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Wisconsin Leadership Community Choice Winners Named


The votes are in! And here are your WINNERS of the 2021 Wisconsin Leadership Community Choice Awards. They will be honored at an awards show on Facebook Live at 5:30 pm on Friday, October 22, the last day of the Wisconsin Leadership Summit. The awards show is free. The Wisconsin Leadership Summit runs October 18-22 and includes five full days of panel discussions on business and nonprofit success, education, social justice, health and wellness and more. Registration is open now.

Social Justice Leader of the Year: Vanessa McDowell. A proven leader in the human services field, Vanessa brings a plethora of experience to her position as YWCA Madison’s Chief Executive Officer. She was initially hired in 2014 as the Director of Support Services for YWCA Madison, then promoted to Chief Programs Officer, later promoted to Interim CEO.  In July of 2017, Vanessa was named CEO and became the first black woman CEO in YWCA Madison’s 112 year history.  Vanessa is deeply committed to offering programs and services that support women and social justice, help families and strengthen communities. She has a passion for serving others by leveraging voices that have been silenced as well as empowering others to live out their purpose.  She works from an empowerment model which aligns with the mission of the YWCA Madison which is to eliminate racism and empower women.

Prior to joining YWCA Madison, Vanessa worked for UW- Madison’s Wisconsin Equity and Inclusion Laboratory and was the Executive Assistant to the Pastor for Mt. Zion Baptist Church.   Vanessa was born and raised in Madison, WI.  She attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison and earned her Bachelor of Arts degree in Sociology.  She has made a commitment to stay and work in the Madison community because of her dedication to this community.

She was also selected to participate in the 2015 class of Leadership Greater Madison.  In 2016 BRAVA magazine selected Vanessa as one of the 22 “Women to Watch”. In 2017, Vanessa was honored by the Church Women United with the “Building Community” Award.  In February 2017, Vanessa was named one of the 35 Most Influential African Americans in Wisconsin by Madison 365.  Vanessa was also honored as one of Madison’s 40 under 40 by In Business magazine in 2018.  In 2019 Vanessa was appointed by Governor Evers to the State Criminal Justice Coordinating Council.  She was also appointed by Governor Evers in 2021 to his State Advisory Council on Equity and Inclusion.  Also in 2021, Vanessa was an International Women’s Day Trailblazer award recipient.

Nonprofit Leader of the Year: Anthony Cooper, Nehemiah Center. Anthony Cooper, Sr. (“Coop”) uses his life experiences to help men in the Madison community. A devoted husband and father of two sons, he dedicates his time to ensure that men leaving prison are re-acclimated to society. Anthony brings 10 years of job development and mentoring experience to this role. He has served as a placement specialist, corporate recruiter, Fatherhood Program facilitator at the Urban League of Greater Madison and as Owner/Director of Opportunity Tree, Inc.

As the Director of Reentry Services, Anthony is responsible for networking with employers, partnering with community organizations and the Dept. of Corrections, mentoring and establishing mentor relationships, and operating the Nehemiah House and Dignity House. Anthony has a strong passion for changing the view of incarcerated individuals in society so they no longer feel imprisoned when released.

Nonprofit Organization of the Year: United Hmong American Association. United Hmong American Association (UHAA) is a non-profit organization comprised of local dedicated volunteers with a passion for serving our Hmong youth.  For the past 5 years, UHAA has awarded over $8,000 in scholarships to local Hmong students to pursue their dreams.  We believe our Hmong youth is our future.

The association was established by visionary Hmong leaders in the community to benefit children without regard to social or income status; they welcome all Hmong youth from the Fox Cities and surrounding areas. Their hope is to help our youth learn and give back to the area’s diverse communities.

Each year UHAA hosts a variety of events to help educate, promote and support Hmong youth in leadership and education.  These special events are made possible through the generous financial support of local leaders and businesses. Below are some activities and events that the organization sponsors each year to help Hmong students be successful.


  • Career Exploration
  • Financial Assistance (e.g. scholarships, completing financial aid forms, etc.).


  • Educational Conference
  • Talent Show
  • Annual Scholarship and Awards Banquet


Executive of the Year, Small Business: Nancy Hernández, ABRAZO Multicultural Marketing and Communications. Alifelong Milwaukee resident, Nancy is founder and president of the multicultural marketing and communication firm ABRAZO, with offices in Milwaukee and El Paso, Texas. In 2013, Gov. Scott Walker appointed her to the board of the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation, and a year later she was elected to the Marquette University board of directors. She is the past president and founding member of the Hispanic Professionals of Greater Milwaukee. Nancy has earned numerous awards and recognitions including Hispanic Business of the Year, Business Journal Women of Influence, Madison365’s Most Influential Latinos, and the Biz Times Innovator Award.

Executive of the Year, Large Business: Dr. Ashok Rai, Prevea Health. Dr. Rai is the President and CEO of Prevea Health, a healthcare organization based in Green Bay, Wisconsin. Ashok is a practicing physician at Prevea Health and is affiliated with HSHS St. Mary’s Hospital Medical Center. In 2018, Ashok was appointed Board Chair of American Medical Group Association (AMGA) and in 2019, Ashok served on the Board’s Executive Committee as Immediate Past Chair. He was named to Madison365’s inaugural list of the state’s most influential Asian American leaders in 2020. Ashok attended the Medical College of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, and completed his residency at the Michigan State University Kalamazoo Center for Medical Studies.

Man of Excellence: E-Ben Grisby. E-Ben Grisby, a special education teacher at Green Bay West High School, is co-chair of the board of Celebrate Diversity Fox Cities. He works every day to make a difference in his students’ lives, helping them strive to be the best they can be. A native of New York City, he is a great asset to northeast Wisconsin as he shares his talents professionally and as a volunteer, having worked in several non-profit organizations for many years. As a Black man, he has faced with grace, patience, and wisdom, the challenges of coming to a very predominantly white region and navigating the cultural differences that move presented. He has enriched us with his experiences and perspectives, helping to build positive relationships with all.

E-Ben Grisby was honored in 2017 for the “Good Neighbors Recognition” for volunteers making a difference in our community in the Post Crescent newsletter in Appleton. 

Woman of Excellence: Dr. Chia Youyee Vang. Dr. Vang is Interim Chief Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Officer and Professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She oversees the Division of Global Inclusion and Engagement that is responsible for advancing diversity and equity and fostering inclusion for all members of the campus community. Vang served as Associate Vice Chancellor for GIE from 2017-2021. She is a professor of history and has been on the UWM faculty since 2006. Her teaching and research interests include twentieth century U.S. international history, the Cold War in Asia, Asian American history, Hmong history, refugee migration and transnational and diasporic communities. She founded the Hmong Diaspora Studies program in 2009 and has since served as its director.

Dr. Vang has an active research agenda. She has published many articles on Hmong/Southeast Asian refugees/Americans. She is author of four books: Prisoner of Wars: A Hmong Fighter Pilot’s Story of Escaping Death and Confronting Life (Temple University Press, December 2020), Fly Until You Die: An Oral History of Hmong Pilots in the Vietnam War (Oxford University Press, 2019), Hmong America: Reconstructing Community in Diaspora (University of Illinois Press, 2010), and Hmong in Minnesota (Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2008). In March 2016, the University of Minnesota Press released her co-edited (with Drs. Faith Nibbs and Ma Vang) volume, Claiming Place: On the Agency of Hmong Women. She is currently writing a book entitled, The Sorrow of Displacement: Southeast Asian Identity and (Be)Longing in the Global South, which examines the social and cultural history of Southeast Asian refugees resettled in French Guiana and Argentina in the late 1970s amidst much local protests. In 2016, she received the Office of Research/UWM Foundation Award for Excellence in Research

Service is very important to Dr. Vang so she gives generously of her time and expertise. She is currently a member of the Wisconsin Historical Society board of curators and the Milwaukee County Historical Society board of directors. She represents UW-Milwaukee as a commissioner with the Milwaukee County Social Development Commission. She has received the following recognitions for her commitment to diversity and excellence in higher education: University of Wisconsin Board of Regents Diversity Award-Individual (2016), Wisconsin Women Making History (2015); UW System Outstanding Woman of Color in Education Award (2014), and Hmong Woman of the Year by the Hmong Consortium (2010).

Learning about other cultures and people around the world is Dr. Vang’s passion. Although she grew up in the United States, she has traveled to many countries in Europe, Asia and South America. Since 2009, she has led short-term study abroad programs to Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam for American students. Outside of academia, Dr. Vang has extensive experience facilitating groups and developing opportunities for diverse communities to dialogue about matters important to them. Since 1999, she has provided research, evaluation, and planning consulting services to nearly 50 community-based organizations, philanthropic institutions, and government entities in the human services, health, and education areas. As a former refugee, she is knowledgeable about and sensitive to issues that affect new Americans and other communities of color.

Dr. Vang earned a B.A. in political science, with an emphasis on international relations, and French from Gustavus Adolphus College in 1994. She studied abroad in France during her junior year through the Institut d’Etudes Européennes, Université de Paris en Sorbonne and Université de Nantes. She has an M.A. in Public Affairs and a Ph.D. in American Studies from the University of Minnesota. She is fluent in Hmong, English and French languages.

In her spare time, Dr. Vang enjoys playing soccer with the Women’s Soccer Club in Milwaukee. She also proudly completed two marathons. She and her husband, Tong, have one daughter and two sons.

Congratulations to all the winners!