Caitlin McGahan: Making Change at the Micro Level

By Emily McCluhan | Photography by Hillary Schave

Caitlin McGahan says her career and volunteer work thus far has been like stitching together a quilt — still a work in progress — but piece by piece, it’s becoming more clear what her purpose is.

She started her career at M&I Bank (now BMO Harris) before taking a position at Shopbop, the e-commerce retailer founded in Madison and acquired by Amazon in 2006. There, she enjoyed learning and talking about fashion all day — but she realized her passion for advocating for others had started to outweigh her love of fashion.

In 2013, with little knowledge of the justice system or human services, she jumped into a role as a Dane County Jail clerk and observed the social and judicial disparities of the people who came through its doors.

Now, she’s a representative payee with the Department of Human Services (DHS), helping clients diagnosed with mental illness or drug abuse problems to manage their state and federal benefits, find housing, manage medications and handle day-to- day needs.

When she began at DHS, she started taking classes in topics such as sexual assault advocacy programs and restraining orders for domestic violence. In 2020, she also began working toward her master’s in social work at UW-Madison. Not only will this training help in her DHS role, but it will inform her duties as executive minister (a volunteer position) at Sherman Church on Madison’s north side.

Her face lights up when she talks about the programs she leads at Sherman Church, like connecting people with housing services, organizing community conversations and educational programs for children.

Carol Hermansen, a fellow volunteer and member of Sherman Church, says that McGahan’s strength is finding projects and issues that are relevant to the community and neighborhood.

“She is always quick to find a need and quick to respond. A great example of this is the small local food pantry that she put together to keep food on the tables of families on the north side during the pandemic,” Hermansen explains.

In October 2021, McGahan organized a popup, secondhand clothing boutique for survivors of domestic abuse through Sherman Church. She wanted to create a safe space for survivors to share their stories at the boutique and find gently-used and new clothing for job interviews and other occasions for those who may have had to leave a situation with little to no belongings. She’s planning on hosting another popup in April 2022 with a focus on sexual assault awareness. Moving forward, she hopes to continue hosting both of these boutiques twice per year.

“I’m a survivor myself, and it’s such a relief when you realize you’re not the only one. I wanted to be there for others … and help them know it’s not their fault,” McGahan says.

She is also on the board of directors for the Wisconsin Coalition Against Sexual Assault and pushes to bring in more women of color for their committees and projects.

“After we share our experiences together, women of color have to go live in a world of barriers, especially when it comes to reporting sexual or domestic abuse, whether it’s generational trauma, judicial trauma or even medical disparities,” she says. “I want to support these women, but I also want to help remove some of these barriers by giving them a voice to share their stories.”

McGahan sees the impact of systemic racism and social injustice every day in her job and in her volunteer work, and admits it can be overwhelming trying to figure out how to tackle change. But lucky for Madison, she’s already been able to influence change on a micro scale in her own community.

That continues in her 2022 plans, which involve organizing writing workshops for children at Northport Community Learning Center and shining a light on diverse voices as co-lead of Urban Spoken Word poetry collective. And, hearkening back to her retail career, she has plans to hopefully launch a plus-size clothing line in 2022.

“As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to realize the importance of asking, why not? Why not me? Why not this opportunity? And I share that powerful and worthy question with everyone that I can.”

Read about all of our 2022 Women to Watch here.

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