New Milwaukee Leaders Offer Inspiring Personal Stories in Lubar Center Program
When four of Milwaukee’s still-new, still-young elected leaders gathered for a program in the Lubar Center of Marquette Law School on Tuesday (March 21, 2023), they gave their perspectives on “a tale of two cities,” as Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley put it. One was the Milwaukee that is thriving socially and economically, one was the Milwaukee where that is far less true.
A striking aspect of the leaders is that all four come from some of those “far less true” neighborhoods, and each found a path to success. If you were looking for inspiration or role modeling, the leaders offered it in their personal stories.
A common denominator for all four was they were helped by adults – teachers, youth program workers, and others – who cared personally about them, put them in constructive settings, and showed them ways to help their communities.
Derek Mosley, the new director of the Law School’s Lubar Center for Public Policy Research and Civic Education, began the session by asking each of the four what it was like for them growing up in Milwaukee.
Crowley said he lived much of his childhood in the neighborhood around N. 23rd and W. Burleigh St. His family life included drug addiction and mental health problems. But he praised the mentoring he found in Milwaukee Public Schools (there were times when MPS teachers were the most stable factor in his life) and in involvement in the Urban Underground youth organization.
Marcelia Nicholson, chair of the Milwaukee County Board, grew up in the same part of the city. “I remember learning having to go under the bed when we heard gun shots at night,” she said. “I saw all sorts of things that no child should ever see.” But her parents instilled in her the value of education. She said, “When I was hiding under the bed, I was reading books, and it was the teachers in the Milwaukee Public School system who nurtured me.”
Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson went to seven elementary schools, experienced homelessness and food insecurity, and lived some of the time in the same 53206 zip code where Crowley and Nicholson lived. His involvement in the YMCA made a big difference to him, involving him with adults who helped care for him. He later worked for the Y.
Jose Perez, president of the Milwaukee Common Council, grew up on the south side. There were good and bad aspects to the neighborhood, but he learned to maneuver through all of it. The Felix Mantilla Little League, a youth sports program, became an important involvement for him as a youth.
As Mosley pointed out, each of them is a trailblazer in city leadership – Crowley and Johnson the first elected Black heads of county and city government, Nicholson the first Black and Hispanic woman to lead the County Board, and Perez the first Hispanic president of the Common Council.
The four talked about what they are doing to tackle major issues facing Milwaukee – a long-term decline in population, safety and crime issues, the social service needs of many city residents, the need for more family-supporting jobs, the financial pressures on both the county and city due to aid from the state of Wisconsin stagnating while the cost of services increases.
They pointed to bright spots – Milwaukee has one of the lowest per capita rates of long-term homelessness of any city in the nation, crime overall declined from 2021 to 2022 (although it is still higher than in prior years and homicide records have been set in recent years), some large employers are expanding in the city, and relations with Republican legislative leaders have improved (although no results yet in getting more state aid).
Overall, there was an atmosphere of cooperation, determination to address needs, and commitment to make Milwaukee a better place for all. And there was praise for the great things Milwaukee has to offer people.
Referring to the work being done by each of the four, Mosley pointed to the impact on them of their personal backgrounds. “A lot of that has to do with how you all lead,” Mosley said.
Four people who might have ended up on paths full of personal problems. Four people who found role models, stability, and help getting them on to positive paths. Four people boosted by teachers and youth workers, as well as by family members.
And now, four adults who have become influential leaders in Milwaukee.
Leaders are generally judged by their policies, decisions, and whether they can show tangible progress due to their work. But intangibles and personal stories matter and can offer valuable lessons. Both the tangibles and intangibles were the subject of the program in the Lubar Center, and both were important.
The program may be viewed here.