By Jessica Steinhoff | Photography by Hillary Schave, shot on location at Ellsworth Block
It’s time Madison started viewing itself as a multicultural city. So says deputy mayor and Cameroonian-born immigrant Linda Vakunta.
“Instead of comparing ourselves to communities that are more diverse, we must recognize what we have and build on that,” she explains.
Vakunta’s own multicultural journey began early. Her family lived in various parts of Cameroon, including Bamunka, a small village in the Northwest; Yaoundé, the French-speaking capital; and Mutengene, located in the Southwest province of the country.
“It was my first taste of differences in food, language and clothing,” she says.
When an opportunity to study at UW-Oshkosh arose, Vakunta’s father immigrated to Appleton with her mother. Her aunt stayed back with the kids. A year later, Vakunta and her four siblings joined their parents in the U.S. She was 14.
The support system her parents had built made the transition relatively smooth. She remembers being welcomed at the airport by a group called People of Praise, which set a positive tone.
“My parents had known and trusted them for a while, so I also trusted them, even though they didn’t look like me,” she says.
Her classmates at Xavier High School were friendly, but fielding inappropriate questions was part of the package. She was the only Black girl at the school, and everyone was a stranger. One student insisted that Africans lived in trees because he’d seen it in National Geographic. Another assumed she was married.
“I played along with the marriage story for a while, then said, ‘Come on,’ and we laughed,” she says.
These awkward conversations helped her cultivate patience and wit.
“I think they asked those questions out of ignorance, not malice,” Vakunta says. “I realized I had to educate others about my culture whether I wanted to or not.”
In 2004 her family moved to Madison so her father could obtain his Ph.D. Going from a small, Catholic high school to a large, public one during her senior year was hard. But, she donned her educator hat again, feeling proud as she shared the Cameroonian flag and a traditional dance at Madison West High School’s multicultural night.
This pride followed her to UW-Madison, where she organized culture-sharing events for the African Student Association and earned her bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees.
She also began co-hosting WORT 89.9FM’s “Pan-Africa” show and volunteering with Project 1808, a nonprofit that helps communities in Sierra Leone solve problems through educational partnerships and youth empowerment. In 2009 she became its executive director, a position she held for nearly 10 years.
Empowering youth of color is integral to her work as deputy mayor, too. She hopes her presence helps them imagine themselves in city leadership.
“The mayor’s office is a place for everyone, and seeing someone like me there shows them new possibilities for themselves,” she explains.
Vakunta’s patience and humor also shine in the mayor’s office. Whether she’s fielding a call from a frustrated resident or accompanying the mayor on a trip to The Gambia, she helps others feel seen and supported.
“Being a servant of the people, that’s the product of being an immigrant,” she says.