In Christine Neumann-Ortiz’s work as an organizer and activist over the years, no matter the number of successes achieved or series of struggles faced along the way, it’s always been about moving forward.

“I’m proud of where we are, but I always look to the horizon,” said Neumann-Ortiz, founder and executive director of Voces de la Frontera, a membership-based nonprofit that works to expand the civil rights and labor rights for low-wage and immigrant families. “What gives me the passion and energy and perspective to keep moving forward is the connection with our community.”

That perspective and focus has not only served her well in her work but also has helped the Milwaukee organization become known as Wisconsin’s leading voice for immigration reform. Along the way, Voces and Neumann-Ortiz have developed national reputations for advancing the rights of some of our country’s most marginalized communities. Nation Magazine called Voces the “most valuable grassroots organization in the U.S.” Neumann-Ortiz has been named USA Today’s Women of the Century.

Neumann-Ortiz, the daughter of immigrants, began Voces in 1994 as a bilingual newspaper covering the experiences and daily struggles of maquiladora workers along the Texas/Mexico border. Four years later, she moved to Wisconsin and brought Voces with her. It has since grown into a nonprofit organization that includes a student chapter, Youth Empowered in the Struggle; workers’ centers in Milwaukee and Racine that provide English classes, citizenship workshops and employment rights trainings; and a 501c4 arm to specifically mobilize voters.

“We bring hope to the community,” Neumann-Ortiz said. “That’s what always is needed. It’s a privilege to be able to do the work that we do.”

There have been many successes along the way. On May 1, 2006, as part of the “Day without Latinos and Immigrants,” Voces led a march that drew 70,000 people to Milwaukee streets to raise awareness of the impact of the Latinx community on the local economy. In 2017, the Milwaukee Public Schools passed a resolution, which Voces advocated for, that designated it as a safe haven for undocumented students and families. During the 2008 elections, Voces registered more than 2,000 new voters. In the most recent election, 74 percent of eligible Latinx voters turned out to cast their ballots.

“What we accomplished here in Wisconsin is the product of years of struggles,” Neumann-Ortiz said. “The struggle is not just a labor struggle but it is a racial justice struggle.”

The struggle as of late has been the pandemic, which has disproportionately affected people of color. Voces created a COVID-19 relief fund to help undocumented workers who lost their jobs due to the pandemic and faced challenges in meeting their basic needs. The organization also fought for fair wages and working conditions for essential workers and their families, many of whom are from the Latinx community.

“These are struggles of life and death,” she said. “It was really rewarding to fight to elevate their voice and win the protections they need for themselves and families.”

Even though the most recent presidential election shows encouraging signs for her organization’s work, Neumann-Ortiz acknowledges that the fight doesn’t stop.

“I‘ve been proud of the work we’ve done to beat back a lot of these threats and make advances,” said Neumann-Ortiz about the challenges over the past four years, a period of time she said has led to increased bigotry, racism and threats of deportation. “We have been just waiting for this election to be in a better position to fight again.”

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