Badger Rock Neighborhood Center

Photo by Hedi Rudd

Rooted’s Badger Rock Neighborhood Center (BRNC) is all about learning, growing, eating, and gathering with people of all ages. The projects range from monthly dinners and a market featuring local vendors to collaborations with Foundation for Black Women’s Wellness, Wisconsin Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center, and Briarpatch Youth Services. “Our primary job is building relationships,” says Sarah Karlson, Rooted’s education director and farm and education manager at BRNC.

Rooted evolved in 2020 from the merger of two community-based organizations: Community GroundWorks on Madison’s north side and Center for Resilient Cities, which operated through BRNC to offer community events and programs as well as garden-based education for Badger Rock Middle School (BRMS) students. Badger Rock’s programs have grown and evolved as part of the merged organization while always remaining rooted in community.

Now, a new era is beginning for BRNC. In 2020, after years of owning the neighborhood center building and being co-located with BRMS, Rooted sold the building to Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD). Rooted staff are working to ensure that the neighborhood center, still located at Badger Rock, remains a staple of Madison’s south side and continues to offer community-based programming.

Photograph by Sarah Karlson

Hedi Rudd, deputy director of south side programming, says, “Because of the close relationship between the middle school and the neighborhood center, we have always been able to create a family-friendly environment. Everyone is welcome at the BRNC, not just middle schoolers and their families.

“We bring the resources into one accessible place, but the space is really about the community. We might have the tools, but it’s the community that brings the flavor.” Nowhere is this more evident than at the CommUNITY Dinners and Badger Rock Community Markets that Rooted hosts at BRNC. CommUNITY Dinners have historically been offered on the second Friday of the month during the school year. After a brief hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the dinners returned last summer as an outdoor event with boxed meals. Rooted is again hosting CommUNITY Dinners at Badger Rock this summer and hopes to return to monthly meals during the school year soon.

“Over the years, we’ve seen the CommUNITY Dinners grow,” says Hedi. “We worked with the school community to invite students’ families as well as members of the wider community.” The dinners were organized to build relationships among families and community members, with long tables to facilitate meeting new people. “Sitting together and having a conversation with each other, that’s how people start to connect with each other.”

The dinners have also been an opportunity for BRMS students to showcase their culinary skills. Chef Kipp Thomas, Rooted’s culinary arts manager and founder of Kipp’s Kitchen, works with students to prepare dishes that can be offered at CommUNITY Dinners. “The kids learn the fundamentals of the kitchen,” says Kipp. “Safety, sanitation, how to be independent. … They use food that they grew in [the school’s] garden. They cook things they never imagined, and then they try what they’ve cooked.”

Photograph by Hedi Rudd

CommUNITY Dinners aren’t the only place to find vegetables grown by BRMS students. The Badger Rock Community Market features vegetables grown at Rooted’s Badger Rock educational farm and by gardeners in the community. Vegetables are sold alongside food and goods from local businesses, many of which are owned and run by women and people of color.

The market is accessible to both vendors and the community thanks to collaborations with the market’s co-founder, Tara Wilhelmi, who is also co-founder of UJAMAA Business Network and founder and CEO of EOTO Culturally Rooted. Through Tara, partnership between UJAMAA Business Network vendors and the market is streamlined and strengthened. “The market is a collaborative space in which community members can be together,” says Renesha Carter, Rooted’s community connector. “I love that we offer sustainably grown fruits and vegetables from the Badger Rock Farm at a low price. We invite community members to come in and sell their products and services, and we offer it as a space for local chefs to sell hot food and expand their businesses.”

Local chefs are invited to use the Badger Rock kitchen to prepare delicious food and feed their community. The kitchen is managed by Thomas, who is also a vendor at the market. “For people who can’t afford their own kitchens or can’t afford to rent, it’s set up in a reasonable manner: you take care of the kitchen, the kitchen is yours.” Showcasing the chefs who represent the food, flavors, and cultures of the community around Badger Rock is core to both CommUNITY Dinners and the market. And, as Hedi explains, the benefit is mutual. “The kitchen vendors have their own following business networks. We collaborate with them, and their following helps to bring more people to the neighborhood center.”

Photograph by Hedi Rudd

Chefs aren’t the only ones building their careers through the neighborhood center. Rooted offers employment opportunities for high-school-aged youth to work at Badger Rock’s farm and gardens in the summer and sometimes even during the school year. “It’s one of the coolest programs we offer,” says Farm and Education Assistant Manager Mari Verbeten. “Kids who graduated can come back and be a role model for former classmates.”

Over the years, Sarah has seen the neighborhood center grow with and around the innovative, hands-on programming that Badger Rock offers students and the community. “Badger Rock is unique because it provides a space for building intergenerational and cross-cultural relationships. Middle school students and community members all come to the CommUNITY Dinners. School families grow in the Badger Rock Community Garden. Some of the people building businesses out of the kitchen also lead workshops with the community. There are just a lot of people growing, cooking, teaching, and learning in that space all together.”

You can get a taste of BRNC on Facebook every week on Sunday and Tuesday through live gardening and cooking events hosted by Rooted staff and community members. Follow Rooted and BRNC on Facebook and visit rootedwi.org to find out about upcoming CommUNITY Dinners, Badger Rock Community Markets, and more.

Renata Solan is the communications director at Rooted.