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Community relations director Mitchell reflects on role, progress

April 7, 2016 By Susannah Brooks
Everett Mitchell poses for a photo with, left to right, Queen Turner and Missey Russell at the second annual South Madison International Community Night. Mitchell counts the university's expanded presence in South Madison as one of his biggest achievements.

Everett Mitchell poses for a photo with, left to right, Queen Turner and Missey Russell at the second annual South Madison International Community Night. Mitchell counts the university’s expanded presence in South Madison as one of his biggest achievements. Photo: Jeff Miller

Everett Mitchell became UW–Madison’s director of community relations in 2012. Recently elected a Dane County Circuit Judge, he spoke with University Communications as he prepares to leave the university.

Trained as both an attorney and a pastor, Mitchell brought an understanding of the multiple roles played by successful connectors.

“All of those dimensions allowed me to go deep into our communities in different ways,” he says. “What we’ve been able to accomplish in just four years is amazing. When I run into people who are nervous about me leaving this position, they have seen us build deep relationships. That’s what I came here to do.”

What do you think are the most important attributes for someone in this job?

Obviously, the ability to think strategically ahead as to the key issues that the community will encounter. I’m trying to tie most of the work that comes back to this position to our educational mission here at the university. How can it benefit our faculty, our staff and our students?

You have to have the ability to integrate into multiple communities: respect their histories, listen to their concerns. Come back to the university to see what resources maybe have not been utilized in ways that touch the community; then, negotiate getting those things to them.

There are times when we have to think beyond our normal relationships and try to find organizations that are doing great fundamental work, but don’t necessarily have the personnel to develop long-term relationships with the university.

We also have to remember that we’re not just in Madison. This position needs to really expand out to Dane County, if not the state itself.

If people think this job is one-dimensional, it’s not. It’s about being able to engage multiple stakeholders at the same time, thinking thoroughly about ways in which the values that we want to see at the university are values that we want to encourage and embrace in the community.

What would you consider major accomplishments during your time here?

 The partnership office in South Madison has been a reboot of some sort, which I retooled with a different vision to give us a long-term, committed presence.

Probably the second is expansion of the PEOPLE program to Verona, Sun Prairie and Middleton-Cross Plains. We had almost an exclusive relationship in this area to MMSD, but we recognized that if we’re going to attract the best and brightest and educate them and keep them here, we needed to expand.

Other things: our partnership with WARF; rebooting the Multicultural Homecoming by working with the WAA; all the work that has been done with United Way of Dane County from use of force to the delegation on poverty. Helping facilitate various discussions, whether it’s been use of force, poverty, dealing with relationships with leaders of color and law enforcement.

What do you think are some good next steps?

Communities evolve. Issues evolve. It’s important that we think about the stakeholders we need to continue to listen to to get the best insight. What’s most important is that our campus community really desires to work together so it can have a greater impact for the work it does in the community.

Students may live here for the rest of their careers, or they may be here for just a short time doing their undergraduate experience. Either way, if they’re our core constituents, we really do need to ensure that we’re creating spaces for them to be engaged over the long term and develop in this community.

Aligning what we do to eliminate the achievement gap in our schools and our county is probably going to be the next dimension.

What are some continuing challenges?

 The ultimate challenge is trying to get our campus partners to have an agreed vision. If we can figure out ways to de-silo ourselves and work in collaborative spaces, the benefits will far outweigh the initial difficulties of trying to connect with one another on campus.

We have tentacles in a lot of places. We need to be okay with telling that story and lifting up the story of our continued commitment and consistent involvement and care for this community.

We want it to succeed. We want the brand of UW to be a brand that sits along the side of the city of Madison, the County Executive, the business leaders, Chamber of Commerce, the Rotaries.

We want to see the university spur a narrative of what we want to see in the community and the world.

The challenges we face with racial incidents on campus make us even more aware of the need to have communities involved in educating students, staff and administration. How, as a world-class institution and an international hub for economic advancement, can we still honor the need for continued diversity on campus? That’s going to be the next area of challenge.

The obvious question: why is it important for UW–Madison to have a strong community presence?

It’s important for us to always be involved in the economic, educational, social and attainment opportunities that we have here in Dane County. If we’re not able to be invested in our own backyard, we’re not allowing the resources to get into the community in which we sit.

I really wanted to change the narrative that the university is a place where people don’t care: that we’re aloof, that we’re not as consistent or concerned, or that we’re going to come in, take the resources, do our little studies and bounce.

The fact that community stakeholders are concerned about who will hold this position after I leave the university is a testament to the fact that they now see the university as a partner in being able to transform the dominant narrative that has set over this community for way too long.