The 100 Black Men of Madison, Inc. are busy this week gearing up for one of their signature events — the annual Backpacks for Success Picnic — where all Dane County elementary and middle school students and their parents are invited to come and celebrate the beginning of a new school year and to receive a brand-new backpack filled with new school supplies.
This Saturday, Aug. 17, at Demetral Park on Madison’s near east side (corner of Commercial Avenue and Packers Avenue), the 100 Black Men of Madison will be out in force as they continue to make their mark on improving the Madison community.
“The picnic is a festive, carnival-like atmosphere. We open the doors at 10 a.m., and to our surprise and pleasure our kids start to line up as early as 7 a.m.,” says J.R. Sims, a member of the board of directors of 100 Black Men of Madison, Inc. and the director of the organization’s public relations. “It varies quite dramatically from year to year but [we give away] roughly between 1,500 and 2,000 backpacks a year. In addition to getting a brand-new backpack filled with brand-new school supplies, we also provide hot dogs, hamburgers, chips, and soda.”
A variety of entertainment and educational experiences are also provided throughout the day at the park. “There's also a strong presence from the Madison Fire Department — they bring one of their hook-and-ladder trucks for the kids,” Sims says. “The Madison Police Department is there with the K-9 unit and the kids just love the dogs. There's a health and wellness tent where you can get blood pressure screenings. Madison Metropolitan School District board members will show up as will the Superintendent [Jennifer Cheatham].”
Oftentimes, UW Badger football players will be at the event and the Oscar Mayer Weinermobile will be parked out in front. “It's just a very, very fun and festive event,” Sims says. “It’s something that we look forward to every year.”
The Backpacks for Success Picnic has grown from a small get-together to a very large event. In the process, it has become one of the 100 Black Men of Madison’s signature events.
“Every year, we evolve with our corporate partners and the event becomes just a little bit larger. We're quite proud of it,” Sims says.
A lot of area kids would not have brand-new school supplies or backpacks without this particular event going on. “As you can probably can imagine, other kids can be very mean and if you show up at school without the things you need you are all of a sudden behind the 8-ball and getting off on a bad foot,” Sims says. “It can be the difference between a youngster loving or hating school. Those first few days are important. To have a new backpack filled with new school supplies can make a kid eager to go to school that first day because they feel like they are on a level playing field with some of the other kids who might not necessarily need the services of 100 Black Men of Madison.”
The 100 Black Men of Madison’s mission is to improve the quality of life within the community and to enhance educational and economic opportunities for all African Americans. Their vision is to seek to serve as a beacon of leadership by utilizing their diverse talents to create environments where children are motivated to achieve, and to empower people to become self-sufficient shareholders in the economic and social fabric of the communities they serve. The 100 Black Men of Madison endeavor to truly exemplify their national motto, “What They See Is What They’ll Be.”
“We realized that if we wanted to improve our community that it would begin with our children,” Sims says. “We felt that if we could mentor and provide and care for and nurture young people, as they grow older they are more likely to become productive citizens of society.”
The 100 Black Men of Madison, Inc. began its operation in 1994 and was incorporated in 1995 as a nonprofit organization comprised of members from many professional disciplines in the greater Madison area. They have been a positive voice for the community youth of color, especially African American males, and support academic achievement and reinforce social responsibility. Sims says that the 100 Black Men of Madison have four basic tenets that they base their organization on —health and wellness, economic development, education, and mentoring.
“Out of those four tenets, we have fashioned several programs to address each and every one of those primary directives,” he says.
The 100, as they are often called, have a program where they read to grade-school children at Sennett Middle School and they have their internal adopt-a-school program. “We've adopted [Madison] La Follette High School and we have a strong presence there where we do a lot of mentoring of the kids. We have 2 or 3 men in the high school every day during the school year,” Sims says.
They also have a program called “Dollars & Sense” where they teach children the ins and outs of personal finance. “We teach them how to balance a checkbook, how to budget, how to invest in the stock market and why they should save their money and the purpose of a good balance sheet and the purpose of a great credit rating,” Sim says.
The 100 also host the African American Youth Summit whose purpose is to address ongoing concerns that parents, students, schools and the community are wrestling with today: attrition rates, academic achievement, personal and social responsibilities, suspension, and incarceration rates of our youth. “We had a group of young males [at the last summit] from all over the local high schools and we just kind of talked to them about what we expected of them going forward and what is expected of positive, contributing American men,” Sims says.
The 100 Black Men of Madison also host the The Madison Youth Congress (MYC), an innovate approach to educate high-school-aged students about pressing social and educational issues that affect their generation while also providing them a forum to voice their opinions and suggest solutions. “The 2013 Madison Youth Congress focused on the achievement gap and it was an extremely positive experience,” Sims says. “We had 300 kids this year at the half-day event. Next year, we hope to have 450-500 students.”
The 100 also sponsor the Annual Community Christmas Celebration in support of Toys for Tots. This past year, more than 1,000 toys were collected for distribution to needy area youth. Other signature events of the 100 Black Men of Madison include the African American History Challenge Bowl and their annual Golf Outing at The Legend at Bergamont in Oregon, Wisconsin.
Above everything — the events, the picnics, the forums, the galas, and the gatherings — the 100 Black Men of Madison are an important community resource. “People will call us to help for a variety of reasons. Someone will call and say, 'My son is crossing a line. He's going down a path that's probably going to be destructive. Can you step in and help us do something?'” Sims says. “We try to help. We do whatever we can, but our resources are often limited. It's been said that the body of our work far exceeds our working body.”
The 100 Black Men of Madison only have about 45 members; much smaller than many chapters throughout the United States. “We are one chapter of 110 around the world affiliated with 100 Black Men of America,” Sims says. “Some chapters have 10 members; some have as many as 200 members. It's not only a measure of how many men are in the chapters, but what the chapters are doing.”
In June, the 100 Black Men of America awarded The 100 Black Men of Madison the Chapter the Year Leadership Award at the 100 Black Men of America’s national conference. “Even though our numbers are small, our body of work is well-recognized nationally and well-respected,” Sims says.
A powerful dynamic is created when nonprofit organizations and community partners band together to fight for common interests. The 100 Black Men of Madison use their grassroots strength and determined advocacy to forge direct engagements with community leaders from Madison and Dane County. “We're blessed to have the trust and the loyalty of the community and other non-profit organizations in town. As those folks partner with us, we also feel it's important to partner with them,” Sims says. “We feel that if we can all get on the same page at some point in time we can get a lot done together. We all have this one common goal and it shouldn't be difficult to take advantage of the synergy that is being generated as we move forward.”
Sims has been an active member of the organization since 2004, and he continues to find the experience to be very rewarding.
“It's rewarding seeing you will have a positive impact on the lives of kids who will grow up and will always have this impression of you as somebody to aspire to or as somebody who really helped them when they needed some help,” he says.
“To have a kid tell you that every time he's with you he learns something new; that is rewarding. To have a kid go on to high school and college and years later that same kid recognizes you on the street and comes up and thanks you for being there for him four, five, six years ago ... that's what's really rewarding for us,” Sims adds. “We realize that none of us are going to be here forever, but the 100 Black Men of Madison are all individually leaving a legacy that we can be proud of.”
The 100 Black Men of Madison, Inc. will host its 15th annual Backpacks for Success Picnic this Saturday, Aug. 17, at Demetral Park on Madison’s near east side.
Interested in what The 100 Black Men do or in becoming a member of the organization? For more information, visit www.100blackmenmadison.com.