After losing longtime grant funding that put two of its housing programs serving vulnerable populations at risk during the pandemic, YWCA Madison was grateful to receive what CEO Vanessa McDowell calls “the MacKenzie Scott miracle” at the end of 2020. The philanthropist’s unrestricted donation—meant to address “long-term systemic inequities that have been deepened by the crisis”—is not the only contribution in recent years that helped build momentum for YWCA Madison’s dedication to eliminating racism, empowering women and promoting peace, justice, freedom and dignity for all.

McDowell, the first Black woman to lead YWCA Madison in its more than hundred-year history, need only look in the mirror to see what a tremendous gift she has been to the organization and the city. Yet she would be the first to shine the spotlight on the work of her team (now more “diverse” and “self-aware” than ever before) and the support of the community where she’s “born, raised and stayed.” 

“My journey with YWCA has allowed me to be a leader who is not out of touch with the participants we serve. I really value and appreciate those relationships, because that’s why we do what we do, and I’m proud of the way we have shifted as an organization,” said McDowell, who was first hired in 2014 as the Director of Support Services and was later promoted to Chief Programs Officer and Interim CEO before stepping into the CEO role in 2017. 

Also that year, YWCA’s Empowerment Center moved from a building in the manufacturing district on Latham Drive to its more visible and accessible location at 2040 South Park St. near Transfer Point and several partner organizations. As the name suggests, the Empowerment Center exists to empower people to pursue their dreams by providing employment training and transportation resources, YWeb Career Academy web developer/designer classes, restorative justice work, and race and gender equity programs.

Although the Empowerment Center was closed to the public during the pandemic, McDowell is excited to announce that the space will look different when YWCA Madison starts a phased reopening this year. That’s because the nonprofit added nearly 6,000 square feet by also renting the neighboring property at 2030 South Park St. With the goal of owning the buildings in the future, McDowell said the combined 14,745 square feet will “accommodate what our new normal is going to look like, including hybrid in-person and virtual trainings.” 

In addition to offering a spring and fall cohort for YWeb Career Academy, McDowell said this summer they will have a new version this summer specifically for “returning citizens coming out of the criminal justice system.” Overall, the program has been producing impressive results since it began in 2014, because it gives individuals the skills they need to not only land a better-paying job but also get connected with fulfilling careers. 

“We’ve seen folks coming to us who are either working two or three jobs trying to sustain their family or they are homeless, and then once they go through the academy they are making $50,000-$60,000, because the IT field is very lucrative,” she said. 

McDowell hopes that the other business, entrepreneurship, housing and cultural center initiatives on Park Street will also create more opportunities for people of color, because she’s often been “disheartened by the silos in the Black community and saddened to see young people grow up in a city where they don’t often see themselves or their culture represented.”

“I think Madison needs to have a real wake up call in regards to the lack of culture, opportunity and feeling of belonging as a Black person in this city,” she said. “Growing up, my parents were trailblazers and the Black community was a lot more tight knit and more of a village. South Madison made me who I am. My church is over there; I was a Raiders cheerleader; we went to Penn Park, Juneteenth, neighborhood block parties—celebrations of Black culture and community that I feel are missing today.”   

One of the ways that YWCA Madison encourages conversations and connections is through the Black Thought Wall that was created at Villager Mall last year. “It’s a space where the Black community can share our thoughts, hopes and dreams” by writing with chalk, “and it’s also a place for the non-Black community to witness, honor and respect the space.” Although the space is always open, YWCA will hold an event in June by capturing these thoughts before erasing them and starting another iteration of the project, which it intends to do quarterly.  

“My commitment to this community is really based in my faith, because it’s a huge challenge being a Black woman living and working and leading in this city,” McDowell said. She recounted facing racial discrimination while a student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which “fired something on the inside” that continues to fuel her today and inspires her to “try to be a beacon of hope for folks in this community.” 

“I believe in purpose. I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing during this time in my life,” she said. “I have a passion to see my city do better.”

Learn more at

Rooted in Madison: Housing initiative builds Black wealth

Nonprofit CEO by day and “DJ Ace” by night, Vanessa McDowell added a little-known title to her résumé in 2019 that is having a big impact: founder of Madison Roots LLC. Kamal Calloway is her business partner in their endeavor to “invest in property, stop gentrification, build wealth and create homeownership in the Black community within South Madison.”  

McDowell and Calloway are investing in Black-owned local businesses, from real estate agencies to snow plow removal services, and buying beautiful properties on the south side that Black families can rent-to-own. To do so, Madison Roots actively enlists the “no strings-attached” support of “co-conspirators” through the “transfer of wealth from the white community to the Black community.”

McDowell was propelled to start this housing initiative for personal and historical reasons. “It came out of my sadness to see South Madison changing in the way it is and being gentrified, and also with the history of how the Black community has been left out of owning property, from the forty acres and a mule that we never received to the GI Bill we were left out of to redlining,” she said.

Contributing to Madison Roots is, in a sense, reparations, “because people who give to this initiative are doing so with no expectation of anything in return, including a tax write-off,” McDowell said. “We are also challenging banks to think critically about their policies that perpetuate the discrimination we see within housing and the barriers for particularly the Black community to get homes and mortgages.”

Learn more at