Alverno at Work: Tammy Belton-Davis

Tammy Belton-Davis’s grandmother gave her the middle name “Athena,” after the Greek goddess of wisdom and war, and it’s why she christened her company Athena Communications. “I like to think I’m pretty smart, and there is a fight in me, too,” she says with a laugh.

It’s that combination of wisdom, strategic thinking and determination that make Belton-Davis ’93 a sought-after partner in the Milwaukee community. In June, she joined Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s leadership team as its first chief diversity officer, a 10-month position leading Milwaukee Rep’s equity, diversity and inclusion plan until the theater company fills the position permanently.

“We’re living through two pandemics: the pandemic of this health crisis and the pandemic that has been living with us for centuries — the pandemic of structural racism,” she says. “Milwaukee Rep made a commitment last year to create a more equitable workplace and can serve as a model for the industry. Being a part of this work is really important to me. I love Milwaukee Rep and believe the theater should be representative of the community in which it serves at every level. What we know in this moment of history is that we want to be on the right side of history, and that means these structural barriers that have impacted communities of color for generations have to be dismantled. And Milwaukee Rep has to make sure that it is doing its part.”

Belton-Davis is invigorated by the possibilities. “I truly think I have the opportunity to be a vehicle of change, and I have committed to it,” she says. “When I think of my own experiences with racism, with microaggressions, with not feeling like I belonged, it’s fuel to me. It doesn’t make me want to retreat. The audaciousness of believing in the power to make change fuels me.”

Belton-Davis has always believed in her power to make change. After graduating with her Alverno degree in communication, she started working with community-based organizations and then local government, serving in staff roles with the Milwaukee County Board and Milwaukee Common Council. Then in 2009, she launched Athena Communications.

“I merged my love of politics and community with communications, and I love what I do,” says Belton-Davis, who continues to lead Athena Communications’ six-person team in addition to her role at Milwaukee Rep.

As a brand management firm, Athena offers communications, government relations and community engagement services to such partners as the Greater Milwaukee Foundation, the Medical College of Wisconsin and Martin Luther King Economic Development Corp. Belton-Davis especially loves working on projects that affect the social determinants of health, from early childhood education to housing. “We make a conscious effort to work on transformational projects,” she says.

As an entrepreneur, she has found herself drawing on her Alverno education again and again. “I didn’t really appreciate what I had learned in undergrad until I started to engage and network within Milwaukee,” she says. “You don’t truly appreciate the 8 Abilities until you have to exercise them in a professional way or as part of your leadership journey.”

And now she’s eager to put those leadership skills to work at the region’s largest theater company. Belton-Davis was already a familiar face to Milwaukee Rep’s team thanks to her past experience as a volunteer and consultant.

“Besides being a very strategic brand strategist and communications expert, Tammy is also one of the most positive, solution-oriented people that I know,” says Chad Bauman, the company’s executive director. “I’ve had the pleasure of working with her for six years in many different capacities, and I’m always amazed how she can pull together a coalition of people toward achieving a goal. People are drawn to her.”

Milwaukee Rep was an all-white theater company until 2010, but it has made equity, diversity and inclusion (ED&I) a major focus in recent years, both in the stories it tells and in its work behind the scenes. The strategic plan adopted last year makes ED&I a top priority, encompassing race, ethnicity, sexual and gender identity. “ED&I work is challenging, delicate and vital,” Bauman notes. “As our first chief diversity officer, Tammy will help analyze our systems and practices, develop a plan to push our theater forward, and ultimately assist in the recruitment of a permanent CDO. She will help bring a level of professional rigor to our ED&I work that will serve the theater well as we move into our next five-year strategic plan.”

Belton-Davis is excited to lay that foundation. “My role is to advance that work and make sure that what was created as a plan is actionable, measurable and implemented,” she says. “As a Black person, I’m going to be very bold and audacious with the work that needs to be done. What we can’t do is just offer a lot of rhetoric around diversity, equity and inclusion. That needs to be coupled with a strong action plan. I’m walking into this work with an understanding that there’s a lot of work to be done, but also a great deal of optimism.”

She hopes every organization is turning its words to action.

“When you cultivate and celebrate diverse perspectives and diverse ideas, it makes for a more thriving community. It makes for a more thriving operation, whether you’re a nonprofit or a business,” she says. “This is not just about meeting quotas. What is equally important is having those voices and the belief that diversity matters, the belief that diverse ideas matter. That diversity of thought contributes to an organization’s bottom line.”

The work will continue after her time at Milwaukee Rep. And no matter what project she takes on next, this Athena knows she’ll still be in the fight.

“I really do believe I am the change that I seek,” she says. “I’ve been put on this planet to be a change agent. It’s really about how do I use the talents and gifts I’ve been given as a communications professional to change the world in which I live.”

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