As community relations director at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Everett Mitchell builds strong bonds between the university and the many members of the Madison and Dane County communities.
“The university has strategic relationships with many different organizations including some of the biggest non-profits — those kinds of things are easy to catch up with,” Mitchell says in an interview with The Madison Times. “But I’m also really trying to identify those non-profits and agencies in the community that are not always aligned with UW-Madison and find out what we can do better in building those relationships. I’m excited about those, too.”
Earlier this year, Mitchell joined the UW-Madison as its director of community relations where he represents the university with local units of government and develop strategies to increase the university’s engagement with a wide range of stakeholders including businesses, non-profit organizations and state, county, and local groups.
“We want to make sure that we are being a good neighbor and having a good relationship with those partnerships in the community,” Mitchell says. “I spend a lot of time with issues that may come up with the City or the County and try to be proactive in making sure we address those issues and that we are really being a good partner. I’m always looking for ways that we can be better.”
How one goes about building community relations has changed quite a bit over the last century. Actually, it’s changed quite a bit in just the last decade mostly due to the explosion of social media. Knowledge of Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, YouTube, and other new social media is a must for somebody in Mitchell’s position.
“I like to tweet [use Twitter to describe] events and use Facebook and get our message out across students,” he says. “We’re trying to integrate a new web site that can highlight some of the events that we do in the community. What we’re trying to make unique is to really bring the organization that we partner with in and talk about the goals and missions of that organization. So, we can give small non-profits that we support another platform to explore and to send out their message to a larger community.”
The days of saying something that might be reported in a newspaper a day, a week, or even a month later is long gone. ”In this day and age, a quick tweet and it’s gone. It’s everywhere,” Mitchell says. “And it really does test your base of how far you really are, because if you send out a tweet and it catches fire and it moves than you know that you can really have some influence. In the social media world, that means a lot. That influence is power… just to be able to get your information and ideas out there.”
As community relations director, Mitchell looks over and strengthens UW-Madison’s relationship with the city, county, neighborhood associations, and various non-profits. He is concerned about the community of Madison as a whole, the perception of UW-Madison, and whether it is seen as a place where everybody can go to or of an exclusive place for a certain population. “I’ve lived in this community for nine years so I’ve seen how the perception is not the reality,” Mitchell says. “The perception is that it’s an open place but the reality to a lot of our community members is that it is not open and interacting.”
This past fall, Mitchell’s office hosted — along with some of Madison’s African American churches — an Admissions 101 event in order to help students better understand the ground rules for gaining entrance to post-secondary education.
“I want our [Madison-area] students at UW-Madison. I don’t want them to think that they have to go somewhere else to get a quality education, or in order to feel safe, or to feel challenged,” Mitchell says. “I want them here because they have talent. And if they go to school here, they are more likely to want to stay here and help this community grow and become a more diverse and strong community that I think it can become.”
Mitchell holds a bachelor’s degree in religion and mathematics from Morehouse College, a master of divinity and a master of theology from the Princeton Theological Seminary and a law degree from the University of Wisconsin Law School. He was the associate director of Madison area Urban Ministry (MUM) and assistant Dane County district attorney, before landing the job at the UW.
A big part of his job is being social and talking with diverse groups of people, and that’s where Mitchell uses his strong track record of community involvement and knowledge of local issues to build friendships and forge partnerships.
“What makes me a unique fit is that I have lived in so many places since I’ve been in Madison,” Mitchell says. “Being a prosecutor and being a pastor and being in this [current] position, you wear different hats in different contexts. I think the greatest thing about my history is that when I came to Madison, I didn’t come like most African Americans came — with a nice job and a position. I couldn’t find a job when I got here so I was delivering pizza at Pizza Hut and pulling together two or three jobs in different places to make a living for myself. I know how it feels to feel like you don’t have a chance.”
In that way, Mitchell has a unique perspective that helps him relate to so many people in Madison and assists him as he outreaches to the greater community. While he has no problem participating in those high-level discussions with seasoned university and governmental professionals, it’s those other smaller, community groups, agencies, and constituencies that he is often listening to, too, and his life experiences help him relate.
“I know what it was like to struggle and to try and find a place and find a connection in Madison and not really being accepted,” Mitchell says. “All of this talk about the chaos and craziness at Nobb Hill [in the media]..... man, that’s the only apartment I could find when I first came to Madison. That was home for me.”
Mitchell has been recognized for his work in the community including winning the Urban League of Greater Madison’s Young Professional of the Year, an award that recognizes a young professional who is making a difference in the lives of others through community service, a commitment to diversity, and demonstrated leadership potential.
“We can work hard to connect people when they first arrive and get them connected to the community. I know my predecessor, Dawn Crim, was really good at that,” Mitchell says. “But it’s also incumbent on the people in the community of Madison that if we are really sincere about keeping people in the community, that the moment we hear about them, we need to connect with them right off the bat — invite them to the house, invite them to social events — so they know that there is a thriving minority community here.”
That’s what kept Mitchell here when he first came to Madison. Dr. Perry Henderson helped make Mitchell feel like part of the community. “We’re both Morehouse [College] alumni and I opened up the directory and he was the only Morehouse alumni in the book in the area in Madison. I called him up on the phone and he pulled me in,” Mitchell remembers.
“I’ll never forget. It was just a litany of stuff and he was like I want you to come to this, I want you to come to that,” Mitchell remembers. “Before I knew it, I was involved in more stuff than I even knew was here in Madison. So, you need people like that.”
Dr. Henderson introduced Mitchell to Mary Kay Baum of MUM and that got the ball rolling as far as Mitchell’s community involvement. Since then, Mitchell has served as an important role model for young African-American men through his involvement as a mentor in the Big Brothers Big Sisters program, ULGM’s Schools of Hope program, and the Evolutions Boys Home. “In many ways, I’ve now taken Dr. Henderson’s banner,” Mitchell says. “Anytime I meet somebody new, I’m like, ‘Let’s go to lunch. My treat. Let talk. What’s going on with you?’ I want people to feel like they are part of this community and [to] not feel isolated.”
Mitchell has also been involved with a number of community service groups, among them the 100 Black Men of Madison, Omega Psi Phi Fraternity Incorporated, the United Way, the Madison Homeless Housing Consortium, and the Dane County Criminal Justice Planning Group. He has also served as an inmate mentor at Oakhill Correctional Institution through his work with MUM and served as a mentor in the children who have an incarcerated parent.
The next step in community relations
The idea of what the university has been is a challenge to what it could become in terms of relationships with community bases, Mitchell says. So while many times community organizations want money from the university or for them to sponsor an event, Mitchell says that is fine, but there can be so much more.
“I see a greater need for a greater connections and partnerships than just giving money,” Mitchell says. “What can we do to assist your overall mission that you are trying to accomplish at your organization? Yes, we can support the Urban League, but how can we help the Urban League take those students that they have in the Scholar Academy and work with them so they can be part of a greater education culture? Can we play that role, too, to educate them, to expose them, to give them more experience? Those are my three ‘E’s.
“One role that the UW can play — especially from the community relations standpoint — is for all these groups trying to deal with the achievement gap, UW has three things to offer them — the education, the experience, and the exposure,” Mitchell continues. “We can expose them to some of the most cutting-edge and revolutionary scientific ideas that are going on in the community. We can expose them to education — we have African American faculty that are world renowned sitting on the faculty right here at the UW. We need to bring them into the classroom. Don’t take them out into the community, bring the kids to see these professors at work — teaching, educating, being scholars —so they can see that it is a possibility. “
Sometimes it just takes one experience in a youngster’s life to change their life path completely.
“There are so many talented young people out there who have no idea of the possibilities,” Mitchell says. “They have no idea. But once they have that possibility, a whole world becomes open to them.”
Mitchell has unique skills and the background needed to increase and enrich the university’s engagement with a wide range of stakeholders — both big and small — throughout the Madison area.
“I love learning what UW does well and then exporting that to the community, but then bringing the community back into the UW so those community members can see that this benefits them as well,” he says. “I’m realizing that the UW does a lot of wonderful things, but it doesn’t always get exported to the broader community to show the impact that it is having and can continue to have in the community of Madison. I enjoy all that — exporting all of these ideas.
“Sometimes I like working just within the UW to connect other people with stuff within the system. I had this young brother that I met through the PEOPLE program and I just happened to run into him one day and he told me he was struggling a bit,” Mitchell says. “He just transferred from UW-Milwaukee and things were kind of hard for him. I remembered that just the day before I met this distinguished professor who is getting ready to retire from Agriculture Sciences.”
The young man told Mitchell that he was stressed out because he didn’t know anybody in his field. “And just the day before, the professor was telling me about all of these agricultural opportunities that there were there for students, but he couldn’t seem to get many students of color to buy into the idea of farming and land and agriculture,” Mitchell says. “To see the young man say to me, ‘I never even thought about that’ and so eager to explore that when I told him about it ... that was exciting to me. And the professor was so excited when he heard about the student. Making these connections is what I really enjoy.”
One of Mitchell’s goals moving forward is to make some of these chance connections much less left up to chance and to keep expanding the many community-based relationships he has made.
“I’m spending a lot of time connecting with many non-profits. We want to continue to build relationships with the City and the County and deepen our relationship with Mayor Soglin and Dane County Executive Joe Parisi and the neighborhood associations,” Mitchells says. “I think in the long term we want to look at ways in which the UW can have greater partnership in the community. For example, seeing how we can make service learning opportunities a more concrete place inside of south Madison. We used to have a presence there — is there a possibility for us to have a strong relationship as the Urban League and the Promise Zone are being pulled together? What can we do there?
“We want to always be thinking about diversity, too,” he adds. “We really want to assist in bringing in and retaining good, qualified, diverse candidates who are being brought to Madison.”