years. Under Mary Kay’s watch, things like the Allied Wellness Center, Allied Partners, Family Connections, and some of those other groups were brought in.

“Mary Kay had the vision to understand that all the issues we cared about, racism, access to education, racial disparities, fair and affordable housing, homelessness, where all these issues converged is when you look at the justice system and who gets arrested and sent to prison. And so she and MUM, at the time, started to focus on reentry and prison reform. We were one of the organizations to really coordinate under her leadership the protests against building the supermax prison in Boscobel.”

Much of Mary Kay’s work, such as the Journey Home, Circles of Support, and a mentoring program for youth with parents involved in the justice system, continues to inform JustDane’s focus concerning justice system reform. It certainly has inspired much of Linda’s work. She came on board March 2006, and during a board and staff retreat that fall, what Linda considers one of the most significant decisions of JustDane took place.

Photograph provided by JustDane

“We made a conscious decision not to spin off those justice-system-focused programs. We recognized that every time we spin something off, as Bryan Stevenson, author of Just Mercy, would say, we lose the proximity to the people most impacted by the issues we’re working on. We need to have that proximity, and we need to have them at the table with us telling us what’s happening and sharing stories and their experiences and working side by side with us to have input on what we’re developing.”

What happened next was JustDane taking a moment to look internally and completely revamp their hiring process. In 2007, they evaluated every position and asked themselves if the jobs really needed a college degree or if they needed a skillset. If a job needed a skillset, JustDane then defined the skillset and determined whether or not a college degree guarantees that skillset. The idea behind this was recognizing the barriers to higher education in terms of racial disparities. Eventually, they banned the box on their applications regarding criminal history, which increased the number of staff having lived experiences with the justice system, homelessness, incarceration, and other relevant situations to around 65 percent.

As Linda describes it, “It’s always been a two-pronged approach of our direct support initiatives and our focus on advocacy. As we see it, part of the advocacy work in building a more equitable community is also helping the initiatives and ideas that people in the community have but need the support to develop further.” Helping others take ownership of their community isn’t always noticeable work, but the benefits are ubiquitous. JustDane isn’t telling the Greater Madison area what it’s supposed to look like; it’s providing the tools to allow others to shine.

Kyle Jacobson is lead writer and senior copy editor for Madison Essentials.

Photograph by Barbara Wilson