Esther J. Cepeda: Madison embraces leaders of color | Column


Esther J. Cepeda


Take it from someone who grew up in a city – Chicago – where change happened at a sclerotic pace, if it happened at all.

But Madison is quick to act. City leaders handled the caustic situation at Reindahl Park – homeless encampments – and turned it into a victory. The park has been cleaned up and a significant portion of the homeless have been helped through the provision of mini houses, motel room vouchers and other housing and support.

Now, too, we see racial progress with the election of new Dane County Supervisors with a stated commitment to racial and social justice.

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First, an interesting note: Dane County’s voter turnout was, like many people who weathered that long Wisconsin winter, depressed. Only 18.5% of adults in Dane County who were eligible to vote actually turned out to vote – the lowest turnout in the spring election in eight years. Madison, strictly speaking, was even weaker with a turnout of 15.8%.

These kinds of elections are difficult. Spring midterm elections receive less attention than fall elections, which feature statewide seats and senior positions and, every four years, a president to choose from. This means that those who voted were probably the most civically engaged and likely the most informed voters.

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It’s impossible to say for sure, but it says a lot about the 81,104 people who showed up – they clearly enjoyed seeing local legislative seats go to those with the background to make Madison a multiracial, multicultural city. which welcomes all. This is true even if some winning candidates were unopposed.

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In 2013, the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families’ founding report “Race to Equity” clearly stated: “The pervasiveness and extreme [Dane] the county’s black-white disparities … are generally more extreme than those found in most other jurisdictions in the state and nation. There is not a single indicator we have analyzed in which the well-being of African Americans is comparable to that of whites.

This is the point of electing people of color to positions in which they are likely to be able to add unique insight to discussions about the allocation of public resources that center disparities in particular communities.

People of color who were elected to Dane County Council – Brenda Yang, 19th District, Dana Pellebon, 33rd District, Olivia Xistris-Songpanya, 13th District; April Kigeya, 15th District – are cultural ambassadors who likely have some early answers to the thorny questions that have plagued the Madison area for years.

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Questions like how to conduct outreach in communities that are cut off from Madison’s sparkling downtown and its stately campuses; what to do about the lack of jobs for those entering the labor market with few skills; and how to bring together disconnected neighborhood enclaves into a multicultural coalition that could hold their representatives to account.

Tuesday’s election of women of color to the Madison school board is closely tied to how county leaders are moving toward equality for the most vulnerable.

Nothing is more important than making local public schools safe places where children of color can read, write and calculate at the same level as their grade-level white peers.

As a former Madison teacher, I can tell you from personal experience that Madison schools have invested an incredible amount of energy, time, and money in training and programs to guide staff toward an understanding of special needs, talents and strengths of children of color. .

School board president and first-term incumbent Ali Muldrow won re-election on Tuesday, and Nichelle Nichols won an open seat. These women bring extensive personal and professional experience with Madison Schools and the District Office to support massive budgets intended to target the neediest students while continuing to nurture high-level learners.

Madison’s school board and city council are both run by majorities of people of color.

Certainly, the authors of the “Race to Equity Project” report would not state that the “mission” to promote “greater public awareness and understanding of the depth and breadth of racial disparities that differentiate the white experience and Black in Dane County, Wisconsin” is accomplished.

But they raised their hats to everyone who came before them. “Long before we arrived, mission-driven institutions and a host of committed Dane County activists had compiled an impressive record of fighting racism, discrimination and unequal opportunity. They fought for equality and fairness for people of color from their positions as public servants, in the classroom, from the pulpit, in neighborhood centers and in the daily work of improving the future of children and families at risk. .”

Amen. It is on the shoulders of those who came before them that Madison’s leaders of color finally get their due. There is a lot of work to do, but things are moving in the right direction. Compared to so many other municipalities, Dane County and Madison are moving relatively quickly to meet important needs – it’s exciting!

Cepeda, of Madison, can be reached at [email protected] and @estherjcepeda.


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