In a city dealing with challenges around diversity, inclusion, minority retention, and changing demographics, Gladis Benavides has rare expertise and experience in providing services in a multicultural environment and an ever-increasingly multicultural world.
A native of Peru who has lived on three continents, Benavides has well over 30 years experience working in crosscultural issues in both the public and private sector. She is founder and president of Benavides Enterprises Inc. where she works to create and maintain effective and productive multicultural teams and a stable and culturally competent workforce. She helps to provide effective management and supervision strategies that help her clients lead a multicultural workforce.
“It has been said that 98.7 percent of everything that is structure in the United States — every organization and every company — is linear, single response,” Benavides tells The Madison Times in an interview at her home on Madison's north side. “If you look at the idea of inclusion or crosscultural issues — the idea that people come form different perspectives and different ideas…. especially when you are delivering services… it's a natural challenge. It might not be intentional discrimination.
“We cannot just sit back and wait for people to come in [with discrimination problems]. We need to be as proactive as possible,” she adds. “We can't always be hitting people on the head because they are discriminating. We need to teach people how to do it right. And if they choose not to, then you need to intervene.”
Over her more than three decades in the public and private sector, Benavides has worked with a variety of individuals and companies providing expert advice and counsel in the interpretation and implementation of U.S. federal and state laws and regulations in areas such as: equal employment opportunity, contract compliance, immigration, and labor relations. Through the years, she has been able to develop policies and procedures that improve workplace communications and practices, enhance work-related interpersonal relationships, and successfully bridge cultural differences.
“You can't just have people watching videos and assume that they are culturally competent. That's what bothers me about Madison,” Benavides says. “When I read what Rev. Alex Gee talks about, I can understand how people get uncomfortable …. because he is telling the truth. Many of our issues are about class. Madison is urbanizing and Madisonians don't know what to do with it.
“We think we're inclusive [in Madison] because we drop minorities in different places around town but they are still isolated by poverty, by language, by the dynamics of their own culture that continues to exist for them,” Benavides adds. “Madison keeps to themselves by race and they don't often intermingle. How do we connect with each other? It seems like the bigger Madison gets, the more segregated it gets. Madison is a complex place where people feel inclusive just by talking about it. But we need to do more.”
Benavides was born in Brazil and grew up in Peru. She studied at the Universidad La Catolica in Lima, Peru and at Sorbonne University in Paris, France.
Benavides married at a very young age and she moved with her three young children to Madison after she got divorced and found a job as a bilingual receptionist with the Community Action Commission, a project that resettled migrant workers and families. She would eventually run the whole project. “After that, I got to work with Rev. [James C.] Wright at the Madison Equal Opportunities Commission. He was my mentor. He was a great man. He was always very real with me,” Benavides remembers. “Mother [Jacqueline] Wright is just incredible, too. She's very special to me.”
This was about the time that Benavides was starting to really develop her passion for civil rights and social justice. “I came from a very much upper-middle-class environment in Peru — my father was mayor [of Cusco, Peru] and my great grandfather was president of Peru,” Benavides remembers. “Still, we always had a lot of consciousness about social justice. We were always very involved in the community. We were taught that we had to give and that we had a responsibility to our community.
“So, when I started doing civil rights, to me, every job I’ve had since had something to do with that…. and I've never really had any other kind of job,” she adds.
Benavides says that she hasn't been back to her native Peru in a long time — since the death of her mother. “I do miss the country. When my father was the mayor of Cusco, we lived in a house that was 300 years old. We lived in a ranch by Machu Picchu. We had this incredible historical perspective,” she says. “My nana was a Quechua Indian and we learned a lot from her. Historically, we were really rich.
“I do run into people from Peru. We are connected here in Madison,” Benavides adds. “Inka Heritage [Peruvian Restaurant on Park St.] shows off quite a bit of our delicious food and shows how our cuisine is different from other Latin American countries. Even within Peru, there is diversity in food. We have three different areas — the coast, the mountains, and the jungle — and there are three very different kinds of food.”
Benavides has spent most the last 35 years of her life working for the state in some civil rights or affirmative action position. From 1978-2000, she was the director of the Office of Civil Rights at the Wisconsin State Department of Health and Family Services where she was responsible for designing policies and procedures regarding compliance with federal civil rights laws regarding workforce development and customer/client services. Through the years, she knew at some point that she wanted to start her own business.
“When I was working with the state, I was moving all over the state constantly and going to Chicago to meet with the Feds, I always wanted to open a consulting firm. I wanted to do things that I felt I could relate to in terms of a grassroots experience,” Benavides says.
She took some time off without pay and traveled all over the country learning quite a bit. She would soon start her own company. In those early days, Benavides says, Wisconsin Women's Business Initiative Corporation (WWBIC) helped her tremendously.
“It's not easy to have a business. There's the good, bad, and ugly,” Benavides says. “When I first opened the company it was pretty easy for me to make the transition initially because I primarily worked with the public sector including the state of Wisconsin agencies. There was, at that time, a recognition in Wisconsin that civil rights and crosscultural communications was important.”
On top of her regular work both at the state and with her own business, Benavides has been very strong in the community over the last three decades volunteering her consulting services and expertise to places like Centro Hispano of Dane County, Omega School, Latinos United for College Education Scholarships (LUCES), and other organizations. In fact, she has been involved with Centro Hispano since the very beginning. Benavides started as the secretary of the Latin American Project. “It was a project that was federally funded to help resettle migrant families. I got hooked from then on,” she remembers.
“I remember when Centro started in the back room at the Catholic Multicultural Center,” she adds. “We truly, truly did community outreach. We got out there and took people to the doctor and helped people with their papers. We did everything.
“Centro Hispano has always been something that has been very critical and very important here in this city. It had all the elements necessary for people to feel comfortable going there,”she adds. “It's a respectful environment. They are so helpful. And it’s not just the language, they help translate this whole system to people. Centro has always had the ability to help with that. It's not just the murals that are gorgeous. They have real multiculturalism going on there. Centro has a soul. I really love the new executive director [Karen Menendez Coller]”
Benavides has been volunteering her tremendously helpful services to Centro (and other organizations) for years — helping with the staff and organizing a strategic plan. Her work has not gone unnoticed as she has been a recipient of numerous awards at the local, state, and regional level including the Dane County Martin Luther King Jr. Humanitarian Award, the Hispanic Woman of the Year, the Latina Business of the Year from the Latino Chamber of Commerce, and the Club TNT Water Bearer award for outstanding contributions to her community.
Benavides has established a solid reputation in fields such as: cultural competency and communications, diversity management, workforce development, strategic planning, labor and community relations, mediation and conflict resolution, and customer service.
“There's research says that we really need cultural competence right now. The thing to me with diversity is that people see it as an HR[human resources] issue,” Benavides says. “They do not see it as a service delivery issue. In the private sector, they see it as a customer issue. They see the growth in the Latino community, for example, and they gather people to figure out how to reach that population. In the public sector, they are expecting people to really provide effective services without investment. Because we are racially integrated but culturally segregated, then they are not understanding that folks need to know more about cultural competency.”
Benavides is not just talking about cultural sensitivity. “You are either sensitive or you are not. I can't make you sensitive. I can make you aware. I can give you four books to read. That's what I tell people when I teach,” she says.
Benavides is concerned about Madison's future if we don't confront our issues around diversity and cultural competency.
“I get a little frustrated in Madison because every time I think something substantial is happening, we get sidetracked,” she says. “We're still at a place and at a level where we are trying to teach people awareness. I feel very strongly that cultural competency needs to happen,” she says.
Benavides talks about a partnership she has formed with Union Cab and some training work she is planning with that organization. “We're going to have training that is modeled after BaFa' BaFa', a game where you divide people into two countries where they each create their own means of communication and their own means of negotiating,” Benavides says.
Companies use BaFa' BaFa' to reinforce the positive aspects of cultural diversity. In BaFa' BaFa', participants come to understand the powerful effects that culture plays in every person's life. Participants live and cope in a simulated "foreign" culture and then discuss and analyse the experience. There are two cultures in the simulation. The Alpha culture is a warm, friendly, patriarchal society with a strong in-group, out-group identity. The Beta culture is a foreign speaking, task oriented culture. Once the participants learn the rules, customs, and values of "their" culture they visit the other culture.
“Then we start sending people to do business,” Benavides says. “They have to figure it out. The first person has no idea. The second person has a little idea because they learned from the first person who comes back to the group. They start understanding because the more people who are crossing, the more information they are getting back. Ultimately, one of the groups will be able to figure it out more than the other. To me, something like that, gives people the same frustration that people feel when you don't understand culture. It could be for so many reasons. Experience is the key. There are some things that you can't get just from watching videos.
“We can't just assume that we are serving people in a culturally competent way… we have to do more,” Benavides adds. “In Madison, we continuously celebrate ourselves but we don't communicate with each other — especially those who are low-income and people of color. [Mayor] Paul Soglin and I have talked about this many times. You can talk all you want about disparities, but unless you do something about it, it's all superficial. People are not doing the work. We've already gathered enough information. We talk about it. We invite people to talk about it and we spend days and hold hands and we sing songs…. but we need the organizational structure to change it. In Madison, we can do much better. I feel like I can help with that. I am invested in this city. I love this city.”
For more information about Benavides Enterprises, visit www.becrosscultural.com, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, or call (608) 575-6522.