Oscar Mireles, Networking and Helping Set the Community Agenda: Sitting at the Table

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In addition to his work as executive director of Omega School, Oscar Mireles serves on many boards and commissions to further his interest in the arts, youth and public policy.

Part 2 of 2

By Jonathan Gramling

The saying goes that if you are not seated at the table, then you become an item on the menu. In other words, if people of color are not at the decision making table, then they will be acted upon instead of acting in their own best interests and making their community — Madison and Dane County — a better place with a higher quality of life for all people.

After years of establishing his base at Omega School where he is executive director and establishing extensive community networks, Oscar Mireles has been sitting on boards and committees to influence the direction of Madison policy making in ways big and small. The role that he plays depends on the situation and how his skill set can be brought to bear.

The Latino Consortium for Action was something that many people in the Latino community felt was needed. It was formed with the facilitation of Gladis Benavides and Mireles acts as the convener for a group composed of leaders in the Latino community.

“People over the years have developed trust, respect and understanding,” Mireles said. “We just don’t have some of the competition for funding that we had in the past. From that sense, it’s been good. When you know of somebody, you will say hi. But when you know somebody, then it is very different. You’re just going to think a little more when you know somebody. We just don’t have some of the divisions — it’s not that people get along perfectly. It’s like family — and overall it’s been a situation where there just aren’t some of the conflicts.

 

The Latino Consortium for Action has also allowed organizations to collaborate to make the most of limited resources.

“They had someone who was working at the university setting up scholarships for students who were undocumented,” Mireles said. “At Madison College, they were also setting up some scholarships. Probably in the past — about 1-2 years into it — they would have figured out they both had scholarships they were offering and then they were able because they were in the meeting to explore ways where the money could go farther instead of funding someone four years at UW-Madison, you could have some of the people for four years at UW-Madison and then other people whom you pay two years for because of the college transfer program where you only pay for two years. When they were both in the room where they were talking about things in the works, it really expanded the number of people we could serve because it wasn’t just institutional based.”

Mireles serves on the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art board and has been able use his role to help MMoCA reach Latino audiences through the creation of Latino art exhibits. Currently there is an exhibit that features pieces of Latino art from MMoCA’s permanent collect that also includes the works of local Latino artists. It’s a win-win for MMoCA and the Latino community.

“I help bring in a Latino audience using my connections and doing outreach,” Mireles said. “If you had been at the opening a couple of weeks ago, it was half Latino. Latinos support the arts. And they support art institutions if they see themselves. I had a young man in his late 20s say, ‘This whole thing speaks to me. I’m literally in tears because I’m seeing myself on these walls.’ That’s the transformative nature of art. It was nice to see that this young man was touched to the point of almost tears because he understood the whole reason for doing the project. They do want the arts to reflect them.”

Mireles helped Gloria Reyes — along with Juan José López, Sal Carranza and Jan Sternbach — establish Adelante, which recruits and trains candidates of color for elected offices in Wisconsin. Through these processes, Adelante has helped create a political environment that has allowed candidates of color to thrive and get elected, helping others get a seat at the table.

“What I learned is that there is an inspirational thing that Obama had,” Mireles said about his involvement with Adelante. “I think Adelante has stepped into the role that people see someone who looks like them or know who is running, then the thought is, ‘They did it. Maybe I can do it.’ That inspirational part I did not anticipate. It wasn’t until I knew for certain that my nephew won, I wasn’t sure that he was going to win even though he did a lot of the right things. And I was relieved he won a second time. I think a part of it is just the training builds community and that sense of not doing it alone. I think even Ananda and Ali running together was in one sense a brilliant idea because they had done a lot of things together. You are breaking a glass ceiling and glass door. And those are generally closed to people of color as elected officials. I know some elected officials. But as a matter of course, there are a whole bunch I don’t know and they don’t know me. I try to focus on the candidate training and helping candidates focus their campaigns and focus their time and energy on a few things. My support ends once they get elected.”

Mireles sits on several other committees and boards.

“I’m the mayoral appointment to the Overture Center,” Mireles said. “I’m on the Public Library Grant Committee. They give out grants. I’m on the board of the FAST Program. I’m on the Fitchburg Teen Center group. I’m the chair of the Latino Chamber’s PROSPERA revolving loan fund committee. I’m on the Madison City Parks Facilities and Fees Committee. I’m a member of the Downtown Rotary and at one point, I was on their board and now I am on their foundation board.”

And by sitting at the table, Mireles is able to move things forward in obvious and subtle ways.

“It’s important to sit at the table in order to be able to raise issues that the majority of the people on the committee aren’t aware of,” Mireles said. “It’s important to have a voice. It doesn’t mean that I speak every moment to argue a point. It’s important to be aware of where things are heading. Sometimes I’ve learned that in between meetings, you can educate people through conversations and make them aware of things that sometimes don’t happen. Sometimes when it doesn’t happen at the meeting, there are some things outside of the meeting that can happen. Usually I go early to meetings and then you can have a talk with and meet other people. It’s kind of small talk. Even with Zoom, I go early because sometimes, you can have conversation. A lot of it is about relationships. If you know someone, they are probably going to take your call. They are probably going to figure out a way to help you. And they probably are going to support what you do. Being at the table does make a difference.”

And there are times when you do good things for other people, good things happen to you.

 

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“Clearly Omega has benefited from these relationships,” Mireles said. “We’re a non-profit. We need money too. But I’ve always tried to let other people get money first even though I’ve had a lot more access to funding in the last several years mainly because I wasn’t looking for money. I sort of didn’t need it. Raising extra money to have extra money didn’t sound like a good idea. It just meant me doing more work. For now, we have a clear direction in where we are going with our building campaign and our endowment and the focus of our program. Now it is a lot easier to raise money because I have relationships and I have a lot of credibility. The next step is ‘the ask’ and getting the support. I think people want to invest their limited resources in something that is probably going to work.”

Sitting at the table is a strategic decision in which one decides the best situations for one’s skill sets and where one can have an impact. Oscar Mireles has made important strategic moves that have benefitted Madison, the Latino community and Omega School, a win-win-win situation for everyone involved.

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