On Feb. 28, Penny Liddell, SaintA family services supervisor, celebrated Black History Month along with FBI Milwaukee and several other notable organizations by remembering Vel Phillips.
She joined Chief Judge Maxine Aldridge White, Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service Deputy Editor Adam Carr and Professor of History at Marquette University Dr. Robert Smith for a panel hosted by FBI Milwaukee’s Diversity and Inclusion Committee.
The two-part event began with a viewing of the PBS documentary, Dream Big Dreams. The film covered Vel’s activism and political career across the state, the obstacles she faced and the strength and resilience she used to always bounce back.
Last year, Liddell wrote a blog about Vel’s personal influence on her life. When she was a little girl, Liddell met Vel at the former Vel Phillips YMCA on North Teutonia Avenue. From that moment on, she was inspired to dream big.
“As a little black girl, my hope and ambition were to take the advice of my grandmother and Vel Phillips to be successful in school, go to college and aspire to be whatever I wanted as long as it was productive and made a difference,” she wrote in her blog.
And according to Chief Judge White, Liddell and SaintA have made a difference. “They (SaintA) are leaders. They come teach the judges about trauma,” she says.
Nodding to agree, Liddell says, “We use our own voices to advocate for children and families because if we don’t, they’re labeled, and that isn’t fair.”
“Most people don’t display deviant behavior for no reason,” she continues. “We want to understand why they act a certain way or do certain things. And to do that, we have to find the root of their trauma. That’s the only way to facilitate a pathway to healing.”
Many of the issues SaintA advocates for are similar to what Vel fought for. “Notably housing was a barrier back then. It still is,” she says.
From August 1967 to March 1968, local activist marched for 200 consecutive nights to protest housing discrimination, which barred black people from buying homes in more prosperous neighborhoods.
Though SaintA is not a housing provider, the agency does help clients identify local resources in five key areas of stability: housing, education, health, income and community connections. One such resource is an app called GRiD MKE geared toward aged-out foster youth.
Vel the First
Vel Phillips was a major player in the housing protests using her spot as the first African American and female alderman to propose legislation to outlaw housing discrimination. She fought against the odds to make change, and often, her accomplishments made her the first women, first African American, or sometimes first of both, to achieve something.
Vel Phillips was the first African American woman to graduate from the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Law school, the first African American judge in Wisconsin, the first black woman to serve on the Democratic National Committee, and the first African American and first female to be elected to statewide executive office in Wisconsin and in the United States.
Years of Experience
Liddell has worked in child welfare for 20 years. At SaintA, she is the Chair of the Diversity Committee, an active member of the Equity Council and the affinity group, Aspiring Women of Color.
Like the other panelist, she brought extensive knowledge of her field and found ways to connect the past to the present to teach the audience full of agents, intel analysts and professional staff a lesser-known, yet important, history.