Dr. Linda Vakunta is a remarkable person. A deputy mayor in the Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway administration, Vakunta is dedicated to helping those who often find it difficult to help themselves.
She joins the top staff to assist with housing and human services with more than a decade of experience in grassroots community engagement and program development, monitoring and evaluation work. Vakunta served as program director at the Chicago-based Heartland Alliance International, where she led, developed and designed training programs for government, community, and non-governmental organizations to combat trafficking in persons.
Founder and executive director of a Wisconsin-based non-profit called Project 1808, Vakunta is instrumental in the growth, success and global-local recognition of the group as an important player in transforming lives, enabling youth and adults, and building capacity in Sierra Leone through School-Community-University Partnership Models. She holds a Ph.D. in Environmental Studies, a master’s degree in rehabilitation psychology and a bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Vakunta shares her thoughts from some of the pressing issue facing Madison to her views on community growth.
Congratulations on your role as a deputy mayor for the city of Madison. What excited you about accepting this political position?
Thank you very much. I was excited about the opportunity to bring forth the voices of those who are most marginalized, and negatively impacted by current systems and structures. Having worked at the grassroots level for several years doing direct service provision, I understood that true change to remedy many issues my clients faced on a daily basis had to be systemic and structural. Hence, this position prospect for me, offered an opportunity to be at the table and more importantly to bring the perspectives they had shared with me.
What was the first thing you noticed once inside City Hall?
On my first day on the job, I entered the building through the Wilson street entrance. I immediately noticed the significant number of persons with disabilities in the hallway and in the lunchroom area. The county works to employ the differently abled and many work in the building as our colleagues. Given my background in rehabilitation psychology, and a certified rehabilitation counselor, this made me quite happy to know concrete actions are in place to ensure all people have a place within our government.
Your focus is on housing and human services. What is the city of Madison’s plan for affordable housing?
I would first want to acknowledge what the city has accomplished to date in its effort towards producing more affordable units. The city has supported 17 projects to date through its Affordable Housing Fund.
- 1,246 housing units; 1091 affordable
- City investments – $23.725M
- Total development costs – $256M
- LIHTC (Low Income Housing Tax Credits) allocations – $150M
We have spent some time engaging partners on the issue of affordable housing and know that we must be creative and collaborative in finding solutions to this crisis. We will continue to work on increasing affordable housing stock, which will involve constructing new buildings but also preserving current affordable units, renovating structures and working on eviction prevention. The Mayor has a strong commitment to these issues as demonstrated in both her 2020 capital and operating budget. Our office understands that we need to do more and do better. The mayor’s budgets accounted for three new development proposals, CDA housing, land banking as well as home and rental assistance program totaling around $15 million. The proposed new developments will add 200 more units of affordable housing and include two senior projects.
How do you see yourself working with community organization like the Urban League of Greater Madison to advance your housing plans?
My first task in my role has been to learn partner’s interest and priority. I did meet with Urban League of Greater Madison’s CEO Dr. Anthony Ruben to expand my knowledge of your home ownership program. I had heard many good things about the program and wanted to learn more. I also heard of the interest for active involvement in the development and advancement of South Madison. My goal is to continuously engage with Urban League in its priority areas so we are all effective and efficient in our efforts to make home affordability and housing availability a reality for those in the African American community and all Madison residents who are being priced out of the Madison housing market.
Prior to accepting the job as deputy mayor, you conducted research study on the impacts of opioid use among African American women in Madison. With your knowledge, how would you best address the opioid crisis in the Black community?
What I learned from that research is that social determinants of health and health outcomes deserve and require more attention in our city. What stands out to me from that work is how system inequities, racial injustices and discrimination triggered women, interrupted and delayed their treatment and healing. From this perspective, it is important for me that my work takes into account the experiences of individuals such as African American women experiencing drug use harm. It means that I will continuously center their experiences of our current systems and structures whenever I am in discussions of policies, structures, programs and projects that affect those impacted by opioid use. That allows my former work to continue into the present. I also have public health in my portfolio and will be engaging that department on its work around this topic.
What is the best career advice you ever received?
I don’t recall a specific advice that stands out to me but my personal philosophy is to approach my work with joy and hard work, and to remember that I am working for myself as much as I am working for others. That is to say, if I work to make things better for all and others, I am also making it better for me (my various selves from the struggling student to the deputy mayor).
Who do you admire the most?
I admire anyone who ꟷ in spite of their means ꟷ works hard, with integrity, with respect for others no matter their status and for the good of all, particularly those disenfranchised by the system. If you absolutely ask me to choose someone I would say, Nelson Mandela (former president of South Africa who spent 27 years in prison for his people); Oprah Winfrey and my mom (she is a fighter, though ever gentle and kind).
Since this interview is in October, what is the scariest thing you have ever done for fun?
I went on a canopy walk at Kakum National Park in Cape Coast, Ghana, West Africa. It was quite terrifying to be so high above the ground, but also gorgeous and inspiring.