Matt Dannenberg wanted to be a storm chaser.
Growing up in Watertown, Wisconsin, his goal in life was to go after tornadoes, “like Bill Paxton in Twister,” he said. He came to the University of Wisconsin in 2006 to study meteorology but “ran headfirst into the brick wall of Calculus 222.”
But given his interest in weather and climate, it wasn’t too much of a pivot to focus on an important issue from a political perspective.
“During my pursuit of meteorology I got interested in climate change and learning all about it and its impact on people,” Dannenberg told Madison365. “I wasn’t going to go down the science route, but I could use my passion for people, in organizing, to impact what was going on with our environment.”
In college, he also connected with his Chippewa heritage. A member of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, he said he wasn’t really connected to the culture growing up, but at UW took courses in the American Indian Studies program and joined the Indigenous student group Wunk Sheek. But it was as a field director for the Wisconsin Conservation Voters (formerly called the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters) in the debate over whether to build a mine in the Penokee Hills in northern Wisconsin, that he fully reconnected with his people and his heritage.
“I’ll never forget being at a hearing and having the tribal council just testify and make their opinion known and have the whole room shout ‘Indians, go home, Indians, go home, Indians, go home,’ and meeting with my tribal chairman and the leadership afterward talking about what our next steps were. And just in that moment feeling like representation really matters,” he said.
After organizing statewide for WCV for five years, Dannenberg relocated to Milwaukee, in part to learn the lay of the land.
“I wanted to move there to build relationships, to understand more about the city itself and its political infrastructure and what issues impact people there,” he said. “I heard a very different story growing up in Watertown about perceptions about Milwaukee. Now I’ve gotten to grow and learn and love what a beautiful, vibrant city and all the great things that are going on here.”
After a stint volunteering on the transition team of incoming Governor Tony Evers in 2018, he was recruited to work on the Biden campaign in Wisconsin, ultimately serving as Coalitions Director, connecting the campaign with women, Native Americans, African-Americans, Latinx community, LGBTQ Wisconsinites, veterans, and seniors.
“The team would have listening sessions to make sure the campaign was hearing from the communities and getting their input,” he said. “I think one of the most impactful things was we responded to the shooting of Jacob Blake, and had a listening session with community leaders in Southeast Wisconsin, in Kenosha.”
His new job, which he starts next week, is “almost destiny that’s bringing me back to work on this issue with my people to get to connect with cousins I never knew I had, and to make sure that native voices are represented in politics from local office all the way up to federal agencies.”
As Senior Associate Director of the Office of Presidential Personnel in the Biden White House, he’ll be in charge of staffing up any positions in the administration related to climate, including positions in the Environmental Protection Agency, Department of the Interior, Department of Energy, and similar agencies. He’s also focused on creating a “Native American leadership pipeline and representation in appointments,” helping to make sure Indigenous communities are well-represented in the administration.
The Biden-Harris Transition team has stated publicly its commitment to creating a diverse administration, a commitment Dannenberg appreciates.
“It’s incredibly welcoming. They want to be welcoming and inclusive, and that means everything,” he said. “And so it’s an honor of a lifetime and how I can use this appointment to impact and lift and elevate native issues and help round out the thousands of more appointments we need to make. I’m excited to get to work with this dream team to do that in the most inclusive, diverse administration to date.”