Published on Madison365.com on January 12, 2016
12 on Tuesday: Renee Moe
Renee Moe took the helm as President and CEO of United Way of Dane County less than two weeks ago. She earned that position after many years of service to the organization, most recently as executive vice president of resource development and marketing. We asked her about growing up bi-racial and Asian in a globetrotting military family, and how that experience shaped her life in Madison.
Rank your Top 5 MCs. Sad to say, I’m not this cool… My music roots are in country and show tunes.
Which motivates you more: doubters or supporters? Supporters are the fuel to keep the daily fire burning. Doubters are the extra oxygen, making the fire burn hotter and brighter…
What does it mean to be an Asian American in Madison? I can only speak for myself. To me, being Asian American in Madison feels a bit invisible. I feel very accepted in Madison and being Asian doesn’t come up that often. Perhaps that sounds negative, but I say that very matter-of-factly and without judgment.
Being Asian – and bi-racial – is a huge part of my identity. I grew up with an Asian mom who taught me her songs, made me her food, and raised me the way her parents raised her. I spent much of my childhood in Asia and felt a huge need to study Chinese language and culture in college.
When I was really figuring out who I was as an undergrad at UW, it was surprising to me that the place that felt most like home was with the Wisconsin Organization of Asian Americans (WOAA). While I didn’t realize I wanted or needed a place to connect, it was eye-opening when I figured out I felt most comfortable and ‘understood’ by this group.
WOAA brings together a diverse group of Asian members from the Madison-area: Japanese, Chinese, Laotian, Southeast Asian, Philippine, Nepalese, Thai, East Indian, Indonesian, Hmong, Korean, Hawaiian, Tibetan, Taiwanese and other communities. The purpose is to learn about one another and bring equity and unity to the Asian community…which spreads to the greater community.
Identifying as Asian (and bi-racial, and Norwegian) is just who I am. In Madison, that means using that particular asset to be the best leader, wife, mom, volunteer, and community member that I can be. I’m very lucky that I can bring my full self wherever I go; my wish is that all other community members can feel that way, too.
What three leaders in Madison under 50 have impressed you the most? There are way more than three young leaders who are inspiring me, risking, and doing deeds worthy of ‘impressing.’ Mayra Medrano from MGE and Latino Professionals continues to demonstrate her passion and results-orientation. Zach Brandon stepped out to remind us that the business community is strengthened when our community’s humanity is strong. And, is it pandering if I say Henry Sanders? Henry’s Madison roots are deep, he’s got a vision of coming together, he gets the importance of investment in young professionals, he honors the past and those who’ve come before us, he and Dave started Madison365. Truly, these…and so many others.
What’s the biggest stumbling block in Madison to turning the corner on our racial disparities? Getting more comfortable being uncomfortable. Discomfort isn’t a bad thing – it’s necessary to learn, grow, and reach our greatest potential. When we are open, honest and true about our stories, perceptions, data, and why disparities exist, we can build trust, get at root causes and collectively strengthen our community. We need to come together.
What are your top three priorities at this point in your life? Work collaboratively with the community and offer United Way as a neutral intersection where the community meets to discuss problems and move forward.
Strong and happy marriage and kids.
Personal health and well-being.
You are a mother of two young children in a high profile and demanding job. What is your secret to work-life balance? No secret. I work with the best staff in Dane County and married an amazing husband. We have loving and supportive family and friends. That support coupled with understanding my priorities and being disciplined in how I spend my time are key. I really don’t think there is such a thing as “balance” but if you can live your values in work and life, keep growing, and aren’t afraid to ask for help when you need it, you don’t need to “balance” – you just live and work with your whole heart and it feels right.
When you were younger you traveled the world a lot with your parents. How did all that traveling shape your perspective when it comes to inclusion and diversity? My dad grew up on a Wisconsin dairy farm, joined the Air Force, and met and married my mom in Taipei, Taiwan. I was born on their one-year anniversary in Tampa, Florida and we moved when I was six-months-old to Germany. Four years there and my dad was stationed in Okinawa, Japan where we lived for four more years before he retired and we moved to Wisconsin.
Growing up in a home with two parents of two different races, on three continents, in what is arguably the most diverse workforce in the world, the United States military, I learned early on that the world is much bigger than the community right in front of you. That was a very important lesson.
Out of the military world and into our newest home, it became clear that I was different. There were profound moments of being called ethnic and racial slurs, experiencing physical harm, and feeling the emotional drain and despair of not belonging at the least and feeling hated at the most. That, on top of bi-racial identity seeking – not White enough to be White, not Asian enough to be Asian – made me feel like I didn’t fit anywhere. But, because of those early experiences I knew a bigger world existed and I eventually concluded that if I didn’t fit anywhere, then maybe I could fit everywhere. And that meant that everyone else could, too.
What are three things about United Way of Dane of County most people are not aware of? We exist by the community and for the community.
- Hundreds of volunteers guide our work, including priority-setting, funding and governance.
- Collaborations with thousands of partners in the private, public, non-profit and other sectors build trust to do more together than any one of us can do alone.
- Tens of thousands of Dane County residents and businesses who invest financial contributions, volunteer hours and thought leadership fuel the work and community well-being.
- We are the second largest local funder of health and human services, after the County – because of the community’s participation and generosity!
We are working diligently to ensure greater participation of ALL community members to give voice to those who are marginalized, and to provide opportunities to represent their communities in classically underrepresented roles.
- BoardWalk Academy to build leadership skills, networks and confidence for those not traditionally asked to serve on boards.
- The Community Impact Resource Council comprised of individuals directly impacted by poverty and willing to advise on needs, desires and services provided in the community.
- Two new positions for these voices on our Board.
There are three ways to give or get help.
- United Way 2-1-1 is a 24/7 information and referral phone line. We host the most comprehensive health and human service resource database in the community.
- 40,000 calls are taken each year from community members working to make their lives better. Our language line provides translation services for over 160 different languages.
- VolunteerYourTime.org is the community’s most comprehensive volunteer database – any non-profit can register volunteer opportunities and any community member can search the database for opportunities.
People of color make up more than one third of the United Way of Dane County Board of Directors. That is abnormally high for Madison at the Board level. Why is diversity on the board important for United Way? Why wouldn’t it be? Diversity of thought, experience and perspective drive better decision making. We can only achieve our mission if diverse points of view and expertise are at the table. Our Board – and board members of the past – is a group of Dane County residents who loves our community and dreams of “the best place to live” reality for all of our community members.
I should note that there is a perception that United Way and our Board are “corporate,” beholden to White business men who don’t get it. Our Board roster will hopefully show that diverse voices have been a priority for many, many years. And, as someone who has worked with the business community and its leadership for over 17 years, my experience is that business men and women are just as interested in equity, and they are involved because they want to make change, too.
Coming together, assuming good intent, getting to know each other, building trust… Changing. That is why people of color – and others from the community and business, public and social sectors – make up our Board. It’s the right thing to do, and the way to make change most effectively…
What are the top five things you really love about Madison? The people. I truly love the people here.
Our current state – that we are embracing the opportunity to understand racial disparities, poverty and their root causes.
Our future state – the vision, the dream that equity is within reach. And that we can come together to make that vision a reality.
The lakes and parks. Places to stop and reflect on life’s beauty and how much bigger the world is than life’s daily to do lists.
So much to do! Places to gather, learn, meet new people, enjoy and participate in the arts, eat, play, walk, run and enjoy…
What do you want your legacy to be in Madison? Ask in me in a year after I’ve had a chance to listen and learn more in the community… ☺