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.
Civil discourse for the purpose of enhancing understanding of public matters and concerns is lacking in Milwaukee and elsewhere.
That’s according to Derek Mosley, the former Municipal Court judge who now serves as director of Marquette University Law School’s Lubar Center for Public Policy Research and Civic Education.
“The Lubar Center is a place where we’re going to have those interactions,” he said. “That’s my goal, to break down barriers and get people talking.”
Rather than the arguments typical in conversations among those with different viewpoints, Mosley said he wants to see intelligent civil discourse. Doing so, he believes, will help bring people from different neighborhoods and experiences together to hash things out and work together.
‘A convener of people’
“We’re not advocates, but we are a convener of people and want them to get together to talk,” he said. “We’re all humans.”
The Lubar Center supports the Marquette Law School Poll, which gives insight on local and national elections and other public policy issues; conducts its own research on water law, housing trends, redistricting and other topics; and hosts public events such as the popular “On the Issues.”
With Mosley at the helm, the center has diversified its offerings. In February, for example, it sponsored “For the Soul: A Narrated Food Tasting and Conversation,” at Turning Tables Tavern & Eatery at Turner Hall.
That event, co-sponsored by America’s Black Holocaust Museum and Milwaukee Film’s Black Lens, featured cuisine prepared by several local Black chefs and gave participants the opportunity to explore the rich influence of African American food on American cuisine.
Emilio De Torre, executive director of the Milwaukee Turners, said the event reflects Mosley’s passion for bringing people together. Milwaukee Turners provides a downtown space for the community to practice the development of sound minds and bodies at Turner Hall.
“It’s the idea of placemaking and gathering around meals,” De Torre said. “He’s wedding together the idea of building relationships and fostering friendships by breaking bread.”
Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley said he is excited to see Mosley in this role.
“I’m eager to see how he will continue to positively impact our greater Milwaukee community as well as be a national voice in this, the next chapter of his illustrious career,” Crowley said.
From Chicago to Milwaukee
Although Mosley can almost be considered synonymous with Milwaukee, it isn’t his hometown. He was born in Chicago. His father was an engineer for Illinois Bell, and his mother was an administrative assistant at Governors State University. He left the city to earn his undergraduate degree in Iowa.
As for why he went to law school, that decision was made because of a TV show and specifically a character on that show. While watching “L.A. Law,” he was introduced to a character named Jonathan Rollins, played by Blair Underwood.
“There’s Black lawyers!” he recalled thinking at the time.
He would eventually earn a full-ride scholarship to Marquette University Law School. There he would meet his future wife, Kelly L. Cochrane, also a graduate of the law school.
He was hired as an assistant district attorney in Milwaukee County, representing the state in more than 1,000 criminal prosecutions while also delving deep into the community outreach work.
His mentor during the time was Louis B. Butler, who was a Municipal Court judge in Milwaukee. Butler, who would eventually be appointed to the Wisconsin Supreme Court, also served as a Wisconsin Circuit Court judge.
Before he moved on, he urged Mosley to run for his Municipal Court job. Mosley would serve as a judge in Municipal Court for the next 20 years.
Constant focus on community
Mosley, who joined Marquette in January, said this is the work he’s always wanted to do from the bench.
And although his role as an impartial judge prevented his advocacy on some issues, his impact on Milwaukee cannot be denied.
During his time as an assistant district attorney, Mosley founded the Community Prosecution Units, which deal with urban blight and other quality-of-life issues; set up after-school programs; conducted outreach to homeless and justice-involved residents; and created events such as Warrant Withdrawal Wednesdays. He also served on the board of numerous organizations, including Safe & Sound.
Bridget Whitaker, executive director of Safe & Sound said Mosley assisted the board in numerous ways.
He “has always had a way of helping us lean into our missions, which for us is empowering people and creating a safer neighborhood,” she said. “It’s something that he did while in the courtroom and beyond by sharing helpful resources, helping others learn the system and residents understand what the courts are all about.”
In addition to that work, Mosley has always made it a point to reach out to youths. It’s something he made a point to do early in his career as a prosecutor, when he met a young man who had a small case but hung out with a bad crew, he said.
“His mom stopped me and said: ‘Would you mentor my son?’ So she gave me her card,” he said. “I put the card on my desk but never picked it up again.”
A few months later, as he read the paper, he learned that the young man in his courtroom had been murdered — not because of something he did but what he saw.
“I called her and promised her that I would never do that again,” Mosley said.
Since then, he’s served as a mentor to countless youths, showing up at schools in his robe to let students know that they can achieve their dreams.
“I was trying to normalize Black men in robes,” he said. “In society, we normalize Black men in orange jumpsuits.”
Hopes for the future of Milwaukee
Although Mosley acknowledges that there are many issues plaguing Milwaukee, he does see hope.
To move forward, he said the city will need to build a great education system for all and create access to family-sustaining jobs.
To do so, he believes there needs to be greater collaboration between the city and state.
“Once people from other places sit down with people from Milwaukee, or anywhere else, we realize that we’re the same and we care about the same things,” he said. “It’s really easy to sit back and throw stones, but if we engage, we can find out why things are the way they are.”
“We don’t live in the same neighborhoods, but we’re all humans of Milwaukee,” he said.