BELOIT - Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes said environmental justice, with a particular focus on health, will be a focus of his office and that of the Governor. Increasing the minimum wage, providing affordable and accessible healthcare, reducing African-American male incarceration and investing in education were some of the initiatives Barnes said he will work to advance in the state.
"We have to change not only what is possible, but what is expected," Barnes said.
Barnes discussed his plans at the annual Beloit College Martin Luther King Day Jr. Convocation held Monday at Eaton Chapel. The event featured speakers, a poetry reading and a musical performance by Beloit Turner's Overdrive, a contemporary a cappella group.
In his keynote address, Barnes said he's a proponent of environmental justice and is committed to making Wisconsin a more sustainable state and protecting its natural resources. He said decades of denial of climate change is having a detrimental effect on the state, with particularly negative impacts to communities of color.
"We can't achieve social justice until we have environmental justice," he said.
He said clean air and safe drinking water will be a priority, noting the people who compromise it should have to pay for it.
Barnes said he is a supporter of better healthcare for all, particularly women of color and women in rural areas.
"Access to quality and affordable healthcare should be a right," Barnes said.
Barnes said there needs to be more investment in education to avoid overcrowded classes and teachers leaving the profession.
"Higher education shouldn't be exclusive to those who can afford it," Barnes added.
Barnes said he hopes to end mass incarceration in Wisconsin - the number one jailer of African American men in the country. The state spends $1.5 billion each year to lock people up, many for non-violent offenses or mental health issues, he said.
Barnes also spoke on how many people are still struggling despite reports of the economy improving. He said many haven't recovered from the recession 11 years ago and don't have the same shot at the middle class and economic mobility as in the past.
"Millennials aren't lazy, they just don't have many opportunities," he said.
Barnes noted the minimum wage hasn't gone up in almost 10 years, and people are working more for less just to get by.
As he was wrapping up his remarks, Barnes spoke against President Donald Trump's proposed wall at the Mexican border, which he called an ineffective wall that only serves the goal of supremacy.
Prior to Barnes' keynote, U.S. Senator for Wisconsin Tammy Baldwin encouraged people to answer King's call and ensure all Americans have an equal opportunity to achieve their hopes and dreams.
On Jan. 7, Baldwin told the crowd she attended Barnes' inauguration. Situated behind him as he was sworn into the office, Baldwin said she was moved by the faces in the crowd.
"It was a powerful moment to remind us of our progress as a state and nation and how far we still have to go," Baldwin said. "It's why it's so important that we lead to meet the challenge to move forward by working and marching together."
Monday's convocation also included remarks from Beloit College students Ellis Jordan Lewis and Isabel Mae Mendoza. Mendoza said everyone is capable of changing, but it will involve mind, body and spirit. School District of Beloit senior and League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) youth member Kaylyn Vences gave a poetry reading, where she encouraged people not to become complacent.
Barnes was elected on Nov. 8, 2018 and was sworn into office on Jan. 7. He is the first African-American to serve as a lieutenant governor in Wisconsin, and the second African-American ever to hold statewide office.
In 2012, at the age of 25, Mandela was elected to the Wisconsin State Assembly, where he served two two-year terms. His tenure in the State Assembly included serving as Chair of the Legislature's Black and Latino Caucus and becoming a recognized leader on progressive economic policies and gun violence prevention legislation.