Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle. And so we must straighten our backs and work for our freedom. A man can’t ride you unless your back is bent.”
― Martin Luther King Jr.
For 27 years, Milwaukee’s history has been influenced by a force of nature who moved from business and banking to top leadership in a public benefit organization. Since we first met, I have been fascinated with both Paula Penebaker’s analytic mind and her warm interest in those around her. It made complete sense to me — though it took her somewhat by surprise — when I asked her several years ago to join a small group of people thinking with me about my encore career. Her assistance was at once candid and kind, perceptive and provocative.
It was she who asked if my planning was taking into account the likely death of my now deceased husband. She explained that as the daughter of an undertaker, she thinks of such things. I was thinking, at last someone is talking about the elephant in the room. She will do that. Paula will talk about the thing that others avoid or that others will fuss about. Paula brings reason to the fray.
Before Paula came to YWCA Southeastern Wisconsin 20 years ago, she worked for eight years at First Wisconsin Bank. My mother had worked there, too, first as a teller, then as a secretary in the trust department, and finally as a branch manager. Though their tenures did not overlap, I so wish their paths had crossed maybe when Paula worked in human resources, training and development, or diversity management. After the dust settled, I suspect they might have eyed each other with a level of wary respect. Still, in my imagination at least, if they differed on something, I’d bet Paula would be right.
When Paula adopted Milwaukee as her city, she could not have known how much work would be involved in actualizing her dream. YWCA’s mission is empowering women and eliminating racism, a mission big enough for Paula to embrace, making this chapter a national model of racial justice work.
Still, I must confess that until now I have kept a little secret about Paula and me. When we have an audience of one or two and are just punchy enough from too little sleep or too much work, we do the most hilarious stand-up routines together. It is improv at its best.
The History of Black Leadership in Milwaukee would certainly include a chapter or more about Paula Penebaker. A more just society, however, would include a chapter on Paula in the history of women, the history of visionaries, the history of leaders, the history of persistence, and the history of friendship.
A person would be hard pressed to find a more persistent leader or a warmer friend.