Throughout her long and illustrious career in Madison, one thing has remained constant for Dora Zúñiga — she has been willing to do whatever it takes to help change children’s lives for the better.
For that, Zúñiga has been rewarded with Centro Hispano's Roberto G. Sánchez Award, which is given annually to an individual or organization that has demonstrated outstanding leadership and commitment to promoting educational and career opportunities for Latinos in Dane County. Zúñiga will be presented with the award at Centro Hispano's annual banquet this Friday, Nov. 1 at the Monona Terrace Community and Convention Center.
“I never had the opportunity to meet Roberto Sánchez, but my girlfriend Alma Gonzalez and my friend Juan Lopez both took classes from him. He's one of those legends on campus as the first Mexicano professor at UW-Madison,” Zúñiga tells The Madison Times in an interview at her home on Madison's north side. “I think he's from Corpus Christi, [Texas] — that's our neck of the woods. To do what he did during that time period, it was a big deal for that generation.
“He was an amazing man,” Zúñiga continues. “For him to have that foresight of the Sanchez Scholars [and] to say that ‘I want to support students long after I am here’ .... I was very honored and very touched to receive an award his name.”
Roberto G. Sánchez, retired UW-Madison Spanish professor, created scholarships to honor both his own parents’ belief in the power of education and their pride in their Spanish-language cultural heritage. Professor Sánchez has also launched post-secondary scholarships through the Madison College (MATC) Foundation and the UW-Madison Foundation.
Zúñiga can still remember those times in the early '80s when Centro Hispano first started when the Latino population in Madison was around 3,000 — compared to over 30,000 today.
“When I came in 1980 to go to the UW, there were some Latinos... but not many. I do recall going to K Mart on the bus and we heard a family speaking Spanish and we went up to say hello to them. It was a big deal because we didn't see a lot of Latino families,” Zúñiga remembers. “But if you wanted Mexican food — I love pan dulce — you had to go to Milwaukee... you couldn't get it here. Now, that's definitely changed.”
Zúñiga was executive director of Centro Hispano from '91 to '97.
“When I had come to Centro, things had changed a little bit as far as our Latino population,” Zúñiga says. “But you could still go to the County for, say, food stamps... and they would not have anybody who was bilingual there. During my tenure as executive director of Centro, we were really able to strongly advocate about raising awareness about the need to have bilingual staff in different nonprofits in the city and the county.
“But, overall, the issues that we faced at Centro back then are many of the same issues that we face today,” Zúñiga adds. “The issues haven't changed — unemployment, housing, poverty, education....”
After Centro, Zúñiga became the Director of Leadership Giving at the United Way of Dane County where she worked with United Way volunteers to grow both the United Way's endowment and their leadership donors.
“I did pure fund-raising. I worked with major donors. It was a great place to work,” Zúñiga remembers. “The United Way has such a big impact in the community. I got to see the generosity of many in the community. I got the opportunity to interact with a group of people that I would have never met otherwise so there was always a great opportunity to have discussions about what was going on in the Latino community.
“I was very moved at how some of our donors really wanted to make a great big effort at being able to say my last name correctly,” Zúñiga adds. “These are people who are super-wealthy and super-generous leaders and CEOs of companies making a very concerted effort. I was very pleased with how willing they all were to teach and to work in partnership with all of the United Way staff. They treated all of the folks on the campaign side as equals .... and they had significant more experience than any of us did, yet we had that great dialog and exchange.”
While Zúñiga was at United Way she wasn't looking for a job, but a job found her. In 2004, Zúñiga became the first and only Latina in an executive director position of a major organization in Madison as she became the top person at Big Brothers Big Sisters of Dane County. This May, she will mark her 10th anniversary at Big Brothers Big Sisters.
“We've grown over that time and we've done a lot of significant changes in our programs and infrastructure-wise.... we use a lot of technology today,” Zúñiga says. “Our databases are based upon technology. We do a lot of different things based upon data to drive outcomes.”
The Big Brothers Big Sisters of Dane County's mission is to help children reach their full potential through professionally supported, one-to-one mentoring relationships. Their vision strives to ensure all children seeking a mentor receive a mentor and reach their full potential.
“We now ask for a two-year commitment from our Bigs; it used to be one year,” Zúñiga says. “Our normal Big is now someone who is a bit older. They aren't necessarily fresh out of college. They have roots in the community, some stability, and [they are] someone who has a bit more experience. It used to be just about having fun and exposing kids to things that they normally wouldn't [do]. Now, its about having fun with a significant purpose.”
Zúñiga is excited about the Annexstad Family Foundation Scholarship, a four-year, renewable scholarship that provides support for deserving young men and women who have matured as "Littles" through a participating Big Brothers Big Sisters program.
“Kids can get into UW-Madison, UW-Eau Claire, or UW-Whitewater,” she says. “These are kids that weren't supposed to go to college and now they are thriving.”
Zúñiga says that another thing that most people don't realize about Big Brothers Big Sisters is that 87 percent of the children that they serve are children of color.
“A little over 44 percent are African American, about 20 percent are Latino, about 25 percent are multi-racial and that's our segment that is growing the most,” she says.
There has been a focus over the years on making small changes in the faces of who the mentors are to more closely match the Littles.
“About 13 percent of our mentors are folks of color — which is high for Madison,” Zúñiga says. “We celebrate very much when a man comes in the door and wants to be a Big Brother because men often have a fear of the C word — commitment. We celebrate even more when it is a man of color.”
Also, in every issue of the Big Brothers Big Sisters newsletter there will be at least one person of color, if not more.
“When you look at our banners, you will see the same thing. We're really trying to promote that image all the way around,” she says.
But, in the end, it matters most what the mentors do and how they interact with the child. Zúñiga notes that her mentors were often white, and she turned out OK.
“A mentor is a mentor is a mentor,” Zúñiga says. “Some of my most important mentors were people who were regular white people who loved me and told me, 'Dora, it's time to grow up.' or 'Dora, it's time to do this.'”
Throughout her career, Zúñiga has always been child-focused knowing that the future of our city, our state, and our nation depends upon the success of our children. In that way, Big Brothers Big Sisters can be a huge component in lessening the tremendous racial achievement gap that exists in Madison and beyond.
“It's critical that we all address the children in our communities,” Zúñiga says. “Madison needs to get over finding an instant solution. It is incredibly difficult to break the cycle of poverty and to break the cycle of not having access to health care. How do you help your child today when you didn't graduate from high school? It is literally impossible when your children doesn’t have Internet or computer at home. How do you compete?
“That's why the work that Centro Hispano does and the work that Big Brothers Big Sisters does is so important.... along with so many other organization in the community,” she adds. “People have to be significantly more generous to help solve this achievement gap — not only do they have to give their money; they have to give their time. They need to invest in the kids one child at a time — it's not an instant solution. Imagine if we focused on our kids the way we focus on our lakes and other things here in Madison. We could do amazing things here.”
Knowing many of the names of prior Centro Hispano's Robert G. Sánchez awardees, Zúñiga is excited to now be on that list. But her ultimate reward is her work.
“There are lots of opportunities to get an award in Madison, but I've never been one to pursue getting public recognition,” she says. “My recognition comes when I run into one of my kids who now feel like they can do anything. When I can see the fruits of the collective efforts of our community. That is reward enough for me.
“My personal mission has never changed,” she adds. “My mission has always been around children; around youth ... growing the next generation of Latino youth and youth in our community who are successful and breaking that cycle of poverty in our community.”
Zúñiga follows the old proverb: To those of us whom much is given; much is expected.
“It's about paying it forward in our community. We all need to keep doing that,” she says. “I aspire to see the day when we're talking about how the chief of police is a Latina woman, the mayor is Latino and that we have a community of Latino business leaders and where our businesses are not just restaurants. There are large corporations in town that are Latino-owned or Latino-run. There's not just a few of us in positions of leadership.
“In order for that to happen, we must all be invested in our youth and helping them see that they can be successful despite them having parents who are migrant and seasonal farm workers or having limited means,” she adds. “Young people need to know is that somebody believes in them and that they, too, can do anything they set their minds to do.”
Dora Zúñiga will be presented with the Robert G. Sánchez Award at Centro Hispano's annual banquet this Friday, Nov. 1 at Monona Terrace Community and Convention Center. For more information about the banquet, call 255-3018.