A Mexican man ordering a drink at a Waunakee restaurant bar is told by a customer that they don’t serve brown people.
A woman is told if she doesn’t like Waunakee, she should just leave.
These were just two experiences of racism and exclusion community members related during the village board’s June 25 public hearing on equity.
The board hosted the virtual hearing to receive suggestions about a draft statement issued after three young men shouted racial epithets from a vehicle window while driving in the village.
While few citizens offered suggestions about the statement strongly denouncing racism and exclusion, they did talk about their own experience as residents of a village where not all are so welcoming.
Ann Lewandowski weighed in on access for those with disabilities, noting the Americans with Disabilities Act goes only so far. As an example, she cited the Village Crossing building where stairs are located. Her hair salon has a very heavy door, and she often has to ask for help to open it. Anyone in a wheelchair could enter using the rear entrance, but a sign posted there requests that people use the front door.
“It’s not friendly; it’s not equal,” Lewandowski said, noting that when building designs are considered, one priority should be equal access to people with physical disabilities.
Addressing Lewandowski’s comments, Trustee Phil Willems said he also sees older adults who have similar difficulties. Trustee Gary Herzberg also said the plan commission should do everything possible to improve accessibility.
Melissa El Menaouar suggested the board establish an equity task force and develop a two- to four-year plan for addressing equity.
“The plan should be detailed and funded, and it should include how to address things such as job, income, policing, health and well-being inequities,” she said.
El Menaouar also asked that a seat on the board be reserved for a person of color or who is Indigenous. The village could also conduct a study on improving access to credit, to address wealth inequities.
“A study came out last week stating of all the 50 states, Wisconsin was No. 50 in terms of the wealth gap between white and Black Americans,” El Menaouar said.
Trustee Kristin Runge said one reason for the wealth gap was homeownership and historical redlining practices, along with lack of access to credit, particularly home mortgages.
“I hope some of the things we’re doing with housing study will be able to address that,” Runge added. “This is going to be a big task we as a society will have to take on.”
Village President Chris Zellner asked El Menaouar to elaborate on the board seat.
El Menaouar said it would be reserved for a person who can represent people of color. Currently that representation is lacking.
“And so I feel there’s a real voice missing,” El Menaouar.
Village Administrator Todd Schmidt noted that by state statute, the board must have seven votes. But Schmidt said other communities have advisory positions with people who attend meetings on a regular basis and share opinions on issues, he added.
Robert McPherson, a village trustee candidate this spring, talked about a letter sent to a school board member referencing him and Joel Lewis, a Black man running for school board.
McPherson said he when mentioned the letter targeted him and Lewis with “racist tropes” at a village listening session in April, it was “brushed off.” Only until the incident with the young men yelling racial epithets occurred did the village board react, he said. McPherson also noted that the housing task force’s work has largely been pushed aside.
Village board members denounced the letter.
“What happened to Robert, it’s just wrong,” said Trustee Gary Herzberg, adding law enforcement could be notified in such instances.
Trustee Nila Frye said she also worked on the housing task force. She said because she is white, she may not understand all the issues, but she is researching them.
“I’m sad. I think it’s an issue that has festered for years, and I’m not just talking about Waunakee,” Frye said.
Runge, who led the housing task force, said it can be “difficult to watch things progress slowly, but having experience in facilitating these changes across different government units in the state, things take times. There’s a lot of structures to work though.”
Zellner said he believed the village board is taking steps now. The housing task force’s work was also valuable for developers, as representatives of Veridian Homes indicated, he said.
“I would recommend anybody for running for village government – if something happens like that, to take it to our police chief,” Zellner said about the letter.
Later in the meeting, school board member Mike Brandt read the letter to him referenced by McPherson. The writer states that Waunakee “is a Christian village and will continue to stay that way despite what you and the other Jew who is running for the village must think.”
It states that the people in Waunakee do not want to change, and that Brandt’s “leftist, pro-diversity agenda isn’t wanted in Waunakee.”
The writer also says he will not vote for some “Jewish banker from the East Coast” and asks, “Why would I vote for a Black guy who isn’t from here?”
Joel Lewis, who described himself as “the Black guy who ran for the school board,” said he has four children in the school district and loves the community. He noted some in the community do not want to be inclusive, including those who wear confederate flags or use the “N” word at school.
Lewis asked how can the community show inclusivity? Does it celebrate other cultures?
“I also personally know people of color who lived in this village… but they left because of so many incidents that were happening,” Lewis said, adding the incidents were never publicly addressed.
Lewis offered himself as a resource to the board.
“There needs to be stand where you’re saying, this is what we’re behind, this is what we’re going to do, we’re going to put resources behind it. If something happens, we’re going to make it an issue. We’re not just going to brush it off,” Lewis said.
Cassandra Punsel also talked about her experiences after moving from her hometown of Lake Geneva to Waunakee. While blatant racist incidents took place in that area, Punsel said she was “blown away by the level of acceptable racism” in Waunakee.
Punsel had posted a question on social media asking how the community would feel about changing the Waunakee High School sports Warrior name and received comments such as “if you don’t like it, move,” she said.
Punsel has started a Facebook group, WaunaTalk Diversity, and has hosted Zoom meetings for those to share their experiences. Runge thanked her for hosting these and said they have been helpful.
Rebecca Rode, who said she moved her last year, said people were doubtful when she told them she was moving to Waunakee.
“I’m a more liberal person. I’m Jewish,” she said, noting that Waunakee has a reputation for being a white, Christian conservative community.
Emily Rodriguez said she has lived in Waunakee for 11 years. She is white and married to man from Mexico. She recalled an incident when her husband’s brother was visiting. While at a restaurant ordering a drink, a customer told him that the restaurant doesn’t “serve brown people here.”
Eventually, the bartender asked that customer to leave, but Rodriguez said no one else at the establishment stood up in her family’s defense.
“It affected me,” she said. “I haven’t been able to go back to this restaurant because of it.”
Board members thanked the participants, many acknowledging their courage for speaking up. Herzberg suggested that diversity training could be offered at the Waunakee Village Center.
While the board took no action, trustees said they were committed to making the community a better place for all residents.
“We need to engage even more than this,” Zellner said. “We have a road ahead of us that this board – and I think previous boards would have as well – wants to go down. And we want our community to be the very best it can be.”