Posts Tagged: la crosse

Adrian Lipscombe

By Sara Walters • Originally published in the Holiday + Winter 2020-21 Inspire(d)

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/

A few moments with Dawes…

Dawes will be performing at the Cavalier Theatre in La Crosse, WI on Tuesday, October 17, 2017. Catch a ticket here if it isn’t already sold out.

Dawes is:
Wylie Gelber – bass
Taylor Goldsmith – guitars
Griffin Goldsmith – drums
Lee Pardini – keys

Interview by Benji Nichols / Inspire(d) 2017

The Cavalier Lounge & Theatre in La Crosse has been working hard the past few years to create a space that can house national shows on a regional level. Owner Jason LaCourse has poured much into the club and lounge, and caught a few breaks along the way – including an evening with West coast rockers Dawes coming up October 17. Here at Inspire(d) HQ we’ve been fans of Dawes since around 2009, catching them at Gabe’s Oasis in Iowa City, after enjoying their first Daytrotter.com session. Dawes played on 2016’s ‘Gentleman of the Road’ festival hosted by Mumford and Sons in Waverly, IA as well and continue to reach new heights as the they pound the road. They’re latest release “We’re All Gonna Die” is out on the band’s own HUB Record label. They play the Cavalier Theatre in La Crosse on Tuesday, October 17. (Click here for tickets – if they aren’t already sold out!) Inspire(d) was given the opportunity to catch up with Lee Pardini, keyboard player for Dawes, while he was en route to San Francisco for the Outside Lands Festival in Golden Gate Park. Lee has been with Dawes for the past two years and has played an influential roll in the bands growth with his tasty key chops that reach far beyond rock and roll.

Roll the tape…

I(d): You guys keep –good- company. We saw Dawes play on the ‘Gentleman of the Road’ show in Waverly, Iowa with Mumford and Sons. The band has a history with artists like Bob Dylan, Jackson Browne, Robbie Robertson, Elvis Costello, and Dave Rawlings. You’re staring down tours with John Mayer and Kings of Leon this fall. What’s it like knowing you are working with some of the most revered musicians in the world?

LP: We couldn’t be more excited – and these are all really different experiences. When we do the “evening with” shows (like the upcoming La Crosse show), it is us for two and a half hours with the crowd – its really intimate, and we’re excited to bring that to the audience. When we’re on the road supporting larger tours of this stature – musically speaking, its great to be around artists of this caliber – but then its also exciting playing in front of a lot of audiences that maybe don’t know us so well – or at all. Being able to craft a 45 minute set to capture an audience is a really great challenge, and ultimately, it is all about the music first – so it’s quite an experience. We couldn’t be looking more forward to it.

I(d): We’re All Gonna Die, came out last September on your own ‘HUB records’ label. It was

produced by long time friend of the band Blake Mills. How has it been watching an album take life?

LP: Its been amazing – there were a lot of new sounds and textures on this record, and the recording process itself was a really great process. It’s a new sound that has developed – and its been exciting to see people really accepting us pushing things forward. Watching the audience in the live shows be familiar with a new record is kind of crazy too. One of the first shows we played after the record came out – like a week after, people in the crowd knew all the words to ‘One of Us’ – and that was such a great feeling. Over the past months playing the songs live really helps us grab ahold of how fans are connecting to the songs in so many different ways. Its been a great year – and we’re always trying new things, pushing ourselves to be better and make the most out of the shows.

I(d): We were checking out the “Custom Vintage Keys” trio session video that you did, and it is so tasty. Its clear you enjoy vintage key gear. What’s your jam these days?

LP: I’ve always been a big jazz fan – and studied a very broad world of jazz that I’m constantly digging into. I’ve also been listening to a particular set of Herbie Hancock records from the 70s – lots of textures. I’ve been digging into a lot of synthesizer stuff – which is something I’ve been working to bring to Dawes. You know – t’s a life long study. I know it sounds a little like a California stereotype, but I’ve been listening to a lot of Bob Marly lately as well. The keyboard work on every single one of his records is just incredible. Its economical, its groovy, and the songs are so good. From an education standpoint, the players he had on his records were so great. There’s always Dire Straits – the guys love Mark Knopfler. Allen Clark from Dire Straits is unbelieveable – and the way that band could extend their songs – really incredible. And always, there’s a decent amount of Grateful Dead that I’m listening to.

I(d): The upper Midwest is a funny place – and a lot of people still don’t give us much thought, but with outlets like Daytrotter, and the Codfish Hollow Barnstormers (Maquoketa) – we have some authentic stuff happening out here. La Crosse is right on the Mississippi River in the heart of the “Driftless” region – have you been to this area before? Any thoughts on the Midwest?

LP: Oh Yeah, absolutely. I’ve spent a lot of time in the Midwest over the years – I love it. There’s just an – its like another version of Southern hospitality. Everyone is so sweet. Take Codfish Hollow – the people there really care – they’re hip to what’s happening, and they care about being hospitable. You don’t get that everywhere. What strikes me is the amount of pride that people take, especially in the Midwest, in creating a great space for music and making people feel welcome and comfortable – its great. •