After spending a good portion of her career in social work, human services, and working with young people, Martha Stacker started her dream job this past summer that was the perfect fit for all of her past experiences and education. In the process, she made a little history becoming the first person of color to reach the ranks of division administrator for Dane County’s Division of Children Youth & Families.
“I didn’t realize that until it was brought to my attention by people in the division and the Dane County Department of Human Services that I was the first woman of color,” Stacker tells Madison365 in an interview at her office at Dane County Department of Human Services overlooking Lake Mendota on Northport Drive. “The community level of work and responsibility that comes with the job was very appealing to me. The ground-level work and helping the community was always appealing to me. I love working with empowering people. That’s been my whole career. Comprehensively, it’s everything that I’ve always done in one area. When I first saw this job I was like, ‘Wow! This is everything that I want to do!
“I feel like this job comes full circle for me and I’m excited about it,” she adds.
The Children Youth & Families (CYF) Division oversees services to juveniles who are at risk of or are in the juvenile justice system. This includes court services, supervision, prevention programming, gang intervention services, and restorative justice. Stacker oversees six managers that supervise supervisors and staff
“We want to keep kids and families together and if we’re in a situation where a child has to be removed and its temporary, we’re moving towards reunification as soon as we can. We want to, most importantly, empower people as best as we can. To me, that’s always exciting,” Stacker says. “We can be at the ground level of working with families – whatever that looks like – from pre-birth to after-death. It’s really the full gamut of human services.”
Stacker’s new position is an integral part of the management team that assists the director in overseeing the department’s entire human services system. So Stacker’s job comes with a lot of responsibilities. “As far as staff, it’s the largest division in the Department of Human Services. There are roughly 220 staff,” she says. “The budget averages about $50.9 million. The contracted purchases of services budget is about $20 million, which doesn’t count grants that we might get from the state.”
The budget is a complex mix of revenue including County, State and Federal funds, grant funds, Medicaid reimbursement, and collections. A critical responsibility of the CYF Division is protecting children and youth from abuse and neglect.
“The primary areas that fall under my provision are juvenile justice, child protective services, early intervention and prevention services – that’s Americorp and the youth commission. Also, children’s mental health and AODA services. Joining Forces for Families is a big piece. All staff training and human resources and services for children, youth, and families are also under this umbrella.”
That’s a pretty big umbrella.
“It is a huge umbrella, so I don’t want it to rain too much,” Stacker laughs. “It’s quite a bit of administrative responsibility. But I love it. Every day is dynamic. Every day is different from ensuring that somebody doesn’t get evicted to overseeing and revising a grant where we might get $1 million to ensuring the budget is done. Every day is different. I love the variation of responsibilities from day to day. Every day, I feel like we’re doing something that impacts and helps families.
“That makes me happy. It brightens my eyes. And I’ll never ever get bored … that’s for sure,” she adds.
“So, I do tell my story when I go out and I meet people and I go to events in the community. I’m not just some person who woke up Dr. Stacker and at this job. There was a road and a process to get there. So, it’s important when we make decisions at any level of management that we’re doing it comprehensively to empower people. That’s what we should be doing in this field and in this division – empowering people to be self-sufficient and to have sustainability … giving them tools to be successful.”
Stacker is originally from inner-city Milwaukee, growing up on the north side. “I’m the oldest of six kids. My mom was a single mom. Nothing about my life has ever been traditional,” Stacker says. “I pretty much could have been a client of multiple services that we’ve had. My dad was an alcoholic and drug addict who used to abuse my mom until she took us away in the middle of the night.
“My mom was an amazing mother. She went back to school. She was a non-traditional student,” she adds. “I really emulated her life. She went to school on third shift and so did I. She always instilled hope in me.”
Stacker says that she was a rebellious teen and she soon became a teenage mother. “I became a product of the system. When I became a teenage mother, people told me I wasn’t going to be much,” she remembers. “I really began to believe that. I got on welfare and lived in public housing and I really didn’t aspire to be much. I really became that a stereotype. I became that statistic.”
Until she ran into an old teacher in a store one day. “She said, ‘how are you?’ and I gave her this sob sob boo boo story. And she said, ‘You know that you are smart. You should go back to school.’”
Stacker started to work three jobs to get off welfare and public housing. Soon she was working with at-risk kids in the Milwaukee Public Schools and for a shelter for girls.
More importantly, she started on the road to become a lifetime learner. She would go on to earn her bachelor’s of science at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and her master’s degree in Organizational Management and Leadership from Springfield College. She just finished her doctorate in philosophy from Capella University in 2016.
While Dr. Stacker has distinguished herself with her amazing educational accomplishments, she has the real-life education from her life experiences growing up in inner-city Milwaukee that many people in her field don’t have … and that gives her a unique perspective at her current job.
“It keeps me grounded … because I feel fortunate to be in this position,” she says. “It keeps me grounded because I don’t feel like I’ve been there; I am there. I still remember when my lights were off and when I went hungry so my kids could eat. I keep that focus. I still shop for bargain clothes. I’m still that person. I’m still grounded in that person because that’s me.
“So, I do tell my story when I go out and I meet people and I go to events in the community. I’m not just some person who woke up Dr. Stacker and at this job. There was a road and a process to get there,” she continues. “So, it’s important when we make decisions at any level of management that we’re doing it comprehensively to empower people. That’s what we should be doing in this field and in this division – empowering people to be self-sufficient and to have sustainability … giving them tools to be successful.”
Her presence as the first black woman in her position does make a difference in a county that is trying to lessen large racial disparities.
“Whether its corrections, human services, department of children and families … we work with racial disparities. We can’t deny that and not talk about the elephant in the room,” Stacker says. “We do a lot of good work in this division. People may not realize it but foster care is an ultimate last resort. We don’t want to see kids come into CPS. When you look at the numbers of people of color working in the juvenile justice system, for the first time ever in Dane County – working with the diversion court – there’s been a 20 percent drop in African-American males being in the court system. Ever in Dane County. Ever.
“We want people to know that yes, we have big disparities … but also that we are doing good work,” she adds. “These are historical disparities. It’s not like I walked in and they were just there. They’ve been here for a long time. Not just in Dane County or Wisconsin either; this is across America. So it’s not something that can be changed overnight, but we can continue to improve upon them.”
Stacker says that it’s not just the infrastructure of the division but the community partnerships that are so significant to the success of what she does with the clients in the community.
“We partner with so many organizations and we are reliant on a lot of great partnerships,” Stacker says. “I would be remiss to not acknowledge that we have some really great partnerships in the community with multiple organizations and they are doing great work. That’s really important.”
Stacker also says that she feels fortunate to have inherited a great team and a great division.
“The people that I work with here really work hard and they really value what they do. I’ve seen people do such selfless work,” Stacker says. “It’s just amazing the resources that people obtain and distribute and give to people on an average day here from the multiple areas within the division every day.
“I think that we’re making a significant impact on the community and on people’s lives,” she continues. “Hopefully, it’s for the better. I think that sometimes we’re doing things to help people that we may never even see that creates positive change. That goes back to how people changed my life, and they never saw what they did.
“Giving people self-sustainability and resources. Being able to help people with resources in the community is big,” she adds. “It’s huge. And I get to do this every day … how cool is that?”