Tonya Brito Named Outstanding Woman of Color in Education

Tonya Brito, Professor of Law, is one of two honorees from the University of Wisconsin-Madison to receive the 17th Annual UW System Outstanding Women of Color in Education Award.

The award recognizes outstanding service to campus and community and individuals who have consistently demonstrated their ability to rally diverse forces together to advance the agenda of women, who have created positive changes at their institutional level, and who have demonstrated an understanding of the interplay of family and community and culture in the lives of women of color.

Brito will be one of 16 individuals — faculty, staff or students from each of the System’s 13 universities, UW Extension, the two-year colleges and central administration — to be honored at a statewide conference Oct. 5 and 6 at UW-Oshkosh. The awards are sponsored by the UW System’s Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion and the statewide Women’s Studies Consortium.

Tonya Brito: Outstanding Woman of Color in Education Profile

Tonya Brito joined the UW Law School in 1997 as Assistant Professor, and upon her arrival quickly established herself as an active participant and engaged community builder on campus and around Wisconsin.  Fully embodying the spirit of the Wisconsin Idea, Professor Brito's contributions extend beyond the borders of state through her outstanding contributions to social justice, community service, scholarly research and writing on issues of race and poverty in the United States.  A senior Law School colleague describes Professor Brito’s academic scholarship, community service and advocacy efforts as “synergistically joined in pursuit of social justice for disadvantaged communities.”  Even as a law student, Tonya’s unwavering commitment to social justice was obvious in her work with the student-run non-profit Harvard Legal Aid Bureau; as a student attorney and under the supervision of practicing public interest lawyers, Tonya represented low-income clients in family law, benefits, and landlord-tenant cases.

Gaining experience and recognition through her legal scholarship, Professor Brito realized that “a successful social justice agenda necessitates a multi-faceted strategy to dismantle the broader socio-economic and structural barriers that impede the lives of poor families.”  Therefore, she sees her academic career in the law as a unique opportunity to advance social justice by utilizing a researcher's tools to investigate socially relevant legal issues and allow for generating and disseminating empirically-grounded proposals for change that will potentially influence policy development.  Professor Brito's scholarship in the family law area has been informed by her considerable and tireless community service efforts on behalf of disadvantaged families and children. In a series of articles, Professor Brito has interrogated race, gender and class issues in family law: "The Welfarization of Family Law; From Madonna to Proletariat: Constructing a New Ideology of Motherhood in Welfare Discourse",(her persuasive argument to abandon the charged rhetoric of the welfare debate where poor mothers of color are referred to as lazy, cheats, and "welfare queens" in favor of constructing a new ideology of motherhood in policy discourse to counter the negative race-based and gender-based assumptions underlying punitive welfare policymaking); "Spousal Support Meets the Mommy Track: Why the ALI Proposal is Good for Working Wives"; and Professor Brito's most recent article in this scholarly arc, "Fathers Behind Bars: Rethinking Child Support Policy toward Low-Income Fathers and their Families".

Most recently, Professor Brito's work on behalf of poor families involved pro bono advocacy before the United States Supreme Court. In January 2011, Professor Brito drafted an amicus brief in the case of Turner v. Rogers. Petitioner Michael Turner, who is indigent, was incarcerated for 12 months after a South Carolina family court judge found him in civil contempt of an order to pay child support. Professor Brito's brief in the Turner litigation was a significant contribution to the case in that it, unlike the other amicus briefs, was centrally concerned with child support law's marginalization of low-income noncustodial parents, who are predominately poor fathers of color.

Within the Law School and the University, Professor Brito has been a critical institutional builder serving on several key committees, leading fundamental curricular reforms efforts, fostering an inclusive and supportive environment through mentoring junior faculty and Hastie Fellows, and pursuing a diverse faculty and student population.  A quick glance at Professor Brito's CV reveals the depth and breadth of her service commitment to the Law School and the University. In just the past two years, she has served as a member of numerous committees, including: (1) Tenure and Promotions Committee, (2) Hastie Fellowship Committee, (3) Dean Review Committee, (4) UW's Law School Dean Search and Screen Committee, and (5) Executive Committee of the Institute for Research on Poverty. Recently, she was elected to serve on the Law School's Academic Planning Council, having earlier served on the APC from 2006-2010. In addition to taking on these formal committee assignments, Professor Brito also co-chaired the Law School's Task Force on Professional Skills Education, a major curricular initiative directed at improving the professional skills education that the Law School provides to its students.

Within the Law School, Professor Brito has worked hard to bring together the instructional faculty with expertise in family law to foster collaboration on curricular initiatives and related programming. This diverse group includes tenure track faculty, clinical faculty, faculty associates and lecturers. Presiding at the helm of this loosely formed group, Professor Brito took a leading role in designing a Family Law Concentration, to meet the needs of students eager for guidance in pursuing a coherent course of study to help make them more sophisticated and competitive in the market for new lawyers.

In the area of family law and policy, Professor Brito has been instrumental in building an inclusive community of scholars on the UW-Madison campus. Significantly, she was key in leading a multidisciplinary group of UW-Madison faculty to collaborate on and submit a proposal in the area of Family Policy and Law in the 5th round of the UW-Madison's Cluster Hire Initiative. The Family Policy and Law proposal was selected and funded in May 2002 and three faculty positions were awarded to the cluster; however, UW later postponed funding and implementation of the cluster due to budget constraints. Even though the funding was put on hold, the Family Law and Policy faculty collective decided to move forward with some of the programming that they had proposed as part of the cluster proposal.

Finally, Professor Brito has also embraced opportunities to foster an inclusive and supportive environment at the Law School. She has accomplished this goal through mentoring junior faculty and Hastie Fellows, and taking steps to pursue a diverse faculty and student population. From the very beginning, Professor Brito has informally mentored many of the Hastie Fellows, welcoming them into the law school community and providing advice and moral support throughout their fellowship period and beyond. This nomination package includes letters of support from two former Hastie Fellows, Professors Mario Barnes and Osamudia James (both now tenured members of their respective law faculties), who describe in rich detail and with sincere gratitude the mentoring they received from Professor Brito during their two years at UW. Professor James writes that upon arriving at UW,

Professor Brito... immediately reached out, welcoming me to the Law School and offering to help in any way she could. Over the next two years, Professor Brito provided me with support and mentoring on both a personal and professional level. She was a willing reader of my scholarship, provided feedback as I created a scholarly agenda and cultivated an academic identity, recommended me for media appearances relevant to my work, and helped groom me for success on the entry-level law teaching market Personally, she welcomed me into her home, treating me as an equal and colleague, and candidly addressing questions and concerns I had about academic life and the unique obstacles that women of color encounter as they manage their professional and personal obligations.

In his letter of support, Professor Barnes conveys the invaluable mentoring he received from Professor Brito, and relates how he learned of her mentoring of several Hastie Fellows that succeeded him in the program. He writes:

Any act of mentoring is a selfless gift. When it routinely results in such positive results for mentees, it can only be considered an unexpected treasure.... Her only expectation of those who consistently receive her help is that they help others. This pay-it-forward approach clearly works; the time and attention I give to junior scholars is extended, in part, to honor the kindness Professor Brito extended to me.

As co-chair of the Law School's Faculty Appointments Committee during the 2005-2006 academic year, Professor Brito demonstrated her unfailing commitment to community building and the promotion of faculty diversity. During this period, the Law School conducted a nationwide search for candidates. The work of the Appointments Committee that year culminated in the successful recruitment of four promising entry level hires, one to fill an area of critical curricular and scholarly need, two to fill vacancies in the Legal Studies Cluster, and the fourth a spousal hire (coupled with the retention of a highly valued member of the faculty who was being recruited by a competing law school). Significantly, all four new hires were women and each contributed to the racial and ethnic diversity of the faculty. Professor Brito continues to serve as an informal mentor to several of the faculty hired during that season. In their five years on the faculty, each of the women hired that year has developed into productive scholars and valuable members of the law school community.

Submitted by Law School News on June 22, 2012

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