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City of Milwaukee Health Commissioner Jeanette Kowalik holds a sign from the 1940s while speaking at a Public Safety and Health Committee meeting about coronavirus preparations March 5 at City Hall. (Photo: Mark Hoffman / Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)

Outgoing Milwaukee Health Commissioner Jeanette Kowalik says she was targeted by white supremacists — as well as “micro-aggressed, man- and ‘Karen’-splained” — during her time leading the department.

“Like some other health officials across the country, I received threats of harm mailed to my office prior to COVID-19 and of course after — among them many emails authored by far-right white supremacists,” Kowalik wrote in an opinion piece for the Daily Beast published Tuesday.

“I still believe being a health officer is a noble endeavor, but even the most seasoned professionals have to admit that our experience with the backlash against common sense and science under this pandemic has been heartbreaking. I truly do not know what the future of the profession will look like as long as experience and formal training in public health is silenced and dismissed.”

Kowalik announced last week that she was resigning to take a new job with a national health policy think tank in Washington, D.C.

She cited limits on her ability to address the pandemic as one reason for her departure. She is the latest in a recent string of high-profile and cabinet-level departures from Mayor Tom Barrett’s administration.

“As much as I love my hometown, I believe that I am limited due to factors that are out of my control,” she said in the announcement, referencing obstacles to testing, public health orders, mask messaging and limits on public gatherings as part of the pandemic response.

Kowalik made clear in an interview with the Journal Sentinel that she was referring to Republican state lawmakers and the conservative-leaning state Supreme Court, who have challenged or knocked down public health orders aimed at preventing the virus’ spread.

“I’m talking about the state … and all of the challenges that we’ve faced as local health officers along the way, from the spring election all the way up until now,” she said.  “We’re trying to save lives with the spread of COVID, and then we’re dealing with all of these barriers to being able to do our work.”

In her Daily Beast piece, Kowalik also detailed Milwaukee’s role helping to uncover the racial disparities of the coronavirus pandemic, with the virus disproportionately affecting Black and Latino communities. 

But she also wrote about the sexism and racism she faced.

“I was micro-aggressed, man- and “Karen”-splained beyond belief, and subject to major passive-aggressive outbursts, and plenty of double standards,” Kowalik wrote, referring to the cultural term of a “Karen” — a privileged white woman who exerts a sense of victimhood. 

“I was dragged for having a necessary surgery, as I have several autoimmune conditions. I took two weeks of medical leave to recover while another vital cabinet member took weeks of vacation on multiple occasions and no one questioned him for it.”

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett praised Kowalik’s work, particularly during the coronavirus pandemic.

“This is another example of how the Federal government has politicized this pandemic and the important work of public health professionals bringing out the worst in some people,” Barrett said in a statement. “I appreciate she worked so hard to address these issues particularly during such a difficult time.”

During an online news conference Tuesday, Kowalik called for more diversity in public health leadership positions.

“Just my experiences in two years — it’s very difficult to be the one and only,” she said. “We need more of us in these positions and I think it’s very important, especially when our community is predominantly of color — mainly of color — we need to have leaders that represent us and that understand what we’re going through.”

She also encouraged people to support “equity, inclusion and diversity.”

“It’s one thing to get into a position,” Kowalik said. “It’s another thing to be supported in a position, and it’s another thing to be able to bring other people so that you’re not the one and only.”

She also spoke about the response to Milwaukee leaders becoming among the first to declare racism a public health crisis.

“You know there’s many people who have rallied behind us for doing, but there were people, and still are people, that are very angry about this that are feeling as if they’re under attack because their way of life is being threatened,” Kowalik said.

“Racism kills. It’s evil. It’s a sin in our country, and we’ve got to change it, and doing so in a way that’s leading with love and that retaliating hate for hate, because that just destroys us and makes us weak as a country.”

Contact Mary Spicuzza at (414) 224-2324 or [email protected] Follow her on Twitter at @MSpicuzzaMJS.

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