University of Wisconsin–Madison

12 on Tuesday: Leslie Orrantia, UW-Madison Community Relations Director

UW-Madison Community Relations Director Leslie Orrantia

Leslie Orrantia is the director of community relations at the University of Wisconsin, a post she’s held since August. She has been on campus for four years, serving since 2012 in the School of Education’s External Relations office and as assistant director for the Wisconsin Collaborative Education Research Network within the School of Education. Prior to her work with UW-Madison, she served as a caseworker in Madison for nearly five years, collaborating with area nonprofits, government institutions, community organizations and local media to best address client needs. It was her work as a caseworker that really taught her the value of listening to others.

Rank your Top 5 MCs. I listen to almost every genre. My mood changes with my music and my music with my mood, so this question is a tough one. For my top MCs, I’ve decided upon those who make more than good music, those who remain relevant throughout time and those who politically engage and inspire their listeners to do the same.

1. Nina Simone, the original MC
2. Blackalicious
3. Killer Mike
4. 2pac
5. Salt-N-Pepa

Which motivates you more: doubters or supporters?

Without a doubt, I need supporters in my life to thrive. I surround myself with supporters in large part because if all my time and energy are invested into building up someone who will forever doubt me, themselves, or our world, then I’m wasting what could otherwise be invested into making today better than yesterday and making positive change in the lives of others. Supporters are more likely to be thought partners and we need an even playing field to truly build community, empower ourselves and one another to best contribute to the collective good, and produce the most impact and sustainable change.

I believe perspective is critical. We may not have a lot of choices in life, but each day we can choose a positive outlook. We’ve all had hardship, some greater than others, but it’s an intentionality around reflection upon that hardship to inform who you are and who you’ll continue to be. I choose to be positive. I feed off of other people’s energy, so on a day I’m feeling bummed, I selfishly push out good energy because I know folks will send it back my way. And on the majority of days, when I’m my optimistic self, I recognize some other folks may be feeling bummed and the least I could do is make them smile, even if it’s limited to that moment, so I give hugs, make jokes, smile big, and ask, then listen to, how people are. Kindness, consideration, and warmth feed good energy into people and they send it back your way. Y’all are feeding this in me so I’m always sure to return the favor.

Why do you live in Madison?

I want to make our community better.

I grew up in a large suburb outside of Los Angeles. Although my community surely had some positives, one very big challenge I recognized in my teens was that folks simply accepted hardship with an “it is what it is” mentality and were often politically and civically disengaged, keeping their heads down and living their day-to-day dis-empowered.

Madison is different. More people care here and more are involved. I love the shared governance structures, community-building efforts, marches, the greater voter turnout, so many folks being the change they wish to see, and the rowdy folks that inspire others to be more rowdy than they’d otherwise be.

I believe change is made and sustained by people. And since we reside in a smaller community than others in which I’ve lived, I feel that change is more viable here. Madison is smaller, smarter, and less broken in many ways than other places I’ve lived and I believe all of this makes change possible, but we need to bring light to the areas that are not well-lit, bring attention to the issues and areas that aren’t getting any, and this starts with relationships, leverage, and intentionality. I think we have this as a community and I believe my skills, capacities, and ambitions fit Madison to aid in this change making effort.

What three leaders in Madison under 50 have impressed you the most?

Karen Menendez Coller. Karen is a good friend, an inspiration, an advocate, a team player, and most importantly a role model. She’s strategic, visionary, patient, humble, immensely kind, and endlessly supportive.

Gerardo Mancilla. I’m proud to know Lalo. He’s got more grit and tenacity than most and could be anywhere making change, especially with his doctorate in curriculum and instruction, changing today for tomorrow’s future, and yet he has chosen to make change in our community. He’s thoughtful and strategic about how his interests and capacities align for making much needed community change, he shows up, and he delivers.

M Adams. I don’t know M well, but I do know she leads without ego. She recognizes that leadership is support for grassroots organizational growth and sustainable change is a product of grassroots civic and political engagement and top-down support. She’s immensely wise and lives an important role some leaders never learn, deciphering when we pick up the mic versus when we share it with others.

All these folks recognize our youth are our future, equity needs to be our first priority, we must organize and unite for sustainable change, and the answers to our challenges exist within our communities.

What’s the biggest stumbling block in Madison to turning the corner on our racial disparities?

First, race is a complicated political construct made further complicated by distinctions across cultures, class, histories, and a multitude of other factors. I’m not sure I can capture such a complex issue in a few paragraphs, but I’ll scrape the surface by saying this: Race relations are quite different here as compared to other places I have lived. I believe this is in part because our community has historically been predominantly white and mostly homogenous. As our minority communities have grown rather dramatically over the past decade, the majority community’s social justice theoretical mindset is now being challenged to be applied to our new reality. Much like any transition from theory to action, this process is awkward, difficult, takes practice and intentionality. Now that issues within our marginalized communities are becoming more widely known, many across our broad community recognize the need for addressing racial disparities, but have not deciphered their individual role in facilitating meaningful collective and culturally sustainable change.

I believe this plays a role in the biggest stumbling block in Madison to turning the corner on our racial disparities. This leads to the conflation of two purposes when engaging in community dialogs to move our community forward, if and when folks intentionally engage in these spaces. One purpose is to outline where we are at present, validate the challenges of our marginalized communities, and get on the same page so we build our next steps together from a shared foundation. The second purpose is to collectively identify our individual roles and establish our shared approach to making positive change and ensuring socially just, equitable outcomes.

What are your top three priorities at this point in your life?

Be better to others than I was the day before, myself included.

Keep learning.

Choose happiness.

Name three things you miss about living in Oxnard, California.

Outside of the obvious answer, my family, I deeply miss eating oranges and avocados off trees and visiting farmer-operated fruit stands; solo drives through the desert, fields, orchards, mountains, and along the coast; and the Latino influence on mainstream culture, between pan dulce at the chain grocery stores, Spanish in your ear in public spaces, huevos rancheros at every diner, and Banda or Norteño music on the radio.

Leslie Orrantia, right, poses with a hero of hers, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor
Leslie Orrantia, right, poses with a hero of hers, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor

There have been numerous challenges on the UW campus. As the Director of UW Community Relations, what four things would you like the community to know UW is doing to address the brown and black experience on campus?

One of the biggest challenges I tackle in my position is sharing everything of value happening on and off campus. Whether research, outreach, teaching, inclusivity, no matter the area, UW is a community of 65,000 faculty, staff, and students doing a ton of incredible work. There are a number of efforts, both top-down and bottom-up that are in development with regards to improving the student experience, but I’ll highlight the following:

1. Our Wisconsin, piloted in fall 2016, is a program designed to build reflection, understanding, and community into the first-year transition for undergraduate students. The Division of Student Life worked with leading faculty to develop curriculum prioritizing reflection around identity, equity, and inclusion. The program was successfully implemented and recent evaluation confirmed its value to our students. Results indicate that compared to those who did not participate in the program, participants showed greater interest and openness to conversations and interactions with diverse groups. As a result, this summer, the program will be introduced to Student Orientation, Advising, and Registration (SOAR) to serve 99 percent of incoming students. This effort ensures all students participate in building community and alleviates the pressure on students of underrepresented identities from bearing the burden of educating the majority.

2. Many of these issues are deeply embedded in our institutionalized structures on and off campus. In recognition of this, last spring Chancellor Blank urged all units, academic and administrative, to prioritize equity and inclusion training. As a result of this effort, a few schools and colleges are leading the development of resource creation to bolster faculty and staff support for our students. Personally, the larger unit of which I am a part, University Relations, comprised of marketing, communications, corporate and government affairs, is collectively participating in a learning community through the remainder of the year. Similarly, units across campus are developing equity and inclusion training to address this need.

3. Last week in the good company of 150 members of our campus community, I was excited to participate in the soft-opening for UW’s Black Cultural Center. In addition to a space for our Black students to call their own, it is an intentional space that has been designed collaboratively to celebrate Black culture and history on our campus. The Black Cultural Center will have an official opening later this year, so stay tuned.

4. We have a number of campus-wide efforts that have been implemented over the past few years and are in various stages of development. As I mentioned before, remedying some of these issues is only half the battle. Our institution is fortunate to have extensive engagement of alumni, students, staff, faculty, and others, all invested in sustaining our institution for the long term and improving it for future Badgers. With that said, communication of our efforts is equally critical. To address this need, we have created a campus climate website to keep folks updated on the progress of these priority initiatives. Check it out at www.campusclimate.wisc.edu.

What song that you really love would you be embarrassed to let people know you like?

I made a decision a long time ago that I wouldn’t get embarrassed anymore. Obviously, this was one of the wiser decisions in my life, because – let’s be real – life is too short. However, I think people might expect me to feel embarrassed about Electric Light Orchestra’s “Mr. Blue Sky.”

Would you rather be rich or have a position of power and why?

Wealth may provide comforts and security, but it can also cloud our pursuit of living a robust, purposeful, and fulfilling life. A position of power has the capacity to do the same, but with intentionality and reflection, I believe it can enable long-term and sustainable change for the better and, most importantly, you can always pass the mic to others.

If we asked some of your best friends about you, how would they explain you?

So I asked and was fortunate to hear what I hoped for: genuine, intentional, passionate, energetic, fun, and hilarious.

Do you believe there is a Latino and black divide? If so, how do we address that division?

Let’s say “ish.” I believe there are clear cultural divides, though I believe they are a product of passive circumstance in lieu of active discrimination. I believe if and where we don’t interact with other people unlike us, we either don’t think about what we don’t know or we fill in the blanks with guesswork. The truth is, day-to-day life is hard and logistics run the show. We don’t always have time, money, or energy to do something outside of eat, sleep, work, and care for our families. We strive for balance, and while striving for balance is good to keep one on track, it’s hard to challenge ourselves to get out of our comfort zone. So, I believe our greatest divides exist at the working-class level because folks are busy working and caring for their families, and outside of libraries and grocery stores, there aren’t a lot of organically diverse places for adults to meet others unlike themselves.

To address this issue, I think we need a two-generation approach. We need to create spaces for our youth in our schools to reflect on the self, our individual role in making our society a better place, engage in meaningful community building conversations and discuss these larger societal issues. For adults, I think we need to meet people where they are by building free opportunities for folks to meet in familiar spaces like libraries, churches, schools, and break bread together in community, and be intentional about building a respectful discourse.

 Story posted with the permission of Madison 365 in partnership with Channel 3000.