Anything is possible.

If there is anyone who needs to hear that mantra, it is the women and children who arrive at the doorstep of the Sojourner Family Peace Center, Wisconsin’s largest hub for safety and healing for families dealing with domestic violence.

If there is anyone who can help those women and children believe that it is true, it is Carmen Pitre, the nonprofit’s leader for nearly 21 years. 

“If you look at my history, I should have been a statistic,” Pitre frankly said about the challenges she faced growing up in Cut Off, Louisiana. Her parents married at a very young age – her mother was a child and her father was 18. Her father was abusive. Pitre was the second in her family to graduate from high school and first to go to college. Her grandparents couldn’t read or write. Alcohol and violence were present throughout her family tree. Pitre herself struggled with alcohol and drug abuse before coming to Milwaukee to seek treatment in 1984.

“What gives me hope is that possibility – that if THAT exists for me, then it exists for everybody else. The clients we serve. Everyone,” Pitre said. 

Under Pitre’s leadership, the Sojourner Family Peace Center has stood as a pillar of peace in the community and has helped change the way the community addresses domestic violence and serves the needs of survivors.

Prior to 2016, a survivor might spend weeks or even months navigating the different providers they need to get help. During the process, they were forced to relive the trauma. Now 14 diverse service providers and four visiting agencies tend to the needs of survivors – from mental health to legal assistance – all in one place.  

“From the minute we moved into the building, I said that we give resources and information but the most important thing we give people when they come is love, dignity and respect,” Pitre said.

Comprehensive services are co-located in a state-of the-art 72,000-square-foot building that occupies a full city block and has become a model for other agencies in the nation. In its first five years in the building, Sojourner has seen demand for its services increase by 26 percent. 

That’s a far cry from 2002 when she first took over as leader of the Task Force on Family Violence. At that time, the agency had a $1 million budget, had gone through a revolving door of leaders and had a staff of 18, who were experiencing rolling three-weeklong layoffs due to a budget crisis. Pitre spent years helping stabilize it prior to the organization merging with the Sojourner Truth House, which ran a shelter and hotline, to become the Sojourner Family Peace Center. She served as co-executive director from 2009 to 2017.

Though she’s spent 21 years with Sojourner, her life’s work has been on behalf of our community’s most vulnerable. Her first job in Wisconsin was a nursing assistant at DePaul Belleview, a long term alcohol and drug treatment facility. She was a founding member of the Wisconsin Association for Children of Alcoholics. During the 1980s and 1990s she also worked at Planned Parenthood and the AIDS Project.

“I’ve always believed that I could make a difference,” Pitre said. “I’ve always tried to match that with hard work.” 

Since the onset of COVID-19, Pitre and her staff have faced some of their most challenging work. The pandemic, coupled with nationwide lockdowns, job losses and food insecurity, exacerbated domestic violence. The nonprofit kept its 56-bed shelter and building open throughout the pandemic. It added texting to its hotline and went virtual for certain services Pitre said she didn’t think was possible even three years ago.

“Our mission is not a virtual mission – the idea of helping people heal from violence is a person-to-person endeavor,” Pitre said.

In 2021, after five years in development, the agency launched new software that centralizes data collection from its member agencies to further reduce the trauma clients face repeating their stories to strangers.

“I’m fiercely driven to the idea of equality and safety and security for women,” said Pitre. “I think there is way too much hurt and suffering in all of us. I’m interested in healing. I’m sticking around to try to make that happen in the best way I can.”

Past Doug Jansson Leadership award recipients

2021 civic award recipients

William C. Frye Award

Virgis and Angela Colbert

Frank Kirkpatrick Award

Mark Eppli

Doug Jansson Leadership Award

Carmen Pitre

President’s Leadership in Racial Equity and Social Justice Award

Ness Flores