We launched just over five years ago as a nonprofit news outlet to carry the voices of, and tell the stories from, communities of color in Wisconsin.
We’ve published our Black Power list — highlighting the most influential Black leaders in Wisconsin — every year since our founding, and it’s become the most anticipated thing we do. Since 2015, we’ve also published five lists of Wisconsin’s most powerful Latino leaders, and just this year we’ve added lists of the state’s most influential and accomplished Indigenous and Asian American leaders.
And now, this year more than ever, it’s time to look beyond Wisconsin. To people on the coasts, and even in the mainstream media, even the word “Midwest” is often a substitute for “white.” But we know better, and so do you — from the Twin Cities to Cincinnati, from Michigan’s UP to central Iowa, people of color are thriving, leading and changing their communities.
We can’t pretend, of course, that this is just another year. The COVID-19 pandemic has had a dramatic impact on our communities — our health and our jobs and our financial wellbeing and our education system, and all of these effects are most pronounced in our Black communities. Add to that the brighter-than-ever spotlight on the injustice of systemic racism — it’s been a tough year for everybody, but even more so for our communities of color.
Many have responded to this extraordinary year by expressing an authentic desire to learn more about Black communities, celebrate Black excellence. This has also led to a reckoning with regard to other communities of color and a desire to learn more about and celebrate communities of color more broadly. That’s what this list is about. This list is not just a list. It is also an invitation — an invitation to engage, to create, to make your states and your communities, wherever you are across this region, a better place to attract and retain leaders of color.
We have never intended our lists to be exhaustive. It’s also not limited to people we agree with, politically or otherwise. This list will, however, introduce you to some people you’ve never heard of who are doing great things in other parts of the region or simply working behind the scenes, doing the work without the accolades.
Over the next five days, I hope you learn something you didn’t know about some of the real leaders in communities throughout the Midwest, and that we might be able to make some connections and start conversations that really move communities forward.
Publisher and CEO, Madison365
US Representative Ilhan Omar represents Minneapolis and surrounding communities in the United States Congress, elected as a member of “the Squad” in 2018. Born in Somalia, she relocated with her father to New York at 13, and then to Arlington and ultimately to Minneapolis. She started her professional career as a nutrition educator and first jumped into politics as the manager of a Minneapolis City Council campaign in 2012. By 2016, she was a member of the Minnesota House of Representatives, authoring 38 bills in just one term before winning election to the US Congress in 2018. She was overwhelmingly reelected in 2020 despite facing four primary challengers. In her brief tenure, she has endured racist attacks and conspiracy theories, and was one of the subjects of President Donald Trump’s call for a number of Representatives to “go back to their countries.” Most recently she was the principal author of Articles of Impeachment against Trump following the failed insurrection at the United States Capitol on January 6, 2021.
Lori E. Lightfoot is Chicago’s first Black woman mayor and first openly gay mayor. She has undertaken an ambitious agenda of expanding opportunity and inclusive economic growth across Chicago’s neighborhoods and communities, with early accomplishments including landmark ethics and good governance reforms, worker protection legislation, and closing a record $838 million budget gap, as well as key investments in education, public safety and financial stability. Mayor Lightfoot also placed Chicago on the path to a $15 minimum wage by 2021. Prior to her election, Mayor Lightfoot most recently served as a senior equity partner in the Litigation and Conflict Resolution Group at Mayer Brown and president of the Chicago Police Board, as well as the Chair of the Police Accountability Task Force.
Miriam de Dios Woodward, a native of Jalisco, Mexico, is chief executive officer of Coopera, based in Des Moines, Iowa, and senior vice president of Affiliates Management Company. At Coopera, Miriam serves the Hispanic market throughout the credit union industry and other institutions seeking to position themselves for long-term growth. Also, she currently serves on the board of trustees of Grand View University, the board of directors of the Iowa Food Bank and the Iowa State University’s Women in Business Advisory Board.
Sandy Baruah is president and CEO of the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce, the third largest chamber of commerce in the nation. Baruah joined the Chamber in 2010 after a career in Washington, D.C. In this role, he was the chief executive responsible for the SBA’s 4,000 national employees and $18 billion small business loan portfolio. Baruah was one of the senior officials shaping the federal government’s response to the 2008 credit crisis and assistance to the U.S. automotive industry. Prior to leading the SBA, Baruah served as U.S. Assistant Secretary of Commerce. In this role, he was responsible for the U.S. Economic Development Administration (EDA), served as the senior advisor to the Secretary of Commerce for the 2010 Census, and represented the U.S. government before the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in Paris, France.
Tommey Walker is a graphic artist and founder of Detroit Vs. Everybody LLC. A Detroit, Michigan native, Walker founded his company in 2012 to provide cultural recognition for and combat media perception of Detroit. Since then, DVE has grown into a nationally successful brand, with six locations through Detroit and numerous retailers around the county. Walker and his brand have also received interest from numerous celebrities, including Big Sean, Eminem, Nas and more.
Dr. Aaron A. Payment is the Chair of the Sault Tribe’s Board of Directors, the governing body of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, based in Michigan. Payment was first elected in 2004 and served for four years, returning to office in 2012. In addition to his current position, Payment also serves in a variety of tribal positions: Vice president of the National Congress of American Indians; Chair of the Inter-Tribal Council of Michigan; President of both the United Tribes of Michigan and the Midwest Alliance of Sovereign Tribes; Co-chair of both the National Advisory Council on Indian Education; and the Tribal-Interior Budget Committee for the Midwest region. Payment also serves on the Tribal Advisory Committee for the Secretary of Health and Human Services. Payment has received numerous honors including the 2015 National TRiO Achiever and the 2013 Sergeant Shriver Achievement Award. Payment obtained a bachelor’s degree, three master’s degrees, and a doctoral degree in educational leadership.
Dave Chappelle is one of the most famous comedians in the world, having made a name for himself through his eponymous comedy sketch show (Chappelle’s Show) which ran from 2003-2006, along with a series of stand-up specials. Chappelle is the recipient of numerous accolades, including four Emmy Awards and three Grammy Awards as well as the Mark Twain Prize. Chappelle moved to Yellow Springs, Ohio, in the 2000s, where he currently lives with his wife and their three children. In 2016, Chappelle landed a huge deal at Netflix — said to be worth up to $60 million — following his hit “SNL” hosting debut. In 2017, Rolling Stone ranked him No. 9 in their “50 Best Stand Up Comics of All Time.”
Raquel Filmanowicz is the Director, Economic Equity Advisory Group at BMO Harris Bank in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, previously serving as both the Director of U.S. Community Giving Health Operations and Health Operations Administrator for the City of Milwaukee Health Department. In 2020, Filmanowicz was appointed the Chief Executive Officer of the Milwaukee 2020 Democratic National Convention Host Committee. She also serves as Chair of the Board of Directors of Hispanic Professionals of Greater Milwaukee. Filmanowicz also was named one of Wisconsin’s most influential Latino leaders by Madison365 in 2016.
Part 2 coming tomorrow!