Village of Brown Deer Board President and School of Education Alumna Wanda Montgomery (center), conversing with colleagues.
Wanda Montgomery never wanted to get involved in politics, even though friends had encouraged her.
“I thought politics was such a dirty business. Opponents dig up stuff that may or may not be true. I thought at this stage of my life, do I need the headache?”
Montgomery, a graduate of the School of Education’s Educational Policy and Community Studies program, had retired from Children’s Wisconsin as director of community partnerships, and was active on numerous nonprofit boards and committees. She changed her mind about political office when she and her husband moved to Brown Deer seven years ago.
“We wanted to meet the neighbors,” she says. So she walked around the block, handing out handwritten invitations to a party on her patio on a Sunday evening. That, in turn, led to a larger block party. And, since she likes to get involved in every community she’s lived in, she invited local politicians. Friends and neighbors came, but no elected officials.
So, curious about how things worked in Brown Deer, she started attending Village Board meetings.
“I realized I’m the only person of color in there. All the elected officials were white, all the staff were white, all the people in the audiences — there weren’t many — were white.”
No one had answered her emails about the block party, no one spoke to her at the meetings and she began to wonder, “How are they representing me and everybody else? And nine times out of 10 I probably voted for them because there was no other choice.”
“Brown Deer was a tight-knit community where people knew certain networks and supported them no matter. There was an unwritten code that you didn’t run against them.”
Given that the Village of Brown Deer is one of the most diverse suburbs in the state, Montgomery said she felt it was time for a more diverse Village Board. So she looked into what it would take to run.
With the encouragement of her husband and daughter, she began reaching out to the network of friends and political advisors she’d met to gather signatures to get on the ballot. She needed 20 and within 10 days, she had 160.
She started knocking on doors. “That was something my predecessor never did. People didn’t know who they were; they were just the only ones on the ballot.” With three people in the race, Montgomery got 42 percent of the vote.
Within a year, she ran for board president, unseating another longtime incumbent. “Residents began seeing that I was doing what I promised, and I’m still doing it.”
Being willing to step out, she says, gave other people of color encouragement to participate in local government. “We need to expand the need for people to serve, not just in the elected positions, but on the boards and commissions that really make a lot of decisions about what happens in Brown Deer.”
Her experiences in Educational Policy and Community Studies helped prepare her for what she now does, Montgomery says. (She also has a master’s degree from Marquette.)
A degree in community education gave her many different opportunities, she says. “If you get a degree in engineering, you’re going to be looking for a job in engineering; if you get a degree in social work, you’re going to be looking for a job in social work, but a degree in community education lets you go many different ways,” she says.
Being an elected official in Brown Deer means facing some unusual challenges, Montgomery says. The village is surrounded by the City of Milwaukee and other communities. Brown Deer shares its Zip codes with Milwaukee and even residents sometimes have trouble figuring out whether they’re in the village or the city.
The village is 4.5 square miles, and doesn’t own much land of its own.
“Our biggest challenge is the inability to expand development because we are landlocked,” says Montgomery.
After her own experiences, Montgomery says, she’s committed to making village government transparent. “I try to keep people informed. I remind them of our meetings. I link the agendas to my Facebook page. I respond to all calls and emails, except for our salespeople. I send those to the village manager,” she adds with a smile.
Montgomery says she feels it’s important that the diverse voices of Brown Deer’s citizens are represented. White people, Asians, Latinos, Black people all bring different viewpoints and experiences to government positions, she adds.
“For me, that’s what I bring, a voice that was not there before.”
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