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Milwaukee Must Act On Racism 'ASAP,' Says Outgoing Health Commissioner Jeanette Kowalik

Jeanette Kowalik describes leaving her job as Milwaukee's health commissioner as bittersweet. She'll be heading to Washington D.C. to take a health policy job.

Tuesday marks the end of Jeanette Kowalik’s tenure as Milwaukee’s Commissioner of Health. Kowalik has been on the job for two years. She was hired at a low point in the health department’s history — after news broke that the city’s childhood lead poisoning prevention program had been grossly mismanaged.

Now, she’s taking a job with a Washington D.C.-based health policy organization Trust for America's Health. When Kowalik announced she would be leaving Milwaukee, she began to candidly discuss challenges she faced — from racism to sexism — while carrying out her job.

I recently met Kowalik in a downtown Milwaukee lobby, masked and distanced. Her mask complemented her jean jacket, underneath she wore a Milwaukee T-shirt.

Kowalik had just shared lunch with members of the Board of Health. It formed a year ago, about 12 months after Kowalik returned to her hometown to take the helm at the city’s health department.

Kowalik says she knew she had a big job ahead of her.

“The childhood lead poisoning prevention program was the reason why the vacancy existed, right?” she says.

READ: Milwaukee Health Department Headaches Seem Never-Ending

Kowalik’s predecessor Bevan Baker stepped down when concerns about the fiasco came to light. The department was being scrutinized in audits and by the public. But what Kowalik says she didn’t expect, was the level of harassment she experienced. 

“I’m looking at a whole spectrum of offenses – from the very small ones, from the microaggressions to more overt things that have been said to me,” she says.

Kowalik received threatening and racist emails and voicemail messages.

Listen to the longer segment of WUWM's Susan Bence's conversation with outgoing Milwaukee Health Commissioner Jeanette Kowalik that aired on Lake Effect.

Kowalik’s harassment came as the city was grappling with racism and her department was asked to play a role. In May 2019, Milwaukee became the first U.S. city to declare racism a public health crisis. But Kowalik says acknowledging the crisis is not enough. She says the city must shift to action "ASAP," including in hiring people for city jobs.

“You can’t just recruit and hire people from different backgrounds and think that is going to fix the problem. There needs to be some preparation to be able to receive and support people like me in these positions,” she says.

Kowalik says the city has a long to-do list that includes “looking at hiring practices, professional development needs related to anti-racism work; Looking at policy and practices in each city department."

In Kowalik’s view, the city also must do more to help residents who don’t have a place to live.

“You can’t move into self-actualization if you don’t have a safe place to sleep and stay,” she says.

Kowalik says grappling with the coronavirus pandemic added a level of stress and sacrifice that’s hard to describe. The commissioner and fellow public health workers had to navigate a public health crisis unlike many had seen. It fell on Kowalik to help set up a city plan, including when businesses and schools could reopen.

“I was able at least do some things in this role to protect our community, save lives. I’m thankful I was still able to do orders for the city of Milwaukee,” she says.

"I want other Black women, other women of color, other queer women to move into these spaces because we need to lead and our voices need to be heard."

Kowalik says she’s leaving a stronger health department behind. Milwaukee’s childhood lead poisoning prevention program is gradually rebounding.

“The staffing has been through a lot, they’ve been traumatized. There’s still a lot of work to be done. Because the lead program has a variety of funding sources, so making sure there’s compliance across all of those funding sources,” Kowalik says. “We got the HUD money again, which is great.”

She points to the team of deputy commissioners she brought together. Kowalik says each has different skills, and the team members mesh and support one another.

Deputy commissioner Marlaina Jackson will be stepping in as Kowalik’s term ends on Tuesday at 11:59 p.m. Kowalik says Jackson comes from Froedtert Hospital.

Kowalik describes her departure as bittersweet. Her two years, Kowalik says feels like 20. Yet says she wants her final message to be one of encouragement.

“I want other Black women, other women of color, other queer women to move into these spaces because we need to lead and our voices need to be heard,” Kowalik says.

She ends our conversation with a piece of advice that seems personal.

“A lot of people are suffering and have lost hope at this point because of what’s happening with this pandemic and I just want to encourage people to really reflect on what is it that’s causing you the most concern. Maybe it is your job, maybe your job is stressing you out. Maybe the environment is very toxic. Make a plan to get out of that situation,” Kowalik says. “It’s not worth damaging your health or losing your family or damaging relationships that you care about.”

Kowalik uttered a quiet "thank you" and was gone. She had a virtual meeting with the mayor to get to.

Susan Bence entered broadcasting in an untraditional way. After years of avid public radio listening, Susan returned to school and earned a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She interned for WUWM News and worked with the Lake Effect team, before being hired full-time as a WUWM News reporter / producer.