Honor Wall Speech: Maria Regan Gonzalez

Kenneth Forbeck

Speech by Kenneth Forbeck about Maria Regan Gonzalez during the Honor Wall event:

     Good afternoon and welcome to our students, staff, and honored guests.

     Growing up in Beloit I was constantly exposed to a relatively diverse community for a city in Wisconsin. But, to state the obvious, Janesville has always lacked diversity. Despite that, today at Craig High School we see many excellent efforts by multiple clubs, like the Gay Straight Alliance, Human Relations Club, Interact Club, Circles of Support, the multiple different foreign language clubs, and more, trying to bring awareness of social issues and support of diverse peoples to our community.

     Maria Regan Gonzalez, who we honor today, spent much of her time at Craig High School working towards building understanding across differences. She celebrated diversity and advanced social causes within our school and city. She served as an ally member of the Gay Straight Alliance Club, served as the President of the Human Relations Club, and was an editor for the Criterion, writing a monthly column about social justice and environmental issues. Being involved in high school helped Maria grow her leadership skills and act on her passion for community service. It allowed her to find her leadership voice from a young age and not be afraid to take strong stances on issues or to be herself. Being a part of the newspaper staff gave her the opportunity to think about her values, goals, and aspirations and to clearly articulate them. It was also a way for her to learn about and discuss complex issues such as racism, social inequities, and global warming.

     I believe Maria was an excellent choice for this award because she has taken her values of equity, justice, and community service and has made them the foundation of her life’s work. She isn’t complacent with the status quo, and she pushes for more inclusion, equity, and justice to create a better community. Her classmates even recognized her strong moral spirit during her time at Craig. They nominated her as “most likely to change the world” her senior year in high school. And I’ve got to say, Maria has lived up to that since then. Her leadership was also recognized by the Diversity Action Team of Rock County during her Senior year when she earned the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Service Award “for playing an active role in enhancing peacemaking and race relations through participation in community and school activities”.

     After graduating from Craig in 2004, Maria became the first in her family to graduate from college, earning a Bachelor’s Degree in International Trade and Policy as well as Spanish Studies from the University of Minnesota and is currently finishing her Master’s in Public Health, also from the University of Minnesota.

     After earning her undergraduate degree, Maria spent a year as an International Ambassador of Goodwill for Rotary International in Mexico and later moved to Richfield, Minnesota, in 2012 where she now resides. Before moving to Richfield, she worked for local community organizations, policy makers, and institutions to address public health problems in Richfield through her job as a Health Specialist for the local health department and now working as a Senior Program Manager in the Community Health and Health Equity Department at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota. In 2016, Regan Gonzalez was elected to Richfield’s City Council, becoming the youngest member ever elected to the council. In her role she helped stop the displacement of over 500 low-income families in her district and was even a special guest of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama during one of his visits to Minnesota where she gave him the key to Richfield.

     In 2018, Maria was elected Richfield’s mayor, making her the first Latina mayor in Minnesota’s 160 year history. She is also now one of Minnesota’s youngest mayors. In December of 2018,  she was recognized as a “Changemaker of the year” by the Minnesota Women’s Press for promoting greater equality, justice, or self-determination for women and girls in Minnesota. And in February, Maria received the prestigious Bush Fellowship given to 24 visionary leaders from across the Midwest who are thinking big about how to invest in their leadership to creatively solve problems in their communities.  Not only does Maria strive to model new forms of leadership and governance that are more inclusive and welcoming, she also strives to serve as a role model for young and aspiring Latinas and other youth who want to become leaders. She said, “One of the biggest joys and honors I experience on a regular basis is hearing children of all backgrounds and ages tell me that one day they want to be a leader too and that they know they can do it because I have role modeled it for them.”

     Though Maria has focused on social issues, she also has a broad passion for the environment and sustainability.  Some examples of Maria’s past advocacy includes working with farmers in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and even Latin America to help establish sustainable and organic farming practices as well as serving as the Board Chair of the Women’s Environmental Institute. As mayor and former city council member she has supported policy changes to make every street in her city walkable and bikeable, has started a city-wide composting program, put solar panels up on city buildings, and has worked with residents to create more bee and bird friendly habitats in Richfield.

     As mayor, Maria believes that by leading with equity and inclusion of our most vulnerable residents, we can achieve prosperity and wellbeing is for an entire community. Maria’s vision is “to build a city that is welcoming, inclusive and affordable for all people from seniors on fixed incomes, to immigrants and refugees.”

     Today’s award adds to her list of recognitions that speak to her dedication and passion for community service. Some of the other awards she has received include the Neighborhood Champion Award, the NeighborWorks Community Builder Award, and the Community Hero Award. She also currently sits on the Governor’s appointed Minnesota Council on Latino Affairs and many other boards and commissions as Mayor of Richfield.

     Despite all the facts and admirable aspects I learned about Maria when I interviewed her, one quote stayed with me. And that was : “I also aspire to help build the future generation of diverse leaders across our country.” I hope that today reminds us that those future diverse leaders can come from Craig.

     Now it is my privilege to give this award to Maria Regan Gonzalez. Please welcome her to the stage.