I intended this list to highlight the beauty of the diversity in our community. I wanted kids here in Wisconsin to see role models of people who are succeeding, to know that it’s possible for African Americans to achieve great things here.
This list is not, and was not intended to be, exhaustive. But it is an historic beginning. It is now 2015, and this kind of list has never been compiled for the entire state of Wisconsin. At least, not by a news publication run by people of color, through their lens and from their perspective. In every project even similar to this in the past, it’s been the majority culture, through the mainstream press, deciding for us and telling us who is important within our community. You and I have changed that game.
Over the course of one one week, we’ve gone from “are there truly influential African Americans?” to “who got left off the list of most influential African Americans?”
Think about those conversations — about how people of color are normally spoken about in the press. We’ve changed that conversation. This was the intent.
Together we can continue to define who we are by letting all voices be heard. We cannot do this alone. We need your support and prayers.
My prayer for those I missed or neglected — forgive my head, not my heart. We will do this list annually. Please nominate people you think should be on the list next year. Or people you feel I should meet.
Many of you have asked about meeting these 28 influential leaders, and about getting this list in print. We are working on both!
Next up, my Latino friends. That list is coming soon. Keep the faith!
Cory Nettles was the Wisconsin Department of Commerce Secretary under Democratic Governor Doyle for two years. Since then he has become a partner at the law firm Quarles & Brady, founded private equity firm Generation Growth Capital and bought a piece of the Milwaukee Bucks. And he’d likely be the Republicans’ worst nightmare if he decided he wanted to become the first African American Governor of Wisconsin.
Ulice Payne is the Jackie Robinson of the front office: the first African American to become CEO and president of a major league baseball franchise, the Milwaukee Brewers. He was also an attorney at Foley & Lardner, where he became the chairman of the international business team and managing partner at the Milwaukee office. He is now Founder and President at Addison-Clifton, focusing on global trade compliance. One of his offices is located in China. He sits on numerous corporate boards, including Manpower.
Dr. Bola Delano-Oriaran and Dr. Sabrina Robins of Appleton-based African Heritage, Inc., are the dynamic duo in the Appleton area. (Yes, there are people of color in the Appleton.) All things related to African Americans in Appleton begin and end with these two ladies, true advocates who get things done. They landed Congressman John Lewis to speak at their Juneteenth event this year, and their next event, in late October, will feature the well-known Julianne Malveaux. Not bad for Appleton, Wisconsin.
Dr. Jack E. Daniels III is president of Madison College. In Madison, it is rare to see an African American lead an organization that isn’t a nonprofit. Dr. Daniels leads arguably one of the most important institutions of higher education for people of color in the Madison area. He has swagger for days, and will need every bit of that swagger to deal with our education gap.
Maurice Cheeks is the director of the Wisconsin Innovation Network (WIN), focusing on the high tech and high-growth sectors in Wisconsin. He is also leading the charge for African Americans to have real influence on the Madison Common Council, currently serving as President Pro Tempore. Maurice is one of the leading voices on the importance of planning for the future of Madison. There is more than a whisper campaign to have him run for mayor. Keep your eye on this guy.
Brandi Grayson of Madison is the disrupter of the year. Her tactics rub some the wrong way, but they do the job — and command attention. Last year, she and other champions formed Young Gifted and Black, a local organization loosely affiliated with Black Lives Matter. She’s put racism front and center in every conversation. For example, last year it seemed inevitable that Dane County was going to spend upwards of $100 million to build a new jail. Grayson and YGB made clear their belief that the jail was being built to imprison more people of color — and the money and political will to get that jail built conveniently disappeared. This group not only talks the talk, they walk the walk — even when that walk brings traffic to a standstill on one of the city’s busiest boulevards. They’ve brought civil disobedience back, and it seems like they’re here to stay.
Reggie Newson went where few black people have gone before: to play a leading role in a Republican administration. He is currently Wisconsin Workforce Development Secretary, leading the state agency charged with building and strengthening Wisconsin’s workforce. As the state’s talent development agency, DWD connects employers with a robust pool of skilled workers; assists job seekers with disabilities in achieving their employment outcomes; and oversees the state’s Unemployment Insurance, Equal Rights and Worker’s Compensation programs. Newson joined Governor Scott Walker’s administration at its beginning, appointed as Assistant Deputy Secretary at the Department of Transportation shortly after Walker’s inauguration.
Tonit Calaway grew up in Milwaukee with aspirations to become a soap opera actress. Even though she won’t win any Daytime Emmy awards in her current career, she impacts a lot more people. Calaway joined one of the most recognizable names in America, Harley-Davidson, as a corporate attorney 17 years ago. She rose to become vice president of human resources in 2010, and now also serves as president of the Harley-Davidson Foundation, where she can exercise her passion for helping families in need. She also serves on the boards of directors for the Hunger Task Force, Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater Milwaukee, Froedtert Health, Meta House and the National Minority Supplier Diversity Council. She was recently named to Savoy magazine’s list of Top Influential African American Women in Corporate America for 2014.
Valerie Daniels-Carter, along with her brother John Daniels, opened a Burger King in 1984. Sixteen years later, V&J Foods was a 137-unit, multi-brand operation. In 2006, she partnered with NBA great Shaquille O’Neal to expand the horizons of Auntie Anne’s Famous Pretzels; together they own more than 30 Auntie Anne’s locations nationwide. As the hip hop icon Jay-Z says, “Men lie, women lie, numbers don’t.” Valerie’s numbers speak for themselves. She is the owner of the largest African-American owned food chain franchiser in the nation. She was honored with the 2014 Women of Power Legacy Award and her company was number 33 on the 2013 Black Enterprise Industrial Service 100 List. Oh, and she’s a part-owner of the Milwaukee Bucks. She attributes her success to her deep faith in God and insistence on core values: integrity, recognition, accountability, responsibility, respect, communication, commitment to excellence and passion. Her corporate philosophy is “YATSE”: You are the Standard of Excellence.
Ismael Ozanne is Dane County’s elected district attorney, and has been put to trial by fire. He had to make the decision on whether to charge the white police officer who shot and killed Tony Robinson. Many in the African American community were disappointed (even angry) when he concluded that no charges were warranted. He was again thrust into controversy when African American domestic abuse victim Cierra Finkley was arrested for killing her alleged abuser. No charges have been filed, but the case remains open. That incident and the backlash around it demonstrate the fine line the state’s first black district attorney has to walk. Ismael has also taken a leadership role in the County’s new Community Restorative Court, which aims to keep young, nonviolent offenders out of the criminal justice system. Love him or hate him, he is earning his stripes.
Dr. Floyd Rose might be reluctant to be on this list, but we couldn’t leave him out. He is a man who prefers to work behind the scenes to uplift the African American community. He currently serves as President 100 Black Men of Madison, founder of the African American Communication and Collaboration Council, and winner of the City Of Madison James Wright Human rights award. He remains the President of Wisconsin Supplier Development Council (WSDC), a non profit organization that he founded more than 30 years ago to support and develop minority-owned businesses by connecting corporations with minority-owned suppliers of goods and services.
Michael Johnson is president and CEO of the Boys and Girls Club of Dane County. Talk about a match made in heaven. You put one of the most recognizable brands in America and match it with Michael’s passion for kids and community, and magic happens. A relentless fundraiser, Michael has brought in more than $15 million over the last five years. He has led a partnership with the Madison Metropolitan School District that has produced graduation rates of over 90 percent for five consecutive years. BGC has also worked closely with local businesses, creating internship opportunities for more than 250 young people paying them wages of $10 to $15 per hour. He is one of the go-to leaders of the African American community in Madison, and became the de facto voice of that community in the difficult time following the police shooting of Tony Robinson. Additionally, serves on the Board of Directors of Overture Center for the Arts in Madison.
Thelma Sias came from the small town of Mayersville, Mississippi to the big the city of Milwaukee. Since 2003, she has served as Vice President of Local Affairs at We Energies. Thelma leads the way in meeting the service needs of school districts and municipal customers, producing annual revenue over $200 million. Thelma serves as a board member of the Wisconsin Energy Foundation. She is also on the board of Children’s Hospital Foundation, Milwaukee Public Library Foundation and Community Advocates. She has received a multitude of awards such as the Business Journal of Milwaukee’s Women of Influence Award and McDonald’s 365Black Award. Thelma has also developed a passion to put an end to Alzheimer’s Disease — a passion that grew from her personal experiences with her aunt and mother-in-law. As an Alzheimer’s Champion, Thelma converts energy from the corporate world to making a difference for those living with this devastating illness.
Earl Buford is President and CEO of the largest workforce development board in the state, the Milwaukee Area Workforce Investment Board. His board of directors reads like a who’s who list for the Milwaukee area. He oversees a budget of nearly $20 million — 80 percent of which goes back out to coordinate with businesses and job seekers. His agency assists more than 12,000 job seekers annually. He has built on his previous experience at the Wisconsin Regional Training Partnership and BigStep, where he merged two nationally renowned models into a seamless organization that now has offices in Madison and Minnesota. He is so respected in his field that he is on both Vice President Joe Biden’s Advisory Task Force on Effective Workforce Strategies, and Governor Scott Walker’s Task Force on Minority Unemployment. You know when both parties acknowledge your expertise, regardless of party affiliation — that’s true influence.
Celestine Jeffreys knows Green Bay as well as anyone. No, she is not affiliated with the Packers, nor is she married to a Packers player. Yes, Green Bay has an actual black community – a community for whom Celestine is a true trailblazer. She was Green Bay’s first African-American alder, serving two terms on the City Council. She was the diversity manager at Green Bay Chamber of Commerce. And she now serves on the school board, advocating for change, as always. Celestine, all your hard work has not gone unnoticed — here at Madison365, we see you. Keep fighting to make sure all voices matter in Green Bay.
Dr. Darienne Driver has one of the more challenging jobs in the State of Wisconsin: Superintendent of Milwaukee Public Schools. She just stepped into the job a year ago, but has made a real impact. There’s no need to rehash the awful numbers for kids of color in Milwaukee and Madison public schools. Driver has taken a unique approach that emphasizes transparency and being accessible. She writes a blog, is active on social media, and uses a virtual suggestion box. During her first year as Superintendent, Milwaukee Public Schools earned a Silver Well Workplace award from the Wellness Council of America and a Distinguished Budget Presentation award from the Government Finance Officers Association. In January 2015, Dr. Driver was acknowledged for her dynamic professional achievements and the contributions to build a stronger community by the Milwaukee Business Journal and was selected as a 40 Under 40 award recipient for 2015. Keep the faith, Dr. Driver!
Senator Lena Taylor should not surprise anyone by making this list. Senator Taylor is serving her second term in the Wisconsin State Senate, representing northern portions of the City of Milwaukee as well as parts of Wauwatosa and Glendale. First elected to the State Assembly in 2003, she fights unrelentingly for her constituents’ rights. Taylor served one term in the Assembly before being elected to the State Senate. Senator Taylor is the thousandth senator in the state of Wisconsin, twentieth woman, fifth African American, and only the second African American woman to serve in the state senate.
David Clarke, Milwaukee County’s sheriff, leads a major law enforcement agency at a time of tension and hostility between police and communities of color. As an African American serving in that position, he draws the limelight — and doesn’t shy away from it. His 36-plus years as a law enforcement professional began in 1978, at the Milwaukee Police Department (MPD), where he served 24 years and acquired a broad range of experience. He’s been elected Sheriff four times, increasing his margin of victory with each election. He’s not afraid to dish out some unabashed criticism of people like Al Sharpton, President Obama and former Attorney General Eric Holder, nor is he afraid to call out what he considers “race politics.” Those qualities, along with his strident position in favor of gun rights, have earned him stripes among conservatives on a national scale. If he were ever to set his eyes on a position beyond his native Milwaukee, he’d almost surely find a place in the national conservative movement.
John W. Daniels Jr. is a nationally-known real estate and business expert who got his start with his sister Valerie, opening a single Burger King in 1984. He now boasts an impressive client list of corporate household names. He is so respected as an attorney that he was named chairman emeritus of law firm Quarles & Brady. He remains a strategic business advisor to many of the firm’s largest clients, a repeatedly-honored champion of diversity and inclusion, a much-sought-after thought leader on multiple topics, a widely recognized pillar of the community, an active agent of organizational and civic change, and an advocate for high-quality education and access to it. He also was recognized as one of “the 50 most influential diverse attorneys in America”. Simply put, this man is a legend – and has been a mentor to many of the others on this list.
Annette Miller is a former Madison mayoral aide, and was instrumental in the creation of the City of Madison Department of Civil Rights. A co-founder of the Madison Network of Black Professionals, she helped lead the creation of a magazine to promote diversity and recruit diverse talent to the Madison area. She served as board chair for the Urban League of Greater Madison, helping lead a $4.1 million capital campaign and later chaired the economic development committee for the Justified Anger Coalition. Now Annette is the Emerging Markets and Community Development Director at Madison Gas and Electric. If there is anything dealing with diversity and inclusion in the Madison area over the last decade, she has probably had her hands in it.
Mahlon Mitchell burst onto the state political scene as the Democratic nominee to unseat Lieutenant Governor Rebecca Kleefisch in the 2012 election to recall Governor Scott Walker. At that time the state learned what firefighters in Madison already knew — he’ll fight for workers as hard as he’ll fight to save a burning home. He was the first African American president of the Professional Firefighters of Wisconsin, as well as the youngest — just 33 when he took over in 2011. There was talk in the early days of the recall that he should run for the top spot and challenge Walker for the governorship; that kind of political aspiration still seems plausible for this rising star.
Dorothy Buckhanan-Wilson is the International President of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, established in 1908 — the oldest Greek-letter organization established in America by African American college women. (Shout out to the Deltas, Zetas and Sigmas. We have nothing but love for you!) Dorothy oversees 10 regional directors, 986 local chapters and more than 283,000 members. She brings to the job a wealth of experience in business and non-profits, most recently as Senior Vice President at Goodwill Industries. She was also the first African American and one of the youngest women to become a brand manager at SC Johnson.
Rev. Alex Gee, a lifelong Madisonian, is pastor at Fountain of Life Covenant Church and founder of Nehemiah Center for Urban Leadership. He’s also nationally known speaker, coach, and advocate for underserved communities. When the 2013 Race to Equity report showed Madison’s racial disparities to be the worst in the nation, he responded with a column entitled “Justified Anger” — and literally within days, a movement was born. The Justified Anger Coalition released “Our Madison Plan” in May, which includes a wide range of goals and plans to address disparities across the board. The plan also laid out a budget of nearly $1.6 million for the first two years. With backing from a number of major corporate and foundation sponsors, Rev. Gee is pushing Madison to take a good long look at itself — whether or not we like what we see.
Gwen Moore is the first African American to represent Wisconsin in the United States Congress, first elected to the Fourth District seat, representing Milwaukee and neighboring municipalities, since 2005. In 2009 she was elected Democratic co-chair of the Congressional Women’s caucus. In her leadership role she became a champion in the fight against domestic violence. Long before being elected to Congress, she became a role model for women, single mothers especially, entering Marquette University the help of the federal aid program TRIO following the birth of her first child. She earned a BA in political science, helped start a community credit union as a VISTA volunteer, and served in the State Assembly and the Senate. Hers is truly one of the great success stories.
Antonio Riley has a long history in building community through housing and economic development. Following a ten-year stint representing his Milwaukee neighborhood in the State Assembly, Governor Jim Doyle appointed Riley to be the first African American to lead the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority (WHEDA). At WHEDA he oversaw a $3 billion mortgage portfolio. In 2010 he was appointed by President Obama as the Region 5 Administrator for the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). As one of the highest Ranking members of the Obama Administration in Wisconsin, he is responsible for six states: Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, and Minnesota. He also served on numerous nonprofit boards of directors, including the Greater Milwaukee American Red Cross and the Milwaukee YWCA. As a presidential appointee, his time at HUD ends when President Obama exits Washington, DC. Let’s hope Antonio keeps his talents in Wisconsin.
Cecelia Gore, a Milwaukee native, seems to have a passion for giving. In the past she served as program director for the Jane Bradley Pettit Foundation. Now she works as the Executive Director of The Milwaukee Brewers Community Foundation. In her role she focuses on creating initiatives to assist communities in need, leveraging the resources and influence of a major league franchise. Within a year of taking the position, she doubled the brewers giving to $2 million. Giving money isn’t the only way she gives back to the community. She has also served on a number of boards, including Menomonee Valley Partners, North Milwaukee State Bank, Public Library Foundation, and as chair of the Alverno Alumnae Association. Cecelia, don’t forget the rest of the state — the Brewers belong to all of us.
Vincent Lyles is truly a homegrown talent. He’s currently President & CEO of Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Milwaukee, leading more than 600 employees and 500 volunteers and serving more than 41,000 children every year. With a budget exceeding $23 million, Lyles is responsible for 38 Boys & Girls Clubs locations, including Camp Whitcomb/Mason. A product of Milwaukee Public Schools’ James Madison High School, Lyles graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the UW Law School. Lyles continues to serve his community outside of the Boys & Girls Clubs by volunteering at Safe & Sound as a Board Member and on the Leadership Council for Milwaukee Succeeds. Lyles also serves on the Board for Delta Dental of Wisconsin and is a member of the Greater Milwaukee Committee.