Have you ever known a leader who is not only authentic and kind, but who also has a natural talent for seeing the big picture and connecting the dots – especially when it comes to bringing people and organizations together to support a common goal? Sonia Spencer is one of those leaders. 

Sonia has experienced a full spectrum of roles in her career, including banking, building a community school, volunteer work and entrepreneurship. She is now poised to take Madison  Metropolitan School District (MMSD) partnerships to the next level, as Senior Strategic Partnerships Coordinator. 

At MMSD, Sonia will serve as a liaison to departments, schools and programs to ensure community partnerships that equitably serve students and families. Partners can range from nonprofits to businesses to arts organizations. When asked what happens when a successful partnership is in place, Sonia says “Magic! A great strategic partnership can be a powerful tool for driving both partners’ growth, innovation and success.” 

Sonia’s passion for her work is grounded in a love for community, family and friendships that blossomed during her childhood in Zaire. “One of my favorite memories of that time is having the neighborhood as our playground,” she says. She recalls long days of football, trading candy and running to and from home to check in, with a sense of pure joy. But Sonia didn’t mind play time being over when it meant accompanying her mom to the vibrant community market, an important gathering place for connecting with neighbors and friends. 

There were also challenging moments. Observing her parents’ journey during their move from Africa to America was an important early lesson in perseverance. “I didn’t fully understand what it took my parents to leave their homeland and all that they knew to start over in a foreign country with two small kids,” she says. “At a young age, we saw our parents embrace failure, from being denied jobs to achieving credit as foreigners.” 

Her parents were educators, her dad earning his PhD at UW-Madison and her mom teaching in Africa and receiving her Master’s in accounting. They emphasized to Sonia and her sisters’ values that still resonate with them today: lifelong learning, civic duty, faith, humility, perseverance and a strong work ethic.

These values led Sonia to an interest in community activism, beginning with work at Anchor Bank where she volunteered teaching students about financial literacy and its connection to their community. She served as a board member for the East Madison Community Center and joined the Northside Planning Council, collaborating with Joining Forces for Families, an organization dedicated to providing housing, including essential needs. Sonia also serves on the board of Black Girl Magic Educational Services, focusing on empowering 4th-8th grade girls. 

A pinnacle period for Sonia was her tenure as the Community School Resource Coordinator at Mendota Elementary. Over 12 years, she led the establishment of a comprehensive support system for students and families. The school evolved into a vital community hub, offering essential services like dental care and a food pantry, as well as community opportunities like weekend camping trips. Following this, Sonia joined Ronald McDonald House Charities as well as the Center for Healthy Minds, creating impact through establishing relationships with community organizations, sponsors and donors. 

Reflecting on all of this, Sonia concludes with a message of gratitude and giving. “Living and working within this community has reinforced the importance of giving back. Whether through large-scale initiatives or small acts of kindness, contributing to the well-being of our community not only brings me profound satisfaction and joy, but it is also crucial for understanding and addressing the challenges faced by many families here in Madison.”