By Dylan Deprey
Donald “Don” Sykes was a community leader, an anti-poverty trailblazer and a mentor to many public servants fighting the same fight he had for decades.
Sykes’ legacy as a community member and an anti-poverty leader will live on as he passed away at the age of 80, on Sunday, Aug. 13, 2017.
Though most of his life work was in Milwaukee, Sykes was born in Chicago in 1936. He later studied social sciences at Northern Illinois University. He then made the trip up north and received a master’s degree from University of Wisconsin- Milwaukee.
“He was a courtly gentleman because whenever you saw him he was always impeccably dressed, and would rarely catch him having an inarticulate moment,” said Gerard Randall, former Social Development Commission (SDC) President.
He was a natural leader, and it showed as he led the SDC for two decades (1968 – 1988). His untiring efforts towards uplifting the low-income community was the foundation in building Milwaukee County’s largest anti-poverty agency.
Sykes was a mentor to many up-and-coming public servants to step foot through the SDC, including former Milwaukee Urban League president, Ralph Hollmon and 2nd District Ald. Cavalier Johnson.
“When I was a younger person seeking opportunities to work hard, get an education, and apply myself to public service, Mr. Sykes always took the time to help me find my way. That’s who Don Sykes was– a leader and a mentor who always took the time to invest in others,” Johnson expressed in a press release.
Sykes was nationally recognized after assuming his role in the Clinton Administration as Director of the Department of Health and Human Services Office of Community Relations. He managed the development of a nationally recognized employment program, welfare and anti-poverty demonstration programs.
He also created several major programs to fight poverty, expand outreach, and facilitate the development of a national information and reporting system for the over 1,000 Community Action Agencies funded by the Community Services Block Grant.
Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett hand-picked Sykes to develop a community planning process in 2006. Sykes and several community members created a workforce development plan, and the Private Industry Council, Milwaukee County’s workforce development board, became the Milwaukee Area Workforce Investment Board (MAWIB) in June 2007.
Sykes served as the President and CEO of the Milwaukee Area Workforce Investment Board (MAWIB) from 2007 to 2014. During his leadership, he opened doors for additional funding from the government and increased services to broader demographics. He also collaborated with Milwaukee Area Technical College (MATC) to support students transition from education to the workforce.
“Don Sykes’ contributions to the Milwaukee Area Workforce Development Board and Milwaukee County have been critical in moving the county, and the region forward,” Barrett said in a press release. “His dedication to Milwaukee and its people was genuine and inspiring. I am truly thankful to have had the opportunity to work by his side. He will be dearly missed.”
Sykes retired his post in 2014, and was succeeded by Earl Buford, current president and CEO. Although the organization’s name changed from the MAWIB to Employ Milwaukee, Syke’s ideas and recommendations laid a solid groundwork for a sustainable workforce development agency.
“Don Sykes continues to be an icon and a role model for all people in Milwaukee,” Buford said. “Sykes was a kind-hearted, intellectual and truly exceptional man who loved his work and Milwaukee. I am honored to continue to work at Employ Milwaukee towards a greater Milwaukee, where I can see his legacy live on each day.”
Sykes is survived by his wife; two sons, David and Dennis; three grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
A memorial service is planned for St. Mark AME Church, 1616 W Atkinson Ave., at 11 a.m. on Sept 16.