Meet Danae Davis, Executive Director of Milwaukee Succeeds

Many organizations are trying to fix Milwaukee’s beleaguered educational system. It’s one magnetic woman’s job to get them all talking and working together.

When it comes to making Milwaukee’s children the best they can be, hundreds of organizations are bringing their ideas and energy to the table to improve education in a city plagued with significant challenges in cultivating, nurturing and instructing its young.

In the middle of all of those good intentions – and collisions of missions, approaches, histories and egos – is Danae Davis

As executive director of Milwaukee Succeeds, Davis’ task is to coordinate and unify the many organizations around the city that have efforts in place to improve education. It’s a role that calls for the diplomatic skills of a secretary of state and the wisdom of Solomon. That’s not the recipe, it would seem, for having all those folks think of you, smile and wax affectionate. But they do. That’s the Danae effect.

She enters a room in a riot of color and flowing fabric, wearing raucous, Titian curls. She has warm, benevolent eyes, a ready grin and the dignified posture of a mother superior. It appears she will brook no nonsense. She is clearly in control and riveted on the task at hand.

Her days are booked with nonstop commitments, end to end, yet she somehow arrives at each of them looking fresh and acting focused. A typical Danae day might begin with a tour of a community organization, move to a meeting with educators at a school, shift to a series of board meetings with CEOs and end with her singing charity karaoke for 88Nine Radio Milwaukee.

Milwaukee’s educational challenges have attracted good ideas and hard work from myriad programs, but each addresses a separate piece of the puzzle. Milwaukee Succeeds acts as a clearinghouse for these patchwork efforts, minimizing duplication and enhancing collaboration with a goal of improving kindergarten, school, college and career readiness for Milwaukee children. Many Milwaukee organizations and leaders already are passionate about addressing the city’s education problems; Davis’ task is to get them around the same table, trying new approaches and letting go of things that haven’t worked well.

Here’s what she’s trying to do: dramatically improve outcomes for every child in every Milwaukee school, cradle to career. Regardless of race, regardless of school, regardless of neighborhood, every child, every outcome gets better.

Here’s how she’s trying to do it: by basing decision-making on data and proven results about what has the greatest effect, continuously improving methods and approaches, and using a technique called collective impact. “We are stronger working together and working while being aware of what each other is doing,” Davis says.

Here’s what’s tough about that: Milwaukee Public Schools face well-documented and significant challenges. In 2016, Wisconsin Public Radio reported that the district continues to be heavily segregated, with most schools of any type having a student body made up of just one race, African American, Hispanic or Hmong. Census data reveal that in 2016, 38.2 percent of Milwaukee’s children were living in poverty; by comparison, Waukesha’s figure was 16.2 percent, Minneapolis was 27.3 percent and Detroit was 50.8 percent. Enrollment is declining as MPS hemorrhages students to charter and private schools, sliding from 95,762 in 2000 to a forecast of 65,881 for this fall. The students who remain are underperforming in devastating numbers: in 2016-17, 84.5 percent of MPS students were below basic levels on state tests in math, and 79.7 percent were below basic in language arts. And budget forecasts predict deficits and service cuts, hobbling efforts to address these problems.

The task is enormous and the cause pressing, but Davis is armed with particular skills that make her the right woman for the job at this moment. Diplomacy. The ability to act as a catalyst. And this: She is an acute, ferocious, absorbed listener. Being so well-attended makes a person listen back, and Davis has clear messages to send: We need to fix this, and now. Bathed in the light of that concentrated attention, strangers begin to see Davis as a friend and soon are swept up in her intensity.

“She not only listens, she discerns what the issues are, where people are coming from,” says friend Howard Fuller, past superintendent of MPS. “And then she finds the point we can come together.”

The bottom line: People just like working with Davis.

“When people trust each other, they do better,” she says. “People trust me.”

Milwaukee Succeeds is an eight-person team of enablers and facilitators, plus five AmeriCorps coordinators. “No way we’re gonna move the needle all by ourselves,” says Davis. What it undertakes “can’t be what we think is important,” she says. “The work we do has to complement what the partners are doing.”

Milwaukee Succeeds creates networks of partners – some 300 in total – around four central goals: kindergarten readiness, school success, college and career readiness, and social and emotional learning. These goals apply to all the city’s schools: MPS, private and charter. Milwaukee Succeeds is also part of StriveTogether, a network of similar organizations in 70 cities across the country.

Facilitating and enabling isn’t glamorous. “This kind of stuff doesn’t make news, but it makes a difference,” says Davis.

Some of the community organizations with which Milwaukee Succeeds works were once and may still feel like competitors. Working together builds trust – “eventually,” Davis says with a wry smile. “This stuff will only work if systems change, then partnerships will change. We are figuring out partnerships and compromises between organizations, helping them do what they already do, just do it better.”

To do that, she communicates regularly with heads of nonprofits, civic leaders and people whose last names match those of major Milwaukee thoroughfares and buildings. But she also blogs directly in open letters to parents and the community at large in an informal, accessible and rhymingly titled column called “Hey! It’s Danae!” In it, she reports recent efforts at Milwaukee Succeeds and includes the voices of her staff and her partners, sharing their latest projects, meetings and seminars with the community. Sometimes it’s a story of measurable improvement in third-grade reading skills. Sometimes it’s a story about health fair screenings that help children about to enter school. Sometimes it’s a story about ways to feed children over the summer months when they don’t have access to meals at school.

Photo courtesy of Milwaukee Succeeds.

About the organization

Milwaukee Succeeds is a nonprofit organization aimed at improving educational outcomes for every child in every school by bringing together Milwaukee organizations, educators, parents and leaders. Founded in 2011 by the Greater Milwaukee Foundation and several heavyweight partners, it’s part of StriveTogether, a network of 70 similar entities in 30 states. Its 2017 budget was $764,000; it also brought in and distributed grants worth about $1.9 million to partner organizations.

That’s how she talks with people, face to face and matter-of-fact. Not like she’s a big shot – though she is a major player in this field, and has held significant political, public service and corporate positions – but like a real person who is on fire about a pressing civic issue that cuts to the heart of what Milwaukee is and what its people might achieve. The education of children in Milwaukee must improve, she insists. It is essential.

“She is just dogged in her pursuit of the mission of helping children in Milwaukee,” says Ald. Cavalier “Chevy” Johnson. “She doesn’t take no for an answer. Danae is very sincere, very sweet, very smart, very forward and very determined.” Davis delivers all of that with charm and energy. After Johnson’s 2017 work co-chairing an early education task force with Davis ended, he suddenly felt a void in his life, he chuckles: “I wasn’t talking to Danae all the time.”

Watching Davis greet colleagues in the hallway, meet a stranger in the lobby, and work a room of people with a spate of agendas, it is clear that she genuinely likes people and wants to hear their stories.

“I find her emotional intelligence is off the charts,” says Glenn Kleiman, executive director of 88Nine, where Davis is a board member. “I can walk into a room and she can tell how I feel, read my mind and emotional state. It’s uncanny. Her awareness of other people really stands out.”

Before joining the nonprofit world, she used that skill set in corporate leadership positions – diversity posts with Kraft Foods and Miller Brewing – and the public sector, directing employee relations for the city of Milwaukee and serving as legal counsel for Gov. Anthony Earl in the ’80s. Big positions, big responsibilities, big constituencies.

Then she moved to running Milwaukee nonprofit PEARLS for Teen Girls Inc., empowering and fostering leadership in girls ages 11-18. As executive director and then as CEO, she had direct interaction with young women as they developed skills, set goals, worked toward graduation and nurtured their self-esteem. Within a few years of her arrival in 2006, PEARLS served 401 girls, and Davis points to their statistics proudly: All of them graduated high school and vanishingly few became pregnant. For the 2012 class, 99 percent were admitted to college.

“Here’s a person who has a very high corporate position a Miller and leaves there to go do PEARLS for Teen Girls, because that is where her heart was,” says Fuller.

Davis, 63, says she found that working to improve the lives of young people fed her soul. “I was looking to make a difference,” she says. 

The oldest of six children, Davis was born in Chicago.

“Danae was a very sweet child, a sweet baby, she didn’t cry a lot. She was one of these perfect first children,” says her mother, Daphne Taylor. As a child, Danae took the blame for mischief her sisters got into, acting like a mother hen.

Staying focused

Milwaukee Succeeds creates networks of partners around four central goals.

1. Kindergarten Readiness

More than 30 partners, including Milwaukee Health Department, Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin, Milwaukee Public Schools and UW-Milwaukee.

2. School Success

More than 70 partners, including Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, Mount Mary University, Milwaukee Film, Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Milwaukee and Next Door Foundation.

3. Career and College Readiness

More than 40 partners, including Waukesha County Technical College, Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction’s Office of Early Learning, Make A Difference Wisconsin, Discovery World and Employ Milwaukee.

4. Social and Emotional Health

Nearly 50 partners including Artists Working in Education, Playworks, Milwaukee Public Libraries, Milwaukee Urban League and United Way of Greater Milwaukee.

Davis attended Rufus King High School. “I had thick glasses and natural hair,” she laughs. “But I was a cheerleader!” Which was cool. And gave her confidence.

She enrolled at UW-Oshkosh, studying international political systems. Then, law school at UW-Madison – though Davis says she never wanted to practice law but instead valued the analytical skills and logical reasoning that law school supports. She has promoted non-lawyering career alternatives for law graduates.

Davis would go on to work for the city, for the governor and in the private sector. When she moved into the nonprofit world of public service, all her skills and experience and even confidence gained from high school cheerleading coalesced. She stepped into a position where being Danae could make a real difference. She found her calling.

“I’ve always been that mother-like influence with young people in my life,” she says. “How my work positively impacts them inspires me to do more.” Davis’ son, Kwesi Gordon, also attended Rufus King High School, and later Cardinal Stritch University and Tennessee State. But first, as a child in Milwaukee, Kwesi attended Montessori school, an experience his mother credits with focusing her interest on how child development could be supported in an intentional way. “I got to be a better parent by means of how he developed and how his development was managed,” she says. “Every child should have that option.”

Her work has earned her numerous community and national awards, and she’s been a UW regent and served on many community boards.

“Her dedication to other people has been the most important thing to her,” Taylor says. “Wherever she worked, she kept things grounded by focusing on the critical issues and keeping things going in that direction. She had that ability.”

The professional roles Davis has taken on are daunting, fraught with challenges, politics and red tape. “Danae never focuses on those frustrations,” says JoAnne Anton, who directs giving at Herb Kohl Philanthropies and who met Davis when they both worked for the city. “She often says, ‘Just be part of the coalition of the willing.’”

Ellen Gilligan, president and CEO of the Greater Milwaukee Foundation, the organization under which Milwaukee Succeeds operates, calls Davis’ leadership “transformational.” “She challenges all of us to lean in, do more and remove barriers so our kids can thrive. Danae’s leadership has put Milwaukee Succeeds on the map at the state and national levels, resulting in greater investment in Milwaukee for our kids.”

Jennifer Blatz, president and CEO of the Cincinnati-based StriveTogether, first met Davis in 2015 after Milwaukee Succeeds had not made the cut to be one of StriveTogether’s top dozen advanced partnerships. “Danae asked me why they hadn’t been chosen,” says Blatz. “She said, ‘You made the right decision, but tell me why, because next year, I want to be chosen.’ I thought Milwaukee Succeeds had a long way to go, but she put them on a positive trajectory to help kids. They are now one of the most advanced partnerships in our national network.”

Impressed with Davis’ passion and articulate storytelling, Blatz invited Davis to join the StriveTogether board. Now Davis speaks nationally about cradle-to-career civic partnerships. “What drives Danae is her fundamental belief that every child should have the opportunity to reach their full potential, regardless of where they got their start,” says Blatz. “For Danae, it’s about equity, and more specifically, racial equity. I believe her work leading PEARLS for Teen Girls really helped her understand the barriers experienced by children living in poverty and that these barriers are systemic and structural.”

Photo by John Sturdy.

From 2011, when Milwaukee Succeeds was launched, Davis was connected to the organization as a volunteer on its leadership council and co-chairing its operations committee. In 2015, she became the organization’s second director, succeeding Mike Soika.

StriveTogether supports its network organizations with training and guidance in four principles of collective impact: sharing community vision, using evidence-based decision-making, acting collaboratively and creating long-term sustainability. Measurable goals are set, and results tracked and reported to the community. This data is also used to continuously improve services offered to children. 

For example, the Transformative Reading Instruction program, a model for teaching reading skills, was developed by Milwaukee Succeeds partners to improve third-grade reading proficiency. In 2017, the percentage of students on target with other students nationally with their reading scores rose from 5.9 percent to 11.8 percent in first grade, and from 5.5 percent to 21.8 percent in second.

A program to unite all health systems in adopting early childhood immunization practices has shown steady increases from 2014 to 2016 in up-to-date immunizations among Milwaukee 2-year-olds. And a campaign beginning in 2016 to get more secondary students to complete federal college financial aid applications changed the way practitioners work with students and boosted Milwaukee student application rates to 5 percentage points above the state average.

Milwaukee Succeeds is funded by the Greater Milwaukee Foundation and by individual grants. In 2015, the GMF and Bader Philanthropies, Herb Kohl Philanthropies, Northwestern Mutual Foundation and the local United Way formed a funders collaborative that dedicated $5 million to Milwaukee Succeeds through 2019. Its many partners are willing to work with Milwaukee Succeeds, says Davis, because “they heard about the funding, they heard about the big names involved and they realize they need to be at that table.”

It’s a table where things can, admittedly, sometimes become contentious. When the divergent missions, histories and cultures of all the organizations around the table seem about to collide, Davis “will always bring the conversation back to what’s best for kids,” says Dave Celata, who manages Milwaukee Succeeds’ day-to-day operations as its deputy director. “Too often in this work, we get lost in the jargon and the perceived complications, but to a person, we’ve all gotten involved because we want to improve outcomes for kids. Sometimes adults need to get out of our own way.”

Celata is realistic about the complexity of the challenges facing Milwaukee Succeeds. “It’s a generation’s worth of work, and day to day, it can be a grind. You’ve got your days when you are starting to see hope and improvement, and then days when you feel you are not getting traction and you are fighting a system that is putting up a good fight,” he says. Of Davis, he says, “I’ve never worked for somebody who is more optimistic that we are going to figure this out.”

Dave Celata, the deputy director who works alongside Danae Davis, sums up her approach to their organization this way: “Milwaukee Succeeds is not about hero-ing our way to better results for kids, it’s not about one person or small group of people. It’s about an entire community committing to change and then actually making that change.”

Davis does what she does because she is driven to improve the lives of Milwaukee’s children. “Our children and young people need our best skills, compassion and commitment in order to have a shot at a successful life,” says Davis. “It brings me joy to know that I am doing all I can to model being a caring and courageous human being, particularly for our youth.”

“Hey! It’s Danae!” appears in the August 2018 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

Find it on newsstands beginning July 30th, or buy a copy at

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Pamela Hill Nettleton is an assistant professor of journalism and media studies at the Diederich College of Communication at Marquette University.