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Breaking the Ice: Linking Human Services with communities

Editor’s note: Breaking the Ice helps reserved Minnesotans learn more about their colleagues and their lives beyond their jobs.

Name: Antonia Wilcoxon

Title: Community relations director, Department of Human Services

Education: Bachelor’s degree in economics, Universidade Federal do Espirito Santo in Vitória, Brazil; master’s degree in international management, University of St. Thomas; pursuing doctorate in leadership, policy and administration, University of St. Thomas.

Antonia Wilcoxon helps bring the voices of racial and ethnic groups experiencing disparities to the attention of the Department of Human Services while helping communities better understand the workings of the state’s largest agency, which administers health care, economic assistance and child welfare services among many others.

Wilcoxon, appointed to the then new role community relations director for the department in 2012, serves as the staff person to the state Cultural and Ethnic Communities Leadership Council. The Legislature created the council in 2013 to advise the DHS commissioner on ways to reduce disparities in agency programs.

A native of Vitória, Brazil, Wilcoxon came to Minnesota as an exchange student and attended high school in Lake Crystal. She returned to Brazil to earn an economics degree before continuing her education in Minnesota. She has worked at DHS since 2004.

Q. What’s the best way to start a conversation with you?

A. Although I tend to look at myself as a shy person, I’m also very gregarious. I like to have people around me. I usually work very well in collaboration with others throughout my professional work and also my volunteer work. I’m always working on teams, I’m always depending on more than one person to do the job. I appreciate different perspectives because I think it brings richness to the discussion.

Q. What books are on your bedside table or e-reader?

A. I completed a book by a woman who wrote about the sudden death of her husband, “The Light of the World” by Elizabeth Alexander. It’s a lovely book. It’s very sad, but the way that she framed it, it’s such a gift. It is poetry. The book that I have by my bedside is a big book, so I’m still reading; it is “The Warmth of Other Suns,” by Isabel Wilkerson. I’m also reading and studying “Medical Apartheid” because my work in my doctorate degree is around disparities.

Q. What’s a favorite activity outside your job?

A. In the warm months in Minnesota if I’m in my backyard in my garden, I love to garden. I love to take walks around my neighborhood. I enjoy the movies and theater, especially the wonderful Penumbra Theatre that talks about the African-American experience. It’s not something that I grew up having that exposure to in Brazil. I’m very grateful there is such a rich cultural life here.

Cooking is another thing I enjoy. I love to cook my Brazilian food. Here I cook black beans and rice, which is a typical dish through a major part of Brazil. Black beans cooked in many cuts of meat including salted dried beef and served with rice and collard greens.

Q. Has an event or person ever inspired you?

A. The life of Mr. [Nelson] Mandela — I have read his book, I have visited South Africa — has been an inspiration to me in terms of him overcoming great difficulty and great hardship and still coming onto the other side to have been such an inspiring president. When I visited South Africa he was still living, he was quite ill then, but you saw his picture everywhere.

Q. Where do you like to eat lunch?

A. We have a wonderful neighborhood restaurant called Babani’s. It’s a Kurdish restaurant. That’s where I meet people. I love to go when I need some home-cooked food that’s well prepared. I know the proprietor and they already know what I order.

Q. What do you miss most with the Capitol under renovation?

A. I go to the State Capitol on rare occasions when I have had to testify on particular bills. It’s always just symbolic of democracy here. I can’t wait for it to reopen where we can enjoy that again. It is a special place to be. That’s where legislation is made. That’s where people are coming to advocate for themselves or advocate for others. That’s the heart of democracy for us here in Minnesota so it’s a very special place.

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