Last updated on May 13th, 2019 at 02:40 pm
Christine Rodriguez came to Milwaukee in 1999 when Rockwell Automation Inc. moved its headquarters here from Costa Mesa, Calif. She knew little about Milwaukee, aside from the facts that it was located in the Midwest and the weather can get quite cold here. She planned to work a couple of years and move back to sunny Southern California.
However, Rodriguez’s stay in Milwaukee turned out to be longer and more productive than she ever could have imagined. When she retired from Rockwell in 2004, philanthropist Michael Cudahy convinced her to stay a couple more years to help him launch Discovery World at Pier Wisconsin.
With that mission now accomplished, Rodriguez finally did move back to the West Coast
to be with her two grown daughters, her five grandchildren and her parents earlier this month.
She leaves with an interesting and unique vantage point of Milwaukee. As an outsider who moved here, she has seen this town from the top of its corporate ladder to the nonprofits that serve its most impoverished citizens. Shortly after her plane touched down at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), she returned a telephone call to Small Business Times executive editor Steve Jagler. The following are excerpts from that “exit interview.”
SBT: So, you’re calling from California?
Rodriguez: “I’m sitting in the Hertz rental car lot (laughs). But I know you’re on deadline, so I figured I’d call you before I get on the freeway.”
SBT: Well, thanks so much, Christine. As far as you moving back to California, that was part of your plan all along?
Rodriguez: “Well, you know it has been all along, actually. When I moved out there (to Milwaukee) with Rockwell in August of 1999, it was only going to be for two years. Two years kind of led into three and four and five, and then when I did retire from Rockwell, and I was headed back (to California), Mr. Cudahy put a big detour sign in front of me.”
SBT: He’s a persuasive guy, isn’t he?
Rodriguez: “He’s a persuasive salesman. It wasn’t a hard sell, though, Steve, because this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I feel like I really have fulfilled my commitment, and now it’s time for the next chapter in my life.”
SBT: With Pier Wisconsin and the nonprofit gig, you probably developed some skills that you didn’t even know you had.
Rodriguez: “Absolutely (laughs). Looking at construction schedules, looking at all new aspects of building not just a new building, but a new institution.”
SBT: As you are leaving us, do you have any thoughts about how Milwaukee has changed for the better in the time you were here?
Rodriguez: “Oh, golly, yes. I will tell you that one of the impressions that I had when I first moved to Milwaukee was that it was very segregated, and I found that to be true. But in the seven years that I’ve been there, I’ve seen lots of progress in that respect.
“I’ll give you an example. When I moved to Milwaukee, I was vice president of state and community relations for Rockwell Automation, and part of my job was to administer the charitable corporation, so I became the face of Rockwell in the community. One of the first black-tie events I went to was the Swan Ball at the Milwaukee Country Club. So, even before I got to Milwaukee, I arranged for us to sponsor a table there. And because I am divorced, I didn’t know anybody there, except a few of my co-workers. Just imagine a Latina woman walking into a country club, a gala, with no escort, and people were curious to who I was, and I felt that curiosity, and I think I’m being kind using that word, because I was the only person of color at that gala. But again, I felt very welcomed. And from there, I kept meeting other people, and I think Milwaukee has been a very welcoming community for me. And I have seen it change for the better.”
SBT: Speaking to that point, it occurs to me that the Third Ward, the Fifth Ward and Walker’s Point, which is home to so many Latinos, seem to be kind of spilling over, blending together as neighborhoods.
Rodriguez: “Yes. And I think that’s a great thing. You know, when I came to Milwaukee, one of the things that I saw was that segregation among the minority communities. As part of my job for Rockwell, I needed to become part of the entire community, and so I met many wonderful people in mainstream Milwaukee, in the African-American community, in the Native-American community, and so I go to know Milwaukee from that perspective, that overall perspective. Having come from California, which is such a veritable mix of all ethnicities and ages and sexual orientations, I mean it was very subversive here. So, it was a bit of a cultural shock for me coming here.”
SBT: Regarding the Latino community … How is Milwaukee’s Latino community doing, from your perspective, given all of the rhetoric spewing out of the illegal immigration debate this country is having now? And do you worry that the divisiveness from that issue might be harming the social harmony between ethnicities in this country?
Rodriguez: “First of all, I think the Latino community in Milwaukee is a very strong community. They are very close-knit. They really have a sense of family. They have a very, very strong work ethic. They know that if they work hard and take the extra steps, it will pay off in the long run. You see that familial closeness, for example, when you visit the United Community Center. They have programs for people of every age. The support system is there.
“There have been issues where I have seen the divisiveness. The whole Mark Belling (conservative radio talk show host) issue that came up, that had divisive results. But I think for the most part, Hispanics in Milwaukee have pulled together and are learning to work through these issues.
“And it’s just like any other community – you have opinions that vary. I think that the immigration issue is going to be something that many Hispanics in Milwaukee are going to have different opinions about, just like other communities. If there is any divisiveness, I don’t think it will impact the overall Hispanic community in a negative sense. I just think we’re going to work through it, because there are too many other things that hold that community together.”
SBT: You mentioned things in Milwaukee that have improved over time. Do you have any thoughts about aspects of Milwaukee that need to get better, that Milwaukee needs to work on?
Rodriguez: “Certainly, the education system. Having seen what I’ve seen in my position at Rockwell, I felt that education was the greatest need for all the community. Education crosses all lines. It truly is color blind. To really make systemic and significant change, we all have to focus on education. I think there’s so much of that going on. I guess that’s another good thing, is that Milwaukeeans have a very generous heart, they have spirit. You know, once you put your mind to it, things get done.
“Where I also see things that need improvement is there are many programs and organizations have sprung up around these issues, whether it’s education and social services and other community-related issues, and all of these organizations, as wonderful as they are, there are too many of them. What I would like to see is much more consolidation and much more collaboration among the existing organizations. And if they’re not working, then they need to go away.”
“Another thing is that I think there still are glass ceilings in Milwaukee for women and minorities, and I think that, while many initiatives are under way within corporations and small businesses and the nonprofit arena, there still needs to be more teeth put into these initiatives. You know, Milwaukee Women Inc., for example, they’re working very hard to try to get more women on corporate boards. When you have that representation and that voice in the corporate board room – and I’m talking about paid corporate boards, not just the nonprofit boards – that’s when you’re going to see us break through that glass ceiling.
“I think that one of the ways you’re going to do that is through mentoring. I certainly wouldn’t have gotten as far as I did at Rockwell or at Discovery World if I didn’t get the one-on-one mentoring.”