“I didn’t plan on going into politics or running for office. I think some of the best people who are able to do this work are the ones who are dragged into it kicking and screaming,” says State Rep. David Bowen. “But I felt I had to move out of my comfort zone of just working with high school students and young people and actually putting myself out there as an expert and a servant on dealing with community improvement strategies.”
Bowen is the son of Jamaican immigrants who came to Milwaukee to pursue a better life for their family. He was born and raised on the north side of Milwaukee and graduated from Bradley Tech High School in 2005. At 28, he is currently one of the younger members of the Wisconsin State Assembly.
“I’ve spent a good portion of my career working to mentor and develop and help shape the minds of young people to help improve neighborhoods,” Bowen tells Madison365. “I look at a number of serious issues that I was an advocate for and I thought that I could just stay on the sidelines and encourage people from that position. But it wasn’t until I ran for office that I realized that I could make some important decisions as an actual public servant just as well as my older [political] colleagues. At one point I sent them letters and visited their offices and engaged the community with them; now I’m working shoulder to shoulder with them.”
In 2012, Bowen was elected to the Milwaukee County Board as Supervisor for the 10th District, becoming the youngest member of the Board and one of the youngest Black-elected officials in Milwaukee’s history. At the Milwaukee County Board, Bowen notably authored the county’s living wage ordinance, which raises the minimum wage to $11.32 for workers contracted by the county. “That was the highlight of my campaign,” he remembers. “It was important to champion policies that help working class people.”
Last year, Bowen was elected to the State Assembly where he succeeded state Rep. Sandy Pasch.
“I’ve been focusing heavily on economic justice issues because of the trend that we see and the amount of families that have struggled having access to the ladder of economic opportunity and being able to do better than the generation before them,” Bowen says.
As the 10th Assembly District’s state representative, Bowen represents a district that encompasses a number of north side neighborhoods and the whole village of Shorewood. Bowen estimates that his district is about 2/3 black. “There is incredible diversity in my District in race, ethnnicity, and economic background, but they do have some commonalities,” he says. “Those dynamics of that diversity are very interesting. But I’ve been able to champion a number of different progressive and Democratic issues that people have found acceptable across the diversity of the area.”
Bowen is pursuing his bachelor’s degree in educational policy and community studies from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. He is a National Americorps Service Alum, a two-time graduate of the Americorps program Public Allies, and a Legacy Foundation Youth Activism Fellow.
As a teen and young adult, David completed Urban Underground’s youth leadership program and later become its program director. Urban Underground is a youth leadership and civic engagement program for teens that is advancing a new generation of young leaders committed to building safe and sustainable communities through effective programs, strategic partnerships, and youth-led social change in the areas of health, education, public safety, and restorative justice.
“My history in community work comes from working with young people in Milwaukee,” Bowen says. “I essentially had a chance to help young people develop their youth leadership skills. Urban Underground is a youth organization that gets young people the resources and the guidance to start social justice campaigns.
“Young people are so powerful and getting them to tap into their potential to advocate and to be a champion on the issues that matter to them and their schools and their communities … that’s so important,” Bowen adds. “It’s important for young people to be able to come to that table with adults and say, ‘I have valuable insight on the things that affect me and my community.’”
Is there anything Madison could learn from Milwaukee on how they are working together and harnessing the power of its youth?
“The Milwaukee Beyond The Bell Initiative – a collaboration of youth serving organizations – has come together as an alliance to improve the quality of afterschool programs across the board,” Bowen says. “Before organizations participated in that initiative, everybody worked in silos and we have a very stubborn culture and history of working by ourselves in Milwaukee. We’re finally starting to see some molds being broken that are allowing collaborative partnerships that are stronger than we’ve ever seen before.”
The next step is to keep building those alliances across municipal and county boundaries. “We’re talking about someday a statewide approach to what we want to see in our communities,” Bowen says.
Since Bowen was elected first vice chair of the Democratic Party at the annual convention earlier this summer, he has been working on a statewide approach for all kinds of issues. “I like the energy we have in the Democratic Party right now and I like our prospects,” Bowen says. “All around the state, it’s promising. A lot of people are just fired up.”
Martha Laning, a Sheboygan businesswoman and community activist, was elected as chair of the state’s Democratic Party, and she asked Bowen to be a part of her team. “I had a great opportunity to support a great candidate for chair in Martha Laning. I really had felt like she had what it takes to be a great public servant and had the ability to take our party forward with the issues she wanted to champion,” Bowen says. “She wanted to target improving the way that the Democratic Party engages communities of color, the way that we engage value-based messaging, and a holistic focus to take us forward and do things differently than the previous leadership.”
As vice chair, Bowen will be working to support Russ Feingold, making gains in congressional seats, and leading the party back to relevance at the state Capitol, where Republicans control both houses of the Legislature and the governorship.
“Republicans do control the state government and hold two of the three levels of the national government, so it’s important that we have great Democratic candidates that can get people energized,” Bowen says. “We need to have someone that really speaks to their issues and is really about action; more than just talk.”
In Milwaukee, beyond his economic empowerment initiatives, Bowen has also been active in the #FightFor15, #BlackLivesMatter, and fighting for #ImmigrationJustice.
“I look at critical issues like accountability of law enforcement as an important issue … like when we see stories of young people of color having negative experiences and many times deadly and violent experiences with police – even when they do nothing wrong,” Bowen says. “We want to make sure that we have public agencies and entities that are accountable to the public that they serve. Being on the legislative side, we have the power to research and to create policy to try and address those things.
“I think it’s important to continue to do that on a number of levels on all kinds of issues that affect all kinds of residents and community members in our state. I believe this state has the potential to really foster innovation and growth,” he adds.
“It really starts with leadership and we can’t continue to ignore certain issues and certain solutions that we know. We have to do to better serve our schools, our students, and our families,” Bowen continues. “Coming from a local level, I’ve had the chance to see that up close and personal. Every community throughout Wisconsin faces many of the same struggles. The bottom line is that people need to have access to economic opportunity in our economy again. There are some real barriers that people face and we have to work to help them.”