Heather DuBois Bourenane

Photo by Joe Brusky

We’re often led to believe that our voices in matters concerning the world at large are infinitesimal, accepting dismissive questions concerning our impact as gospel. Well, what are you going to do? I mean, who am I? Heather DuBois Bourenane, executive director of Wisconsin Public Education Network (WPEN), never really bought it. “I think folks should feel empowered to be actively engaged in the civic process because those voices are the ones that are needed the most. And they are also ones that are excluded from the decision-making conversation.”

She’s not just talking about the people who’ve lost or never had faith in the system, but all of a community’s voices. When boards, councils, and associations are run by like-minded individuals who are not representative of those they claim to represent, disenfranchisement of a majority can take place, as well as the empowerment of a sometimes-controversial minority. A community’s ideological minorities certainly deserve to be part of the conversation, but they shouldn’t be the only ones heard.

Heather grew up in several worlds of differing values and moralities, each ultimately shaping her into someone who reacts strongly to the silencing of others. “I was educated in private schools, but I came from a working-class family. I was the first person in my family to go to college. To graduate from college. … I’ve worked in all different kinds of sectors, from gas station and factory to academic institutions and even a stint in the corporate world. … I feel like I have a unique insider-outsider experience and was always looking for ways to bridge some of those disconnects that I observed in my own childhood between have and have-nots. I wanted to get to the bottom of why is it that we’re okay as a society with this when it seems out of line with what a lot of people around me were professing to be their values about being good neighbors and living in strong communities.

“After learning more about the concerns facing Wisconsin’s public schools through outreach positions at UW–Madison and as a parent and educator at Madison College, I was looking for an opportunity to really put civic engagement into action and to find ways to make sure that all of the inequities in our society, our communities, our systems, and our institutions that we seek to disrupt or improve are addressed collectively.”

Photograph by Heather-Dubois-Bourenane

But how do you get the single parent working three jobs and 80-hour weeks to show up where they need to be heard? How do you get the farmer during harvest season to believe that his work hours would be better spent at town hall? The truth is, you probably don’t. Heather is an election official and sides with many progressive agendas, but without credence given to everyone’s reality, she wonders who we’re really trying to take care of.

“I’ve always been very turned off by partisanship,” says Heather. “By us-versus-them thinking or these crazy suggestions that there are two sides to every story, and both sides are equally valid, and we have to give each one equal time, and so on. In our regular lives, that’s not really how people think, and there’s always so much grey area. There’s almost always more we agree about than disagree about. This binary way of thinking has led to some pretty perplexing political realities such that there are party-line votes on everything. Even the coronavirus has become a partisan issue.”

Where Heather is extremely passionate concerning the amplifying of all voices in a community, she is doubly so on matters involving our youth. One of the most impactful experiences in Heather’s life takes place when she worked for Great World Texts, a UW–Madison outreach program connecting scholars with teachers and students all over the state.

Photograph by Joe Brusky

“One trip, I planned two school visits in Milwaukee at the same time—schools just down the road from each other. At one, you couldn’t drink from any of the drinking fountains; they were unsafe to drink. Class sizes were very large. The resources in the school were very shoddy. The kids were great. The kids were very well behaved and wonderful and eager, and the educators were amazing. The same was true of the kids and teachers of the school just up the road that was in a glistening building with all of the resources and all of the bells and all of the whistles. I just thought, ‘How did Wisconsin let this happen? How are these two taxpayer-funded schools that are so close in proximity so far apart in being well resourced?’

“This is not okay. It’s totally inexcusable. It’s totally preventable. This is a manufactured crisis that we make worse every single time we pass a state budget that doesn’t fix it, and I’m sick of it. I think a lot of other parents are sick of it too. It’s frankly unsustainable and unacceptable. So I’ll get off my soapbox there, but I get there really fast. I live in a perpetual state of being super mad about that.”

Heather stresses, however, that anger isn’t necessary to make a difference. Showing up, sharing ideas, and modeling civic engagement is really all it takes to make a difference. It’s something she does a lot of to show people that many of these committees and boards are made up of only a handful of people. Getting involved could mean you suddenly have 10 percent or more of the group’s shared voice.

Heather embodies the spirit of hope-driven commitment in creating communities we’re all excited to take part in, regardless of politics. “The truth is, all is not lost. Every kid gets one childhood. That’s how many you get. So we still have the opportunity while the kids who are young right now are still young to do better, to be better, and to not let them down. I’m not going to let my kids grow up seeing that I didn’t try my best to make sure they had that shot.” More resolutely, “Those systems aren’t going to change themselves.”

Kyle Jacobson is a writer and copy editor for Madison Essentials.

Photograph by Barbara Wilson