This is the first of a five-part series.
Since our founding in 2015, we have published lists of the most influential African Americans and Latinos in Wisconsin. I intended these lists 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 people of color to achieve great things here, and to highlight people of color doing great work in a variety of fields and pursuits.
Sadly, over the past three years, far too many of the talented, influential people named on these lists have left the state, which is a significant problem — a problem that we can’t let slide anymore.
That’s why we are preparing for the first-ever Wisconsin Leadership Summit, which we are proud to host in partnership with the Ho-Chunk Nation on October 18 and 19. Everyone on this list and all previous lists — more than 200 influential African American and Latino leaders — will be invited to attend the Summit to share their experience and expertise as we dig into the issues and challenges facing leaders of color in Wisconsin, and identify real strategies to attract and retain the most talented people of color and keep them in our beautiful state. We also hope to provide professional development opportunities for the next generation of leaders. You can join that conversation — registration is open now.
This list couldn’t possibly include every Latino doing good work in the community. It does, however, introduce you to some people you’ve never heard of who are doing great things in other parts of the state or simply working behind the scenes, doing the work without the accolades.
It was important for us to expand the way we think about influence, and to highlight more of the people doing what it takes to improve their community. That’s one reason this list is entirely new — we considered anyone named on last year’s list to be ineligible for this one, even though most of them continue to wield considerable influence.
I pray you learn something you didn’t know about some of the real leaders in communities throughout Wisconsin. It’s critical to recognize and highlight our neighbors whose stories begin elsewhere, or who trace their roots to other parts of the world. Only then will we truly appreciate the contributions we all make to the prosperity of our communities, our state and our nation.
Joe and Mariam Maldonado are truly one of Madison’s power couples. Joe works as the Director of Community Impact – Academic Success at the United Way of Dane County, develops and maintains relationships with more than 20 local agencies and oversees a $2 million budget, all aimed at making sure children and adults alike can learn and excel academically. He also works as an instructor at Madison College, teaching a six-week course to help people transition from correctional institutions to college and careers. And last year, when Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico — where both sets of his grandparents grew up and where he still has family — he got together with some other local leaders to create the Puerto Rico Relief Fund of South Central Wisconsin, which raised nearly $100,000 and funded a number of projects to help get the island back on its feet. Mariam works at the Urban League of Greater Madison as Outreach and Intake Manager, making an impact every day with the many constituencies ULGM serves. She’s set to make an even larger — and long-lasting — impact as she has spearheaded the effort to open Luna’s Grocery, an oasis in the food desert of the Allied Drive – Dunn’s Marsh neighborhood. Residents of that neighborhood have been shopping for groceries at gas stations for years as a number of city agencies and nonprofit organizations have been trying to bring accessible fresh food to the neighborhood, and it looks like Luna’s will finally get it done.
Marisabel Cabrera pulled off one of the biggest upsets of the 2018 election cycle, unseating longtime incumbent Josh Zepnick in a Democratic primary to represent Milwaukee in the State Assembly. The South Side native says her family struggled to get by and on more than one occasion relied on the neighborhood church for food and other basic necessities. Despite that modest upbringing, today Marisabel is a local entrepreneur, respected immigration attorney, and mayoral appointee to the Fire and Police Commission — and, now, a soon-to-be State Representative.
Brenda Martínez, Radamés Galarza and Elissa Guarnero founded ALBA School in Milwaukee, beginning in 2003. ALBA — which stands for Academia de Lenguaje y Bellas Artes — was sparked by Milwaukee’s desire for a bilingual learning environment where parents and families could become truly active in their children’s education. ALBA School’s bilingual environment embraces both language and cultural diversity and builds on ethnic background and knowledge to deliver a positive and strong bilingual education. The public charter school now serves more than 200 students in kindergarten through fifth grade. It’s been such a success in affirming and celebrating students’ Latino heritage while also upholding rigorous academic standards that People magazine recognized Brenda, Radamés and Elissa as Teachers of the Year in 2013 and President Obama recognized the school as a Bright Spot in Hispanic Education in 2015. They are truly building the future of education!
Alfonso Morales was appointed Interim Police Chief of the City of Milwaukee in February of this year. He has risen through the ranks of the Milwaukee Police Department over the last 25 years, beginning as an officer in 1993. In 1999, he was promoted to Detective and worked in the Criminal Investigation Bureau where he worked various assignments from burglaries to robberies to homicide. From 2003 until 2009, he served as Lieutenant in the Criminal Investigation Bureau where he managed the night shift Gang Crimes Unit and Homicide Unit. He later worked assignments in Internal Affairs, the Police Academy, and HIDTA (High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas). In 2013, Chief Morales was promoted to the role of Commanding Officer of District Two, which encompasses part of Milwaukee’s South Side and is comprised of more than 87,000 residents. He also ran MPD’s Project Safe Neighborhood-High Value Target program, a department-wide initiative designed to reduce violent crime by focusing enforcement efforts on some of the worst gun offenders in the community. Chief Morales holds a Bachelor’s degree in Criminal Justice from Carroll University in Waukesha, has taken masters level classes at the FBI National Academy in Quantico, Virginia, and is a graduate of the Senior Management Institute for Police (SMIP).
Vanessa Chavez is a government attorney for the City of Green Bay. She has served as general counsel to municipalities, local government bodies, small businesses, and associations, helping them take proactive steps to accomplish their goals while also reducing the chances that they will end up in litigation. With a master’s degree in Information Studies from UT-Austin and a law degree from the University of New Mexico, she taught at UNM for a year before joining the City of Green Bay. She also served as Vice President of both the New Mexico Hispanic Bar Association and the New Mexico Women’s Bar Association.
Veronica Figueroa-Velez is the executive director of UNIDOS Against Domestic Violence in Madison, which was started in 1996 to help Latinx survivors of domestic violence access local services. A native of Puerto Rico, Figueroa-Velez was also one of the leaders of the Puerto Rico Relief Fund of South-Central Wisconsin, who helped to bring the greater Madison community together to fundraise for victims of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico.
Part 2 coming tomorrow!