For the Madison City Council, Nov. 30 was a stressful night. After months of weighing a proposal to resolve Overture Center’s $28 million in outstanding debt, a majority on the council was uncomfortable with the arrangement, which would move operations to a private nonprofit while retaining city ownership of the $205 million building.
Overture Center officials, however, had said that resolving the debt was contingent on the council accepting the proposed plan, and city attorneys had advised that the end of November was likely the deadline to approve one that would allow the lawyers enough time to draw up a contract. Council members were under significant pressure to support the original arrangement.
But freshmen council members Shiva Bidar-Sielaff and Chris Schmidt came to the meeting with other ideas. After meeting previously, both had agreed that some form of public ownership would be preferable, allowing for both open meetings and the ability for Overture employees to remain public employees.
Together, they proposed their option at the Nov. 30 meeting, and it gained traction, opening up new possibilities for how the center should operate. At 3:30 a.m. on Dec. 1, the City Council finally adjourned for the evening without voting on a single plan, physically tired but relieved that they had blown the alleged deadline without serious consequence and hopeful about new possibilities for discussion in the two weeks before their next meeting.
“The public authority proposal broke the perceived logjam and reminded alders that we had other options, that it was OK to say ‘no’ to the proposal that had the city own the building and most of the risk,” Schmidt says. “It pushed the Overture folks to consider owning the building, since the council almost did go the government-only route.”
Bidar-Sielaff went on to work with several other council members in a working group that met publicly and privately to hash through different options for the center, ultimately leading to the majority of City Council and Overture officials agreeing to a private-ownership, private-operation model.
The Overture Center discussions were by no means the first time in her two years on the council that Bidar-Sielaff found herself in a leadership role. In fact, she became the council’s vice president in April.
Upward movement that rapid is rare for a council member, but not surprising considering Bidar-Sielaff’s track record before her election. She moved to Madison 14 years ago to head up a brand-new department for medical interpreting at University of Wisconsin Hospital and Clinics, and has created not just a nationally known interpreting program, but also a strong relationship between the hospital and communities of color. Through her work and activities outside of it, Bidar-Sielaff has been honored with the annual award given by Madison and Dane County in honor of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and by the YWCA as one of its Women of Distinction.
How does she do it?
Some of it is boldness, and a willingness to dive headfirst into thorny issues like the Overture Center or the Edgewater Hotel renovation. But a lot of it is her deep expertise in communication. A professional interpreter who speaks four languages fluently, Bidar-Sielaff jokes that from time to time on the council, she finds herself performing English-to-English translations.
More seriously, she explains that her 20 years of interpreting experience can be useful even when everyone is speaking the same language. That’s because good interpreting goes beyond just converting words from one language to another. It’s also about analyzing not just what people are actually saying, but what they are trying to convey, and then putting their thoughts into words that will be meaningful to another person.
For some who have watched her profile grow within her adopted hometown, the question has become, what will Bidar-Sielaff lead next? Her name has come up as a strong candidate for a future mayor’s race, among other elected offices. Bidar-Sielaff herself won’t commit to anything at this point, preferring to live in the present. One thing that is certain, however, is that the Iranian-born, Spanish-raised Bidar-Sielaff is, for the foreseeable future, committed to working to improve Madison.
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The importance of being able to communicate well first hit home for Bidar-Sielaff at a young age. Born in Iran in 1969, most of her family left that country for Spain abruptly in 1978, when political protests against Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi began to take place, returning only briefly before moving back to Spain in early 1979, when Ayatollah Khomeini took power.
At the time, Bidar-Sielaff and her family did not expect to be gone long. Her father stayed behind in Iran to continue his work as a brick factory owner, while her mother and two brothers moved with her to Spain so that she could continue her education.
“He never wanted to leave Iran. He always felt like he could do more by staying,” she says of her father in an interview.
After most of her family left, however, the government froze her father’s assets, and he was prevented from leaving the country and seeing the rest of his family for nearly three years.
While in Spain, Bidar-Sielaff attended a Spanish-French immersion school where the majority of students were Spanish natives. Fellow students were not kind to her as a foreigner. Getting her lunch stolen became a common event, and she pleaded with her mother to allow her to get lunch at the cafeteria rather than bring Iranian food to school. Quickly, though, Bidar-Sielaff learned to speak up for herself, and the formerly quiet child gained a voice of her own.
“I never shut up again,” she says now with a laugh, noting that many people who know her here have a hard time believing she was ever subdued.
Bidar-Sielaff’s personality is as bright as her wardrobe, which is full of reds, yellows and pinks. She appears to have limitless energy, which is at least partially fueled by a regular Starbucks coffee habit. She speaks quickly and decisively, but is also a good listener. Having to listen to people and immediately translate what they’ve said into another language has forced her to become both a fast listener and fast talker, Bidar-Sielaff says.
Being thrust into an unfamiliar situation at a young age inspired Bidar-Sielaff to become a translator and to help others in unfamiliar situations communicate with those around them. While attending college in Belgium, she spent a semester in California at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, a premier international studies and translation program, and loved it so much that she returned there to get a master’s degree.
The transition from Europe to California was not an easy one, though. English was Bidar-Sielaff’s last language learned (Farsi, Spanish and French are the others), and she was taught British English in Europe, spending time in London to perfect it.
“When I got to California, I was like: ‘Oh my God, I do not speak English!’ ” she says. After more than 10 years of taking English classes, understanding anyone in the United States was a challenge.
Still, Bidar-Sielaff was able to adapt, and upon graduation, she found herself drawn to the burgeoning medical interpretation field. In California, she worked for a branch of AT&T that provided translation services for 911 centers, among other organizations, but she and her husband, Alex, a Madison native, were not sure they wanted to make California a permanent home.
Bidar-Sielaff soon found a job opening at UW Hospital in a brand-new position as director of interpreter services, a $60,000 department that has grown to $7.5 million in the past 14 years under her watch.
Bidar-Sielaff says she was attracted to medical interpreting because in spite of having to deliver bad news or to see people who have been through trauma, having an interpreter present can always improve the state of mind of both patients and their families.
“The faces of people when they get an interpreter, even when they’re in pain and in a trauma … in the worst scenario, the person hears a voice in their language and you feel this, you can sense them thinking, ‘I feel better because someone is speaking my language,’” Bidar-Sielaff says. “Even when you’re giving bad news, people are still happy to see the interpreter. I can’t think of a more satisfying job.”
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Bidar-Sielaff has done more than set national standards for medical interpretation programs during her time at UW Hospital. She has also been an advocate for increased cultural outreach, particularly to immigrant communities and communities of color.
Relatively quickly after arriving in Madison, Bidar-Sielaff became active in the Latino community, attending events and soon participating in local organizations, from the Latino Health Council and Latino Support Network to the South Madison Health and Family Center (Harambee).
“When you show up to events, to support a cause, to support the community, little by little people realize that she truly believes in what she does,” says Brenda Gonzalez, who first met Bidar-Sielaff when Gonzalez began working in interpreter services at Dean Health System.
Gonzalez says Bidar-Sielaff has a Mexican or Latina heart in many ways and that her life experiences across the world have made it easier for her to connect with many different communities in Madison. In particular, she has bonded with Madison’s Latino community and become an integral part of an organic but well-organized group of leaders, many of them women, and provided a link back to the medical community through her work at the hospital.
“People don’t know exactly where she was from — she might be Mexican or Latina. She responds to anyone, whether it’s a big name or someone new to the community,” Gonzalez says.
Bidar-Sielaff has also been persistent about keeping Latino and immigrant issues at the forefront of the Madison community, says Fabiola Hamdan, a Dane County social worker. Bidar-Sielaff even brought forward a resolution to the City Council that urged the Dane County Sheriff’s Office to modify its practice of notifying federal immigration authorities about the immigration status of people being held. That was a bold move considering that many recent members of the City Council have tried to deliberately move away from making statements about branches of government they do not control.
Hamdan says the motivation to put that resolution forward came from listening to people in the Latino community, including one hearing at the Dane County Equal Opportunity Commission that brought Bidar-Sielaff to tears as a mother testified in Spanish about not knowing where her son was in the jail and whether he had been sent back to his home country.
The resolution brought dozens of people to the council to speak about the fear the Sheriff’s Office’s practice creates in their families and their community, and the council ended up supporting the resolution overwhelmingly.
“It brought (the issue) to our attention in a really big way,” says Ald. Lauren Cnare, the current City Council president.
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Bidar-Sielaff has long been involved in Madison city government through committees, beginning shortly after her move to the city with an appointment to the Board of Public Health under former Mayor Sue Bauman in 2000. At the time, the board was discussing not only a merger between the city and county health departments, but also a citywide smoking ban, bringing the normally low-profile body to the front burner at the time.
“I have a way of finding myself in the middle of any controversy,” Bidar-Sielaff says with a laugh. The smoking ban, though, “was my first taste of what really divisive public dialogue could look like. Either the world was going to end with the smoking ban or the world was going to be saved.”
By 2002, Bidar-Sielaff’s profile within the Latino community had grown enough that when Dave Cieslewicz announced that he was going to run for mayor, Juli Aulik — a friend and colleague of both — decided the two should meet.
Bidar-Sielaff and Cieslewicz took to each other and Bidar-Sielaff supported Cieslewicz’s mayoral campaign. Not long after, Bidar-Sielaff found herself at the center of another controversy.
Madison’s Police and Fire Commission was wrestling with a decision among three candidates for police chief, and the five-member board was one person short at the time, making it more difficult than usual to get the three votes needed for a decision. After letting the board members try to work it out on their own for a while, Cieslewicz eventually called on Bidar-Sielaff to serve on the commission and provide the final vote.
“My initial inclination was to let them work it out without putting someone on the hot seat who essentially would be in charge of picking the next police chief,” Cieslewicz says. But he eventually chose Bidar-Sielaff not only for her ties to minority communities, but for her generally independent, strong-minded demeanor.
Both Cieslewicz and Bidar-Sielaff recall their conversation about the commission vividly, with the general message from Bidar-Sielaff to Cieslewicz being clear: You won’t tell me who to vote for.
“Shiva is not a person you ever want to appoint or elect thinking you know how she’s going to vote,” says Aulik, who works closely with Bidar-Sielaff at UW Hospital. “Nobody who knows Shiva would say she’s anything but independent.”
As her participation in city government increased, Bidar-Sielaff began to think more about running for elected office, with people first coming to her when the Dane County Board seat now occupied by Jeremy Levin opened up. She initially resisted, preferring to continue her work on city committees. But when former District 5 Ald. Robbie Webber announced in late 2008 that she would not seek a fourth term, Bidar-Sielaff jumped in.
“We would always sit and complain that there’s not enough representation of people understanding the breadth of issues in communities of color” such as poverty and housing, Bidar-Sielaff said. “Immediately people said: ‘You should do it.’ I was happy being unelected but I decided to walk the talk.”
Despite having little experience in political campaigns, Bidar-Sielaff and Aulik organized themselves quickly, getting up at 4:30 a.m. most days to do campaign work before going to UW Hospital.
While Bidar-Sielaff was the first candidate to announce, with many prominent supporters from Cieslewicz to County Executive Kathleen Falk, it was by no means an easy race. Her opponent, Hamilton Arendsen, had deep family ties in Madison and he was well-funded.
In some ways, it was a testament to Bidar-Sielaff’s previous involvement in the community that the race ended up as lopsided as it did, with Bidar-Sielaff winning more than 60 percent of the vote.
So far, there have been few regrets from her constituents. Regent Neighborhood Association President Darsi Foss was effusive in her praise of Bidar-Sielaff’s work over the past two years, noting her knack not only for communicating what is happening at the council and being transparent with neighbors, but also just for getting things done.
Foss, who did not know Bidar-Sielaff well before the election, said her first vivid memory of her as a council member was watching the petite woman stand outside and talk to city traffic staff, pointing to a nonexistent crosswalk as an indication of where one needed to be.
“I knew she was going to be an effective alder when all these crosswalks started appearing,” Foss says. “She got the city to do things that they had been potentially reluctant to do in the past.”
In her first budget cycle, Bidar-Sielaff secured non-property tax funds for renovating Olive Jones Park, the playground for Randall Elementary School, in her district, that had long been on the docket for improvements. The funds were contingent on matching funds from neighborhood and school fundraising, a successful effort that led to a renovated playground by last summer.
“Shiva is willing to accomplish things that people have given up on,” Foss says. “If it wasn’t for Shiva, I don’t think we would have had that commitment from the city.”
More difficult, though, was the proposed Mullins development on Old University Avenue, a mixed-use project with ground-floor retail and several stories of apartments. A previous iteration had been judged too big for the site, which sat between Old University Avenue and Campus Drive near Highland Avenue, and a prior plan for that corridor had been rejected for creating too much height and density for the relatively small and already-busy roads, leading to bad feelings among many neighbors.
Although many still objected to a new design from Mullins, Foss says Bidar-Sielaff successfully steered the project through the city process while making sure opposing voices were heard. Foss also credits Bidar-Sielaff with ensuring that a more inclusive planning process for the street took place concurrently to give concerned neighbors some confirmation that the street would not become a wall of development.
Even Troy Thiel, a real estate agent who ran against Webber and supported Bidar-Sielaff’s opponent, has mostly praise for her. Despite some concerns that Bidar-Sielaff would too easily fall into what he saw as “groupthink” under Cieslewicz’s leadership, he says she has been mostly independent and taken good positions on issues. Notably, Bidar-Sielaff was the only freshman City Council member who ran for re-election without facing a challenger in this spring’s elections.
And it’s not because she shies away from controversy. In her first term, Bidar-Sielaff became actively involved in Edgewater Hotel renovation discussions, joining then-council Vice President Cnare and Edgewater area council members Mike Verveer, Bridget Maniaci and Marsha Rummel in private discussions with developer Bob Dunn after the council first failed to overturn the Landmarks Commission’s rejection of the hotly debated project.
“Shiva came perhaps to the table with a deep respect for the landmarks designation. She lives in a district with an honored history and past that people want to preserve, so she carried that water” in the discussions, Cnare says. “Sometimes alders carry a sense of, ‘That issue isn’t any of my business — it’s not in my district, I don’t have expertise in it.’ I’m hopeful Shiva’s activity in that is a signal to all alders that no matter what the issue is, it’s good to have more of our heads at the table than not.”
Bidar-Sielaff’s only notable misstep on the council took place in last year’s budget debates, when she proposed adding money back into the budget for five community service agencies that had lost some funding for this year primarily due to a new, additional priority area competing for funding. Committee members were critical of her amendment, calling for any additional money to be sent back to the committee to divide up according to its own process, a position that carried the day.
“Shiva is a bold personality,” Cnare says. “I think that does sometimes lead to moving ahead of colleagues and not touching base with everyone to smooth an easy path. Nobody likes surprises unless it’s your birthday, and that was a surprise to everyone, especially to people who had worked long and hard and collaboratively to find a way to fund our community services without it becoming a lightning rod” on the council floor.
For her part, Bidar-Sielaff says she understands why the council voted the way it did, and that she was happy she raised the issue because it led to an increase in overall community services funding. If she had to do it over again, she might have tried to bring her concerns about the added funding priority to the committee earlier.
“This year was a new set of priorities and I think there were some tweaks that needed to be made,” she says. “There are always emerging needs and there will always be constant needs. … Sometimes new sounds exciting, but that doesn’t mean what was happening before wasn’t important as well.”
Bidar-Sielaff’s quick rise as a prominent voice on the Madison City Council has caused more than a few people to mention her name as a possible candidate for higher office, whether at the city level as mayor or the state level as a legislator.
Ald. Maniaci, who was elected with Bidar-Sielaff in 2009, points to this year’s mayoral race as evidence of the small “farm league” for Madison politics. Mayor Paul Soglin’s entrance was seen as the first serious threat to Cieslewicz, despite the fact that Soglin had not held an elected office in 14 years. While many would expect mayoral candidates to come from the council, that doesn’t always happen, Maniaci says, because with 20 members, all of them represent relatively small districts in the city, making it hard to develop a broad base of support.
By contrast, Bidar-Sielaff’s professional life and community service have allowed her to gain recognition with multiple constituencies, Maniaci says, making her a prime candidate for citywide office.
“Shiva is the best chance we have at forming a new generation of city leaders,” she says. “She brings so many valuable skill sets to the table. She fits very square, very center into the middle of the political spectrum of alders on the council and she is able to bridge a lot of divides.”
The only question, Maniaci says, is whether Bidar-Sielaff wants to give up her current life for full-time elected office.
“She does so much fantastic work at the hospital that would be sacrificed,” Maniaci says. “I don’t see anything in her record or personality as a hurdle.”
For those in Madison’s Latino community, Bidar-Sielaff’s City Council experience has been eye-opening, and a move to another political office may be even more so. Hamdan says Bidar-Sielaff’s aldermanic campaigns allowed many in the Latino community to gain firsthand experience in political campaigns, and that her role on the council has increased communication and information exchange between city government and communities of color.
“We all benefit from having people of color, women in this type of position. … We have statistics, we have the numbers, but we don’t always see the people” in elected office, Hamdan says. “Now that we sort of shadow her in all this stuff, I’m sure many of us will not be afraid to take this road.”
As for Bidar-Sielaff herself, she says she has had people come to her to talk about higher office, but it has not been a serious consideration.
“Other people always encourage you to do more. I want to be focused on what I’m doing now, but who knows?” she says.
Still, she says she has been inspired by what President Barack Obama has done to expand the definition of what community leaders can look like, with Obama bringing a multiracial, global perspective to the Oval Office. As someone who does not shy away from community service, she says she will always be willing to seek out opportunities to make her community a better place.
“I never thought about running for alder. If I feel like I can contribute something to the equality and discussion, sure.”