Stephanie Bradley Wilson wins ATHENA Award

Stephanie Bradley Wilson, a retired law enforcement professional who created paths for other women in the police field, has won the 2019 ATHENA Award.

Bradley Wilson, now director of health equity and violence prevention with Common Wealth Development, received the honor March 12 during the 22nd annual ATHENA Leadership Awards Program ceremony, held at Monona Terrace.

Formerly known as simply the ATHENA Award program, the women’s leadership program is hosted by The Business Forum and celebrates women who demonstrate excellence and leadership in their professional endeavors, make significant contributions to the community, and help other women reach their leadership potential.

Described as the consummate leader, Bradley Wilson served in many roles with the Madison Police, including shift commander, public information officer, and lieutenant. Winning the 2019 ATHENA Award pays homage to a career that began in 1984, when only 20 percent of the police department’s employees were women, and fewer still were African-American women.

“My goal, each and every day, is to be a blessing to someone,” Bradley Wilson said after accepting the award. “I try not to let my ego be the boss of me because I believe we are all here on this planet for a particular reason, whether we recognize our place or not. It is not lost on me that I stand on the shoulders of many, including my parents, other relatives, and friends who strove fiercely to make people who look like me have a slice of the American dream.”

Bradley Wilson was nominated for the ATHENA Award by Karen Bednar, fund development director for Common Wealth Development. In support of her nomination, Bednar notes that Bradley Wilson, during her long tenure with Madison police, demonstrated exemplary creativity and initiative in community safety and well-being, all while advancing racial justice and community health. “Stephanie served with honor and her work is distinguished in over 50 recognitions in her employee file. Stephanie’s work ethic and leadership were important in serving the various neighborhoods in Madison and eventually as a commander of a district. She helped define community policing as it grew roots in Madison and spread nationally.”

In several community-policing roles, Bradley Wilson worked directly with the public. In the 1990s, there were four Madison neighborhoods identified with significant drug sales and gang activity, and she became the first neighborhood officer in the Magnolia-Cypress neighborhood. During that time period, as on-street drug sales occurred, Bradley Wilson worked with families through a social organization called Joining Forces for Families.

For Bradley Wilson, who holds a Master of Science degree in public administration from UW–Madison, connecting and collaborating with such organizations was integral to community policing. Asked how she broke through any lingering distrust people had of law enforcement, she spoke of the importance of building relationships.

“Developing relationships is the most important thing, and so is trying to be the accessible, friendly, and open person,” she states. “Sometimes my demeanor may not look like I’m a fun, open person, but I actually am, and so I do try to support people. That’s one of the basic tenets of any officer who is working in a community-policing effort. You have to have that mindset. It’s not you against them, it’s all of us working together to make improvements.”

Upon her retirement in January 2016, Bradley Wilson was hired by Common Wealth Development to be the project manager for the Byrne Criminal Justice Innovation Initiative, since renamed the Innovations in Community Based Crime Reduction. She now oversees racial justice and health equity in several areas, including affordable housing, workforce development, and community engagement. In some respects, she sees similarities between her new role and her career in law enforcement, especially relationship building. The main difference is that she’s now focused on the long-term impacts of poverty.

“At Common Wealth, I have the opportunity to deal with poverty issues in more of an ongoing fashion,” she explains. “It’s something that you can see on a daily basis in trying to make a difference; it’s understanding that it’s not just about programming, but really it’s about a lot of things that we don’t talk about. It’s about land use. It’s about zoning. It’s about how we ensure that a family is going to be stable. The parents can be employed, but they still have to have secure, healthy housing. They still need to be able to maintain their family’s standard of living so that they can stabilize themselves, thus helping to stabilize the neighborhood in which they live.”

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Bradley Wilson also has been involved in Madison area schools. Through the Foundation for Madison Public Schools, she was selected for a program called A Principal Experience 2018, which provides community leaders with hands-on opportunities to experience the rewards and challenges that MMSD principals, teachers, and students have on a daily basis. She also helps other women reach their management potential with the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, where she has served in roles centered on leadership and mentorship.

Bradley Wilson grew up in Beloit after her parents moved to Wisconsin from Mississippi and they worked blue-collar factory jobs. Even though her parents did not go to high school, they wanted Stephanie and her brother to value and pursue an education. “They helped other family members, they supported my brother and me, and they believed in education,” she noted during her acceptance speech. “I believe it is critical to support public education. It is important to make college and other types of education accessible. It is critical to have healthy housing for all. It is critical to ensure we have access to clean water and inexpensive, quality food for all. So, I’m not running for public office, but I’m just putting that out there.

“As we look around the room, we need to hold our elected officials and ourselves responsible to make sure our children have a decent future. I encourage each of you to do your best each day to be a blessing to someone, be kind and compassionate, and again, thank you for this honor.”

ATHENA nominees

Raising the bar for Stephanie Bradley Wilson were five other 2019 ATHENA Award nominees, including the following Madison-area professional women:

  • Jocelyn Harmon, executive vice president-community engagement, strategy, and marketing, United Way of Dane County;
  • Susan Lipp, owner/co-founder, Full Compass;
  • Kim Sponem, CEO and president, Summit Credit Union;
  • Maggie Utterback, partner, Quarles & Brady LLP;
  • Tiffany Walker, vice president of operations, ATTIC Correctional Services Inc.

During the ATHENA Award program, Dr. Jasmine Zapata received the ATHENA Young Professional honor. Zapata, a Milwaukee native who went to medical school at UW–Madison, spoke to the audience about overcoming personal heartaches such as the loss of her younger brother, who she was very close to, when he was only 16, and difficult times such as the premature birth of her daughter — she was only 1-1/2 pounds — which required several months of hospitalization.

“When things get hard, dig down deep,” Dr. Zapata advised, “and remember your ‘why.’”

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