Migdalia Gonzalez ’85 specializes in connecting the federal government with the communities it hopes to serve
Migdalia Gonzalez ’85 has a resume that’s as varied as it is impressive: She’s worked as a journalist, in political communications, in real estate, as a bank vice president, and, for the last 15 years, as an outreach specialist and program manager for the federal government, beginning with Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and, most recently, for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). On the side, she gives motivational talks on leadership, a topic that’s also the subject of her new book.
As wide-ranging as her career path may seem, all of her work shares a guiding insight, one borne of Gonzalez’s own life experience overcoming economic and cultural barriers, dating back to her days at Williston: To connect with people in today’s diverse society, an organization needs to understand how people actually live.
And that’s where she can help.
Consider the government’s response to Maria, the Category 5 hurricane that devastated Puerto Rico in 2017. As it happened, Gonzalez knew the island and its culture well; her grandmother had been born there. HUD tasked Gonzalez with coordinating relief efforts, and she suspected right away that the government’s usual approach—requiring local residents to seek aid at various far-flung offices—was destined for failure. “All I kept thinking is, you know that these people don’t have cars, right?” she recalls. “You do know that the public transportation system is down. You do know that most businesses are down. So how do you want them to do this?”
As an alternative, Gonzalez set up the Disaster Recovery Fairs, a one-stop shop where government and nonprofit partners could offer health care, legal and banking services, assistance with government paperwork, and other resources. “I brought in a satellite dish so we could process applications right on the spot. I brought copy machines, scanners, and printers so we could process and give them copies of everything that they needed. I brought in FEMA representatives, Small Business Administration, Army Corps of Engineers, Red Cross, local government entities, and members of the non-profit community. I brought in the banks because I used to be in the banking industry and I know how the banks work. They were writing checks on the spot.”
As successful as Disaster Recovery Fairs have become, Gonzalez’s experience is more broadly instructive: It demonstrates the value that diverse perspectives can bring to an organization. “It’s about finding out how the real world works,” she explains. “You sit in a tower in Washington, DC, you’re not boots on the ground. You think this is going to work because it’s your idea, but you didn’t do your due diligence to find out if it’s really going to work.”
Over her 30 years in the private and public sectors, Gonzalez has brought her boots-on-the-ground approach to a host of social problems: from food-stamp abuse, to mortgage red-lining, to disaster response. Her work often requires her to be an ambassador for diversity, a task she embraces even if it can be exhausting. “I know that many of my positions, if we’re going to be honest,
I received because they needed to fill a quota,” she says. “They needed to show ‘We hire Hispanics,’ that type of thing. But at the end of the day, you still have to do the job. And that is where the opportunity lies to make a change, because you’re showing people that you are more than qualified to be at the table.”
In January 2022, Gonzalez was hired by the FAA to her current position as Hispanic Employee Program Manager, a role, she notes with a laugh, that has “nothing to do with aviation.” Instead, she works to recruit Hispanic college students and others for careers in the federal government, an organization that “is one of the worst in hiring and creating a diverse workplace,” she says. Fortunately, she loves to meet a challenge. “That’s my reputation in the federal government. I’m the one they would call in whenever they had to do a special project, something that had to do with outreach. ‘Oh, contact Migdalia. She can help us.’”
The world of federal agencies is a long way from the Yonkers, New York, of Gonzalez’s childhood, where she was raised by a single mother with support from her grandmother, a first-generation migrant and family matriarch who impressed upon young Migdalia the importance of education and giving back to your community. When a middle school friend told Gonzalez about a scholarship program to Williston, Gonzalez sought out the vice principal and asked, “Why can’t I do that?” With that question, she began steering her own destiny, a strategy she has drawn on throughout her career.
“I use my story about Williston all the time,” says Gonzalez, whose leadership talks and forthcoming book are titled Dancing Into Opportunity. “They didn’t even consider me at first. I asked a question. I said, ‘Why not me?’ and that was when the opportunity came.”
Arriving in Easthampton on a scholarship, Gonzalez was one of just a handful of Hispanic students in her grade, navigating a culture with strange sports like field hockey and lacrosse and curious bands like the Grateful Dead. “Not even the Spanish teacher was Spanish,” she recalls. Her adjustment was not easy—there were dismissive comments at school, then envy and resentment from her friends and relatives when she returned to Yonkers. Like the character of Nina in the musical In the Heights, she says, “I didn’t belong here and I didn’t belong there.”
But with the support of teachers (and a stern warning from her grandmother), she stayed on. A pivotal moment came in ninth grade English class with Al Shaler, she recalls, who singled her out by noting that she could speak two languages while the rest of the class “can’t even get through one.” Later, he pulled her aside. “He said, ‘Listen. I know people make comments. I’ve heard them. Never give people power over your emotions and how you react.’ And it was a powerful lesson. Even today, when I teach and I train and do collegiate outreach, that’s one of my things: Never give someone power over you, because when you feed into them, they win.”
Other faculty—Ann Pickrell, Phil and Sarah Stevens, Marsha Reed Hendricks, Barry Moser—also welcomed and encouraged her, and she soon found her community, helping form the school’s Cultural Alliance club, serving as proctor, discovering her talents at art and dance, and meeting people who have stayed lifelong friends. “I believe that my time at Williston was even more important than my time in college,” says Gonzalez, who earned her degree at City University of New York. “I learned more about leadership. It opened up my eyes to a world that I only could have imagined. I always knew that there was something more. I just didn’t know what that was.”
Her time at Williston, she says, also helped prepare her for later adversity. And she has certainly encountered her share, both in her professional life—harassment, ignorance, racist comments—but also, more tragically, in her personal life. In 2017, her son, Jean-Marc Norat, who aspired to be a civil rights lawyer, died of cancer at age 24. In his honor, she has started the JMN Rise Foundation, whose mission is to support families or individuals facing catastrophic events. She also launched a scholarship to help low-income students cover educational expenses that are often unmet.
More recently, she has joined Williston’s Head’s Visiting Council, and hopes to bring her boots-on-the-ground insights to the school community, in particular, to help ease the transition for students from low-income communities. “If there’s a way that I can help, in saying, ‘Hey, listen, I did it. I left. I came from the inner city,’” says Gonzalez, who now lives in Wappingers Falls, New York, with her husband, her daughter, and her young grandson. “Look at what I’ve been able to do because of what I learned, because of that experience. You’re going to school. You’re doing well right here. But this is just the beginning of what is out there.”
Building on life experience is also a focus of her leadership talk, “Dancing Into Opportunity,” which she recently presented at the national conference of the League of United Latin American Citizens in Puerto Rico. Her central theme, that navigating relationships in our diverse society is like learning a dance, links back to her time with the Williston Dance Ensemble. “I love music and I love dance,” she explains. “It’s something that helped me through Williston. I use it as a metaphor: You have to know who you are dancing with. How do you build effective relationships? You need to learn about them; you need to practice; you need to take time. And if it’s negative, how do you do a two-step out of the situation?”
After a career on life’s dance floor, Gonzalez still has some moves.