Waunakee prioritizes diversity, mental health in UniverCity partnership

As communities across the nation have grappled with the coronavirus pandemic and nationwide calls for racial justice over the past two years, Dane County’s Village of Waunakee confronted the issues in partnership with University of Wisconsin-Madison journalism students. 

Waunakee partnered with UniverCity Alliance’s hallmark UniverCity Year program in pursuit of a more just, equitable and inclusive community. Students worked to develop communications campaigns to encourage diversity and normalize mental health resources–a need exacerbated by the pandemic. Their projects showed how the two efforts are connected. 

“No matter what our background is, our stories or where we came from, what brings us together is that we all want to make contributions to our community. That brings a sense of belonging–those are key things for the mental health of anyone in their community,” said Village of Waunakee resident Silvia Guerin.    

School of Journalism and Mass Communication students enrolled in Professor Doug McLeod’s Creative Campaign Messages class (Journ 445) worked closely with Waunakee leaders during the Fall 2021 semester to meet the village’s goals.   

Students created a suite of print, digital and social media products, like flyers, a website, and Instagram campaigns. Village leaders were impressed that much of the students’ work can be implemented. 

Village Administrator Todd Schmidt said the challenge to making a community as welcoming as possible lies in “not knowing what we don’t know.” Working with UW-Madison faculty and students not only illuminated areas of improvement, he said it brought fresh perspectives on community challenges.

“When those are revealed, then we can look at new ways to address those issues with a goal of moving toward being the most welcoming community that we can be,” Schmidt said.  

Partnering with UniverCity Year has also allowed the Village of Waunakee the additional resources to make progress beyond the urgent, day-to-day responsibilities that so often consume the small but “capable, very caring” village staff. 

“This partnership with UniverCity Year has at least made me feel as the village administrator that we have moved the needle on some of the most important work that we need to do that often gets buried under the day-to-day grind,” Schmidt said.   

Gavin Luter photo
Gavin Luter

UniverCity Alliance Managing Director Gavin Luter said what makes the partnership with Waunakee important is that the Village knew what it needed: “an injection of fresh perspectives mixed with practical, tangible deliverables that advance long-term goals.” 

“Students and faculty can, with our community partner’s help, produce helpful materials that respond to community issues,” Luter said. “Some might be surprised by this, but I’m not. This is exactly what we’re trying to do: show the state that UW-Madison can be a force for positive change.” 

‘Waunakee is Home’ 

A logo that reads Waunakee is Home. A heart made up of multi-colored hands is displayed in the right corner


Waunakee’s work to highlight its diversity began in 2019 when a group of community members started “Waunakee is Home” as one of the initiatives from the Create Waunakee Committee. This campaign aimed to value diversity within the community–including culture, race, beliefs–and show people outside of the village that all are welcome. 

The “Waunakee is Home” is aimed at valuing diversity in the community. The students’ campaign to support Waunakee is Home, builds on this group’s work by developing a website that would serve as a central online hub. It would include resources, events and interviews with community residents with the goal of encouraging belonging and unity in the village.  

Guerin, one of the key committee members involved in this campaign, appreciated how the students’ campaign expands the original work on more platforms. 

“They brought ideas that will help us magnify this in many ways,” Guerin said. 

A mock-up of an Instagram account
UW-Madison journalism students recommended creating an Instagram account and offered recommendations for content to post.

The group also recommended creating an Instagram account and offered recommendations for content to post, like photos of neighborhood businesses, portraits and short interviews with residents, and infographics illustrating Waunakee’s diversity. Additionally, students suggested printed materials like flyers, broadcast messages and event ideas to bring the community together. 

When working with the students, Guerin emphasized that she did not want the work to become polarizing. Diversity and inclusion can be misunderstood as having political motivations, which could cause resentment toward the goals. 

To avoid this, the students focused on celebrating diversity by promoting stories about individual experiences. 

“Our strategy reinforces community pride with visuals that showcase the assets of Waunakee—the library, sports games, and churches in order to build on community,” the students wrote in their final report. “We can link the inherent pride in the Waunakee community to the recognition that diversity and acceptance are part of what makes the Waunakee community great.” 

Destigmatizing mental health 

A campaign message showing the image of a phone and an example of an Instagram post
Several journalism students created materials, like this draft Instagram post, to normalize mental health in conversations at home and in school.

Waunakee Community School District Psychologist Kristen Thompson said the mental health of students has been a longstanding challenge due to rigorous workloads and pressure to excel academically, athletically and socially.  

The pandemic only made things more challenging. 

“(Mental health issues have) been on a pretty steady upwards trajectory,” Thompson said. 

Due to the pandemic altering aspects of in-person education, Thompson said some parents requested individualized support for their children around issues that many students were experiencing due to disruptions from the pandemic. These requests overwhelmed the school district’s existing systems, Thompson said.

“We need better communication with our families and our community in the very earliest stages of student struggles,” Thompson said. “When that communication starts way too late, people have already hit that frustration point, and it’s just hard to make things go smoothly.”  

This is where the work of the journalism students can be applied. This group of students created materials to normalize mental health in conversations at home and in school, establish a framework of needs and appropriate support, and clarify school resources. 

The students created a poster aimed at creating awareness, a brochure to inform parents on a variety of mental health challenges, a website landing page and social media content.

Thompson said she hopes that these materials will be a “uniting factor” for parents if they realize mental health issues may extend beyond their children and create a sense of community for parents who may be struggling to help their child. 

An example of a door hanger that reads "Let's Get Socail!"
This door hanger example encourages seniors to participate in social activities.

Senior Services Director Cindy Mosiman said the pandemic also amplified concerns over mental health at the senior center largely due to isolation and anxiety caused by the COVID-19 virus. 

The campaign created by the students to encourage mental health for seniors was important to Mosiman because she said an older population does not always realize there are resources available.

Mosiman said that materials the students created, including a brochure and posters, were supported by thoughtful research and could be used at the senior center.  

“I would hope that as information comes out through us and also through the schools …  the community as a whole would have a better understanding of mental health and take away that stigma with it,” Mosiman said.

—By Abigail Becker