By Edgar Mendez
This story was originally published by Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service, where you can find other stories reporting on fifteen city neighborhoods in Milwaukee. Visit milwaukeenns.org.
Safety looks different to different people, explains Bridget Whitaker, new executive director of Safe & Sound.
“For some, it’s knowing your kids can go across the street and play at the park, and for others, the issue is a nuisance house that throws after-hours parties,” she said.
Whitaker, who served as program director and senior director of operations and administration at Safe & Sound before being named executive director in April, says the way to address these and other issues such as reckless driving, is to work together.
“Creating a collective impact is the basis for us to turn the corner in what we’re seeing,” she said.
Whitaker, 43, assumed the helm at Safe & Sound after Joe’Mar Hooper, who became executive director in 2020, resigned this year to take a new position in Arizona. Before Hooper, Safe & Sound was led for six years by Katie Sanders.
The nonprofit organization serves 10 different priority areas across the city, engaging residents, businesses, community organizations and law enforcement to address safety concerns in those neighborhoods. The organization hosts events such as neighborhood cleanups, crime and safety meetings that include law enforcement, youth advocacy and the convening of the 27th Street West Drug Free Coalition.
According to the Safe & Sound annual report for 2020, the last one available, organization representatives spent 5,397 hours connecting directly with residents in 2020, engaged more than 3,000 youths and abated over 1,100 nuisance incidents.
Despite the group’s efforts and those of many others in the city, crime, including shootings and murders, have increased in recent years. Whitaker says she realizes she faces a tall task in helping to make the city safer.
“It’s no easy feat,” she said. “I want to amplify the voice of residents, especially young people, to address what they feel is important and that’s how we can change things.”
A lifelong Milwaukee native, Whitaker was raised by her mother and became a teen mom. Despite the challenges of beginning motherhood at an early age, she said she wasn’t going to let her life circumstances dictate her opportunities.
She graduated from Marquette University in 2001 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Human Resource Management, then earned a Master of Business Administration degree from University of Phoenix, a Juris Doctorate from Concord Law School and a Nonprofit Management Certificate from Alverno College.
Before joining Safe & Sound, she served as the director of human resources for St. Charles Youth and Family Services, and she was the social action chair of the Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority Inc. Milwaukee Chapter. Whitaker is the author of three books, including “A Sunday Kind of Love,” and, most recently, “I Hope This Blesses Somebody.” She also is the co-founder of BlankSpaceMKE, the artist-collaborative behind the Milwaukee Black Restaurant Week.
Symphony Swan-Zawadi, co-founder of BlankSpaceMKE, said Whitaker’s wealth of experience in human resources will serve her well in her new role.
“She understands the people side and the business side, and she is able to build bridges between them, and I think that’s important,” she said.
Swan-Zawadi is executive director of Arts @ Large, an organization that works toward equitable access to education that include the arts. She said Whitaker’s dedication to the city and its residents is an added benefit.
“She loves this city and is excellent at being able to pour into people so they feel seen, validated and respected,” she said.
Sodi Nichols, vice president of national strategic markets for U.S. Bank and chair of Safe & Sound Board of Directors, agrees.
“She’s always been an advocate for the community and has helped to share their voice and bridge that gap between police and community through events that actually bring people together,” Nichols said. “She now has the space to even go further with her vision.”
Whitaker says a major goal at Safe & Sound is to improve relationships between older and younger people. She said that youths are unfairly blamed for many of the problems in the city when they’re really a main part of the solution.
“We need to make space to hear what they need to feel safe,” she said. “We need to talk to each other and not at each other and have conversations about what’s working and what’s not working.”
She also wants to help foster an environment where youths and law enforcement trust and work with each other.
“It’s a two-way street, and it starts with seeing each other as people,” she said. “Things don’t change overnight, but when we work together we all benefit.”