Hazel Symonette honored for Humanitarian Service

A University of Wisconsin-Madison staff member is one of the recipients of this year’s City-County Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Humanitarian Awards.

Hazel Symonette, Ph.D.
Hazel Symonette, Ph.D.

Hazel Symonette, founder and director of the Student Success Institute and program development and assessment specialist in the Division of Student Life, will receive the award during Madison’s 29th annual City-County Observance on Monday, Jan. 20, one of the many activities taking place in celebration of King’s life and work.

“Dr. Hazel Symonette is a truly deserving recipient of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Humanitarian Award,” says Mayor Paul Soglin. “Her decades of work on the UW campus and throughout the city has made an invaluable impact on the lives of students who without her assistance and guidance, would be at risk of dropping out. Her work is nationally known and valued and Madison is very fortunate to have her as a professional and caring volunteer and mentor.”

Symonette has used her background in social justice and her long history on campus and at UW System to develop, evaluate and improve success opportunities for all. She has spearheaded a number of important initiatives that have made the work of UW-Madison more accessible to community members, including the Information Technology Academy, a group that works to provide pre-college education and technology access and training for students in Madison public schools.

The celebration takes place at the Overture Center for the Arts, 201 State St. The evening begins with a Freedom Songs Sing-In, from 5-5:30 p.m. in the Overture Center’s Rotunda.

At 6 p.m., the City-County Observance begins in the Capitol Theater. Former United Nations ambassador Andrew J. Young, colleague and friend to Dr. King, will give the keynote address. Mayor Paul Soglin and County Executive Joe Parisi will present City and County King Humanitarian awards. The celebration also includes a call to action and a performance by the MLK Community Choir.

The following column is reposted with the  permission of the Capital City Hues:

Madison’s own “Queen Nefertiti”?

The Literary Divide/Dr. Paul Barrows (Originally published on Aug. 23, 2006)

But of course! Madison, the State of Wisconsin and   indeed the world is so very fortunate to have  “experienced” “Sistah” Hazel Symonette. Perhaps you are one of those in our community who have had the opportunity to observe “Ms. Hazel” gracing our presence with her splendid wardrobe of flowing and colorful  African inspired clothing. If you know her or met her, then no doubt you have experienced a stimulation of the mind from Hazel’s probing questions that feed our intellectual curiosity while uprooting us from our comfort  zones with questions that make us look inside ourselves to liberate us from our misconceptions and biases.

Dr. Hazel Symonette has worked with UW System Administration and on the Madison campus for approximately 35 years. She currently has a joint position with System and the Madison campus as a Senior Policy and Program Development Specialist. Dr. Symonette is a  world-renowned expert in assessment and planning with a special focus on “diversifying voices in evaluation.” She studies these issues and works with them on campus and in her every day life.

Hazel was born in Miami, FL and was raised there and in Harlem, NY. She is a proud graduate of the HBCU Central State University in Wilberforce, OH.  Hazel earned her Ph.D. from the University of  Wisconsin-Madison and has been a resident of  “the village” since coming to Madison as a student.

When I first came to Madison to work at the University, I must admit, I did not know one person in this town. A close friend of mine who knew Hazel, Bill Strickland, gave me Hazel’s telephone number and told me to get in touch with her when I arrived in Madison in  April of 1989. I distinctly recall Bill saying,  “Hazel is a good Sistah who is ‘good people’ (classical Ebonics, if you will) who you should meet. She would be happy to introduce you and show you around.”

On day two of my arrival in Madison, I called Hazel and  we met at Pearlies Restaurant, got acquainted, and enjoyed some delicious soul food. While we were partaking in some chicken wings, Eugene Parks walked into the restaurant. Hazel introduced me to Gene, informing him that  I was “the Brother from Massachusetts who would be working with Chancellor Shalala.”

Unbeknownst to me at that time was the fact that Gene had a lot to say about the UW — and a whole lot of other issues as well! Gene and I immediately got into our first of many  “discussions” about politics and issues at the UW.  Another witness to this discussion that I met on that occasion was Joe McClain. How  fortunate I was to meet these key leaders who have done so much for this community! All three of them have been good friends of mine ever since.

Members of the Association of American Colleges and Universities Institutes Faculty include, from left, George Sanchez, Arleen Arnsparger, Tia McNair, Gwen Dungy, Carleen Vande Zande and Hazel Symonette.
Members of the Association of American Colleges and Universities Institutes Faculty include, from left, George Sanchez, Arleen Arnsparger, Tia McNair, Gwen Dungy, Carleen Vande Zande and Hazel Symonette.

A testimonial as to how Hazel makes lasting connections  to those who she has touched over the years was recently given by a UW Alum, Dr. Enoh Tanjong, who has known Hazel since 1982. Dr. Tanjong, who now serves as Vice Dean, Faculty of Social and Management Sciences for the University of Buea in Cameroon, recently came back to the States as a Visiting Scholar at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Dr.  Tanjong noted that he made it his business to come back to Madison to meet  with Hazel to personally thank her for all of the wonderful things that she did for him when he was a student. Regarding Hazel’s reaching out to  him, he noted:  “She has the human touch! I was going through a terrible situation back then and she helped me out. When all hope is lost,  she is one who gives you hope. When I left Madison, I made a commitment to  bring that spirit back to my native Cameroon.”      Hazel has received a lot of recognition which has put her in demand for her outstanding work in assessment, planning, and social justice. As a result, Hazel has recently gone international as the boundaries of this state have become too limiting. In 2004, she was the  keynote speaker and served as a consultant and resource at international  conferences in Australia and New Zealand.

More recently, in July and  August of this year, Hazel made her sojourn to  “the motherland,” traveling to Durban, South Africa with additional trips to Pretoria, Johannesburg, and Robin Island under the sponsorship of the South African Monitoring and Evaluation Association.  While in Cape Town, she was profoundly impacted by her visit to Robben Island and the prison cells of Nelson Mandela and many others.  She was invited to  South Africa to attend the World Congress of Sociology in Durban which  focused on  “Ethics and Social Diversity:  Contemporary      Perspectives on the Social Relations of Social Research.” Dr. Symonette presented on the topic:  “Cultivating Self as Responsive Instruments: Working the Boundaries and Borderlands for Ethical Border Crossings.”

These trips have inspired her and she has, as a result,  developed a whole new approach to how she delivers her message and engages      those who are fortunate enough to participate in her workshops. As Hazel  puts it,  “the ancestors gave me the power to develop an approach that  I have used all over the world.” She has been enlightened by Dianne Reeves and George Duke’s  “Eyes on the Prize.”  At  Australia’s Evaluation Society Conference where she was invited to  give the keynote speech in 2004, Dr. Symonette informed her host that she would not speak at the podium as had traditionally been the case for such presentations. Instead, during her introduction, Hazel inconspicuously      stood in the back of the room where she was sure few present knew that she was indeed the featured speaker. With a portable microphone, she slowly  started walking to the front of the auditorium reciting passages from  “Eyes on the Prize” telling the 500 or so people present that      “there are voices from the future and they are calling your name.  Keep your eyes on the prize and your back to the wind.”  She continued      walking around the room looking each individual in the eye asking:  “Whose voices do you hear? Whose voices do you heed and how do you know? To what extent would which voices agree with your self-assessment?” Hazel says it was truly an epiphany when she learned to consciously refocus the nature of her analytical approach by “putting the ‘WHO’ and not the ‘what’ at the center of any assessment.

Dr. Symonette has used this new methodology internationally and, more closer to home, in her work at the UW with the Excellence Through Diversity Institute and the program and assessment  workshops she offers through the Office of Human Resource Development.  Hazel has also recently taken the lead role for the Equity Scorecard Project which is an effort undertaken by five UW System Institutions and  all of the UW Colleges to develop effective ways to undertake and measure their efforts to diversify their campuses and improve the living and learning environment.

Perhaps more than any other person I know,  Hazel has been able to achieve the perfect vision and harmony by  integrating her work with her personal and social life. When asked how she would characterize her mission in life Hazel responded:  “The rent I  pay for being on the planet is that I have a responsibility and passion to promote excellence, social justice, and service for others. In so doing, I must be mindful, deliberate, and intentional. My crusade involves mainstreaming assessment and evaluation to help us walk in alignment with  our vision of self and others as part of the natural rhythms of  life.”

When asked the question, what do you like about  Madison? Hazel responded:  “I like the water, its serenity, and ways that being by it helps me to connect with my true self and decompress. I  like the physical beauty of the city and I especially like the wonderful  folk around here that I work with.” She considers herself an  “extroverted introvert.” Hazel characterizes herself as someone who really likes the solemnity of being alone but who, because of the nature of her work, has to put herself out in front to speak to and work  with others in order to move a progressive agenda forward. For fun and relaxation she likes to walk by the lake, dance, and take care of house plants (not gardening!).

I feel very fortunate to have Hazel as a friend and colleague. Madison, the state, the nation, and indeed the world are truly blessed to have this spiritually-minded  “African Queen” in our midst!

Other 2014 events taking place on and off campus

On Friday, Jan. 17, the celebrations begin with the 27th Annual Free Community Dinner, honoring Dr. King’s spirit of brotherhood and sisterhood. The event takes place on the second floor of Gordon Commons, 770 W. Dayton St., from 4:30-7 p.m. Kobussen Buses will provide free shuttles to and from the dinner, with pickups are scheduled at the YWCA, 101 E Mifflin Street (departing at 5:45 p.m.) and Grace Episcopal Church, 116 W. Washington Ave. (departing at 5:55 p.m.).

On Monday, Jan. 20, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day begins as the Morgridge Center for Public Service sponsors a day of science and service for local middle and high school youth, held from 8:30 a.m.-4 p.m. at the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery, 330 N. Orchard St.

More than 300 students have already registered for this free day of service and science, encouraging students to become involved in their community and learn about science, technology, engineering, math and medical educational and career options. Sessions in 2013 included Bioethics Poetry Slam, Exploring the Nanoworld, Playsquads (gaming+learning+society), Teaming with Microbes, What’s Eating My Food? and Groundwater: Go with the Flow!

The event is held in partnership with the Urban League of Greater Madison and the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery Town Center. To learn more or sign up, visit the Urban League’s website.

Madison Metro buses will follow alternate schedules on Monday, Jan. 20. Campus routes 80 and 84 follow weekday recess schedules, while most major city routes follow Saturday schedules. In addition, all standing paratransit rides are canceled. Maps of all bus detours and updated bus schedules are available at http://www.cityofmadison.com/metro/. For more information, contact Metro at 608-266-4466 or mymetrobus@cityofmadison.com.