The YWCA Madison Women of Distinction Leadership Awards, held this spring at the Garver Feed Mill, honored six eminent women of color whose unparallel passions collectively make Greater Madison a better place for all. 

Vanessa McDowell, the YWCA’s CEO, said these awardees exemplify their community service, professional achievement, integrity, leadership, and dedication to the lives of others and to the quality of life for all stand as a reflection of YWCA Madison’s historic mission and values. 

“Our mission speaks to the importance of intersectionality…,” McDowell said. “This is the first time in 47 years that all six honorees are women of color. As a Black woman leading YWCA Madison, during this time, it feels so right and necessary.”

The 2022 recipients of the Women of Distinction Leadership Awards are: Dr. Christy Clark-Pujara, Brenda González, Andrea Jones, Candace McDowell, Lucia Nuñez, and Dr. Hazel Symonette. 

“As a passionate, social justice, peace warrior, I have unapologetically colored outside the lines, which has brought lots of blowbacks and kicks to the curb,” said the 75-year-old Symonette. “Yet, still this chocolate child rises.”

Congratulations to all for this well-deserved recognition. Here are snippets of the work these women have accomplished. 

Dr. Hazel Symonette

Dr. Hazel Symonette, Program Development & Assessment Specialist Emerita, is an Evaluation Facilitator at the Wisconsin Center for Education Research—the LEAD Center (Learning through Evaluation, Adaptation and Dissemination) and the Wisconsin Evaluation Collaborative (WEC) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her work focuses on using assessment and evaluation as participant-centered self-diagnostic resources for continuous improvement, developmental innovation, and strategic image management. She moves this agenda forward through a variety of capacity-building strategies using multi-level assessment/evaluation processes to advance a diversity-grounded and equity-minded personal transformation, organizational development and social justice change agenda. 

That work undergirds Symonette’s long-standing involvement in creating and sustaining authentically inclusive and vibrantly responsive teaching, learning, living, and working environments that are conducive to success for all. Her work draws on social justice and systemic change research to create meaningful and life-changing interactions among students, faculty, staff and administrators. The cross-campus/cross-role incubators for this work were the UW Excellence through Diversity Institute (2002-2009) and the Student Success Institute (2010-2017). Both were year-long weekly communities of practice organized around mainstreaming assessment and evaluation in the service of diversity, equity, inclusive excellence and social justice for students, faculty, staff, and administrators.

Dr. Christy Clark-Pujara

Dr. Christy Clark-Pujara is an Associate Professor of History in the Department of Afro-American Studies and an affiliate in the Department of History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison; she is also the Director of Graduate Studies for the Department of Afro-American Studies. She received her B.A. in History and Social Science from the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota, and her M.A. and Ph.D. in History from the University of Iowa in Iowa City. Her research focuses on the experiences of Black people in British and French North America in the 17th, 18th, and early 19th centuries. She is particularly interested in retrieving the hidden and unexplored histories of African Americans in areas that historians have not sufficiently examined — small towns and cities in the North and Midwest. Clark-Pujara contends that the full dimensions of the African and African American experience cannot be appreciated without reference to how Black people managed their lives in places where they were few. An absence of a large Black populace did not mean that ideas of blackness were not central to the social, political, and economic development of these places.

Her first book Dark Work: The Business of Slavery in Rhode Island (NYU Press), she examines how the business of slavery—economic activity that was directly related to the maintenance of slaveholding in the Americas, specifically the buying and selling of people, food, and goods—shaped the experience of slavery, the process of emancipation, and the realities of Black freedom in Rhode Island from the colonial period through the American Civil War. Her current book project, Black on the Midwestern Frontier: From Slavery to Suffrage in the Wisconsin Territory, 1725—1868, examines how the practice of race-based slavery, Black settlement, and debates over abolition and Black rights shaped race relations in the Midwest.

Brenda González

As director of community relations, Brenda González serves as UW-Madison’s primary point of contact with local community and nonprofit organizations. She is responsible for developing strategies to ensure the university is engaged with these organizations and the broader community. Prior to joining UW-Madison, she worked as the diversity manager for Agrace Hospice & Palliative Care and as a community marketing and health equity manager for Group Health Cooperative of South Central Wisconsin. On-campus, she served as the health equity career development program manager with the Collaborative Center for Health Equity at the School of Medicine and Public Health.

“Brenda González’s career revolves around one theme — improving the human condition for people in our community,” the YWCA said in the awards announcement. “She does so by seeking assignments that allow her to benefit others with an emphasis on improving access to healthcare and education for women and their children.”

Candace McDowell

After 10 years of working in various UW system student affairs positions, Candace McDowell became the founding director and/or assistant dean of the UW Madison Multicultural Student Center (MSC). She led the organization for its first 22 years of existence. During her tenure as director, the MSC served approximately 50,000 students and helped to establish its’ pivotal campus role as a social justice education center and gathering place. McDowell was a skilled manager specializing in student development and program development. She retired in 2010 and achieved emerita status recognizing her distinguished service to the University community. She considers herself to be “gainfully retired and wonderfully blessed”!

After her retirement McDowell refused to sit idle and has been committed to actively serving the Madison community in various capacities. She continues to advise and mentor former students and has volunteered her time with the Dane County Job Center as a food share and health benefits advisor; served as a representative payee for New Bridge (formerly known as the South Madison coalition of the elderly) and was an advisory board member for the Alzheimer’s and Dementia Alliance. She has volunteered her time with Mt. Zion Baptist Church in the food pantry, adult choir, and as a church greeter; served as past president, first vice president and chair of numerous committees in the Madison Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. and currently serves as the Delta DEARS Coordinator for the State of Wisconsin; served as a Voter Education Ambassador and Election official for the City of Madison and is a member of and provides administrative support for the African American Opioid Coalition.

Andrea Jones

Andrea Jones is the founder and CEO of Kreative Kidz Academy preschool. She earned her master’s degree from Edgewood College majoring in Education Leadership in 2019. She attended Undergrad at Tennessee State University and received her bachelor’s degree in elementary education. Her desire to become an educator was inspired by her 8th grade teacher (Mrs. Wright) and her high school counselor (Mrs. Edwards). For the past 20 plus years, she has dedicated her professional career, time, and energy wholly to ensuring that all children receive the best education, nurturing, and guidance Andrea could possibly provide. Yet, she has only been left wanting to give more.

Jones currently serves as the Multicultural Services Coordinate, the Black Student Union Advisor, and the Coordinator of African American Parent Council P.U.R.E (Parents United for Responsible Education) at Vel Phillips Memorial High School. Her educational philosophy is very simple, students do not care how much you know, until they know how much you care. Caring is what they need first, after they know she cares, then they open their hearts and minds, and she can counsel them.

Lucía Nuñez

Lucía Nuñez just retired from Madison Area Technical College where she served as the first vice president of Equity, Inclusion, and Community Engagement. She has 30-plus years of experience in the public, non-profit, social service, and education sectors. Nuñez served as the Director of the City of Madison Department of Civil Rights for 10 years and prior to holding that position, she was the Equal Rights Division Administrator for the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development (DWD). She also served as the Deputy Secretary for the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development. From 1999-2003, she was the Executive Director of Centro Hispano of Dane County. Before moving to Madison, she was the Senior Curriculum Specialist at the Stanford Program on International and Cross-Cultural Education (SPICE) at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California. She has also been a teacher, a trainer, and a Peace Corps volunteer.

She received her master’s in international education from the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, Massachusetts. And received her bachelor’s of arts in Political Science and Hispanic Studies from Connecticut College in Connecticut.  

YWCA Madison is proud to have recognized 251 women since the first Woman of Distinction was bestowed the honor in 1974. The honorees’ community service, professional achievement, integrity, leadership, and dedication to the lives of others stand as a reflection of YWCA Madison’s historic mission and values. These awards were established to increase community awareness and appreciation of the diverse contributions of women in the workforce and in the community.