Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Health Dept. rescinds staffer’s promotion
Agency, community alarmed by employee’s stance on LGBTQ+ issues
Milwaukee Health Commissioner Jeanette Kowalik has rescinded a highlevel promotion to a staffer with a felony conviction for shooting a former girlfriend, two personal bankruptcies and three name changes.
But Kowalik said in an interview this week that it was her concerns about Nabulungi Brister’s statements about gays and lesbians on Facebook that prompted the commissioner to nix the appointment.
“There was concern about (the promotion) being controversial,” Kowalik said. “Concerns from community partners about the perception that we were bringing in someone to be a new deputy commissioner and that there were concerns on LGBTQ issues.”
In response to the controversy, Kowalik sent an email to her staff Monday chiding them for engaging in “gossip and destructive behaviors at our department, especially when it can be perceived as an attack against others.”
“Engaging external partners and the media to bring about internal change should not be a first resort,” the email said. “Every time MHD is mentioned in the press negatively it impacts ALL of us and keeps us from moving forward.”
The commissioner said the note should not be perceived as a gag order.
“If you have a concern, let me know about it so I can address it,” Kowalik said. “I’m not telling people not to go to the media. I’m saying, if I don’t know about it, I can’t fix it.”
Brister, a lead risk assessor for the city, said she was informed last month that she was being named deputy commissioner of community health. The announcement went to staff last week.
Kowalik is creating four deputy commissioner posts as part of a sweeping reorganization of an agency still in turmoil because of its past failures to protect children from lead poisoning.
The Brister announcement immediately set off alarms inside the agency and larger public health community, prompting some to circulate an online video in which Brister discussed her
felony conviction, time in prison and turn from being a lesbian.
“I was gay for 18 years. I shot my exgirlfriend in her head … because I was living a life of homosexuality and I was angry from all the things that I went through as a child,” Brister said at The Lord’s Way International in Milwaukee earlier this year. She concluded, “If God did it for me, he’ll surely do it for you.”
The city is officially opposed to conversion therapy, which tries to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity. Brister says she opposes the practice.
On Friday afternoon, Brister was informed that the agency was pulling the plug on her promotion and that she would remain in her current $42,545per-year job.
Brister, 43, said she was told by Kowalik that Mayor Tom Barrett had axed the appointment because he feared her checkered past could hurt him politically in an election year. Brister said she disclosed all this information in the job interviews.
“I was devastated,” Brister said in an hourlong interview, adding she was targeted by racists in the city health agency. She said she is considering filing a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
But Kowalik said she was the one who rescinded the offer, not the mayor.
Kowalik said she informed the mayor’s office of her decision after being contacted by outside groups about Brister’s video, which was posted on Facebook by her husband, Demond Brister. Barrett’s office received similar complaints.
One local public health advocate told the Journal Sentinel that Brister’s views could have an impact on her ability to be effective in her job.
The advocate, who asked not to be named to preserve working relationships with the city health agency, specifically cited concerns about Milwaukee’s rates of gonorrhea and chlamydia in the gay community.
“It puts people’s lives at risk when people in positions like this have antigay beliefs,” the advocate said.
As for Brister’s other issues, Kowalik said the staffer was open about her legal and financial troubles, including her time being homeless at 15. “I looked at that as a strength that she has been through it,” said Kowalik, who has filed for bankruptcy twice.
Brister, who went by the name Keisha Fitchpatrick at the time, pleaded no contest in 1999 to a felony count of first-degree reckless injury with a dangerous weapon for shooting her ex-girlfriend in the back of the head with a 9mm handgun. Brister was 21.
The ex-girlfriend recovered from the injury.
The judge sentenced Brister to 121⁄2 years behind bars and ordered more than $44,000 in restitution. She eventually was released after serving 61⁄2 years of her sentence, including more than a year in solitary confinement.
More recently, Brister filed for bankruptcy in 2011 and again in 2018. Her most recent filing came two months after she landed her city job. She listed assets of $56,000 and liabilities exceeding $322,000, including $150,000 in student loan debt.
For the most part, though, Brister emphasized that she has turned her life around. She is now married with three small children, has earned a master’s degree in business administration and is working on two doctorates.
“I’m extremely qualified,” she said of her candidacy for the deputy commissioner post, a job that would have paid $63,000 a year.
For years, Brister and her husband have talked publicly about how they both consider themselves “ex-homosexuals.”
Their testimony appears on several anti-gay sites on Facebook, including Ex-LBGT Through Christ, Ex-Homosexuals Through Christ Uganda and the Overcomers Network. The couple also is featured in a 52-minute documentary called “No Ordinary Love.”
“I’m not trying to tell you how to live your life,” Demond Brister says at the outset of the documentary. “But my wife and I want to share our story.”
The documentary and several other posts, including the page for Demond and Keisha Brister Ministries, have been taken down from Facebook.
Asked specifically if she believes homosexuality is a sin, Brister said she does not and has never suggested so. She said she simply tells her own story of how she was “delivered” from homosexuality by God.
She added that she is adamantly opposed to conversion therapy. Her husband said he hasn’t attended church in 11⁄2 years because church leaders try to use him as a “gay exterminator” to convince others to change their sexuality.
“I don’t represent that,” he said.
In a followup email, Brister said she believes racism in Milwaukee is making it difficult for her and other African Americans to get ahead.
“The Health Department is extremely racist,” Brister wrote. “It is not a healthy place to work, and for African Americans, it is killing us.”
Kowalik said the agency is making progress but still has work to do.
“I believe we are making strides for race relations, but I don’t believe we’re, like, the model organization,” she said.
Asked if she believed racism was a factor in this case, Kowalik said she was excited for Brister to “move into this opportunity.”
“But, of course, there’s always people that are haters, right?” she said. “So, you know, whoever went to the lengths to try to look up her information, I don’t know.”