Photos by Adam Ryan Morris
There’s a subtle shimmer hovering over the hot pavement on North 17th Street as I pull up to Thelma Sias’ Lindsay Heights home. It’s caramel with cream trim, a new construction, subtle but relatively massive at just more than 3,500 square feet. It would fit perfectly in any upscale suburb, but its owners are deeply committed to their Johnsons Park community, and so it stands, proudly, here. Sias, 58 years old, greets me at the front door in a dress suit and heels, a short shock of salt-and-pepper hair worn natural, her carved chin held high, her long purple nails deftly gripping the door frame. She’s striking. I instinctively straighten my spine.
She ushers me in and I follow, her smart pumps echoing across the plywood-covered floor. The house is temporarily torn up, cleared of all furniture and draped in plastic tarp. A construction crew has been steadily working on a build-out so that Sias will have more space for entertaining high-profile guests, people such as Jill Biden and U.S. Rep. Gwen Moore. She leads me to a sunny front room, empty, save for sawdust and a card table cloaked in black linen. Remarkably, it’s set with china service, crystal goblets and silver. Contemporary jazz pipes over the clanging and banging as Sias spoons some of Will Allen’s fresh berries onto my plate, then slides a slice of quiche in front of me.
“My husband, Stephen Adams, is an excellent cook. He loves to show off his style, so I promised him I was gonna,” she grins. “He’s my best friend, a great supporter, the love of my life, and the reason why I’m in Milwaukee.”
Sias leans back in her chair and begins to speak about her childhood, about growing up in rural, civil rights-era Mississippi. She talks of Atlanta and Martin Luther King Jr., of her work on presidential campaigns from Carter to Obama, of a little Southern country girl growing up to rub elbows with the likes of Usher and Oprah. She tells of her unlikely journey to Wisconsin and her current position as vice president of local affairs for WE Energies. She speaks of the challenges facing Milwaukee – urban unemployment, foreclosure, education, a yawning racial chasm – in the city she has come to know and love deeply since she first arrived some 30 years ago. Her accent shifts, depending on the subject matter. At times, she’s commanding, poised and brutally articulate. Other times, she slides into a mischievous Southern lilt, her voice rising into something quicker and livelier, more irreverent, almost lyrical.
“I’m always amazed when people come to the house and say, ‘Your house doesn’t look like a house that should be in the central city,’” says Sias, who built her home in the second wave of the 140-unit Lindsay Heights redevelopment project in 2004. “I say, ‘OK, thanks. What does that mean?’ There are hardworking people that are holding the fire of the central city community together. It’s not enough to say, ‘Oh, what’s wrong with them?’ Invest. Make good things happen. Because we can bring about change when we invest.”
Most of the time, she speaks softly, despite the racket clamoring from the other room, and I have to lean in close to hear. She doesn’t try to compete with the construction noise. She’s the kind of person who’s used to people lowering their hammers to listen.
Sias seems to have her hands in everything, as if she’s really five or six people at once, floating throughout the city. Every time you turn around, there’s “Ms. Thelma,” sitting on every board, helming every political fundraiser, earning every civic award or honor, mentoring every woman in the city.
“All you have to do is be in a group of women from incredibly disparate backgrounds and say, ‘My friend Thelma Sias,’ and almost, like a chorus, everyone will say, ‘Well, I know Thelma,’ or, ‘Thelma’s told me that,’ or, ‘Thelma’s helped me,’” says Anne E. Schwartz, former Milwaukee Police Department communications director. “It’s hard to find someone here who doesn’t know who she is or whose life she hasn’t touched.”
In Sias’ role with WE Energies (she’s been at the company since 1986), she gets paid to do what comes so naturally – forge connections and foster relationships, pursuing the company’s interests in a manner that serves and supports affected communities. She’s also able to establish connections between people in need and people who can help through the corporation’s separate, nonprofit arm, Wisconsin Energy Foundation. In 2012 alone, the foundation gave $7.7 million to 816 different health, education and arts-based nonprofit organizations. It’s responsible for investing some $130 million into Wisconsin and Michigan communities since 1982.
It’s hard to tell exactly where Sias’ professional relationships leave off and her personal ones begin. She sits on at least a dozen boards, including the Zoological Society of Milwaukee, Children’s Hospital and Health System Foundation, Milwaukee Public Library Foundation and the Milwaukee Area Workforce Investment Board. As a rule, if there’s an issue affecting Milwaukee, Sias will know who and how to ask for help – and they’ll likely say yes – but it’s about so much more than money. By all accounts, Sias has a natural gift for connecting the right people with the right problems and moving them to invest both financially and emotionally to create sustainable solutions.
For longtime friend Maxine White, a Milwaukee County judge, Sias’ work with the House of Peace provides the perfect example. White is president of its advisory board, and Sias is a board member of the faith-based social services agency that’s just down the street from Sias’ home. When the building was badly in need of an overhaul in a cash-strapped community at a challenging economic time, White witnessed her good friend’s powers firsthand.
“I watched her as people would make their presentation on a particular item for the campaign,” White says. “She listened intently, courteously, acknowledged their energy and effort, complimented them, then raised questions about the outcome in a way that was respectful but attention-grabbing. Then she would go on to present an alternative recommendation, and if that was something the group wanted to pursue, she jumped on board and said, ‘This is what I can do to help advance this, and these are the people that I can pull on board to help get the financial aspect.’”
But Sias, White adds, would say it’s about more than bricks and mortar. “We don’t want to build a new place that says to the community, ‘You are not welcome,’” White says. “She’s sensitive to her core about making sure that people feel as if, despite their station in life, men, women and children, that they ought never to be left to feel as if they are not welcome at the table. That they’re not worthy of the opportunities that America affords.”
Attorney Cory Nettles and Sias have worked together across “countless community and business projects,” including “thorny, difficult, ugly education issues” like disparate reading levels for Milwaukee’s third- and fourth-graders. Nettles says Sias was fundamental in implementing the Milwaukee Summer Reading Project in 2010, in no small part because she could connect with and motivate the affected family members as easily as the corporate purse-holders.
“You can get her in a Baptist church basement, or you can get her in an MPS board meeting, and she can say things that other people can’t,” Nettles says. “And she can say it with a level of credibility that other people don’t have. Messages that would never be received by some people because of who the messenger is can be received from her because of her credibility in the community.”
“But,” he adds, chuckling, “she’s a character.”
Thelma Sias was one of 11 kids raised in the Delta farm community of Mayersville, Miss., population 545, according to the 2011 U.S. Census. She and her siblings worked her parents’ fields of cotton, gardens of okra and corn, and patches of sweet potatoes, sometimes missing as many as six weeks out of the school year at harvest time. Somehow, her parents managed to send all 11 children to college or technical school.
“My mother and father believed that girls and boys should learn the same things,” says Sias, who went squirrel hunting with her dad and learned to drive the tractor, just as her brothers were taught to cook, clean and care for the house. “They always taught us how important it was to work and earn your way. And how important it was, for whatever you had, to learn how to share it with other people.”
Sias’ mom, who was a schoolteacher when she wasn’t working the farm, always had an extra pot of beans or greens on the stove for needy neighbors, always a spare shirt or pair of pants at the ready. Sias witnessed an extraordinary work ethic and saw how her parents’ quiet, no-nonsense generosity generated the same in return. When it came time to chop cotton, many of the hired help would work overtime so the kids wouldn’t have to miss school.
“Miss Gracie Mae Williams picked and chopped cotton. She took her $5 and folded it up and put it in a beautiful pressed handkerchief to give to me to go to [college] in Atlanta,” Sias recalls, her voice growing husky. “Some would say that’s not a lot of money. But it was a lot for her.”
As tiny as Mayersville was, it became well-known in the early stages of the civil rights movement. Star resident Unita Blackwell – who was Mayersville’s longtime mayor and the first female African-American mayor in Mississippi – was the best friend of Sias’ mother. Dr. Dorothy Height, founder of the National Council of Negro Women, was also a close family friend.
“Congressman, ambassador and mayor of Atlanta Andrew Young, Julian Bond and Congressman John Lewis spent many a day in rural Mayersville, Miss., walking the streets, driving up and down plantation roads, helping African-American people get access to the vote,” Sias says. “I got to learn and understand what happens when you participate in making progress happen. People who didn’t own their own home, people couldn’t read nor could they write, they believed that the world and the conditions of the world should be better for their children’s children. And they took risks.”
In combination with the family’s characteristic strong, broad features, there was no fading into the background for those kids. Everybody knew who they were, and everybody kept a close eye on them.
“I think that’s when I learned how to negotiate and navigate people,” Sias says. “Because I had such a big profile, if I was gonna be mischievous, I had to learn how to negotiate around the systems around me.”
Although Sias’ version of mischievous was rarely more serious than siphoning sugar from the sugar bag, there was one physical fight with another student. It was a time of segregation and extreme racial tension, and Sias reached her boiling point with a white student. They fought, and Sias was suspended. After she was sent home, her grandma Orelia paid her a visit.
“She said, ‘You’re home, and the other girl is at school being educated.’ She said, ‘I want you to go back to school.’ Got up, walked back down the gravel road and went home,” Sias says. “It was her way of letting me know life can be unfair. But you gotta get your butt up and get back at it.”
Despite it all, Sias says she and her siblings were never taught to hate their oppressors. Instead, it was about seeking solutions and common ground, about working hard and never giving up.
“When I look at the issue of racism in this country and how it’s unfolding under this president, I’ve been reflecting a lot on all of what we went through,” Sias says. “The courage and the character of my parents, that they never set us down and taught that kind of mean-spiritedness. They never did that. They said, ‘Give a person the opportunity to earn your respect as you earn theirs.’”[PAGE]
Thelma Sias with the man with whom she’s spent almost 30 years, husband Stephen P. Adams.
Back in 1972, Sias learned she’d received an academic scholarship to Clark College in Atlanta, home of Martin Luther King Jr., center of the civil rights universe. The Atlanta where everything was happening. It was a tremendous opportunity, but there was one complication: Sias was in love with her high school sweetheart, Calvin, the star basketball player. Upon hearing the news, she burst into tears.
“My father put me in the truck and took me there to where Calvin lived on the plantation. He said, ‘You marry him, that’s where you gonna be,’” says Sias, laughing. “[Later], my daddy loaded that car up, drove to Jackson, Miss., to put me on a plane. I cried all the way from Mayersville to Jackson ’cause I loved Calvin. My daddy told me, ‘You’ll get over it.’”
Atlanta marked a critical turning point for Sias. After years at an almost entirely white high school in the segregated, rural South, she found herself immersed in an enormous community of powerful African-Americans. A political science major, Sias went to work on campaigns right away, including Maynard Jackson’s first bid for mayor and Andrew Young’s campaign for the U.S. House of Representatives. By her junior year, she was elected to the college board of trustees, and in her senior year, she earned a congressional internship in Washington, D.C.
“I’ve worked presidential campaigns since Jimmy Carter. I’ve been on them all,” Sias says. “I was taught by some of the best about the nature of how you treat people, how you negotiate for outcome and how to advocate for change and transition, and how sometimes you win it all and sometimes you lose it all, but – back to what my grandmother talked about often – when you get kicked down and knocked on your butt, the real trick is, how soon do you get up?”
Sias graduated in 1976 and, like all of her peers, she wanted to stay in Atlanta, but there weren’t enough jobs. Sias had a friend who worked for the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, where they were looking to support a burgeoning African-American and American Indian student community and needed someone to facilitate those relationships. Sias took the job as supervisor of the Ethnic Heritage Recruitment Center, landing her in Wisconsin for the first time.
That same year, she met Stephen P. Adams, now her husband of more than 28 years. An engineer born and raised in New York City, Adams arrived in Wisconsin via Marquette University in 1971 and never left. He was living in Milwaukee and working at Wisconsin Electric when the two met, though it would be 1982 before they started dating. Sias moved to Milwaukee after their engagement.
“I’ve just always admired her,” Adams says. “Even today, I’m still fascinated. I mean, she’s just a fascinating woman.”
During the early days of their courtship, Adams accompanied Sias on a day trip to Oshkosh, where she was scheduled to give a speech on Martin Luther King Jr. Adams had never heard her speak, and he was excited at the prospect, but he was also anxious because he noticed she had nothing written down. Sias kept telling him not to worry.
“So we get to the place, and she walks up to the podium. She’s got a sheet of paper, and there’s nothing on the paper,” Adams says. “She gives this great speech, gets about three standing ovations, and I was just amazed. People were coming up to me saying, ‘Oooh, you think you can get me a copy of Thelma’s speech?’ I said, ‘Well, she normally doesn’t give copies of her speech out.’ And in all the years that I’ve known her, I’ve never seen her write a speech. I mean, she just has a gift.”
For many people, Thelma Sias’ speeches are their first exposure to the woman who eventually becomes inextricably influential in their lives. Connie Palmer is CEO of My Home, Your Home, a nonprofit central city social services agency, and she remembers hearing Sias speak for the first time back in the late 1990s.
“I thought, ‘Wow, she is very powerful,” Palmer says. “‘I would love to be like that.’ … She was one of those people that, if she spoke, you needed to hear it.”
Sias also spoke at the 2008 funeral of Palmer’s mother, Irma Walker, and Sias, who has no children, became a sort of second mother to Palmer.
“Thelma has taught me how to get more engaged, how to meet people who can make a difference, who have access to money that can help your organization,” Palmer says. “All she does is introduce me, and it’s like, it’s your time to shine. It’s your time to do what you need to do.”
Perhaps more powerful than what Sias says is what Sias does. Vernon Singleton and his wife, Karen Jones-Singleton, are fellow members of Community Baptist Church. Sias connected the couple as matchmaker 12 years ago, and both consider Sias and Adams mentors. They’ve helped the couple with resumes and job searches, loaned them personal items for events, and served as examples of philanthropy and assistance. Singleton recalls a day the four of them were shopping at a Milwaukee clothing store and received especially good service from a young employee.
“Thelma had the young lady call the store manager over and made a point of emphasizing how well-mannered and professional this young lady was,” Singleton says. “I told the young lady, too. I said, ‘Thelma will give you her business card, and I want you to hold on to her card. If you need some guidance, she will be more than willing to help you out.’ That’s the type of person Thelma is. And that’s not the first time she’s done that in our presence.”
“It makes you wonder just how she manages to do all that she does,” muses Jones-Singleton. “She has a hand over here, a hand over there, but she manages to do it all and have a positive impact on everyone she comes in contact with.”
Sias and Adams’ central city house may be the most obvious metaphor for their shared values. As Singleton puts it, “She chose to live in the ’hood to make it good,” a sentiment echoed by Sias’ friends. Palmer recalls a time (“She’ll kill me for telling this story”) that two young African-American girls saw Sias exit her home and asked her if she was the maid; Sias invited the girls in to tour the house. It’s an example Cory Nettles says is crucial.
“She could have, like me, picked up and moved to the North Shore suburbs of Bayside and Mequon or Brookfield or whatever,” Nettles says. “She decided to be in that community, and that’s not just a political statement. Those little black boys and girls see this African-American woman and her African-American husband getting up every day, going to work, coming home, dressed appropriately, and that may be the only people that those folks see every day doing that. That’s a powerful living testimony and example in and of itself. So she does walk the talk. She writes her checks, she marshals her corporate resources, but she leads by a very fine example.”
I return to Sias’ house in October, just before the 2012 presidential election. She’s fresh off a trip to the Democratic National Convention, where she served as a delegate, and her home has been restored to perfect order. The front room where we’d enjoyed our makeshift brunch is now a sunny sitting parlor, and Sias and Adams’ massive African and African-American art collection is proudly displayed throughout the first floor. The garage is now outfitted with a dance floor, the kitchen now opens to the dining room to make feeding crowds easier.
The brightly painted walls hold a photo gallery of Sias with notable people. Sias with Michelle Obama. With Bill Clinton, Gwen Moore and Nancy Pelosi. With Usher, with Oprah. Sias arm in arm with President Barack Obama, who, she does not yet know, will win re-election in the coming weeks. He has signed the photo, “To Thelma – all the best.”
Just this past weekend, Sias and Adams entertained the vice president’s wife, Jill Biden, in their home. Sias talks about the constant revolving door of secret security visits leading up to it and laughs as she recalls a recent luncheon with President Obama at the Milwaukee Theatre. The group of 20 or so ate before Obama arrived.
“Suddenly, they pull all the forks, spoons and knives, and everything clears out because he’s coming in the room,” she says. “He walks around, and he hugs everyone,” she says, adding that guests were required to wear red security wristbands. “And he says to me, ‘How’ve you got a band on that matches your jacket?’ I said, ‘For you Mr. President, anything is possible.’”
Today, because she does not know what Election Day will bring, Sias is thinking about unity. She’s thinking about what she does every day, connecting people from various backgrounds to move communities forward. Elections are just one day, terms are just a finite number of years. The real work comes in 24-hour chunks, day by day, on the ground, in the neighborhood.
“How do we live with each other when this is all done?” Sias asks. “I hope we have the capacity to overcome the enormity of how the campaigns have been run, because it’s been brutal. In all my years of working presidential campaigns, I have never seen a president and first lady be so brutally disrespected.”
For Sias, the campaign has been a harsh reminder of growing up in the 1960s South, where voter intimidation and blind racism ran rampant. And so she turns, now more than ever, to the teachings of her now-deceased parents. The polarization she’s watched play out on the national level has obvious parallels in her own Milwaukee community. And the solutions, just like during her childhood, remain the same.
“There’s always opportunity,” she says. “The opportunity is, even with all you’ve seen and heard, you still have the responsibility as an individual to interact with each other on our own terms and not what people impose upon us. If we don’t show leadership and be part of change, someone else can just come in and rewrite the script. So our opportunity has been a broadening of people who get it. That this is not how we want a community and a nation to be.”