Outgoing Milwaukee Health Commissioner Jeanette Kowalik Addresses Gender & Racial Discrimination

Sep 9, 2020

Milwaukee’s outgoing health commissioner is beginning to say her goodbyes, including to the city’s board of health.

On Tuesday evening, Jeanette Kowalik met virtually with the group for the last time. She was vocal about how much progress the public health team has made and about the myriad challenges she faced as a female Black commissioner of health.

The nine-member Board of Health — the city’s first — is barely a year old. Kowalik had only been on the job a year when it formed to help the health department deal with a number of challenges.

READ: Milwaukee Health Department Headaches Seem Never-Ending

The department was still reeling with challenges, not least of which was its long-touted childhood lead poisoning prevention program. The agency left parents uninformed and children tested with elevated lead levels unserved.

October 2019, Jeanette Kowalik talking with Get The Lead Out Coalition member Robert at a roundtable sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Milwaukee County.
Credit Susan Bence

Kowalik thanked the board Tuesday for its diligence.

“Your first project, you were really intentional about lead poisoning prevention. You know the lead advisory committee, there was some speed bumps, well bumps period there, but I want to encourage you to keep working on that,” Kowalik says.

Kowalik says she came back to her hometown to help restore the department and the community’s trust in it.

“It is very difficult to navigate spaces here. I also know about my faith and being obedient and not jumping ship when it’s not time to jump ship,” Kowalik says.

But dealing with the coronavirus pandemic, Kowalik says, particularly for a Black woman public health commissioner, "is just not sustainable."

“There’s a lot of buzz about my personal experiences in this role and being attacked, discriminated against for my race and my gender,” Kowalik says.

Board of Health member Bria Grant was not only troubled by the fact that Kowalik encountered racial and gender discrimination, including hate-mail attacks. Why, Grant asked, didn’t the health commissioner turn to the board for support.

“As a board member, I’ve had to read in the press when I’m present here in the meetings … and we ask every meeting ‘how can we support,’ right,” Grant says.

Kowalik says even as more hate mail came her way, she kept her focus on pulling the community and her team through the pandemic.

“I’m working 20 hours a day, for weeks. I’m going to get through this to the best of my ability. As the media even started covering other health officers, they didn’t talk about health officers really being targeted for race — cause there ain’t too many Black commissioners, there’s really not,” Kowalik says. “It’s mainly white people, white women.”

Finally, when she was recruited for a Washington D.C.-based health policy organization called the Trust for America’s Health, Kowalik accepted.

She says her health department team is well equipped to fill in while a new commissioner is selected.

“But then the mayor’s office would like to do a national recruitment for the replacement,” Kowalik says.

She hopes the board of health has a voice in the final choice.

"It would be wonderful if there could be a review or an interview later of just Board of Health, so that you all can vet candidates and make sure that they’re going to be a good fit for our community," Kowalik says.

Earlier in the day, Kowalik said unless Milwaukee learned to lean into the discomfort of addressing racism, it will not be dismantled.

At the Board of Health meeting, Kowalik put it this way: “There has to be some true system change in our city to really address some of the inequities that are rooted in racism.”

At the time this story was produced, neither Mayor Tom Barrett nor Common Council President Cavalier Johnson had commented on the challenges and attacks Kowalik says she faced as health commissioner.