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When Brenda Gonzalez joined the board of directors of Access Community Health Centers in 2017, she wasn't looking to shake things up.
Gonzalez, 50, grew up in Mexico and has lived in Madison since the early 1990s. In a variety of roles in her career, she has helped immigrant communities and other underserved populations find their way in the city. She knew the importance of the role Access played and how well the company fulfilled it.
Still, a good board member — and Gonzalez has served on the boards of many worthy organizations, from United Way of Dane County to the Boys & Girls Club of Dane County — pushes the status quo, and she had an idea for Access Community Health Centers.
"Right off the bat," says Dr. Ken Loving, CEO of Access, "Brenda realized that our Spanish language group, which represents about a third of our patients, wasn't being heard."
Gonzalez volunteered to create a Spanish language patient advisory committee, modeled after the existing English-speaking patients' committee.
It's not easy to get Access patients — who often work two or three jobs — to evening events. Gonzalez, with the help of another staff member, recruited around 20 Spanish-speaking patients.
"Brenda helped lead the session," Loving says. "It was amazing to see her speaking her native language and helping them get comfortable being honest about their experience with Access and ways we might improve. This was something that as a board member she didn't just tell us to do. She put her energy behind it."
Gonzalez is now vice president of the Access board. In August, she also began a new full-time job: director of community relations for the University of Wisconsin–Madison, a position vacated when Leslie Orrantia left to join the administration of new Madison mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway.
It's a demanding job, but Gonzalez regards the position as her coming full circle. She first arrived in Madison to attend graduate school, struggling with the English language and uncertain where to turn for help. Now she wants to assist her constituency on campus and people throughout the community by removing barriers and collaborating with other groups.
"Connecting campus communities and our Madison communities in a partnership" is the goal, Gonzalez says. "Not just bringing research to the community but responding to the needs that community organizations might have to grow their work."
She comes from an academic family. Her father was a young professor in Monterrey, Mexico, in the late 1960s, and he took his wife to Corpus Christi, Texas, in search of a better life.
Brenda was born there, so she carries a U.S. passport, but she has no memory of Texas. Her dad couldn't find a place in academia, so he did manual work instead for two years before returning to Mexico.
Her father got a job at the Metropolitan Autonomous University in Mexico City, where Gonzalez eventually enrolled, graduating with a degree in social psychology.
She loved Mexico City and considered going to graduate school there, but overcrowding was causing problems. Her family had close friends who came to the United States, landing in Milwaukee, then Sheboygan. Their kids attended UW–Madison and suggested that Gonzalez do the same — come to Sheboygan, acclimate and learn the language.
She did and found rewarding work as a bilingual teaching assistant in a Sheboygan school.
She moved to Madison, where, as previously noted, her graduate school experience at UW–Madison proved challenging — and expensive. Leaving school, she found herself in demand as an interpreter, working for the city's public health department and at the South Madison Health and Family Center - Harambee, a south side resource center for struggling families.
Gonzalez retained a bit of home by joining the esteemed Madison-based Mexican folk dance troupe Ballet Folklorico Mexico de los Hermanos Avila. They performed at UW functions and around the world.
"It was interesting," Gonzalez says, "to find myself in a different country with a different language [and] at the same time feeling so proud of my culture and being well-received because of it." (She and her partner, Alejandro Cadena, still enjoy nights out dancing.)
Gonzalez's language interpreting soon grew into something more. In 2000 she took a job as manager of interpreter services and cultural outreach at Dean Health System. Other jobs included community care manager for Group Health Cooperative of South Central Wisconsin and, most recently, diversity manager for Agrace.
Gonzalez is, unsurprisingly, disturbed by how immigration has become such a volatile issue since 2016.
"All of a sudden I find myself being careful if I'm speaking Spanish in public," she says. "When I see how hard some of the immigrant communities work — you can look behind the counter, behind the services anyone gets here in Madison or anywhere else, and see those faces. It's hard for me not to think we're all aware we have to do better."
Gonzalez is excited about her new opportunity directing community relations for UW–Madison, pointing to an ongoing program as an example.
"The UW South Madison Partnership really brings the campus mission and vision to the community," she says. It opened in 2015 in Villager Mall with classroom and conference space and university resources.
"We're present and really want to listen to the community to partner and co-create the future. It's an amazing project," Gonzalez says.
Doug Moe is a Madison writer and a former editor of Madison Magazine.
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