Milwaukee Health Commissioner said she faced racism, received threats on the job

September 10, 2020

Dr. Jeanette Kowalik

Dr. Jeanette Kowalik said she faced racism, toxicity and received threats during her time as Milwaukee Health Commissioner.

“It’s one thing to get into a position, it’s another thing to be supported in the position and it’s another thing to be able to bring in other people so that you’re not the one and only,” Kowalik said in the county call on Tuesday.

On Monday, September 7, 2020, Kowalik penned an op-ed for the Daily Beast on the obstacles and racism she faced in her job.

“As the only Black woman health officer in the state, the luster of being in the role wore off rather quickly. Mostly, I found myself praying that things wouldn’t get any worse,” Kowalik wrote. “The job was also a personally grating one. It was a constant power struggle from day one. I was ‘micro-aggressed, managed – and ‘Karen’- splained beyond belief and subject to major passive- aggressive outbursts and plenty of double standards.

“I still believe being a health officer is a noble endeavor, but even the most seasoned professionals have to admit that our experience with the backlash against common sense and science under this pandemic has been heartbreaking. I truly do not know what the future of the profession will look like as long as experience and formal training in public health is silenced and dismissed,” Kowalik wrote.

During the county call on Tuesday, Kowalik gave some context to the threats she had received on the job.

“I was receiving some anti-immigration, white supremacist types of threats and things before COVID,” Kowalik said. “So of course, with Milwaukee city and county declaring racism as a public health crisis, there’s many people that rallied behind us for doing that, but there are still many people angry by that who feel they are under attack and their way of life is being threatened.”

Kowalik would not give specific names or examples of racism in City Hall, citing legal reasons, but said in a statement to WISN 12 News’ Caroline Reinwald that there were many situations.

“The (threat) notes started in the spring of 2019. They’re always anonymous and clearly from people/ someone that is full of anger,” Kowalik said. “I submitted the letters to our building security and threw two recent ones away. Since I started teleworking for COVID, I’m not sure when the recent letters came in.”

Kowalik brought up a WISN Upfront special from June, when she first started openly talking about the racism she faced.

“My experience as a Black woman where certain media outlets, certain people in the media, are providing like a double standard of how they address things that I do versus how they would a white male, for instance, in this role,” Kowalik said during her interview with WISN 12 News’ Adrienne Pederson on Upfront. “Even within city government, as far as like micro-aggressions and things like that, those things are chipping away like death by a thousand paper cuts.”

On Tuesday, when asked during the county call what could be done to improve the situation, Kowalik said it will take systemic change from everyone.

“There needs to be some very deep reflection in every single person and not just going to a class or a course and thinking now you’re the expert, but really being committed to a lifestyle change, that racism kills,” Kowalik said. “I think we just need to lean into the discomfort and address the various levels of racism and what we need to do to dismantle it.”

Mayor Tom Barrett did not comment during the county call on Tuesday, but did speak during Kowalik’s resignation announcement last week.

“I am grateful to Commissioner Kowalik for her dedication and leadership, especially during this pandemic,” Barrett said. “She is leaving the department in a solid position to continue to make progress. I wish her the very best as she advances to her new position.” Kowalik’s last day as health commissioner is Sept. 22.

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