la crosse

Amanda Goodenough

Amanda Goodenough builds community in La Crosse, Wisconsin. All photos courtesy Amanda Goodenough

Generally, when people speak fondly of a community, it’s because it’s a place where they feel a sense of belonging.

“To me, a community is a people and place that supports one another and works toward a common good. Where we come together because we’re stronger together,” says Amanda Goodenough. Amanda is a La Crosse, Wisconsin-based educator, consultant, and speaker for Social Responsibility Speaks (SRS), an organization focused on weaving equity, inclusion, and diversity into daily lives.

But sometimes, the sense of belonging isn’t extended to all community members. In predominantly white communities – like many of those found in the Driftless – it can be difficult for people of color to find their footing. To find that sense of belonging. To feel like they matter.

Amanda and her family have been building their lives in La Crosse for decades. And like many other U.S. cities, there are intolerances in this community that have permeated the lives of Amanda, who is of Black and Mexican heritage, and other people of color. “[La Crosse is] such a geographically beautiful area. Most of the people also reflect this beauty. But I think we still have a collective responsibility to always push our circles of influence to show up better for one another,” she explains.

Amanda, who is Black/Mexican, and her husband, white, try to be proactive and intentional in conversations with their children about racial and social justice issues. / Photo courtesy Amanda Goodenough.

That’s why Amanda has lived a life of advocacy, fighting to improve the experience for all in her community. “When people talk about things like racism in the Driftless Region, we’re often met with attitudes of ‘if you don’t like it, just leave,’ but it’s quite the opposite, really. When you love something, you hold it accountable. There is a lot that I love about the places and the people that make up the La Crosse area, and that is why I like to ask the hard questions and push us to be better. It’s truly an act of love,” she says.

She has been pushing for change for much of her career, first as a long-time member of the Campus Climate team at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, and now in her role with SRS. Amanda is also involved with the Greater La Crosse Area Diversity Council’s (GLADC) Speakers Bureau, and is an independent facilitator for the La Crosse area YWCA Racial Justice workshops, Waking Up White Collaborative, and Creating a Healthier Multicultural Community initiative. She was even recognized for her dedication to civil rights activism as the 2021 recipient of La Crosse’s Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Leadership Award.

As part of SRS, Amanda has worked with non-profits, school districts, colleges and universities, and corporate businesses. Sometimes they need help in response to a harmful situation, and other times they need guidance for changing their culture. “We provide coaching, consulting, comprehensive reviews of policies/practices from an equity lens, culture/climate assessments, keynotes, workshops, and more,” she explains.

Amanda sees the value of intervention on this larger scale, but also knows how much work needs to be done at home with the youngest members of our communities. “My kids are still pretty young, but when I talk to children of color across the state, their stories too often echo mine from 35 years ago,” she says, recalling the discrimination, from unwelcoming looks on the street to death threats, that her Black/Mexican family experienced in her youth, growing up in Mukwonago, Wisconsin, just west of Milwaukee. “I try to be proactive and intentional with the conversations I have and the space I create for my children about racial and social justice issues because the world hasn’t evolved enough to use hope as the only strategy,” she adds.

She has seen her two elementary-school-aged children – often perceived as white because their father is white – shielded from some racism. “White privilege and colorism is definitely a protective layer granted to my kids that my parents and I did not get to experience.” And although she has seen many positive strides for her children and future generations, she is also discouraged by the progress that has not yet been made.

A lot of the work that needs to be done is in the coded, subtle day-to-day interactions of folks who oftentimes, have good intentions. “It’s the colorblind racism and the inequitable policies and practices found in dress codes and hiring practices. It’s the differential treatment when it comes to providing services or implementing discipline. It’s the lack of non-white representation at the highest levels of leadership and the whitewashing of history or school curriculum. And then, of course, it’s the everyday slights and insults that permeate too many casual interactions,” she says.

Amanda Goodenough is a La Crosse-based educator, consultant, and speaker for Social Responsibility Speaks (SRS), an organization focused equity, inclusion, and diversity. / Photo courtesy Amanda Goodenough

Amanda hopes that her conversations about race with her kids help to prepare them for these interactions, but she also knows that the clients she works with at SRS can contribute to changing the dialogue in their communities, too. The organizations and groups that have made the biggest strides, in her experience, have been those that are willing to learn and grow and embrace actual change, “not just an optics or check-the-box approach, where one might move through the motions with no intention to actually shift culture or change policies/practices,” she says.

There is so much value in talking about the race issues in a community and the work is never done. Amanda keeps pushing forward for the beautiful community that she loves and for all its members, so that they all find a place of belonging. “I believe dialogues about race and racism are important for everyone, and necessary to foster thriving communities. These conversations for communities of color can be a space for validation, affirmation, sense-making, healing, empowerment, and joy. For white communities, these conversations can be important for awareness, education (learning and unlearning), courage-building, action, and accountability,” she says.

Amanda hopes that her work will help to contribute to larger goals for the community of La Crosse, like reducing the discrepancy between races in poverty numbers, income levels, graduation rates, leadership demographics, and home ownership. She also wants local schools to be actively supported and encouraging increased consciousness and critical thinking of its students.

Though she has taken a very active role in building her community and giving purpose and belonging to all its members, Amanda knows she can’t do it alone. “All of us need to be in these conversations. We all have a responsibility to contribute positively to the world around us.” She adds, “My goal within this is to leave people and places better than I found them, to make both my ancestors and descendants proud.”

Connect with Amanda

srspeaks.com

Amandagoodenough.com

Check out Amanda’s suggestions  for Being a Better Ally – someone that aligns with and supports a cause – here!

Sara Walters

Sara Walters is a writer, mom, and member of the beautiful La Crosse community that Amanda supports. 

Adrian Lipscombe

Adrian Lipscombe of 40 Acres and a Mule
Photo courtesy Adrian Lipscombe

Farming in the Midwest is a deep-rooted tradition. Grounded in a history of agriculture, cultivating the foods that end up on our tables has long been the legacy of the region, particularly in the Driftless. But for the black community, the same isn’t true.

This striking reality presented itself loud-and-clear to Adrian Lipscombe, owner of Uptown Cafe in La Crosse, Wisconsin, earlier this year, and it eventually led her to launch a black farming initiative, 40 Acres and a Mule. But as passionate as she’s been about supporting the black farmer, it’s surprising to learn that she became involved in the cause almost serendipitously.

After the events surrounding George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis the summer of 2020, Adrian received a check in the mail. Confused, she thought maybe she had forgotten to collect from a catering job. But then came the requests for Venmo payments. Adrian, a black woman and small business owner, couldn’t figure out what it was for, so she finally asked. Turns out, people just wanted to support her during this moment of racial inequality and unrest.

Adrian went to bed puzzled. Should she take the money? What would she do with it?

A good night’s rest was all the inspiration she needed. Adrian woke and immediately knew, “I’m going to buy black land and I’m going to concentrate on black farmers,” she says, thinking back to that pivotal moment. As an entrepreneur and former city planner, Adrian immediately kicked it into high gear, reaching out to contacts on the East Coast – this epiphany happened early in the morning and she needed resources that were awake. “I was asking them, does this exist? And I learned that this is a real need. So I launched 40 Acres and a Mule within 24 hours,” she says.

40 Acres and a Mule strives to provide resources and connections for black farmers. The name comes from a term derived from Union General William T. Sherman in his 1865 Special Field Order No. 15. This reparations movement promised to pay restitution to African Americans for their enslavement.

This seemed fitting to Adrian as she began digging into the history of black farming. Reaching out to different organizations, she started to see that her community was a perfect example of where black farming could thrive, but hasn’t. “Wisconsin is a homogeneous farming community. But where is the black farmer today?” she found herself asking.

The fact that she asks these questions, launches initiatives within 24 hours, and is the first person people think of when they have extra money to support a business, is why Adrian is the epitome of a community builder. With roots in the South, she’s not a La Crosse native, but the city has welcomed her, and her leadership, with open arms. “La Crosse is such a great community. It’s the smallest city I’ve ever lived in,” she says. “People here are really sincere in wanting to help make it a better place, a diverse place, an equitable place.” Though she was surprised by the monetary outreach this summer, she wasn’t surprised that her community wanted to help. “They come out when there is a need – they get behind that and they support that. It’s difficult to do in a large city with a large population,” she says, joking that she wishes she could keep her beloved community the well-kept secret it is. “They all care and they’re all so genuine. It’s magical.”

What better place for Adrian to kick off 40 Acres and a Mule than a place “surrounded by organic farmers and great people”? Though her cause has garnered a wide following, media attention, and donations from across the country, it’s the day-to-day in La Crosse that Adrian credits with providing the support to press on, and to continue to be a black business owner in America. “Our restaurant’s relationship to the community has gotten stronger. Especially during a time like this. For people to come by and check on us. Just to wave at us in the window to make sure we’re okay. Here in La Crosse you have those opportunities to take deeper breaths, to understand what is happening in your community and the world around you,” she says.

When she’s not out researching, speaking with farmers, meeting with the media, raising awareness, and just generally spearheading the project, Adrian still has responsibilities at her restaurant. Like many small businesses during the pandemic, there has been so much pivoting that “my hips hurt” she laughs. Uptown Cafe has added outdoor dining and has made space to accommodate more bakery items. “We have to adapt,” she says.  “It’s an unprecedented time, we are able to chart the way. There’s going to be some mistakes but we’re going to find the good, too.”

That’s how she’s approaching 40 Acres and Mule, too. She admits, “What I thought was a gap is really like a canyon.” Black farming, black foodways, agricultural disparities, lack of education, lack of profitability, and lack of black mentorship in the industry are just the tip of the iceberg and Adrian knows it. Though she wishes she could do it all, “we’re focusing on what we can realistically do,” she says, adding, “We don’t want to reinvent the wheel, we want the wheel to go faster.”

There are lots of avenues Adrian sees for increasing the speed of the wheel. At first, she thought it needed to be specifically just land for black farmers. But land is expensive, and though she still has her sights set on this, she has pivoted again (sore, sore hips) to address other issues for black farmers. She’s learned that many are over the age of 55 and have no one to whom they can pass down their legacy. Others are young and interested, but have no place to turn to for education and mentorship. She also acknowledges that historically, black farming has been tumultuous and violent. She wants to help control and shape this narrative going forward – to give it some positivity, to point black communities in the right direction, to make lifelong connections between black business and farmers. Adrian sees the Driftless as a great case study for change. She’s currently working to understand community needs, working directly with both black and white farmers to learn more about their work and the economics of farming.

Her short-term goal is to serve as a conduit between black farmers and available resources. She knows there are trustworthy organizations and systems that can help them, but the connection isn’t there. “It’s difficult for black farmers to find the aid that they need. It’s really huge that that is missing,” she explains. And ultimately, her long-term goal is to produce more black farmers in America. To help provide that education and open up that pathway to “give black people the chance to be farmers if they want to,” Adrian says.

As a chef, Adrian knows full-well the importance of supporting farmers of all ethnicities, so restaurants like hers can continue to bring quality dishes to the tables of patrons. “Understanding agriculture and understanding how food is produced is important to my job and my restaurant. I’m getting the chance to understand from the ground to the plate. Being involved in that process, to me that’s so joyful to know where my food comes from,” she says. “It’s like putting my hands in the soil.”

Adrian continues to build this community with the support of donors far and wide. 40 Acres and a Mule’s GoFundMe page has already raised over $131,000 as of printing. And locally, in the Driftless, people continue to do what they do best – provide support. “Farmers are mentoring me, both black and white. To have the opportunity to talk to them about where their food goes is an honor. It’s a rare opportunity.”


Sara Walters is a freelance writer and mom living in La Crescent, Minnesota. She is the daughter and granddaughter of lifelong farmers. 

Making La Crosse a Promise

BY SARA WALTERS
PHOTOS BY DAHLI DURLEY PHOTOGRAPHY (unless otherwise noted)

When it comes to revitalizing a neighborhood, a fresh coat of paint is a great start.

But what La Crosse Promise has done goes much deeper than the surface. The goal of the area non-profit is to economically transform La Crosse, Wisconsin, through a program available to families that build, buy, or renovate in select neighborhoods deemed challenged by poverty, crime, and low property values.

The “promise” is one dedicated to the participants’ future – more specifically, their education – in the form of a scholarship. “We are investing in these neighborhoods by investing in people,” says Brian Liesinger, Executive Director of La Crosse Promise.

Dependents or adult learners can use up to $25,000 each – with a $50,000 Promise household maximum – at 2 or 4-year accredited colleges.

For Lissa Carlson, a self-employed single mother of two, that was too good to pass up. “I make no secret that I did it for the money,” she says with a laugh. “$50,000 will go a long way for my kids.”

It was in October 2016 that Lissa and her sons moved into their “Promise Home,” as they’re called, in the Powell-Poage-Hamilton neighborhood. Powell-Poage-Hamilton and Washburn are the two neighborhoods currently being served by La Crosse Promise – they were identified as declining rapidly due to deteriorating property, pockets of poverty and an uptick in crime in a thorough community assessment conducted in 2010 by the City of La Crosse and La Crosse County.

Declining neighborhoods resulted in depressed housing values, which led to a greater tax burden for homeowners across the city. Coupled with nearly half the land in La Crosse being tax exempt due to higher education institutions and public marshland, many people became frustrated with tax rates and sought newer housing and lower rates in the suburbs. The exodus continued to fuel a cycle of decline in housing on the south side.

“After reading the community assessment report, leadership from the City, County, School District, and area businesses really came together to imagine a collaborative program that would have a rapid impact, and La Crosse Promise was born,” Brian says. “Each of those groups remains heavily involved and represented on our board. The three higher education institutions in La Crosse are represented as well. So collaboration is really in our DNA.”

So with the help of the Promise program – and a tight housing marketing – these neighborhoods are seeing revitalization. There are now five Promise Homes on Lissa’s block alone. Residents are also deciding to build in areas that were previously void of new construction. “In the 15 years prior to the launch of our neighborhood program, only two private individuals chose to build homes in these two neighborhoods. From our launch in the fall of 2015 until now, we have 13 new homes with Promise families living in them, plus seven more Promise-eligible homes being built,” Brian says. “New homes have meant new taxable value added to the city. And that ripples out to nearby homes as we see the depressed housing values start to rise in Powell-Poage-Hamilton and Washburn, which improves not only other homeowners’ equity but again, raises the tax base.”


The beautification is obvious, and dramatic. “When we visit with the neighborhood associations and speak with long-standing members of the neighborhoods, they cannot believe the transformation in just a few short years,” Brian says. He attributes some of this to the “worst-to-best” approach that Promise takes, explaining that the dramatic transformation from a vacant lot or condemned home to a beautiful new build can be very inspiring.

Even more beneficial than the improved appearance is its impact on the use of the homes. “The ‘worst of the worst’ are homes known for significant criminal activity. We know of two Promise homes that were former magnets for crime – specifically drugs. One of those homes was occupied by an individual dealing drugs as late as October of 2017. That home has since been condemned and razed and has been replaced with a new home,” Brian says. “Homes like that remaining in the neighborhood come at a high social cost. The value in replacing them is beyond dollars.”

La Crosse Promise definitely isn’t all about new building, though, or losing the character of these historic neighborhoods. In fact, the program encourages projects that preserve external historic characteristics and are appropriate to the architectural features of the area.

Renovation programs were a good way to let people who already live in the neighborhood take advantage of La Crosse Promise’s scholarships and invest in their own home at the same time. An owner who invests more than $30,000 becomes eligible for $25,000 in scholarships. Investing more than $60,000 raises the eligibility to $50,000.

What other stipulations exist for Promise applicants?

• The family must live in that house for at least four years, and they must continue to live in La Crosse until the youngest child receiving a scholarship graduates from high school.

• The oldest student who can benefit from this opportunity would need to reside in the new home prior to the beginning of 9th grade.

• Each La Crosse Promise Family is permitted a maximum lifetime scholarship amount of $50,000 to be distributed among dependents however the family chooses, providing that no one student receives more than $25,000.

One of the hopes of La Crosse Promise is that there will be a mix of household and incomes that highlights neighborhood diversity

Lissa especially appreciates this aspect of the program. “La Crosse is an amazing community, but it is pretty homogenous,” she says. “I like being part of a neighborhood that looks a bit more like the rest of the world. I like that my kids have friends of a wider variety of backgrounds.”

Another hope is to increase enrollment in public schools. The convenient location of these neighborhoods within the city helps make this more likely.

“My youngest is able to walk to school,” Lissa says. Brian agrees that the proximity to schools has been a motivating factor for many Promise families. Plus the neighborhoods are close to some of the city’s largest employers as well as a downtown full of shopping and recreation.

And as far as the crime and unrest that many associate with these areas? Lissa has little to report. Her only small hang-up has been the occasional language barrier. Safety has not been a concern, she says.

Perhaps the biggest hope is that these conveniently-located homes with $50,000 educational stipends – funded entirely by generous donors – will motivate community-minded folks – like it did Lissa – to sign up and take a chance on La Crosse Promise. “No other community in the nation, as far as I know, is tackling neighborhood revitalization in this way – by attaching education incentives to homes. And doing it in a way that involves a deep and long-standing collaboration between the city, county, school district, and area businesses and nonprofits,” Brian says.

He believes strongly that the educational component – the investment in people – is a big part of the program’s success, and beautification is the added bonus. “At first glance,” he says, “our neighborhood program looks like just a housing program. When in reality, it is just as much an education program. The Promise families, some who have very young kids and some who have kids who will soon enter college, will have their lives transformed through education – an education the Promise scholarships will help fund.”

As an added component, La Crosse Promise also runs Future Centers, an educational advising program in Logan and Central High Schools. The centers have dedicated advisors to help students get career and college ready, along with technical support for things like student aid applications.

Together, Promise Homes and Future Centers are providing a comprehensive solution. The future is bright for the program, its participants, and the city. The people-first approach has been working. “What makes great neighborhoods are great neighbors,” Brian says. “We need more than just new homes. We need civically-engaged, education-minded people to strengthen the neighborhoods, and who plan to stay.”

The positive changes are felt by the entire city of La Crosse. Promise is about a year ahead of its original projections, and they hope to soon spread the love to other struggling neighborhoods, and support even more La Crosse residents. “Two key areas that often have the greatest impact on an individual’s success are housing and education,” Brian says. “The dollars they will be able to invest in their education will serve them for the rest of their lives. That is a return on investment you cannot beat.”


Sara Walters is a writer and mom of two. Her girls love the awesome playground at Poage Park.


Learn more about La Crosse Promise:
lacrossepromise.org

Watch for Walking Tours of Promise Neighborhoods by liking La Crosse Promise on Facebook:
www.facebook.com/lacrossepromise/