Arvina Martin: Politically Minded And Forward Thinking

Photography by Hillary Schave

Photography by Hillary Schave

Nowhere but Madison feels like home to Arvina Martin. She logged a year in Arizona, spent part of middle school in Washington, D.C. and attended Dartmouth. College in New Hampshire, but they couldn’t compete.

“I’m Ho-Chunk, so Madison has been my ancestors’ home for time immemorial,” says the mom, roller-derby champ and executive director of Emerge Wisconsin, an organization that helps Democratic women run for public office. “It’s where I’m supposed to be.”

Martin didn’t always feel such an intense connection to Madison, even when she became the city council’s first Native alder in 2017. The turning point arrived two summers ago, during an outing with Ho-Chunk youth. The group built a dugout canoe from a cottonwood tree and paddled across four local lakes. When they stopped where their ancestors’ canoes had been found, she realized she was in tears.

“Something about generations of them having been right there, within walking distance of my house, overwhelmed me with emotion,” Martin recalls. “We keep coming back, no matter how many times others try to remove us from this place.”

These deep ties also motivated Martin to become an elected official. Like many Madison residents, she was shocked by the outcome of the 2016 presidential election. While others froze, she sprang to action, using what she’d learned in Emerge Wisconsin’s candidate training program to win a city council seat. Today she oversees this program, plus the organization’s strategy and operations.

During her five years representing the 11th district, Martin fought to make Madison a safe home for all, especially marginalized groups and future residents. This work included launching Community Alternative Response Emergency Services (CARES), which sends a paramedic and a crisis counselor to behavioral health emergencies that don’t require law enforcement, and demanding new infrastructure to divert stormwater from roads after the catastrophic floods of August 2018.

“Helping convince the governor to declare Madison a disaster area was important during the floods, but getting city engineering to manage stormwater differently was a really big deal because it will prevent people from losing their homes and cars in the future,” she says.

Forward-thinking policy is Martin’s hallmark, and a commitment to justice has fueled her career, from a voter protection fellowship at the Democratic Party of Wisconsin to Native outreach roles in campaigns for Barack Obama and Joe Biden. She credits her Ho-Chunk and Stockbridge-Munsee upbringing: “Native people often talk about our duty to the seventh generation — people who’ll be born far in the future. We can’t just do what’s best for us now; we have to consider what others will need later.”