Black students and alumni make important connections during networking event

Black students and alumni stand for a group photo
La Follette alumni Theola Carter (seated, right), Frances Huntley-Cooper (seated, left), and Wesley Sparkman (standing, far right) shared advice with students at the event.

In February, La Follette graduate students were invited to a networking event with Black alumni and other public policy leaders. The event was orchestrated by La Follette School alum and Board of Visitors member Theola Carter (MA ’91), who serves as manager of policy and program improvement in Dane County’s Tamara D. Grigsby Office for Equity and Inclusion. At the memorable event, Carter and others shared insights from their careers.

“It is important to always give back,” says Carter. “There were many who came before me that set the foundation for me to move forward and others who invested their time, talents, and wisdom. I think it is important that I invest in our future policymakers. The policies we implement are for the good of the public and the way we implement them directly affects people’s lives.”

Policy leaders in attendance included Wesley Sparkman (MPA ’00), director of the Office for Equity and Inclusion and 2023 La Follette School Alum of Distinction; Carrie Braxton, manager of equal employment opportunity at the Office for Equity and Inclusion; Frances Huntley-Cooper (MPA ’94), former Mayor of Fitchburg; Donna Brown-Martin (MPA ’94), Milwaukee County Director of Transportation; Steven Little (MPA ’91), Deputy Secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources; Signé Mbainai, UW Law School alum and Dane County Circuit Court Commissioner; and Nia Trammell, UW Law School alum and Dane County Circuit Court Judge.

The inspiring group included many firsts. Huntley-Cooper was the first African American mayor in Wisconsin’s history, Mbainai is the first Black woman to be named Commissioner in Dane County, and Judge Trammell is the first Black woman to be appointed and elected judge in Dane County.

La Follette School students stand for a group photo during an event for Black students and alumni
“Each of these students has a bright future and it is nice to know that I was able to help them just a little bit,” says alum Theola Carter.

“I am profoundly grateful for the chance to learn and grow alongside such inspiring La Follette alumni,” said MIPA student Awa Maïga about the event. “I also wanted to share how much I enjoyed experiencing this event with the other students. Sharing the insights and connections made with my peers added another layer of richness to the experience.”

Graduate program manager Mo O’Connor helped to organize the event. “It is a significant gift that Theola, Frances, Wesley, Donna, Steve, Nia, Signé, and Carrie shared their lived experiences as public servants and law and policy professionals with La Follette School students,” said O’Connor. “This experience speaks to the amazing alumni and community that supports our students. They felt seen, heard, cared about, and inspired. How lucky we are for Theola’s leadership and for the generosity of time this professional group provided.”

“It was one of the most inspiring meetings and I am honored and proud to learn from such amazing alumni,” said MIPA student Gatiosso Traore.

In addition to the networking event, earlier in February, Carter, O’Connor, and several students attended The Meeting, a play that imagines a fictional meeting between Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcom X, at Madison College. Students were also invited by Carter to a screening of the film Leaders of Madison’s Black Renaissance, a performance by Delfeayo Marsalis & the Uptown Jazz Orchestra (including a chance to sit in on the group’s warm up session), and a soul food dinner at the Overture Center where they had the opportunity to meet and network with other influential community leaders.

“Each of these students has a bright future and it is nice to know that I was able to help them just a little bit,” says Carter. “I hope to remain in touch with them as they navigate their career paths.”

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