She’s a voice for others

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Sunday, January 20, 2008
— Regina Dunkin spends lots of time in packed boardrooms.

Daily, she meets with committees and clients. She’s always on the run and surrounded by people who need her.

But looking around, she’s always alone. In the ranks of Rock County’s leaders, Dunkin, 41, is often the only professional black woman in the room.

Her colleagues on various committees might think they’ve achieved diversity with Dunkin at the table. But she’s not enough, she said.

“It comes down to having people in places where their voices can be heard,” Dunkin said. “You can’t do it by having one representative on the board. You can’t do it well.

“It’s very alarming to me. I see so few black professionals. It’s a question all the way around, even in our biggest employers like the city, school and hospital.”

But don’t get the impression Dunkin is a downer. She dashes around in spike heels and a tailored pink sweater, laughing with the energy of a teenager. Then, the second you walk into her office, she proudly shows off pictures of her “grandbabies.”

Politely, she interrupts an interview to take phone orders for free turkeys at Beloit’s Merrill Neighborhood Center, where she’s been executive director for nine years.

“Oh! I just love that,” she says after each order.

Family is as important to Dunkin now as it was when she was a girl. She was surrounded by the love of her mother and grandmothers, who were so involved in the Baptist church, Dunkin thought she might grow up to be a nun.

Dunkin has pulled that sense of family from her childhood into her work at the Merrill Center. Her greatest impact has been improving the accessibility of programs to youth and families in Beloit, said Jason Witt, deputy director of the Rock County Human Services Department.

“All the research shows this type of programming works best in the family home or family environment,” Witt said. “By making the Merrill Center a family-like environment, it has helped with retaining youth and being able to reach youth.”

Dunkin is a good example of what a difference role models make. Her mother, an administrative assistant, was the first black female employee of the month in Dunkin’s hometown of Gary, Ind. As a young girl, Dunkin got to meet people such as Coretta Scott King, the wife of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., and Richard G. Hatcher, Gary’s first black mayor and one of the first in the nation.

“Seeing those people, those very influential people and then coming to this environment where you don’t see as many professionals … it certainly makes me wonder,” Dunkin said. “All I can do is encourage others to join in.”

Dunkin’s bubbly nature contrasts with her daily battles against racial disparity in Rock County’s jails and a waning sense of community among the families of color in Beloit and elsewhere.

Dunkin only knows one way to win the battles.

“If there’s one thing I can do, it’s to show love,” Dunkin said. “We all want to be loved. People want to feel important. ‘I mean something. I’m special.’”

Regina Dunkin
Age: 41.
Home: Beloit.
Hometown: Gary, Ind.
Occupation: Executive director of the Merrill Neighborhood Center in Beloit.
Family: Husband, Tom Dunkin. Regina is the oldest of eight, a mother of three and a grandmother of two.

What she thought she’d be when she grew up: Dunkin’s family was so spiritual and involved with the Baptist church … “I thought, maybe, I should be a nun.”

Currently reading: “Come on People” by Bill Cosby.
Favorite movie: “Splendor in the Grass,” starring Natalie Wood. “I cry every time!”
Favorite TV programs: CNN, C-SPAN, Bill O’Reilly, “Hannity & Colmes.”
Celebrity meeting that made her squeal: Dick Gregory, black comedian, activist, Chicago mayoral candidate (1966) and candidate for president (1968). Dunkin met Gregory on a trip to Washington, D.C., and said, “Do you remember me? You met me when I was 8!”

Last updated: 1:36 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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