Last week, my colleagues and I completed the last of our Wisconsin Legislative Black Caucus Black History Month programming. Culminating with a reception at the governor’s executive residence, the goal of this year’s observance was to engage and bring more African Americans into the state Capitol and provide them access to legislators and opportunities they might not ordinarily get.
We scheduled events, workshops and activities both in Madison and Milwaukee. Covering a wide range of issues, we worked to bring awareness to critical resources. While hosting a Black History Trivia Night, we laughed and broke bread with children and their families. However, one of the events we hosted, will likely remain with me for a long time.
State Rep. David Bowen and I hosted the “Voice’s Beyond the Bars: Criminal Justice Reform Town Hall” at Racine Correctional Institution. Along with local Racine elected officials, the Secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Corrections, Kevin Carr and others, we had the opportunity to speak directly with those most impacted by Wisconsin’s criminal justice system. To the credit of the secretary, the event was organized in a true town hall format. We were able to hear directly from incarcerated residents about the pros and cons of the state’s correctional, judicial and justice systems. We asked about needed reforms and missed opportunities to reduce recidivism. It was clear that their voices are integral in improving the state’s corrections and justice system.
As the month came to a close, we’ve received feedback from community members who participated in events. I was struck by a particular comment in which an attendee said that she had never seen herself visiting the Capitol or attending a reception with the governor of the state. She never thought she belonged in such a space. Equally impactful, was the remarks of a constituent who didn’t think there would ever be a chance to participate in a town hall while incarcerated. Both people, discussed the difference exposure, access and opportunity can make in the life of an individual.
I went into the month expecting to help my constituents see themselves reflected in me and my role as a legislator. Instead, I walked away from the month seeing myself reflected in them. I could have easily been the young woman struggling to find my way. It’s hard to envision what you can become, when both your images and exposures are limited. I could have taken a wrong turn and ended up needing an attorney, instead of becoming an attorney.
I am thankful for the opportunities I have been provided in my life and for the people who made them possible. I didn’t always understand what they were trying to tell me or show me. In fact, I’m sure I rebelled or tried to go my own way. Yet, my family and community never gave up on me. They knew that I just needed a chance. Black History month, in part, is about acknowledging what people could do and create, when given access and opportunity.