A Conversation With This Year’s Betty Award Winners

Milwaukee Magazine’s third annual Betty Awards, named for our late publisher Betty Quadracci, honor extraordinary women doing great work in Milwaukee.

Meet This Year’s Bettys!

Illustration by Ivy McConnell

Betty Quadracci was Milwaukee Magazine’s publisher for nearly 30 years, during which she led it to over 200 state and national awards. By the time she died in 2013, she’d left an indelible stamp on the magazine and, with her husband, Harry, on the city of Milwaukee as well. We launched the Betty Awards in 2019 to honor her memory by recognizing remarkable women in Milwaukee who embody her spirit and dedication.

This year’s awardees certainly do that. From a groundbreaking sports executive, to one of the city’s most celebrated artists, to a mother who turned a tragedy into a way to help others, their achievements are wide-ranging and extraordinary. Milwaukee Magazine editor and publisher Carole Nicksin sat down with the awardees for a virtual roundtable in late September.

Here is an edited version of that inspiring conversation:

Carole Nicksin: Welcome everyone! I’d like to start by asking whether you chose your path, or your path chose you? Carla, an event in your family led you to change directions, so let’s begin with you.

Carla Echeveste; Photo by Aliza Baran

Carla Echeveste: The path chose me. My mom is an accountant, and so that’s why I was like, well, I love math, let’s go down that pathway. But life has many twists and turns, and when I was a junior at Alverno College, my mother received a diagnosis of breast cancer. So I transitioned from being in corporate America to pre-med.

CN: That’s such a different occupation. Do you think you would have been as fulfilled had you continued in your accounting career?

CE: I don’t think so. I come from a family of immigrants. We want to give our best. I think that there would have been something missing in terms of giving back to my community.

CN: Debra, your path chose you after a tragic incident. What were you doing before that?

Debra Gillispie: I was employed with the state of Wisconsin Department of Corrections. I worked with probation and parole. I loved helping our inmates, connecting them with employment opportunities, housing. I fell out of love with my job because my son and his two friends were murdered by a felon. Not that I today dislike or hate felons – I don’t. But because I was so committed to working with them, when that happened, the wind left my sails. I ended up leaving the Department of Corrections. And the best thing I did was hit the road. I drove commercially cross-country for four and a half years. I needed that time with God. It was awesome. I got to meet so many great people.

And eventually, as I was driving, I started asking people if they had experienced gun violence or any violence in their life. And I started recording the stories. By the time I got back to Milwaukee and came off the road, I had numerous stories. And I was fortunate enough to connect with [UWM film professor Portia Cobb] and I shared with her my collection of stories, and they were willing to work with me to get these stories out into our community.

Kimberly Stuart; Photo by Aliza Baran

Kimberly Stuart: My path choice is twofold. It began with my choice to serve my country. I joined the Air Force in 1988. My recent path was possible [because I had been in the service]. Now I continue in service to the military and veteran community, and part of that is also my choice to identify as a lesbian veteran. I’m part of both of the communities that I serve.

Raven Jemison: Growing up as a Southerner and only the second to graduate from college in my family, you were told to go to school to be one of three things: a doctor, a lawyer or a teacher. I said OK, I’m pretty good at math and science, I’ll be an optometrist – less exposure to blood. I got accepted into optometry school, but I wasn’t happy. I grew up an athlete – I wanted to understand the business of sports. I asked if I could defer a year. I got a job selling hockey tickets for $7.25 an hour. A Black girl from the South selling hockey in Florida – put it together, it didn’t necessarily add up. But I was the happiest I’d ever been, and I was successful at it. I could have easily gone to optometry school and taken the safe route, but I happened to pursue a passion. I think the path chose me, but I also knew inherently I wanted to be on a certain path and just had to take the leap.

Lucy Mkandawire-Valhmu; Photo by Aliza Baran

Lucy Mkandawire-Valhmu: I grew up in a small African country called Malawi. When it came time for college, the government would place you where they thought you would best fit. My choice was to be a journalist. At that time, there weren’t any female journalists in Malawi. As much as it was my dream, it wasn’t an option for me because that wasn’t an option for women. I was sent to nursing school. Even though my career chose me, it has been rewarding, and I’m able to do things that I find meaningful and make a difference.

Michelle Grabner: Very early on, I had some encouraging folks, mostly a high school art teacher who could recognize that kind of innate talent. And so I took the path of least resistance. I was able to look at the world around me and record it through painting and through drawing. But then I realized as I was moving down that track, it’s not that easy. It’s not just innate talent. You had to have a long, rigorous commitment. I think a lot about the freedom that drawing and painting and art-making early on held for me. Now it feels as if every day I wake up and work within the constraints of the world. It’s hugely important in art-making that we ask very critical questions of who we are as a culture, who we are locally, who we are as a broader base of thinking individuals. So I would say that it has flipped, and I think I’m hearing some similar things [from the rest of the group] that we end up being committed to something bigger than we are.

Michelle Grabner; Photo by Aliza Baran

CN: I’m curious whether you feel that gender has helped or hindered your career?

KS: I was in a very unique position. I graduated high school in June of ’88 and I was going to the Air Force the next month. I realized once I got to my technical school that I was the only female. It was an opportunity for me to show what I had and that I was just another airman. I didn’t really realize the issues with gender until I exited the service and went into the civilian workforce. I applied for a job as a mechanic at a company, and they were like, ‘Oh, the ladies don’t do that.’ I’m like, ‘Well, I think if I can launch a nuclear weapon, I can fix your canning machine.’”

My gender became an issue in the service when it came to my sexual orientation. I served when it was not OK to be gay. As a woman that was difficult to be asked to do things to prove that I was heterosexual. It became a pretty dangerous position. So I retired early. I continued to hide for many years even after I retired in the fear that my disability [compensation] would be affected if they saw that my lifestyle was as a lesbian. ▶ The veteran community is a very male-dominated community, and your service and your status are sometimes overlooked. Gender is still quite an issue, but I’m getting seats at tables, and I have to take advantage of those both as a woman and also as a lesbian veteran. To be able to sit down with the governor and be asked questions about veterans and about diversity and inclusion is a big honor for me.

RJ: I think I’d be irresponsible to say that it hasn’t helped me. Me being a woman and me being Black and queer has helped me get into many rooms, especially as the reckoning of diversity and inclusion has happened in our country. Regardless of whether it’s hindered or helped me, I’m trying to use it as a fuel. ▶ I stand on the shoulders of so many women who have paved the way. I think I owe it to those who have done the work to get me to be in these rooms to do a good job and make sure I’m not the only one here and we’re opening the door wide open for those who come behind us.

DG: I’ve always worked in fields mostly dominated by men: corrections and then truck driving. I think it’s helped me because even though men at times would try to intimidate me, I’ve learned to respond with a voice of reason. Muscle for muscle, there’s no competition, but a voice of reason, then you have to think and rethink your actions. Like Raven said, I think being a woman has mostly helped me – not trying to compete but staying in my own lane, becoming good at what I do, and before I present something, making sure I do my homework.

MG: In graduate school, I was pregnant with my first kid and immediately my funding was taken away. It was one of those things where if one chose to be a mom, one couldn’t be a dedicated artist. I was confused but also forced to look elsewhere, to work extra-hard, to take on activities that I didn’t see in my purview. I wear many hats: I’m a critic, I’m a curator, I’m a teacher, I’m making work. I think that came from being told very early on that as a woman artist it was going to be much more difficult for me.

CE: I was born to a Mexican dad [who] was a welder. He never told us, ‘Oh, because you’re a woman, you can’t do this.’ If anything, because you’re a woman, you can do this, you can do anything and everything that you want. I want to thank him for being the first man in my life, ▶ to show me [not to] let any other man tell you that you can’t do something.

LMV: Nursing is very gendered, and academia is also gendered. To survive as a woman and as a Black woman is challenging because you function in this environment that was really meant for white men, and it’s not always a nurturing environment. I work with an amazing team of women. I find healing in being able to connect with them.

Photos by Aliza Baran

CN: Who has inspired or mentored you?

RJ: First is my mother. There’s no way I would be able to be here without her. She’s been my biggest supporter. Second is my wife, April, who is a double lung transplant recipient. It is hugely valuable to have the gift of perspective from her. She’s on borrowed time. She was supposed to pass away 17 years ago. She level-set my Type A. I’m now Type A-minus, which I’m very proud of. I don’t take things so seriously because life is short. Having someone like April in my life reminds me that there’s a life to be lived and a life to be celebrated.

MG: Unconditional love and support is hugely important. But then there are a handful of individuals – Susan Sontag, Jane Gallop, Eileen Myles, bell hooks – intellectuals, writers, artists who demand that I ask more difficult questions. They ask me to risk something. I don’t think I could risk what is being asked of me if I didn’t have that support from those who love me. I think it’s a beautiful combination of those who will accept you and trust you and believe in you, and those who ask you to do very difficult things.

CE: It has to be my mom. My goodness, my mom never quits. She’s always set the standard of always giving your best. She’s above 60, she’s still working full time and a cancer survivor. That has continuously challenged me.

LMV: [My students] sometimes serve as mentors to me. Because of them, I really am learning to not be apologetic for the spaces I take up. In Malawi, which is a former British colony, you were seen as less than, and you embody that and you are constantly apologizing and thanking people. I’m coming to realize that when I apologize and when I show extreme gratitude, my students then see that as normative and we can’t make progress. ▶ I want them to see that taking up space and making arguments on behalf of people who are marginalized is worth it.

CN: Is there an accomplishment or moment when you really felt proud of the work you’re doing?

KS: Working with veterans, a lot of what we do is aimed at trying to heal emotional wounds. We’re fighting the 20-some veterans a day who commit suicide. Several years ago, I interviewed someone who had gone through a Healing Warrior Hearts retreat that I staffed. During that interview, which occurred about four months after the retreat, she said, ‘I just want to let you know that I had a plan. I was ready to die, until I went through that retreat. You and that program saved my life.’ There are really no words for that. It gives you a beautiful and scary moment that what you do matters.

DG: For my first show on Riverwest Radio, I had a mom on, and she was able to share her story. Afterward, she thanked me and told me how empowered she felt. That was so surreal to be a part of that.

RJ: Earlier last week, I actually had two young women say to me that they came to the Bucks specifically because I was here. They are young women of color. It touched me in a way that I was not prepared for. I have to make sure that I am representative of what can happen when you invest in women, when you invest in people of color.

CE: I have to go back to high school and [being named] class valedictorian. For me, it was the byproduct of my parents’ efforts. They were immigrants. My dad didn’t have an education. They always reinforced me being the best academically. It set the tone for everything that I did afterward. I was like, “OK, well if I could focus for four years and do this, then I could pretty much do anything.”

MG: I’m very grateful for my professional accomplishments – I was a Guggenheim Fellow this year, I curated the Whitney Biennial. I don’t want to diminish those, but that is not why I’m talking to you right now. I’m talking to you because of a deeper passion, something that I feel can make us critically analyze who we are and make us better people, whether that’s through arts, sports or social services. I’m grateful for the recognition, but that’s not why I’m in this game.

CN: Would each of you describe yourself as driven?

KS: My drive is my purpose to serve veterans, especially the underrepresented population of LGBTQ+ veterans. I know that if at any moment I could help someone make the decision to live and not be part of that number of 20-plus a day, that gives me the strength to move forward and be committed.

MG: I love working, but it’s not outcome-driven. I think that’s hugely important to say. We’re living in a culture that needs outcomes, particularly in the arts. Arts are not funded unless there’s a transaction where funders know exactly what they’re getting, and I find that quite crushing. Getting up in the morning, the thing that drives me is a kind of risk. ▶ We’re taking risks every day, but those risks push us forward.

LMV: When my work is hard, I remember every woman that I’ve ever talked to and the hardships that they go through. That really motivates me when I’m exhausted and not wanting to go on or discouraged.

RJ: I’m trying to not be as driven. In all seriousness, it can get dangerous. For so long, I had a destination in mind, and I was tunnel-visioned, not taking in what life had to offer, not taking vacations, not doing the things I need to do to be a whole person. I will say I am a reformed driven person.

CN: I’m really curious: on a day-to-day level how are you able to pull that drive back?

RJ: To be honest, it was COVID. Once COVID hit, we had to flee New York because, as I mentioned, my wife is a double lung transplant. We fled to Jacksonville to live with my in-laws for eight months. Every day, we ate dinner at 6:30. I said to myself, ‘My work has to be done by 6:30. I can pause, and the world’s not going to come to an end if I don’t get to an email tonight.’

CN: Speaking from your own sector of the world, how do you perceive Milwaukee’s problems and, more important, what we can do to make it a more equitable place?

DG: For me, ▶ equity comes with access. For BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, and people of color] people who live in Milwaukee, the coverage of our stories is at times dehumanizing. Kids, if they get in an incident at school, they’re being arrested instead of counseled. Somehow there needs to be some changing of the guard and diversity and access with mainstream local media because that changes the narrative. That’s the only way we’re going to really see change in our community. Black history needs to be taught ongoingly in our schools. I know white history, but it isn’t until you get to college when you start learning other people’s histories.

LMV: My doctoral student is completing her study with Black women, focusing on their experience of secondary victimization within the health care system. One of the themes she’s identified is women saying, ‘I’m treated like trash. Why would I tell a nurse that I’ve been sexually assaulted when I don’t expect them to treat me any better?’ Really understanding where women and communities of color are coming from, seeking to re-establish that trust by investing resources and showing everybody that Milwaukee belongs to all of us, is really important.

MG: Milwaukee is so interesting. For me, it’s never been a cultural center, and that’s why I’ve always gravitated to it. There are possibilities in Milwaukee that can’t happen in Chicago or New York or Berlin. I see this unfortunate turn to that which is very conventional, and it’s quite heartbreaking. I see our arts organizations, as big-hearted as they are, just use a kind of stock evaluation for how we’re going to support the arts. We have the possibility to think very differently here because we’re not in the shadow of big cultural centers.

RJ: To me, the biggest asset is the people. I’m hopeful, when I think about all the people that I’ve met so far as I try to authentically connect to this city. People love Milwaukee. I hear so often that we’re exporting talent. No, there’s talent here and there’s people that are invested in making Milwaukee better than it’s ever been.


This story is part of Milwaukee Magazine‘s November issue.

Find it on newsstands or buy a copy at milwaukeemag.com/shop

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Archer is the managing editor at Milwaukee Magazine. Some say he is a great warrior and prophet, a man of boundless sight in a world gone blind, a denizen of truth and goodness, a beacon of hope shining bright in this dark world. Others say he smells like cheese.