‘Take your rightful place’: Danae Davis Makes Way for Next Generation

Danae Davis is one of those individuals who believes that people are lifelong learners. It’s an appropriate belief for Davis, who has served as the executive director of Milwaukee Succeeds since 2015.

Milwaukee Succeeds began in 2011 and is an embedded initiative of the Greater Milwaukee Foundation. It aims to bring lasting change to education through racial equity and systems change with an emphasis on early childhood education and high school success for Black male youth.

After seven years as executive director, Davis is retiring and making space for a strong team with the leadership skills to take the work to the next level.

“The best thing that ever happened in this city to me, was for the Greater Milwaukee Foundation to bring Milwaukee Succeeds to birth as a collective impact model,” Davis said. “I think the way that we do our work will become the way work is done in other adjacent sectors, because no one person or organization can do it all.”

The value of relational work

When Milwaukee Succeeds first began, Ellen Gilligan, the Foundation’s president and CEO, recruited Davis as a volunteer to serve on the leadership council and later to co-chair the operations team.  

“When I came into the role [as executive director], I would say Milwaukee Succeeds was almost on life support,” Davis said. “It was undervalued, underappreciated, not trusted, definitely not understood and understaffed. In many ways, it was clear that if my leadership failed then it likely was going to fade.”

While it was a daunting challenge to walk into, Davis rose to the occasion. In her prior career experience in government, at MillerCoors and at PEARLS for Teen Girls, where she served as CEO, Davis learned the value of relational work, and she applied that expertise to Milwaukee Succeeds.

She talked to staff, community members and partners to get an idea of what needed to happen, what needed to shift and what needed clarity. She learned why people were there, what their expectations were and how to encourage their continued investment.

“She has that special talent to be able to bridge from the affected community to the leaders in government, in schools and child care, in industry and in philanthropy to support important policies,” John Meurer, M.D. said. “Communications is a strength that she has in both the public and private sectors. Building relationships with leaders and also having them with the grassroots community, parents, teens and the kids that she cares deeply about.”

Meurer is a professor and director of the Institute for Health and Equity at the Medical College of Wisconsin. He has worked as a volunteer for Milwaukee Succeeds and was actively involved in the operations and planning group.

The two also worked together through StriveTogether, a national network of nearly 70 communities whose cradle-to-career partnership leaders advocate for equitable practices and resources, and where Davis is board chair. Through this network, Davis has used her voice and data from Milwaukee Succeeds to contribute to national policies and practices.

It also placed Milwaukee Succeeds on the national stage, where it has been recognized for its work to improve quality care for children and their families.

Leading from within

To better realize Milwaukee Succeeds’ potential, Davis began building her team, starting with Dave Celata as deputy director. Today, the team is 11 people strong. In addition to growing the staff, Davis worked to improve the organizational culture.

“We were way siloed back in the day for many years,” she said. “We had to have an environment that said all of the work is valued.”  

Catina Harwell-Young, director of engagement and culture for Milwaukee Succeeds, began in the fall of 2016 when the initiative was structured around four goals. Her goal was social and emotional learning. Everybody stayed in their lanes, she said, but Davis changed that.

“The siloed nature of our work in the early years was counterproductive to the collective impact model that guides the work of Milwaukee Succeeds,” Harwell-Young said. “Under her leadership, we created space to talk about this elephant in the room and build a more aligned strategic direction that has resulted in better results.”

In 2019, the Milwaukee Succeeds team restrategized its approach to focus on early childhood education and high school success for Black male youth. Its Early Childhood Education Coalition works to ensure accessible and affordable early childhood education for Black and Brown families and support for providers.

Its Youth Forward MKE Initiative focuses on reenvisioning high school education for Black male youth. Both the coalition and the initiative center racial equity, utilize community voice and advocate for systems change.   

Equity is the agenda

Milwaukee Succeeds is a vehicle for change, Davis said. Education is the key out of poverty, but only if that key is equitable, and the key to equity is systems change.  

“Systems change is a vehicle for achieving equity for Black and Brown children, youth and families,” Davis said. “There is no way we can program our way into equity. We’ve got to have these systems, that were built in inequity, to be dismantled and disrupted. We need the systems to be accountable – and they’re not – for equitable results. That to me is the future, all day.”

Jeannie Fenceroy is senior program manager of education and scholarships at the Foundation. She’s worked with Danae for over a decade and recommends Foundation’s education investments align with Milwaukee Succeeds’ vision of success for every child.

“You get the feeling with Danae that the only agenda at play is that we’re meeting the needs of these young people and centering their voices and their needs,” Fenceroy said. “I would describe Danae as somebody who is fearless when it comes to centering the needs of young people in this community in wanting them to reach their full potential.”     

Davis passed these traits on to her team by leading as an example and supporting leadership development, which she calls “leading from behind.”

“We’ve become more comfortable pushing the envelope for the kind of change that we want to see. Not only in our work but in our own practices and within the Foundation,” Harwell-Young said.

While Davis’s iconic red hair may not be seen around the offices on the regular, the influence and impact she has had on Milwaukee Succeeds will remain.

“It’s been so much fun, retiring and having the opportunity to see folks thrive on my way out,” said Davis.

When describing the Milwaukee Succeeds team, she said, “They’re going to miss me, but they by no means feel abandoned, because they know what they’re doing. They know they’re going to be just fine. I couldn’t have asked for a better way to go.”

As Davis prepares to enter retirement, her advice for upcoming leaders is this: “Take your rightful place. Be bold, audacious and true. And put kids first.”

A local and national search for Davis’s successor is still underway.