CUW Black Student Union

Concordia University Wisconsin group partners with Whitefish Bay High School to host the first in a series of “Black Student Union Connections” events.

The Black Student Union groups at CUW and Whitefish Bay (WI) H.S. have partnered to launch a series of “Black Student Union Connections” events. Starting the series off in a big way, the groups hosted Wisconsin Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes, the first African-American ever elected to that position. Last Wednesday evening, Barnes met online with students from both groups to share his story and things he’s learned about leadership along the way.

Here are five memorable takeaways from his talk:

After leaving the state to go to college, he felt returning to Milwaukee was the right thing to do.

“I am from Milwaukee, born and raised, it’s my hometown. I left for college, and after college I came right back, because I felt like I owed something to the city, and I felt like I owed something to the state. It’s a state where we have so many challenges; the city of Milwaukee has so many challenges. We have so many inequities, and so much injustice, that it is almost just a part of our fabric. But I felt like I would be a part of the problem if I didn’t come back and at least try to help out. That’s why I came back. And it was the best decision I ever made.”

Barnes was elected to the Wisconsin State Assembly in 2012. But after losing tough election for the State Senate in 2016, he left politics for a while.

“I lost that race, like, really bad. It was a tough one. It was a tough one personally, it was a tough one professionally. I could have easily just got down myself or counted myself out, but I knew that the issues that I talked about in the campaign, the issues that I cared about and advocated when I was a member of the state assembly, they weren’t going away. They weren’t important to me because of an election cycle, they were important to me because this is the reality that we’re dealing with, the things we have to improve upon.

“So I went away for a little bit, worked for an organization where I was still able to do similar work, and then decided that I wanted to take another shot at it, and I ran for lieutenant governor in 2018. And it was a very tough and difficult race, a bunch of people gave me a whole bunch of reasons why I shouldn’t have done it, but we did it anyway. And we proved a lot of people wrong. But like I said, it’s more important to make a difference than to make history.”

When leadership gets tough, focusing on yourself won’t get you very far.

“You just gotta remind yourself why you’re there [in public service]. I personally feel like there are people who are counting on me, who are counting on us to get this right. And it can get tough. But you have to lead with that purpose. It’s different if you’re a person that’s like leading with ego, where if the chips get down, then you’re going to go down with it, because then we’re talking about ego-centric or ego-driven leadership. But if you’re a person that is truly committed to those values [of serving others], you’re going to keep pushing forward.”

Not seeing yourself represented in a situation is not a good reason not to get involved.

“I want young people especially to know that just because you don’t see yourself reflected, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be there. If you don’t see yourself reflected you should absolutely be there. You should make it a point to get there and figure out how you are going to make this happen, because your voice is needed now more than ever. We need people to bring diverse experiences, diverse backgrounds, diverse thought to the conversation, to the debate, or else we’re not going to go anywhere.”

In the face of all the challenges in the world, never lose sight of joy.

“I want to be sure that you all still take a moment for yourself–self-care is so important. Find time to experience love and joy with each other! Laugh at some stuff! Because the world is going to keep throwing stuff at us, every day, that’s the way it works. And if we remove all the joy from our lives, we’re going to be in trouble, that means we lost. We’re not losers, and we’re not going to lose.”

To learn more about the Black Student Union and other student clubs and organizations at Concordia University Wisconsin, visit


— This story is written by Mike Zimmerman, corporate communications manager for Concordia University Wisconsin. He may be reached at or 262-243-4380.

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