By Maya Cherins and Molly Kehoe
The Madison District 8 Alder seat is up for election this coming April, and both candidates are students from the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Get to know Juliana Bennett and Ayomi Obuseh before casting your vote on April 6, 2021.
Both interviews have been condensed and shortened for clarity.
Tell me a bit about yourself. Where are you from and what is your family like?
Ayomi Obuseh: I go to UW–Madison, I am a third-year there. I’m Nigerian-American and I’ve been in Madison for a while now. I came here when I was a Junior in high school so I [attended] Madison West. Since then I’ve been really involved in just getting to know the community. From high school I was a part of MSD Student Senate as well as the Superintendent Advisory Board and I started my activism and organizing there. So we organized a protest in front of West High School as well as UW–Milwaukee to get scholarships in place to get community members going into teaching. From there, I interned with the Common Council on the Land and Regulations Committee. I really was just trying to understand the world and so I was really involved in so many different things.I came [to Madison] in 2016 which was a scary time especially as a daughter of an immigrant and so I wanted to understand the system to keep myself safe and to keep my family safe. So I just started getting involved, trying to understand how things worked and moved. Now that I’m seeing it, it’s hard to not be quiet, so I started to speak up. So that’s why I got involved at a high school level. [During my time] at UW I interned at the state capital for our State Senator and then this summer I was interning on Tom Palzewicz’s congressional campaign as the Volunteer Coordinator and again I was just trying to understand how the system worked. This summer is when I [realized] I cannot be quiet anymore. Protesting, organizing, day after day with the marches, working with groups like 50 Miles More Milwaukee, Black Lives Matter 5280 in Colorado, going to D.C., you didn’t feel alone and there was so much possibility. It felt like everybody was ready to do something. The fact that Madison hasn’t been moving with an urgency that is necessary for progress, it feels like we have to use our voices on the right platform. So not only being in the streets but now being in office. That’s how we’re gonna make sure our voices are really being heard and we’re at the table.
Juliana Bennett: I was born into a humble working class family. My dad is a retired veteran, and small business owner of our family restaurant. My mom was the most kind person you’d ever meet. She was a registered nurse for 22 years. The two of them together taught me the values of hard work, resilience and looking up and having an optimistic outlook on the world and how we can help build the community together. When my mom passed away I was nine we moved to Beloit, Wisconsin. This was a huge shift in my life, from the childish obliviousness to the reality of knowing what it’s like to have experienced financial, housing, and food insecurity. My dad and I came together, and we started our restaurant. It was honestly a community project; especially when my dad came down from congestive heart failure. I faced the decision of do we let the restaurant close? Or do we keep it open, and I would have to manage the restaurant at 15 years old. So I decided that I would manage the restaurant. It was wild being a 15-year-old managing an entire restaurant. But when the communities of our employees and then those in the Beloit community came together and helped, we were actually able to increase sales during that time. That’s kind of when I got interested in this whole business thing. I applied to the Business Emerging Leaders (BEL) Program at UW–Madison, and was enrolled in the inaugural cohort to BEL in which we spent three summers here studying business and understanding what it means to be a Badger. My dad and I moved from Beloit to Madison in my junior year of high school where I attended West High School, graduated with honors and came to UW as a direct admit to the Wisconsin School of Business. In my time at UW, I’ve had amazing times, and I’ve made some of my best friends. In my first years, in Sellery, I’ve also experienced the dark side of Madison which is extremely homogeneous. Even within my first hours of being on campus at UW I experienced multiple acts of racism. Being a person of color on this campus it’s a daily struggle that we deal with that has kind of come to a tipping point. Especially with the Black Lives Matter movement and after [the murder of] George Floyd happened and all the activists came to came together. At that time I knew I couldn’t be silent anymore, so I was out there on the streets pushing for Black Lives Matter. After the summer, other UW students and I knew that we wanted to push the University to become more diverse and inclusive, which is why we founded the UW–Madison BIPOC Coalition to coalesce the BIPOC students and multicultural organizations at UW–Madison to streamline initiatives to ensure that our voices are heard, recognized and respected. We’ve stayed true to that mission through several action items with ASM such as the vote of no confidence in UWPD, paying international telecommuting students, and pass fail grading. We’re also working on the CAHOOTS model [and] the COVID-19 student Relief Fund… I’ve been involved in all of these initiatives. I also got involved with the city, going to countless city budget hearings and city committees meetings in which it just became very clear to me that those who are in positions of power aren’t really pushing for items that are for us and for our community, which is why I decided to run. My slogan is “Real activism, real change” and I really mean it. We really need to change Madison, change our outlook and change the culture in a way that allows every person to come to Madison and call Madison home.
Why are you running for office as District 8 Alder?
AO: I’m running for office because I feel like our representatives should be representing us and they’re not doing that. I don’t feel like our voices are being heard. In fact, I feel like many times people that are minorities, BIPOC, LGBTQ+ are being ignored so I don’t feel like that is building a healthy community. In fact, I feel like that is causing extreme distrust between us and the police, us and our politicians. I saw Madison come together, especially this summer, in a way that I’ve never seen before. I’ve seen people have all these different problems but also bring innovative solutions and creative ideas to the table and none of that was brought up with the Council, at the local level or in our state government. After hearing so many grievances and seeing so many ideas that could fix these problems, why aren’t we being heard? We’re giving you these problems but we’re also giving you solutions. So now it’s time to get things done. I’m running with the movement and keeping the movement going.
JB: I’ve been extremely involved in campus and city politics, and just deeply ingrained in District 8 and the issues that we’re facing here. After sitting through these six-hour long city budget budget hearings, and sharing my trauma, hearing my friends share their trauma and still not having the support of City Council for the action items that the community was pushing for, in terms of more radical items such as defunding the police and investing in the community having a sustainable future… I saw a disconnect between community members sharing what they would like to see and alders not listening to communities with concerns. So that’s really why I decided to run because I understand now that the movement on the street must be reconciled within the elected office. We must take the community concerns and have community-centered decisions, community-centered policies in order to create the Madison that we’d like to see. Honestly just using this privilege of being an alder as a platform to not only represent, but also amplify and include, all voices, especially those that have been historically underserved.
Tell me about what an alder does and what about this position made you want to run?
AO: An alder is basically a liaison between the community and the Common Council. We’ve seen so much work that was able to get done on the Common Council such as decriminalizing marijuana as well as banning facial recognition. So we can definitely see the effects right away and help people right away. I decided to run for Alderman rather than a different position because the Neighborhood Association reached out to me and I was already working closely with organizations like Freedom Inc. and Urban Triage while I was (I still am) organizing with Impact Demand and it felt like this was something that connected me to my community and I was able to speak on behalf of them at a local level. So it felt like a fit for myself.
JB: Being an alder you’re essentially representing a specific community, right? So as a District 8 alder you’re representing the greater-campus area essentially. If you look at the city’s website, there isn’t really a job description of what an alder is, it’s kind of just what you want to make this position to be. There are specific things that you are tasked with, such as handling zoning laws, tax laws and approving projects, such as building developments that want to come to the city. You’re tasked with ensuring that the operations within the city are working well for their constituents, such as parking or snow removal, leaf removal and the lights. The alder is also responsible for ensuring basic things like your garbage and recycling are getting taken out properly; they’re responsible for that annoying ass sign on Park Street, that’s like, “cross park now, cross park now!” It’s really kind of curious and fascinating how literally every single thing about how you live in Madison is related to the position of alder. So in the spirit of changing the culture on campus, that’s why we really need to be thinking about how are people living in Madison? And how does that relate to their experiences and making a place that you know, people who come here will want to stay? So that’s kind of what fascinates me, it gets me super hyped up. I’m a very solution-oriented person, so there’s a ton of problems in our cities such as the main platform points of affordable housing, reimagining public safety, sustainability, and just general student and diversity engagement that are some of the main issues that I plan to tackle within the position of alder. You’re also coming into this position as the link between city, county and campus. In the past, there’s kind of been a disconnect, when in fact, all three of these areas work together. I’m so thankful to have the support of Matthew [Mitnick] the ASM chair, and Lena Haasl, the County Board Supervisor, two people that I know, when elected, I will work with to pass bilateral legislation on each of these three bodies.
What would your priorities be as District 8 alder?
AO: Right off the bat, students are number one. There are so many things that [students] offer to the city and I feel as if youth and students are my number one priority. Especially addressing COVID during this time, affordable housing and talking about environmental issues, and bringing that same urgency and passion to environmental issues because they go hand in hand. Young people are starting to understand that more but it’s showing others that it works and we can do more. Now is the time to do it. So really environmental and social justice issues.
JB: Definitely affordable housing, reimagining public safety, and sustainability are the three main priorities that I have going into office. At the end of the day serving district eight constituents, and what district eight constituents want and need. We as young people living in the greater-campus area coming to UW as university students face very interesting and different issues. So my priority is really hearing the concerns and really ensuring that like our voices are included in that conversation. Because too often we as university students and young people are looked at as this transient population that comes and goes every four years, when in fact we are a very permanent and integral population in Madison, and our city government needs to reflect that.
What American politician inspires you the most and why?
AO: That is such a hard question. Honestly I want to say Angela Davis. She is a chosen official. People that inspire me the most are the chosen officials, rather than elected officials.
JB: Someone that I look up to is Maya Angelo. She was an amazing person that always inspires me with her story. When she was young, she was sexually assaulted by a family friend, and when she spoke up about it, and told her family, her family was super pissed and one of her male family members went and killed the person. And the thing is, Maya took it to heart and thought, “Oh, my gosh, I killed this person,” when obviously she didn’t, but she felt as though she had caused this person pain, so much so that she decided, “I am not going to speak, because me speaking up, got this person killed.” That’s what was going on in her head. And she was a young girl, so she spent like, I think, three or so years without saying a word. She just engrained herself in the libraries; she read poetry and books by acclaimed authors. In this time, it’s really kind of fascinating how, when she finally decided to speak up, she had so many beautiful words to say that were real and inspiring and raw. So I think it’s really inspiring how she listened and she learned, and when she decided to use her voice, she used it to the fullest. She made every one of her words count. So she inspires me every day, and I love her poetry and I love her story.
What about today’s political climate has influenced your decision to run for office?
AO: This summer the world was on fire. When there is so much going on, it feels like anything is possible. No one ever saw a pandemic coming or having a Black woman as Vice President — there is so much happening all at once. Why not?
JB: The Black Lives Matter movement meeting this other side of fascist white supremacy movement, and seeing it coming to a head. We have this increasingly polarized environment that is toxic, and many people don’t understand how to interact with it. I’m mixed, my dad is black, my mom is white, I have white family members that I can no longer talk to because they are racist. I think that it’s really sad because, like in my own family, it’s ripping families apart, it’s tearing our city apart, it’s tearing our community apart, it’s tearing our country apart. We need to take this time to really think critically, about what our country was built upon; our country was built upon racism, and we need to attack the root causes of racism that are embedded in our systems, in order to “build back better,” build the city that we want to see. If we’re talking about Madison, about UW–Madison, we view ourselves as this liberal haven, when in fact, we are the most liberal city within the most racist state. That’s just the reality of what we have. So I mean, we need to be real with ourselves and real with what is happening so that we can move forward and push for legislation and tear down white supremacy, build community and build equality, inclusivity and diversity, and we will all be better because of it.
Why you instead of other candidates? Basically what will you bring to District 8 that your opponents wouldn’t?
AO: I’ve been feeling the pressures of not being heard for years. As the daughter of immigrants, as someone who has been in this community and been actively working with the community, I’ve seen and heard from so many different people how we can improve. I think the connection to the community is what I bring. It is district 8 which is the campus but I am bridging the divide between UW and the community because right now there is a huge disconnect and I don’t think I have seen anyone running in my district that can be the liaison between the two. If we work together, there is so much we can create. But right now there is no one that can be that bridge. Being a UW student but also an organizer, working day after day, marching day after day and the connections that you get after years of experience and by networking, only few can do that.
JB: Honestly I am so thankful for this opportunity to run. It’s been an enthralling, engaging and challenging process. But also, I’m so thankful for how much we’ve grown thus far. I think that the biggest thing for me is that I am deeply ingrained in District 8, in the politics and the action items here. That gives me an extremely unique perspective and understanding of the current systems that are in place, and how to use these power levers to achieve the changes that we’d like to see. When I’m elected it will be an asset to already have built these relationships across bodies across ASM, administrators, county board, school board even. Having these strong relationships will help me in this position to be successful from day one. With the BIPOC Coalition our goal is to build a coalition of BIPOC students on campus, and this is a community that has been historically underserved. So I’ve had several very deep conversations with people from different backgrounds than mine who understand the plight that we all face within our respective communities or groups and I understand how they would like to see changes within the city to make their lives better. I think it’s just really relational organizing, but having relationships with people that live here and understanding their perspectives and their plights will help me be successful in this role.
It’s very inspiring to see young people like you run for office. What advice do you have to Madison’s youth who want to get involved with politics?
AO: Ask questions. Question everything. When I came to Madison I really thought it was going to be a very liberal and open place — very progressive. By asking questions, I found out it was not. When you ask questions, it begins to kind of break that lens and shatters that image. Then you’re able to finally see oppression and once you are able to see oppression you can do something about it. So ask questions. There are tons of nonprofits doing this work like Freedom Inc. Urban Triage [and] Impact Demand and they are all working together. They’re all working together to create the image we wanted to see originally, but it’s just not there. If you see the vision for Madison, ask why it is like that.
JB: I would love to see a coalition of strong civically engaged students and young people. So the advice that I give is, just get involved. Look at ASM, they’re looking for candidates. City Council? There are many city committees. There are hundreds of city committees that we need your voices on one. When I get into City Council, I want to add a young person seat on the plan commission so we can have our voices heard there. There are commissions that are hiring and looking for positions. The Dane County Board has several committees that are looking for people. I would just say go to the city website and the county website and apply to these positions. Talk to your elected officials because they love to hear your voice and they love to get 1,000 emails. I’m just kidding, but yeah, talk to your representatives.
If you were to win the election, following your term as Alder, are you on the path to being a politician?
AO: I’m always going to be an activist, I’m always going to be an organizer. I don’t think that should ever stop when becoming an elected official. In fact I don’t really think that’s right. You’re always supposed to fight for what you believe in, no matter where you are. I don’t know if I’m going to continue along this track. I think this is where I need to be right now, but I know I will forever be an activist.
JB: I’m majoring in Political Science and thinking about Public Policy, but I don’t view this as political work. I, frankly, really view this as just an extension of the activism that I’ve already been involved with. This is not about Juliana becoming a career politician or anything like that. It’s just about being involved in the community and seeing through the initiatives that we’re pushing for. So do I see myself running for another elected position? Maybe, we’ll see. At the end of the day, it’s not about me being a politician. I’m just doing what feels right. And this feels right in the moment.
What is your favorite class at UW–Madison?
AO: There’s this Hip Hop class that I really liked, Afro-American 154, and I always liked this Russian literature class, Lit-trans 222. I originally thought I would minor in Russian lit.
JB: It’s called Sociology 104, Race and Ethnicity in America. It was honestly a really good introductory class to coming to UW–Madison experiencing what it means to be a person of color at this campus.
What is your favorite thing to do in Madison?
AO: I’m on a spoken word team and we compete nationally, called CUPSI (College Unions Poetry Slam Invitational). I love spoken word, I love poetry. I also play tennis, watch Anime and [go] paddleboarding!
JB: Hanging out with my friends. That’s so basic, but it’s true… since my first days on campus, I would go down to Lake Mendota or just to Memorial Union. I love just taking walks with friends down to Memorial Union and around that area, because it’s so beautiful. I feel like that’s the most UW–Madison thing you can do. Especially in the winter when you can walk on the lake!
Is there anything else you would like to share?
AO: Nobody has ever campaigned in a pandemic before so it brings a lot of cool challenges. We’re creating a campaign that nobody has ever seen or done before which allows us to take a lot of risks. Especially being in a student district, there’s a lot of opportunity to reach constituents on a level that typically might not be reached. We’re going to have really cool live streams, fundraisers, and ways to connect with students where they can ask us questions and look at politics in a different way. For this campaign, I really want to make sure I’m running with my community. They can always feel free to ask questions and get involved for things like phone banking, literature drops — anything. It’s not the politics for me, it’s the people and the policies. It’s a way to be cool and creative and I am excited for things like that with this campaign. I’ve never been involved with local campaigns before, but now that I’m in it, I’m going to create it so it’s fun for everyone.
JB: At the end of the day, I just would like to build a coalition of students. I honestly want to change the political landscape of city council because it’s kind of crazy how students aren’t as ingrained in the conversation, as I personally think we should be. Why wouldn’t we want to be civically engaged? City council makes all these decisions, they make such a huge impact and I don’t know who I thought ran our government before I learned that. So I think many students are in the same position, and I think if people knew about what the opportunities were they would get more involved. So that’s what I’d like to see. Changing the political landscape of campus and of city council to have just our voices and to have it be normal for tons of students to be civically engaged.
Don’t forget to vote on April 6, 2021! Learn more about both candidates on social media:
Instagram: @AyomiForAlder and @JulianaForDistrict8
Facebook: Ayomi for Alder and Julianna Bennett for District 8 Alder
Twitter: @AyomiForAlder and @JuForYouD8
Website: Ayomi4Alder.vote and JuliannaBennettForDistrict8.com
Molly Meyer Kehoe (she/her) is Editor-in-Chief for Bell Magazine and a third-year student at UW–Madison. Molly is majoring in Political Science and Journalism and pursuing a certificate in History. She’s from San Francisco which explains her love for the ocean, hiking, and cities. She is also the Hub Coordinator for Sunrise Madison — get in touch if you wanna stop the climate crisis!
Maya Cherins (she/her) is the Managing Editor for Bell Magazine. She is a junior at UW–Madison studying Gender and Women Studies and Community and Nonprofit Leadership with a certificate in Global Health. When she’s not playing with her dogs or going on hikes, Maya is fighting for reproductive, racial and climate justice.