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Pandemic reorders priorities, Northeast Wisconsin leaders say


Living through the COVID-19 pandemic forced people and institutions to rethink their priorities.

That’s one of the key takeaways from a Lasting Impacts Town Hall event hosted by Madison365 publisher and CEO Henry Sanders.

Panelists on the virtual event included UW-Green Bay Multi-ethnic Student Affairs Office Director Mai Lo Lee, Oneida Nation chairman Tehassi Hill and Brown County United Way CEO Robyn Davis.

Lo Lee said her introverted personality actually thrived during the “lockdown” period of 2020, and she was able to identify what’s truly important.

“I was able to learn from the pandemic what I was willing to literally die for, you know?” she said. “What am I going to go out there for? It just kind of, really helped me prioritize what was important to me, and my ability to say yes, and my ability to say no, and also who had high value in my life.”

She also noted that institutions found ways to prioritize needs in ways that hadn’t been done before, citing the example of wifi internet access.

“We always knew that our rural areas did not get did not have dependable Wi Fi. But before the pandemic, it was not a priority. And then all of a sudden, somehow, very quickly, it happened,” she said. “I think that radical change tells me that if we had prioritized people, this is something that could have happened.”

Davis said prioritizing people and their needs also changed the way service agencies like United Way approached their missions.

“One of the lessons we learned was how to deliver services in a different way, and not always expect people to come to us,” Davis said.

Lo Lee said the pandemic also exposed the importance of representation and cultural competency, noting the difficulty Hmong communities had in getting access to vaccines. 

“Good intentions do nothing without intentional actions,” she said. “We understand the importance of representation. But I think the pandemic magnified what happens when there’s not authentic representation at the table. So for example, you know, working or getting the vaccine vaccines and the boosters, but to my Hmong community, things were translated, but put on social media. That’s not where my community gets their information.”

Davis also said priorities should change going forward.

“One of the phrases that I know we’ve all heard is, ‘I’m so glad that we’re finally getting back to normal.’ And so recently, I have really been challenging folks,” she said. “What do you mean by that? What does normal mean? Because if we go back to two years ago, it wasn’t that great for a lot of people in our communities. And if you’re saying we need to return to that, I’m challenging you on that.”

The Lasting Impacts Town Hall series featured discussions with leaders from Madison, Milwaukee and the Fox Valley, as well as a panel discussion on the lasting impacts of the pandemic in health equity as part of the fifth annual Wisconsin Leadership Summit.

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