Monique Liston is power and light. I don’t really know how else to say it without getting into corny territory.
She has a gift for taking seemingly insurmountable problems and bringing them down to earth; while some people suggest I share a few traits with the Energizer bunny, Monique’s energy is passionate, unrelenting, focused and true. Kate and I are grateful for this blog to give us a reason to sit down with people like her.
I first got to soak up some of Monique’s awesomeness at the most memorable session I’ve attended at the Nonprofit Center of Milwaukee: Toward a Dignity-Based Framework for Serving Boys and Men of Color. Monique and Dr. Decoteau Irby, the assistant professor leading the project, presented a workshop that brought in nonprofit organizations to talk frankly about race, dignity and opportunity. The duo is creating a scale to measure dignity, especially when it comes to working with boys and men of color.
Monique graduated with her Master’s in Public Administration from University of Delaware and returned afterward to where she was born and raised: Milwaukee. Her first job back was Project Assistant at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Women’s Resource Center. She then moved on to UW-Whitewater to teach in the Department of Women’s and Gender Studies, returned to UW-Milwaukee to be Assistant Director of the Resource Center, and is now a research assistant with Dr. Irby at the Research Center for Urban Education and Leadership Development. She also does consulting on similar work—and during all of this, she has been pursuing her Ph.D. in urban education and leadership development since 2011. She plans to finish by fall 2016.
People with Panache: What brought you to Dr. Irby’s department, besides your obvious alignment with his dignity work?
Monique Liston: The only reasons I’m not at the Women’s Resource Center are (1) I wanted to focus on finishing my Ph.D. instead of splitting my time and (2) the reality of what it means to be a professional on a college campus in light of our current governor. You don’t see a future, growth, upward mobility. Those two things made it not worth it for me to stay in that position when I have other goals and things I look forward to doing.
PWP: I know you just did your dissertation proposal two weeks ago. Can you tell me more about your topic?
ML: I argue that dignity really fits within an African-centered framework of looking at the world. I outline how dignity has been used in black organizations and black populations over centuries to organize, mobilize and improve their conditions—and so I outline the history of dignity and how dignity has shaped those discourses.
And then I talk about the current My Brother’s Keeper (MBK)* taskforce and the opportunity that dignity provides to answer some of the questions MBK poses. I looked at the recommendations from the taskforce of all the government’s agencies and developed what I believe is their theory of change.
PWP: So like it says on the MBK site, that means providing opportunities for “critical life-changing moments” for young men who might not otherwise experience them—and doing so in a matter that promotes dignity, not its opposite. Do you have any moments or accomplishments you’re most proud of, where you feel like you’re getting somewhere, accomplishing something, doing something you never thought you could?
ML: Yes and no—but I’m leaning toward no. As a sidebar, I also founded an organization called All Black Everything in 2012 committed to addressing issues dealing with black people in the Milwaukee community. We had a food justice program, an economics program, plus a community study group. I have a very deep passion for addressing what’s happening with black people.
“I think my “dream job” is being in the space where I can do my work and passions freely.”
What I’m trying to do (with my dissertation) might sound nice and meaningful and helpful, but thinking about police brutality, the murder of black bodies, and knowing that that’s existing and the work that needs to be done, how little the work I’m doing has any bearing on that is sobering. I don’t feel proud like “look what I can do.” I’m doing what I know I can do. It’s more expected. The big achievement will be finishing my Ph.D.
My heart and passion and focus are on bigger issues than the things I’m doing are even impacting. Hopefully I’m blessed to make it to the finish line. There’s so much more I have to—will—continue to do.
PWP: I can imagine that feeling—for me that thing is our food system. And Monique, I feel like you’re already making a huge difference; we each have one life to do what we want with, and what you’re doing is powerful.
ML: I think opportunity can’t be overlooked, impact can’t be overlooked. At the end of the day, visibility is important. To have another black face—my own—come out with a Ph.D. is going to mean something to somebody.
PWP: Do you have a dream job?
ML: Since I entered undergrad, I’ve never worked at just one place. I’ve always had multiple irons in the fire. I appreciate the latitude of teaching and the autonomy of being able to research, so we’ll see what’s in the future. I also have passions that have nothing to do with that: I’d love to start a catering business, and I’m also a doula and would like to get back into that. Starting a school has always been on my agenda, where I could cook food with the kids every day. I think my “dream job” is being in the space where I can do my work and passions freely.
PWP: You have clearly picked issues that resonate with you, that you can make a difference with—that you ARE making a difference with. I think that dignity scale really, really matters, and I know it has shaped my grantwriting and other work since that day last spring. I can’t be the only one. What keeps motivating you?
ML: I think one of the things that has nurtured me so far, allowed me to do so much, to explore and do all these things, is having people excited for me, people who are genuinely supportive, want the best for me. A wonderful, nurturing circle of family and friends. I’m fortunate, blessed divinely, to have family, friends and family friends—a nurturing circle of people who have done amazing things themselves.
PWP: Do you have advice for people just figuring out where they fit in?
ML: Find awesome people and stick with ‘em. That’s the best motivation for you to do awesome things yourself.
PS: If you see Monique this week, be sure to wish her a happy birthday. Thursday’s her day!
*Side note from Monique: “In February 2014, President Barack Obama issued an executive order for government agencies to convene a taskforce to help boys and men of color get involved in or see and achieve ladders for success. So, in Obama’s words, boys and men of color are missing ladders of opportunities for success, and we need to be more stringent and intentional in creating those opportunities. Politically I have my issues with how MBK is framed, but looking at the goodness in it, it’s now bringing to the forefront all that has been done against boys and men of color. We have A to Z: Department of Homeland Security, Education, Health and Human Services, all coming together to analyze policy, look at current research, and identify six key things to focus on to begin to build these ladders of opportunities for success. They did a report 90 days after and then a year later, then they issued a community challenge in which communities across the country sign up to be My Brother’s Keeper Communities, saying they have programs that meet the outlined goals of MBK.”
The six goals of the MBK Community Challenge are:
- Ensuring all children enter school cognitively, physically, socially and emotionally ready
- Ensuring all children read at grade level by 3rd grade
- Ensuring all youth graduate from high school
- Ensuring all youth complete post-secondary education or training
- Ensuring all youth out of school are employed
- Ensuring all youth remain safe from violent crime
[Photos by Alysse.]