Her education, experience and expertise to drive growth and innovation within the public sector impressed Dane County Executive Joe Parisi and his senior advisers so much so that he selected her as the newly created Deputy Director of Human Services, earlier this year.
Yet, her love of people and unique ability to lean into future aspirations gives Astra Ihuekemere the wherewithal and stamina to make an impact and influence on the division’s programs, services and its more than $210 million dollar operating budget.
The West High School alum ꟷ who has an undergraduate degree in political science and holds two master’s degrees in both public administration and business administration from the University of Wisconsin-Madison ꟷ is a dedicated public servant. From her early years as an assistant affirmative action officer for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources to being elevated to deputy mayor and public safety liaison to former Mayor Paul Soglin, Iheukumere brings a collaborative, servant-leader approach to produce results.
What kind of professional life did you envision for yourself as a young high school student?
Astra: I’ve always had a heart for people and wanted to solve problems. I initially thought I wanted to go into medicine or become an engineer. The consistent thread in my life is a desire to do things that impact people’s lives in a big way.
What is the vision you now hold for this latest role in your career?
Astra: I support the vision of Shawn Tessmann, Dane County’s director of human services. The general vision it to make our services more efficient in ways that allow us to serve as many people as we can. I focus on the day to day operations to help deliver a strong work culture people can thrive in. One of the big questions that guides my work is how we plan for the future. What trends are on the horizon for us to anticipate and plan for.
Describe your leadership style?
Astra: I am definitely a collaborative leader. I believe in helping people become their best selves. I’m always thinking of how I can partner to help others get to where they want to go next. I want my teammates to challenge my perspective and bring innovative ideas to our work — That’s how you get the best results for your team, organization and community.
You remain an avid reader and lifelong learner. What are you reading right now?
Astra: I’m reading several books right now: Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover; The Strange Career of Jim Crow by C. Vann Woodward; and, The Immoral Majority by Ben Howe.
Your grandparents, Rogers and Pearlean Parks were bootstrappers and early pioneers within Madison’s Black community. They operated Mr. P’s Place, a neighborhood bar that served as one of the few social outlets for African Americans in the city. What life-lessons did you learn from them?
Astra: I come from a home and family that values education. My mother, Irma Parks Iheukumere, used to always say “if you can read and you have a library card, you can learn anything you want to do.” She was informed by her parents.
My grandfather’s philosophy was simple: “You can always think of reasons to not do something, but never let anyone or anything prevent you from achieving.”
I remember being 8 years old and I had a math teacher that I thought was treating me badly because he was a racist. I told my grandfather about the teacher.
His response was “Yeah. The teacher may be racist but 2 + 2 is still 4!”
He was saying you still have to live in this world, thrive and learn your math lesson. If a door is closed, there is always a window open somewhere.
How have you made Madison work for you as a professional Black woman?
Astra: Some of it is divine intervention. I feel we are always right where we’re supposed to be. I’ve been blessed to experience awesome opportunities. Things came together for me here. I am aware of how to navigate Madison partly because of the privileges an education and the ability traveling abroad afford. My family has a long history being here and the schools I’ve attended are excellent.
What is the greatest obstacle you have overcome thus far?
Astra: The biggest obstacle I had to overcome was learning to silence voices that were not my own. I had to get over my own limitations. If I wanted to move to the next level, I had to start believing in the impossible and start training my ears to block out the noise that does not serve where God is calling me to serve.
How do you define success?
Astra: Success is linked to purpose. If you have found your calling in life and you are operating in that calling to serve community, your family and God: That is success. And identifying your purpose is about discovering: What makes your heartbeat? What makes you come alive? Where does your talent take flight in a way that you cannot explain — where there is a natural agility that you know is a gift? For me, that is purpose. When God breathes on your purpose that’s when magic happens.