A Champion for Student Success
With controversies stirring over how youth in our city are perceived and welcomed, there is a
multitude of organizations and individuals who see great potential in our youth. They work daily to
cultivate and positively channel our youth and promote or design policies intended to support our
students. Since graduating from the UW-Madison, it has been part of Joe Maldonado's DNA to work
directly with students or behind the scenes crafting and innovating mechanisms that support
students in our community. As many decry the slowness at which the needle is moving to improve
the educational disparities present here, Maldonado uniquely brings the energy and passion
necessary to propel student success.
Q: You have been a Madisonian for some time. Where are you originally from and what brought you
A: I came to Madison in 2001. I grew up in Milwaukee and applied to UW-Madison. My parents didn't
go to college, but they always encouraged education. My mom did things to keep me connected with
the right people. I was in pre-college programs through YMCA. I did college visits. If my mom had a
friend or co-worker who was doing a college visit, she would connect me. She has always invested
in my education. She didn't go to a university or get a degree.
You probably remember Diallo Shabazz. The year I was a senior in high school, Diallo's face was photoshopped in a UW brochure. I initially got
accepted into UW, but did not want to go there. I went on a tour there with some students from my high school and I saw a couple of students
older than me that went to King and they basically sold me on it. They said there aren't many of us here, but we are very close with one another
and we are supportive of one another and it's a great education. I ended up getting a Chancellor's scholarship, which sealed the deal.
Q: With concerns about the campus climate, how was your experience attending UW Madison?
A: When I got here I got involved right off the bat joining student organizations. I did research my freshman year and started looking toward the
academic route. I majored in Sociology and African American Studies. A lot of my academic and student orgs had centered around identity and
understanding who I was, understanding that I am Latino and Puerto Rican. I am a person of color. Puerto Ricans are part of the African
Diaspora. I felt a sense of connectivity to other people of color and also an understanding of my own history. Not just of growing up in
Milwaukee or growing up in a segregated city, but coming from a lineage of people who have experienced colonialism. I learned a lot of things
about my own family and my grandmother. I became intensely interested and passionate about identity, history and education.
I was on the route to graduate and get into a master's program. I finished the master's program in Afro Am studies. I applied to a bunch of Ph.D.
programs and did not get into any. I eventually found work in educational access and then I met my wife. I had applied for a Fulbright to study
in the Dominican Republic. I didn't get in. On my way back I met a Dominican woman living in Madison, Mariam. I fell in love, married and now
we have a family. She was the one thing that kept me grounded here because all of her family is here.
Q: A great reason to remain in Madison. What other things influenced your decision to remain in Madison?
A: The other thing that I sort of fell into was working in different programs. I worked in after school programs in the school district and through
MSCR, at Olson Elementary, as a tutor through the AVID program, and at Madison College South working with people in work-release programs
doing career and personal development.
I got my first full-time job three years after my master's working as a TOPS coordinator for the Boys and Girls Club at East High School. That
sort of set the stage for me understanding what my purpose was for. I went on to lead the college success part of the program, where we
developed a program that followed students who graduated from AVID and went to college. I worked at the Boys and Girls Club for five years
and then I took a position with the UW-Madison Chancellor's Powers Knapp Scholarship Program. So I was coming back full circle. I did that
for two years. Currently, I am at United Way. It is my first time in my entire career where I am not working directly with students.
Q: Tell me about what you do for United Way?
A: I work in the Community Impact department at United Way of Dane County as the director of academic success. In my position I lead a group
of high-level volunteers, including K-12 administrators, business leaders, and direct-service staff who provide input on our strategic vision
and our investment decisions. My area invests in community centers, tutoring and mentoring programs, and non-profits that serve youth and
parents of youth from kindergarten through twelfth grade.
One of my favorite parts of the work is being able to meet and engage with so many different types of people. One day I’ll be at a community
center, the next day at a board meeting talking with CEOs and educational researchers, and the next I’ll be connecting with someone from a
start-up non-profit organization.
Recently, we’ve been engaging with groups of stakeholders on providing input into the educational work that we support. I’ve had the pleasure
of leading discussions with groups of teens, principals, non-profit leaders, and parents. The work of United Way is described in part as a
“convener.” This work is exciting for me because I identify as a connector — someone who likes to bring folks together and think
Q: Shifting gears, how are you engaged in the community? What's your support system?
A: I am a brother of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Incorporated. I have been continuously active since I was an undergrad, so for 15 years. I have
served on the scholarship committee for the last five years. I've read applications and engaged with the students that received awards. It has
helped me more socially to have people in Madison, who range in age, are men of color, who I can just be myself around.
I was on the Dane County Implementation Team for Racial Disparities in the Criminal Justice System. We looked at recommendations that were
set forth by experts in the field, law enforcement and restorative justice. We worked with law enforcement and the District Attorney's office to
see which of those recommendations would be implementable.
I think one of the things that have kept me afloat is mentorship. Just whatever position or role I am in, there are people like Alejandro Nuñez
and Langston Evans that have taken me under their wings. I have watched the way they move in different circles and its helped me
understand and be grounded. I watch their ability to be cool and composed, while not holding back on what needs to be said. I follow their
Q: We make national headlines for the rates of incarceration of Black men in particular. Do you think we are going in the right direction on this
A: No. I don't. I think systematically from the top to the bottom the policies are broken, making it very difficult for people entangled with the
criminal justice system.
Q: You mentioned the importance of mentorship. For those young professionals that are lacking that guidance and support, what advice would
you give them?
A: Know what you are looking for and have different folks for different occasions. No one person is going to be your everything. If you are
looking to advance in the HR world, find someone who has a style that you respect. Before you talk to them, figure out what you want so that
you can be as strategic as possible when you ask. I know it's difficult sometimes. The other piece is that it has to be right in the spirit. You
have to be able to gauge to some extent if you can trust them. That is hard to put your finger on and it is something that takes time. The last
thing I will say is that closed mouths don't get fed. Even if you think someone will say no, still ask or plant a bug in their ear. Compliment them
about things that impress you and let them know you would like to learn from them. Don't be disappointed if the person says no or under-
commits. Just keep finding your way until you find what you need.
Q: What other current issues affecting our city are important to you?
A: Engagement of teens. There are a lot of organizations that do that really well in Dane County. But they are very heavy on elementary and
middle school students. Having worked with students from high school to college, and understanding the level of insight that they have, the
passion and innovation that they have in them, there are so many of them that don't have enough meaningful opportunities that engage them
and give them economic opportunities.
I worked with a focus group of students from 14 to 22 years of age and the things that they said blew my mind. The ideas that they had were
phenomenal. They see things that adults don't see. We can be quick to judge teens for various reasons, but I don't think we listen to them
enough and support them in doing the things they want to do. If we think about young people as fully-capable human beings who are filled with
skill-sets and talents that when channeled can turn into something amazing, then we can build and live in a community with a quality of life we
all can appreciate.
There are a few organizations that are youth-led or parent-led that are doing amazingly innovative things for our youth like CEOs of Tomorrow,
Maydm and Building Bosses. I can clearly see that there is something bubbling to the surface in Madison, and I want to be a part of that circle
and hear what they are doing. I want to somewhere down the road collaborate with them.
Q: What is your proudest accomplishment as a professional?
A: When I was at the Boys and Girls Club, I developed a college-persistence program from scratch. I call it Baking a Cake from Scratch. I was
in my second year at the club. I was a coordinator at East. I enjoyed the work I did. But something in me said I needed to do more and be
challenged more. Mary Burke announced that they were looking for ways to keep students engaged after they graduated because some of the
cohorts were really struggling once in college. I got the job.
I started with a group of 30 students and it was expected to grow to 300 students over four years. Over the course of three years, I developed
relationships with 20 colleges and universities. I developed programming for the students at these colleges and universities. I developed
agreements between students to share data and have support staff work with the students directly. I developed position descriptions,
interviewed for, hired and trained two full-time staff to work with different cohorts of students. I learned and used best practices in the field of
college persistence and retention that still exist even two and half years after I left. To sum it up, I am glad that I actually built something that
lasted. I still have relationships with the staff and help strategize when necessary.
Q: What is an interesting fact about you that most people do not know?
A: They know everything. I am on Facebook all the time! But I am taking a leap into film making. I am beginning the process of making a
documentary on the experiences of Puerto Ricans in Milwaukee. The title of the documentary is Brewjeria. It's a play on the Spanish word for
witchcraft with a nod to Milwaukee. The theme of the documentary is cultural taboos and breaking down identity in a way that people don't
always feel comfortable with. Looking at the things specific to Puerto Ricans that we talk about in close circles but don't advertise, but it
affects how we walk in the world. It'll be a few years before it’s complete.
Another thing is that sometimes I struggle with, as outspoken as I am, in the moment when it’s uncomfortable and inconvenient, calling out
what's right. It's always a personal goal of mine to speak truth to power. If you have trouble doing it, acknowledge that and push through
anyway in any space you are in to make sure that you are a change agent.
Q: What do you enjoy doing outside of your work and civic activities?
A: I love biking. I bike everywhere. I love growing food. I love music and dad jokes. You ever seen the videos where the guys are going back
and forth with dad jokes?
Q: No, I haven't. Now I am going to Google that.
A: I also love to dance, although I am not amazing at it. I enjoy Tavernakaya. It's a club on the square. They have music and dancing. I enjoy a
few restaurants, Guadalajara and Taj.
Nia Trammell is a professional working in the legal field.