Sitting was optional. It seems nearly everyone who attended this year’s Women in Focus 37th “I Have a Dream” Scholarship Ball and Silent Auction held beaming conversations, took numerous selfies, or shook their groove thing on the dance floor. Many did all three.

The elegant evening of dining and dancing, which benefits the 2023 WIF Scholarship Fund, resembled pre-pandemic days. The Jan. 14 event at the Monona Terrace saluted Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy and hope for a more equitable society.

The sold-out gala’s atmosphere was electric

“Come on Merle, let’s dance,” Gerald (Jerry) Sternberg, whisking his wife off to the crowded dance floor as tunes by DJ Ace, Vanessa McDowell played.

 “I’m sorry, we’ll have to talk later. We’ve been waiting to dance,” Merle smiled to the UMOJA Magazine writer before swaying away.

Among the honored guests included: Retired Judge Paul B. Higginbotham; State Rep. Francesca Hong; Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne; Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway; Dane County Circuit Judge Everett Mitchell; CEO of United Way of Dane County Renee Moe; Greg Jones, NAACP President of Dane County; CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Dane County Sandy Morales; CEO and President of Madison Black Chamber of Commerce Camille Carter; and former Madison Police Chief Noble Wray. 

MCs Portia Adney and Deana Wright kicked the night off. WIF Ball Chair Jodie Pope and WIF President Sharyl Kato, reminded guests that raised proceeds support the nonprofit’s college scholarship program, which helps students of color in Dane County reach their higher-education goals. The group strongly believes that a college education is key to a student’s future as it aids in building stronger communities locally, nationwide and worldwide. The organization has awarded more than $500,000 in scholarships to Dane County students of color.

Greathearted, Full of Purpose

Keynote speaker Matthew Braunginn benefited from the organization’s annual effort. In 2003, he was awarded a WIF Scholarship to obtain an education at Purdue University, earning a bachelor’s degree in political science and international affairs and public policy. Nowadays, the young man ꟷ affectionately called Madison’s golden son ꟷ serves as a digital organizer for A Better Wisconsin Together, is an emerging writer fellow for Daily Kos, and works as a communications and policy consultant for EQT by Design.

Braunginn delivered a stirring speech about perseverance requiring commitment, consistency and embracing the discomfort. Perseverance was the theme of the evening.

For Braunginn, activism is his birthright. His father, Stephen Braunginn, is a former president and CEO of the Urban League of Greater Madison. His uncle, the Hon. Paul B. Higginbotham, a retired judge of the Wisconsin Court of Appeals and the first African American to serve on the court. And, his grandfather’s cousin, is none other than trailblazing giant, A. Leon Higginbotham, a district court judge appointed by President Jimmy Carter in 1977— the first African American to hold the position; and, after apartheid’s demise, Higginbotham consulted with Nelson Mandela and founded the South Africa Free Election (SAFE) Fund, among numerous other achievements.

“I am from a legacy of Black and civil rights activism and change-making in my family. It is the family business,” Matthew Braunginn said.

A community leader in his own right, who stands up to address racial disparities, Matthew Braunginn would organize and co-found Young, Gifted and Black in Madison and was chosen as a 2015 fellow with the New Leaders Council. When an autoimmune disorder invaded his health, the young freedom fighter struggled.

“I was putting my Malcolm X, and Dr. King speeches and writings and study of the history of race and racism in the United States into action,” Braunginn said. “But as this autoimmune disorder became my new normal, I, quite frankly, realized that I could no longer be that Matthew. A new way forward was necessary. Yet, I want to be honest. I was worried and became discouraged, confused and unsure of how to move forward.”

Education is a Practice of Freedom

Braunginn relied on what he learned from his family, Dr. King’s teachings, and belief in self. He added the WIF scholarship is ”part of my why I was able to persevere” in life.

“There is a power in a college education and it also requires perseverance to meet the expectations of self, family and community,” he said. “This is to say, to those who don’t have grand inspiration with going to college, but just are, that is okay. In fact, a good thing. 

“Education, for education’s sake, is more important than any grand ambitions. Ambitions are easy, but wisdom and understanding are difficult. And perhaps even more so, learning how to navigate life is difficult. But that is where the power in education lays – it offers an opportunity for how we can use education to help us persevere and navigate life,” added Braunginn, drawing a thunderous applause.  

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