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Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes: 'We Have To Lead With Equity In Every Decision That We Make'

Dylan Buell
Getty Images
Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes speaks to the crowd during the 48th Annual Juneteenth Day Festival on June 19, 2019 in Milwaukee.


People in Milwaukee and throughout the United States continue to march against police brutality and call for justice, reforms and accountability. These protests centered on racial inequities are especially potent in Milwaukee — the most segregated metro area in America.

Since the beginning of his career, Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes has focused on racial justice. As a Milwaukee native, Barnes says people here are “stepping up for good reason.” Since protests started following the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer, Barnes says the key issues of equity he ran his campaign on remain the same.

"Addressing equity on the front-end prevents things like [Floyd's death] from happening," he notes. "Making sure that communities are properly resourced, making sure that children have the same opportunities in all parts of our state — and that's not the reality right now. It's certainly not the reality across the United States of America, otherwise, we wouldn't see the response that we're seeing."

>>WUWM & NPR's Latest Protest Coverage

Barnes says he often thinks about political leaders who haven't experienced life in the shoes of marginalized people. Because the ability to relate isn't there, it reflects in a lack of a timely — or any — response. 

"I am very frustrated every day that I have to wake up and have to deal with the inaction of our state Legislature, especially on the issues that are as pressing as this," he says.

Protests across the state have been "a sight to behold and something that makes me very proud," says Barnes. While protesters are calling for action on the streets, he says "we have to lead with equity in every decision that we make" at the executive level of government. 

"The time for the partisan political games should be over with because these aren't partisan issues — these are issues of life and death for people."

This means investing more money into early childhood programs, particularly in the most challenged ZIP codes, creating more employment opportunities, and making more upfront investments to avoid spending more in policing and incarceration, according to Barnes. But he says he and Gov. Tony Evers can't do it alone — it needs to be looked at as a shared government, and right now that's not the case. 

"The time for the partisan political games should be over with because these aren't partisan issues — these are issues of life and death for people," says Barnes. "We're going to keep moving forward with everything we can do in our executive authority, but there's so much more that's left to be desired."

Barnes also calls for more conversations from state officials regarding budget prioritization and supporting budgets that put people first. 

"In putting people first, you effectively work to create safer communities, places where people want to live and where people want to invest and where there is less of a need of police presence," Barnes notes. But first, "we need to address the crises that we're facing to right the wrongs that we're dealing with."

Barnes says the topic of defunding the police needs to become "a conversation about needs."

"This isn’t about attacking the police. If anything, it’s about making their jobs easier by implementing programs where we have services where they wouldn’t have to respond to things that aren’t crimes," he says.

Systemic racism has been an issue that's been "way too easy for people to ignore" in the past, says Barnes, but it can't be ignored any longer. The fatigue of experiencing racial inequity daily can be a lot, but Barnes feels that he and other black leaders, whether elected or not, are called to leadership. 

"This is the work that has to happen," he says. "This is one of the reasons why I got elected, to make sure that we're leading with our best selves, that we are doing everything that we can do to build a safe, happy, healthy and inclusive societies ... I know it's possible and I think that's sorta what keeps me going — that ridiculous hope, that ridiculous optimism that things can be better."

Audrey is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.