Gov. Tony Evers, Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, and a group of African-American legislators kicked off Black History Month in Wisconsin with a press conference in the rotunda of the state Capitol building on Feb. 1.

“Today, we are present with a new opportunity in the state of Wisconsin … just look behind me … it’s a new day in the state of Wisconsin,” State Rep. Shelia Stubbs said, motioning to the group of legislators behind her. “This is what change looks like. Doesn’t it look good? Doesn’t it feel good?

“It’s a wonderful opportunity we will have to heal our families after generations of abuse and neglect and trauma. We, collectively, have an opportunity to transform our communities with passion and with love,” she added. “More importantly, we have the opportunity to invest in our communities with health care and education and more with the leadership of our newly elected Democratic Governor Tony Evers and our newly elected Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes.”

Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes holds up the proclamation declaring “Black History Month.”

Evers and Barnes, at the invitation of Stubbs, joined the members of the Legislative Black Caucus that included Reps. David Crowley, D-Milwaukee, Kalan Haywood, D-Milwaukee, David Bowen, D-Milwaukee and Jason Fields, D-Milwaukee.

“In the end, black history, American history, world history was made by people who looked just like us meeting like we are today and striving for the betterment of all of our communities and people,” said Crowley, who represents the 17th district in Milwaukee.

Crowley introduced Haywood who at age 19 is the youngest African-American serving in the state Legislature.

“It’s an absolute honor to walk in this building every day and to be the youngest African American ever to be elected to a state office,” Haywood said. “It wouldn’t have happened for me without the great trailblazers that came before me that paved the way. They kicked the door in and I came in behind them. It was a great opportunity for me but also a duty for me to kick the door open even wider.”

State Rep. Kalan Haywood [D-Milwaukee]

Haywood quoted Dr. Martin Luther King from a speech he gave to an audience in Montgomery, Alabama in 1957: “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’“

“I am a public servant … because, at the end of the day, it’s all about public service,” Haywood said. “My challenge to you here today as we move forward with Black History Month and as we move forward with 2019, let’s make this a year of service. Every day, we have the challenge of what we can do for others. If we all move forward with that mindset, I can guarantee you that the end of 2019 will be different from the end of 2018, and 2020 is going to look different than 2019.

The event at the Capitol was the first in a month-long celebration of black history. Each week throughout the month, members of the Caucus will hold events based on themes affecting the black community. The week of Feb. 4 will feature events from Reps. Fields and Haywood on economic development and opportunities; the week of Feb. 11 will feature Senator Johnson and Representative Crowley on health and mental health. Myers and Stubbs will put on events on education and families in the week of Feb. 18, and Senator Lena Taylor and Rep. Bowen will put on events in the week of Feb. 25 on criminal justice. The month wraps up the annual Lobby Day at the Wisconsin State Capitol on Feb. 28.

Gov. Evers told the crowd at the Black History Month kickoff event that he was honored to be speaking at the event with Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, “the first black Lt. Gov. and the highest-elected African American in the history of our state.”

“Black History Month is a chance to celebrate and remember the critical contributions of our African-American Wisconsinites and also throughout America,” Evers said. “It’s also probably more important to reflect upon and acknowledge and take ownership of our state and our country’s history. It’s a stark reminder for me, personally, of how much work we still have to do. Let’s celebrate but not just dwell on the progress we have made … by recognizing and renewing our commitment to equality, equity, diversity and inclusion for everybody, every day, for our future.

“From issues around the state’s achievement gap to criminal justice reform to reducing corrections spending to increasing housing affordability and accessibility to improving the health conditions of African-American women, in particular … we’re still a far, far ways out from where we should be,” Evers added. “[We have] a lot of work to do and that’s what history is all about. Learning from history … certainly celebrating and acknowledging our past and moving forward in a really productive way.”

Barnes told the crowd that “we’ve gotten to a place, but we still have very far to go.”

“In 2019, I want people to realize that this is the 400th anniversary of the arrival of enslaved Africans in the British colony of Jamestown, Virginia. In the state of Wisconsin, we’ve made a lot of progress, but we still have a lot of work to do,” he said. “Unfortunately, we are home to some of the worst racial disparities in education, health care access, economics and incarceration.

“We have strong members of the Legislature and probably the most diverse members of the state Assembly that we’ve had in a long time, if not ever. It’s important for us to have unique voices at the table,” he added. “I want to thank the Black Caucus for inviting me to be here today. It’s such an honor to kick off Black History Month with Gov. Evers. We are better because of the endless contributions made by African Americans here in Wisconsin throughout our history.”