A numbers cruncher with the Public Policy Forum, her life is a testament to the value of education.
When she was young, Vanessa Allen’s mother lived in Chicago along Jackson Boulevard near Cicero Avenue, on the West Side. It was a safe neighborhood where she could walk with no problem, but changes came when houses were demolished to make way for what is now the Eisenhower Expressway. The demolition of neighborhoods to make way for expressways was a common story, one which Milwaukee experienced.
The upshot was people began selling their homes and values plunged in the neighborhood. So the family moved to the suburbs, to a new subdivision called Hoffman Estates, where Vanessa was born in 1980. The transplanted family prospered there, though not without hard work. Her grandfather drove a cab in Chicago, and then worked at Illinois Bell as a trouble shooter (for 22 years) before starting a plumbing, heating and air conditioning business. By the 1980s, both maternal grandparents owned two retail stores and a wholesale florist company. Following grandpa’s death, grandma stepped up, at age 62, to manage the heating and air conditioning business, and continues to do so at age 85.
Though her entire family discussed societal issues, her mom led the way with open perspectives on issues like economic fairness, race and families, and by standing in long lines at the polls to vote, often with her kids in tow. “My mom and I once realized that we both wrote reports on elements of the Arab-Israeli conflict, she while in high school, and me in college. It was just funny to think of our unspoken parallels,” Vanessa says.
Her family wasn’t a cardboard cutout of the Brady Bunch, she says, but something of a Petri dish, with a black father and a German-Irish mom, a mix that taught her about norms and why challenges to those norms can be very necessary, painful and productive.
Another dimension was added when Allen was still young, and her parents separated. Now her mom worked two jobs while raising three bi-racial kids on her own.
A product of the Civil Rights era, her mom gave a “piece of her mind” to people who taunted her three kids. “It was hurtful to her because she loved us, but awkward for us because we wanted to belong,” Allen says.
Vanessa attended public schools until high school, when she attended St. Viator in nearby Arlington Heights, Illinois. Graduating in 1999, she headed for another Catholic institution, the University of Notre Dame, where she graduated in 2003, majoring in political science and French. Prior to taking an internship with the Illinois Governor’s Office doing constituent work, she spent a few months working in a small law firm, and followed that up with a position in the labor relations division of the Illinois Department of Children & Family Services. This is where her interest in public policy analysis was sparked.
The spark made her yearn for more in-depth study, and she got it at graduate school at UW-Madison. It gave her a taste of what “Fighting Bob” was all about. When 2007 rolled around she had earned a Masters of Public Affairs from the university’s aptly named La Follette School of Public Affairs.
And then the job search was on: Chicago, Madison, Milwaukee? She wanted to be in a big city, wanted more diversity and wanted to get back to the lake. Milwaukee won. She began her career working full time at the Milwaukee County budget office, where she had interned in 2006.
She saw a need for greater cooperation, “particularly when it comes to long-term strategic planning.” She notes that since she left the budget office, Act 10 has trimmed fringe benefit costs, “to an extent unheard of when I worked at the county.” she says. Allen took a pay cut when she went to work for the Public Policy Forum where she currently serves as Senior Fiscal Researcher.
The job appealed to her because of the “objectivity” of the 100-year-old non-profit organization. It seems fair to suggest that Allen learned about the importance of objectivity from those long-ago family discussions led by her mom. Stakeholders in the success of Milwaukee are not unlike her family “stakeholders” who came together to meet specific goals.
Despite significant and fiscally necessary changes to the fringe benefits in the Milwaukee Public School system, she says MPS is not “in the clear.” She’s generous in her take on the situation, recognizing the system depends on the state for funding and must live within state-imposed spending limitations and weather the impact of choice and charter schools.
However, she remains objective.
To Allen’s mind, education is one of the most critical economic development tools. In order to do more herself, she began tutoring twice weekly at Our Next Generation, an after-school program on 34th & Lisbon. She’s noticed an impact. “It’s a pretty amazing feeling when a youngster I’m tutoring in math takes pride in showing me her report card,” Allen says. As a kid Allen loved art, but when her mom suggested she take advantage of summer math tutoring, she did, and it made math far more exciting.
Did she ever use her Notre Dame degree in French? She’s been able to connect with several francophone individuals in Milwaukee, many from west Africa, places like Guinea, Burkina Faso and Senegal. She also learned some Swahili while at UW-Madison, and has used it to impress a few Milwaukee residents from Tanzania and Kenya.
She lives near 54th & Garfield in the Washington Heights area in a 1920s bungalow with original craftsman woodwork. She muses that she and her siblings have all found their place in our world. Justin, two years her senior, is finishing up his masters degree in social work at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He’s interning at the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, and will soon begin a job with Lawrence Hall Youth Services, a non-profit child welfare organization. Her younger sister, Brittany, works for a roofing company, and makes artful purses in her spare time.
“We three have found where we belong – amongst policy wonks and world travelers in my case,” she says, “and hockey and Bob Marley fans in my brother’s case, and clever fashionistas, in my sister’s case.” Three very different journeys begun from the same family hearth.