Brian Benford is nothing if not a grassroots community activist. What’s most important to him is opening doors to people who have been marginalized in our community. As an African-American single father of four (and one more child on the way) who’s faced his own share of personal struggles, he is a Madison success story. And Benford, who was recently elected president of the Equal Opportunities Commission, hopes to share in his successes and to diversify the voices that have a say in what goes on in this city.
“That’s why I ran for public office. That’s why I served as an alderperson and why I serve on these commissions and committees,” Benford tells The Madison Times. “I want people to look at me and say, ‘Well, he’s African American. He’s a single dad with five kids and he’s doing it, so we can do it, too.’ We’re all crunched for time as we all have a million things to do, but there’s nothing more important than getting involved — not necessarily for ourselves, but for our future generations. I hope I can leave that legacy in my service. I hope I can open doors for other people to come through.”
Prior to EOC, Benford was on the powerful Alcohol License Review Committee. He was appointed to the EOC in May of 2008 and his term expires in 2015.
“Everything that I’ve been brought up to do and all of the community work that I’ve done, the EOC was really close to my heart,” Benford says. “I’m really happy that [former] Mayor Dave [Cieslewicz] appointed me. It’s been great service. I’ve served on so many city positions over the years but this has been, by far, the best service that I can think of.
“In the City of Madison, we have tremendous staff who work in the Department of Civil Rights — [Director] Lucia Nunez is just an incredible leader. I really think she’s a fantastic public servant,” Benford says. “You go right down the line with all of the people working there and they are all great. I feel like the [Equal Opportunity] Commission’s job is to support them. They do the day-to-day hard work — the heavy lifting — and we come and support their efforts and initiate new efforts.”
The City of Madison’s Department of Civil Rights, as a catalyst for change, strives to improve the quality of life for all people. They promote equality and the prevention and elimination of discrimination through education and enforcement.
“A while back when Mayor Dave decided to lump together [the] Affirmative Action [Commission], the Equal Opportunities [Commission] (EOC), and [the Committee on] People with Disabilities (CPD) under one umbrella of the department of Civil Rights, it was a pretty contentious thing,” Benford remembers. “There were a lot of people that felt that each of the departments would be watered down. At the time, I was opposed to that merger, but after they hired Lucia I had a great deal of solace in the fact that she is a tremendous leader and very passionate with what she does.”
But Benford still wishes that the DCR had the resources to do even more. “I think that if you look at their budget compared to police or street departments, it is just a drop in the bucket,” he says. “As a city, if we really want to be progressive and we really want people to reach their full potential, these departments really need to be strong and these commissions really need to be strong. We have really good people, but I think we need more resources.”
The EOC lends a hand to the DCR as it studies existence, character, causes and extent of denial of equal opportunity because of sex, race, religion, color, natl. origin or ancestry, age, handicap, marital status, source of income, arrest or conviction record, and much more. They review cases on appeal from decisions issued by EOC Examiner. They tackle deep community issues like arrest convictions, housing discrimination, and I.D. laws.
“Anything to help protected class folks here in Madison to reach their full potential,” Benford says. “I really believe that it’s the most important commission in the city in that our job is to be the watchdogs here to protect everybody. It’s pretty deep stuff and I’m honored to be a part of it.”
The regular EOC meets once a month as does the executive leadership.
“There’s also another sub-committee that meets once a month,” Benford says. “Being an alderperson prepared me for these long nights and additional service to the committee.”
The EOC is responsible for selecting the winners for the prestigious Martin Luther King Jr. Award in January and the James C. Wright Award in July. They also serve as a quasi-judicial body when it comes to appeals that have been solicited through the EOC. “If somebody felt like the hearing examiner didn’t rule correctly, we as a commission actually form a sub-committee that looks at the appeals and then we rule on whether the hearing examiner was correct in his findings,” Benford says.
“The folks that I serve with on the commission are people that have a wide range of expertise and are extremely diverse and people who are very passionate about the issues,” Benford adds. “As president, I need to impress upon people how important this service is. We like to think that we live in this liberal, progressive city but we do live in a city that is a tale of two cities. There is an incredible dichotomy between the folks that have and the folks that are the have-nots. I’m hoping that somehow through the example of my service, I will fire up people.”
In that way, Benford hopes that the EOC will be an on-the-ground organization. As the first coordinator of the Grassroots Leadership College, Benford knows something about grassroots. “What’s really important is to get into the communities. That’s one thing I’m hoping to do as president — to get into the communities and impress upon them how important this is,” Benford says. “I do get it, man. I understand why people are turned off to politics and tuned out. I know it firsthand that so many people are facing tough challenges that prohibit them from getting involved in public policy discussions. But what I think is important is to have a general willingness to open doors for other people.
“There are 20 [alder]people that govern this city and 20 districts with roughly 12,000 people in each district, but when you look at the current Common Council there’s not a single African American that is serving,” Benford adds. “So, is there willingness to invite people who aren’t normally involved? As progressive as some of the members are, they aren’t the people who can most successfully lobby for some populations because there is a disconnect. They have their own personal privilege versus the people who have been marginalized. There’s a tremendous disconnect.”
So raising awareness and more inclusion will be big goals of President Benford.
“As things come up like the whole entertainment venue issues, it’s my hopes as the chair of the committee to have a large public forum and build capacity over the issue,” Benford says. “So, why aren’t there more venues where people of color feel comfortable going to? Let’s talk about how we so easily blame the genre of hip-hop for all of our woes. Let’s talk, educate, listen, and increase capacity for everybody’s voice to be heard.”
Benford sees Madison as a dynamic place, where the inherent worth of each individual is esteemed and fostered, enabling them to reach their full potential.
“My goals are to, number one, support the great work that the staff are doing within the Department [of Civil Rights] and recognize that they are on the front lines doing the heavy lifting day-in and day-out,” Benford says. “Number two, I want to raise the level of awareness of city commissions and try to get more people — especially people of color — involved in these commissions and committees. The Department of Civil Rights and the mayor’s office has been doing some outreach to bring more people of color into the public policy discussion. That’s something I want to help support.
“Madison always receives all of these great national accolades, but it’s a very tough place to live if you are marginalized,” he adds. “I’d like to help other people reach their full potential and break down some of those barriers. The EOC can play a big part in this. I just want people to realize how important this service is especially now with all of the cuts coming down from the state and beyond. The most vulnerable in our communities are the ones who are getting trampled on. As a commission, I think we’re the watchdog for these issues.”
For more information about the EOC, e-mail Brian Benford at firstname.lastname@example.org