The Nehemiah Center for Urban Leadership Development 30th Anniversary

Anyone at the Monona Terrace on Nov. 11 must have known that something special was going on.  What appeared to onlookers to be a spirited formal event, however, felt a lot more like a huge family reunion to those attending.

Dark purple-, black- and gold-colored balloons defined the Terrace’s Community Room, the mood lighting provided an intimate feel (even though there were almost 400 people in attendance), and KinFolk’s R&B bass beats settled joyfully in your gut. Just outside the main room, a walkway flanked by dozens of pictures hinted at hundreds of stories of Nehemiah Center for Urban Leadership Development’s impact over the past 30 years.

After decades of being an anchor for the Madison South Side Black community, and after being separated from each other for more than two years due to COVID, Rev. Dr. Alex Gee and his staff did not intend to throw just any anniversary celebration. The vision for the evening was built around stories of impact, good food, great music, joy, and a lot of love.

Nehemiah was incorporated in 1992 in response to the unmet social, academic, and spiritual needs of Madison’s disenfranchised Black community. For 30 years, Nehemiah has focused on empowering children, youth, and families through culturally relevant educational and support programs. Nehemiah staff have served and empowered thousands of participants who now live happy and healthy lives. And while Nehemiah’s primary focus is on strengthening our Black community, its Justified Anger initiative works to eliminate racial disparities by engaging non-Black allies to build relationships, understand systems and implement solutions to seemingly intractable challenges.

The culmination of these efforts resulted in a rarely seen event that Friday night: a diverse and integrated celebration – including Nehemiah staff, generations of program participants, teachers, public and private donors, legislators, and other inspirational Black leaders. An especially poignant part of the evening left attendees moved as Alexandra Gee-Lewis, Nehemiah’s executive assistant and creative solutionist, interviewed three individuals whose lives had been radically touched by Nehemiah. 

Shameka Harper, who attended Nehemiah’s Academic Center for Excellence (ACE) programs as a child, shared:

“I remember my experiences at ACE programming so well. It was always a comforting place. You could be curious. You could ask questions. As a Black girl, I had a sense of really being free. I hold on to those memories.  Now I’m in my 30’s but I am still connected to the people who I met at ACE. It is crazy that a program could mean so much – I didn’t know at the time how much I needed it and how much it has shaped me.”  

Aaron Hicks, a former participant of Nehemiah’s Reentry programming, and now its coordinator, said: “Nehemiah provided me – and other men returning from incarceration – space to have honest dialogue about real-life issues and about the trials and tribulations we faced daily. It even gave us space to operate in our own faith.  That was so impactful for me. It is exactly what I needed at that time.”

The last speaker of the evening – before the dancing kicked into high gear – was of course, Gee. 

“I just want to exhale and celebrate with you all for the great work that we’ve been allowed to do in this community,” he said. “Who would have thought 30 years ago that a small, independent faith-based, Black-led social service agency that had no national funding and no state funding would still be around 30 years later having served tens of thousands of people just because we knew it was the right thing to do?  That just blows my mind. I am so happy to be with you here tonight – and I can’t wait to see what we’ll all be able to do in the coming 30 years.”