“It’s an exciting opportunity to lead the work of Human Services in Dane County, make headway around equity, lean into our role of being a convener in the community and really elevate the voice of our employees in the community and in the practice of human service delivery in the county,” Astra Iheukumere tells Madison365 about becoming the new interim director of Dane County Human Services. Her first official day was on Aug. 1.
“Having an opportunity to lead that work from a local government perspective is exciting and humbling and a great opportunity,” she adds. “I’m born and raised and Madison, so it’s kind of a full-circle moment, in a way. So I’m really excited.”
Iheukumere now oversees the largest local governmental department in Dane County. She is the first African American in this role in the County’s history.
Iheukumere is well-known in the great Madison community for the variety of roles she has served in the past including director of strategic partnerships for Madison Metropolitan School District; assistant director of community networks and national partnerships at UW-Madison’s County Health Rankings & Roadmaps Program and the deputy mayor and public safety liaison to former Madison Mayor Paul Soglin.
Back in 2019, Iheukumere became the first deputy director of Dane County Human Services where she focused on internal operations, communications, policy and procedure development, long-term strategic planning, program evaluation, and institutional practice as related to equity and inclusion.
She says that these many different positions at a variety of great organizations and her deep roots in Madison will help her in this new role as interim director of Dane County Human Services.
“My background informs my work here in so many ways having been born and raised in Madison – I grew up mostly on the south side. I went to the UW and earned three degrees,” says Iheukumere, who earned an undergraduate degree in political science and two master’s degrees in public administration and business administration from UW-Madison. “I come from a family where my grandparents came here in the 1940s, after World War II, and so my mom and her twin brother were born and raised here. I have just really deep roots in Wisconsin and in Dane County, in particular.
“I think that’s an important perspective to bring to this role, and to leadership roles, in general. if you have a familiarity, and almost an instinct, and are kind of tuned in to what I call the heartbeat of the community, I think that serves you well in so many ways in these kinds of roles,” she adds. “I think this position requires a political instinct, a familiarity with the community, and also having a policy muscle … and I’m fortunate enough to have all three of those things really inform my approach to this role.”
Former Director Shawn Tessmann, who resigned from the position in late July, said in a statement that Dane County is fortunate to have such a committed leader like Iheukumere. “it is the right time for Astra’s expertise and vision for Human Services,” Tessman said.
One of Iheukumere’s goals as the new interim director of Dane County Human Services is to provide a sense of continuity and stability to department staff, stakeholder relationships, and day-to-day operations in pursuit of DCDHS’ mission.
“My primary goal is to keep the wheels on the bus, to keep things moving, to keep our focus on our priorities. We have a strategic plan that centers on racial justice and is grounded in equity,” she says. “And so it’s important to me that the department continues progressing in those areas and that our services and our service delivery don’t miss a beat.”
Priorities in policy and budget, she says, will include mental health, homelessness, housing stability, and finding ways to support and mentor youth in Dane County.
“We’re in the throes of putting our budget together for 2024, so my immediate goal is getting that across the finish line and getting that submitted by the end of the month and then defending it and putting it before the County Board of Supervisors in September,” Iheukumere says. “So that has really been a major priority.”
“Our department is very large. Human Services is the biggest local government department in the county. We serve thousands of people a year and we have about a $240-250 million budget annually,” she adds.
Iheukumere is the first African American to lead Dane County Human Services.
“I believe that I will be the first woman of color – the first person of color at this position. I didn’t realize that until somebody pointed it out to me,” Iheukumere says. “I think the significance of that happening can’t be understated. I think it’s meaningful and symbolic and represents progress – but for many people too slow of progress – but progress nonetheless of where Dane County has come to in the local community … so it’s exciting.”
Iheukumere says that it’s not only really important that her department is present in the community, but that they also focus and respond to the heartbeat of the community —especially marginalized people throughout Dane County.
“So we really want to lean into the role of being a convener, inviting people to that proverbial table that maybe haven’t traditionally been included or even considered. I think that’s part of the role,” Iheukumere says. “I also think it’s part of my personal passion being a member of a marginalized community in Dane County. I think it’s important to bring that perspective and to have that perspective.”
Diversity, inclusion, and equity — have all been popular buzzwords in Madison and Dane County since the Race to Equity report. Iheukumere says she doesn’t take those words lightly.
“I think we are looking at everything through an equity lens as a practice in our work. We’re building that muscle,” Iheukumere says. “It’s something that we prioritized when we put forward our current strategic plan and when we reconceptualized our mission, vision and value statement for the department.
“We continue to have internal reflection and conversations about what that means with our staff and as a leadership team. It means that we think about equity when we are making decisions,” she continues. “We consider the impact decisions make on marginalized voices and communities in the work that we deliver.
“We’ve been good about being able to make some progress on that, but we have a long way to go,” she adds. “I don’t want to create any misconceptions about that. But we’re trying to really walk the walk and not just talk the talk.”
Like every other organization and agency in America, the pandemic has fundamentally changed how Dane County Human Services does its day-to-day business. Iheukumere believes it’s for the better.
“It has opened things up. It’s an unexpected sort of gain out of a very tragic and impactful time in our history and our collective history,” she says. “But what it has done is it has forced human services and it’s forced government, in general, to update and to become more nimble.
“[Dane County] Executive [Joe] Parisi has leaned into this and embraced it and made it part of our County culture where the default on how we work now is remote. My office right now on Northport Drive is about 10 percent full right now whereas, before the pandemic, it would be like a typical government building full of people.
“We still get the work done and we’re still out there doing what we need to do. But we’ve learned to embrace technology. So I think access is an important priority,” she adds. “For me. I think it’s important for the community to perceive that human services is plugged in, that we are at the table, that we are paying attention, that we’re not just some bureaucracy that’s sort of removed and out of touch. So I think me being visible in the community and showing up is one of my biggest goals, but also creating perception and really cultivating a perception that the department is tuned in with the heartbeat of the community.”
Iheukumere says she wants to explore and implement ways to strengthen department culture so that DCDHS’s values are not only known, but also experienced daily by its staff, partners, and customers.
“We’ve been doing a lot of work on our internal culture, just really trying to reflect a culture that is welcoming and feels like everybody belongs. We want to diversify our department. We want our department to look like the community and to reflect the community,” she says. “So we’re working on a lot of really interesting projects. We want to make sure we have more access in terms of language and bilingualism and that kind of thing. So we’re working on some things to get our department updated in that way. One of our priorities will be to make some more steps in progress in those areas.”