Three Women of Color Join
Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway’s Team
Added Leadership Value
|Deputy Mayor Leslie Orrantia (l-r), Deputy Mayor Linda Vakunta and
Executive Assistant Natasha Holmes bring their special skills and
knowledge to Mayor Rhodes-Conway’s leadership team.
“I did my practicum at DVR and interned at Salvation Army, working with women in the homeless shelter,” Vakunta said. “I also worked with the UW-Madison
PEOPLE Program, which is a pre-college program for underserved youth for about five years. And then I worked with Project Respect, which is an
organization that serves women who have experienced prostitution and sex trafficking. Most recently, I served as a qualitative researcher on an opioid
research study looking at African American women’s experiences of opioid use harm here in Madison, Wisconsin. And at the same time, I was working for
Comprehensive Community Services as a service facilitator.”
Vakunta also gained practical working knowledge of how to work with governmental entities through her work with Project 1808 in Sierra Leone.
“In that work, I’ve been able to work with community members, ministries and government officials as well as the military,” Vakunta said. “Knowing how
things work at that level and how to ensure that the government is linking with what is happening on the community level was very important in Sierra Leone
and I can see how it is just as important here in Madison. I really honed the skills of listening to government officials and bringing the voice of community
members to government officials. And that is what I will do in my present position as well.”
And even Vakunta’s environmental work has prepared her to be a member of Rhodes-Conway’s team.
“My Ph.D. work and frame of thinking allow me to bring sustainability into everything that I do, which she prioritizes,” Vakunta said. “For example, we are in
the budgeting process. And one of the biggest things she asks each department is to think about sustainability and equity. I think it is very helpful to have
someone like myself on her staff with an environmental studies background and training to bring that lens into the things that we do.”
During the initial stages of her tenure, Vakunta has been focused on listening, to city department heads and community members, because there is a lot to
learn. And as a grassroots kind of person, it is important to Vakunta that city government is responsive to the citizens of the city.
“People have concerns whether it is senior citizens or youth programming,” Vakunta said. “There are a lot of people with a lot of concerns. How do we make
sure that we are listening to those individuals when we only have eight hours in a day? Most of the time, we are working more than 8-9 hours in a day. Those
are the two balancing acts right now, making sure that we have enough time to hear everyone, learning as much as we can and moving forward, it is putting
forward the mayor’s innovative and creative ideas to make sure that our systems are more efficient.”
By Jonathan Gramling
As Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway began to put her leadership team together last
April after winning the mayoral election, she was deliberate in selecting her top
aides so that not only would they have expertise in the content areas that they
would be responsible for in her administration, but would also bring the added
value of having connections to some of the most challenged communities in the
Madison area, ensuring strong connections as her administration moved forward.
As Mayor Rhodes-Conway’s selections for some of her key positions were
announced, three women of color emerged as successful candidates for those
positions: Deputy Mayor Dr. Linda Vakunta, Deputy Mayor Leslie Orrantia and
Executive Assistant Natasha Holmes.
Vakunta was raised in Madison and attended West High School before heading to
UW-Madison to eventually earn a Ph.D. from the Nelson Institute for Environmental
Studies in 2015. During her career, Vakunta has had a service-orientation that will
serve her well as she serves as the mayor’s liaison to housing, public health and
community development agencies.
And making them more efficient is imperative as Madison faces a
$9.5 million deficit. Vakunta feels that Rhodes-Conway is the one to
get the job done.
I think of our mayor as incredibly smart, forward thinking and very
clear in the things that she wants to see and unafraid to push in
areas that she thinks we can do better,” Vakunta said. “As you
know, she deeply cares about equity and sustainability. I’ve sat in
meetings with her and I’m very impressed by how she
unapologetically pushes staff to think about equity and sustainability
in everything that they do. I also love that she gives suggestions.
When you present something to her, she is bouncing ideas off of
people for them to consider to make sure there is equity and
sustainability in programming. She is very community-oriented. If
people have not met her at the Meet Your Mayor coffees, keep an
eye out. She loves connecting with constituents at the community
level. And she takes very seriously whatever concerns that people
place before her.”
And while Vakunta and others have been listening hard to staff and
community members, Vakunta feels that dialogue needs to be
constant in order for city government to make the best decisions it
“We truly are working very hard in the mayor’s office to ensure that
programs serve those who most need them,” Vakunta said. “I want
to encourage people to contact our office and go to our website. We
do read the emails that come in. And we actually do follow up as
much as we can. It may take us a bit of time, but we do follow up.
We are working hard and I believe that we are going to make some
great changes out in the community, but we will only do it together.
Always feel free to contact us and let us know your ideas and
thoughts and questions that you have.”