Staying Focused

a chat with Eau Claire County board member Zoe Roberts

Eric Christenson, photos by Andrea Paulseth

Zoe Roberts
Zoe Roberts

In October, Zoe Roberts made history when she was sworn in to the Eau Claire County Board as the first transgender official at the county level in the state of Wisconsin, filling a seat vacated when former board member Brandon Buchanan resigned in September. Roberts was thrust into her duties in the middle of 2020 budget season, and hasn’t looked back since. In her first few months as a public official, she’s getting used to the ins and outs of the County Board and learning fast. We recently caught up with Roberts to talk about her inspiration, her experience, and her perspective going into the new year.

Volume One: How has it been going so far on the County Board? I know it’s only been a few months now.

Zoe Roberts: It’s been a good experience so far. A lot of people on County Board were like “I’m really sorry you have to start out during the budget process.” But honestly, it might have been the best thing for me. It allowed me to see all the inner workings and how it all ties together. In that respect, I am actually appreciative of that – even though it was hard.

You kind of got thrown in the deep end right away (laughs). And this is your first time as a public official, but you had done some campaign managing on the Laura Benjamin campaign for City Council? What was that process like for you? 

We went out Dec. 4 a year ago. We met at the Galloway Grill. It was me, Laura, Ann Francis, Joe Luginbill, and my friend Heather Lahr. The five of us met and hashed out whether or not Laura would want to run at that point. And so within that process, we decided that night that she would. I was the rookie, so I wasn’t expecting to be put in charge or anything, but it kind of happened by default. So it kind of fell on me, and it worked out. I enjoyed it, and it was a good experience.

Again, getting thrown in the deep end for something …

(laughs) Yeah, that seems to be like a trend.

So then after that, you had some prompting from friends and stuff, but what inspired you to go after it yourself and step into the County Board position?

At the tail end of Laura’s campaign, I had gotten into activism. Within that activism, I started learning more and more about the things I could do and make a difference on had I been elected or had I pursued it myself. So it took a little push from some people, but I went ahead and did it, and I’m not regretting it.

 
You had helped out with the Jeff Smith and Jodi Emerson campaigns as well, right? 

Canvassing, yes. That’s how I got into it. Joe Luginbill and Ann Francis, they had a canvassing signup form at Scooters one night. They talked me into signing up. So I went out after that and fulfilled my promise, which I always do. If I say I’m gonna do something, you can pretty much bet on that it’s gonna happen. … Then on election night, Ann came up to me and said, “Zoe, why don’t you run?” And I was like, “Oh gosh, not me.” (laughs) “I’m not the one you want, but I know who is.” Enter Laura.


And now here you are … You went from “Oh, not me” to “OK, well, maybe me.”

 Now here I am, 13 months later.

So what general experience do you bring to the table as far as County Board issues? You have a background in business, is that right?

I have a marketing degree. That’s right, I’m a professional bullsh*tter. …

(laughs) Politics maybe is good for you then.

Truthfully, I’m more of an introvert. It’s kinda helped me break out of my shell a little bit, to be honest with you. You have to when you do interviews like this, especially TV interviews. So it’s been a learning experience. But I’m a really good researcher, I work hard at things, I stay focused on things, and I’m very resilient and tenacious. When Jodi in the Leader-Telegram described my “quiet tenacity,” she wasn’t lying. That’s for real. She knows that through my activism.

 
That’s a good trait to have for the position you’re in. You know, not making a huge fuss, keeping your head down, and doing your work, and doing it well …

Hopefully well. (laughs)

So in general, all over the country now, we’re seeing elected bodies become slowly less male and less white and less straight. I guess this is maybe an obvious question, but why is that representation important to you?

When you have a more diverse background and more diverse board or council, you come to better conclusions. You’re reaching more people. You’re not just focused on one group; you’re trying to service the whole group of people under one big umbrella, rather than this one over here and this one over here. That’s fundamentally how you start improving inclusivity within a community, by putting it all under one umbrella, rather than separating and segregating it all out.

Your influence is already being felt I think, too, with the City Council’s proclamation for Trans Awareness Week and Day of Remembrance. That came from you, is that correct?

Yeah, working with Breana Stanley of the Chippewa Valley LGBTQ+ Center. And she also works with Citizen Action of Wisconsin, which I’m also a member of. So it was a kind of a combination of the two of us and bringing other people in.

Things like that kind of feel like a no-brainer sometimes. But for a community like ours that has a significant trans population out there, maybe they can find some solace and community in something like that. Was that your intention going into it?

That’s always a part of the intention always with an event like that. But it’s also the intention of raising awareness and bringing other people in. You know, bring in allies and let them see that we’re not really frightening people, we’re just people. And that we’re human and that we’re feeling everything around us, just like you do, just like anybody else does. So it’s that ability to have compassion and empathize with somebody else at the same time.

I know it’s early in your political career, but do you see yourself as a role model? Maybe you’re not thinking about that at all …

I really don’t think about that. I just want to do the best things that I can do, and lead by example. That’s the way I choose to do things. It’s interesting though. For the Transgender Day of Remembrance event, a bartender actually thanked me for bringing that to Eau Claire. And I was like “Wow, OK that’s different.” It was kind of out of the blue. I didn’t realize that I had made that influence. I didn’t even realize people recognized me, to be honest with you.

You’d rather let the work speak for itself.

Exactly.