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Black women leading way in creating more opportunities in Milwaukee workforce for people of color

They are three of Milwaukee’s most promising black, female, young professionals. They are included in this year’s Milwaukee Business Journal’s 40 Under 40 list.
Posted at 6:30 AM, Feb 24, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-01 10:20:14-05

MILWAUKEE — Milwaukee has the fewest African Americans in private sector management positions in the country, according to a recent study done by UW-Milwaukee.

When looking at the city’s workforce, African Americans hold less than five percent of management positions. For Black women, that number is even lower.

Research also shows Black women are paid less for the same jobs, as their white counterparts.

TMJ4's Katie Crowther sat down with three Black women working high-profile jobs in Milwaukee, to talk about what they are often up against, and how they’re trying to change it.

To be in a room with Ray Hill, Fiesha Lynn Bell, and Jasmine Johnson is a privilege.

They are three of Milwaukee’s most promising Black, female, young professionals. They are included in this year’s Milwaukee Business Journal’s 40 Under 40 list.

But in each of their career journeys, they have routinely been the only Black women in the room. And all too often, they have been judged for getting there because of their race and gender, rather than their skills and performance.

“We are all making history in our own unique ways,” said Bell.

“As a Black woman, you’re going to have to show up and worker harder and be the most prepared in the room because you don’t have a second opportunity to lose credibility,” said Johnson.

“First and foremost, I have what's needed and am the right person for this job, I just happen to be a Black woman,” Hill said. “We have to manage the perception of how we’re perceived versus who we really are.”

Ray hill, born and raised on Milwaukee’s northside, works for CommonBond Communities, which provides homes and supportive services for those most in need.

Hill is also a member of Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority’s Board of Directors.

“I was a mom by 20, I was married by 22, and I graduated college at 24,” Hill said. “My path isn’t typical. I’ve been in meetings or sat in rooms where I have said the exact same thing the individual next to me said but because he’s louder, or white, or because he has the floor, he has the ability to own the statement.”

Fiesha Lynn Bell, originally from Indianapolis, is with the Greater Milwaukee Foundation. She works to bring people together and raise money for critical community organizations, to try to solve some of our city’s most pressing issues.

"I want people to listen with the intent to understand what I’m saying, versus listening just to hear me speak, and know you have a young black woman at the table.”

Jasmine Johnson, a single mom, was just named Vice President of Sales for iHeart Media. She also serves on a number of local boards, and leads the United Way of Greater Milwaukee and Waukesha County’s Diversity Leadership Society. Johnson grew up in Sherman Park.

"I am one of many Milwaukee natives who has left the city that has raised me multiple times, to gain opportunities to grow professionally, because they were not available to me here.” But these women say that’s changing. Largely due to the trail they’re continuing to blaze.

Wisconsin specifically is starting to turn,” Hill said. “Black and brown men and women able to show up 100 percent now. Sometimes we’d have to change who we were or how we come across, just to be taken seriously.”

“We have this moment where people are looking for us to have a voice, they want to hear what we have to say, which is awesome, but it also provides its own pressures,” Bell said. “One Black person in a company can’t be the voice for all Black people.”

Another pressure they often face is speaking-up when they witness or experience racism or sexism in the workplace. Whether it's blatant, or in the form of implicit bias.

“I think it happens more often than we share, and we really need to continue to educate others,” Hill said.

“Milwaukee has so much potential, but we all have to be willing to have those uncomfortable conversations, but lead with grace,” Johnson said. “You can’t be afraid of conflict, or standing up for what is right, or being authentically yourself. They can be respectful teaching moments.”

But those teaching moments and touch conversations can’t just fall on black women. They need allies actively advocating for them in the corporate world too.

“It takes like-motivated, not just like-minded people, to be able to advance that work,” Johnson said.

It’s work they do with the goal of paving a better path, and more leadership roles for the next young women of color.

"I’m excited for the future here,” Hill said. “As individuals in our age group are moving into director and executive roles, we’re looking for the next generation to be very diverse in their backgrounds. That will be the norm.”

“It’s important for young women of color to know, they don’t have to check every box, or be perfect in every way, to get opportunities and exposure,” Bell said.

“We are at a critical, pivotal time and place, where we can’t afford to miss the moment for ourselves and the generations coming behind us,” Johnson said. “We were able to rise into these opportunities with the help of mentors, now we are those mentors. It’s full circle.”

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