Attorney Kori Ashley was honored at the 35th annual Black Excellence Awards last month as a Special Honoree in the field of Law. The 32-year-old member of St. Francis of Assisi Parish was recognized for her work as a staff attorney for Legal Action of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

Kori Ashley was a Special Honoree in the field of Law at the Black Excellence Awards. (Submitted photo)

The event, at the Italian Community Center, was hosted by the Milwaukee Times.

The awards, which began in 1985, were created to celebrate high achievers in the black community. At this year’s event, 11 African-American women were recognized as special honorees, 35 African-American men and women were honored as “the best in our community” and 12 high school students received scholarships for their scholastic and civic engagement.

According to Fessahaye Mebrahtu, Director of Black Catholic and Ethnic Ministries, the city’s Black Catholic Churches were well-represented this year with All Saints, St. Francis of Assisi and St. Martin de Porres having five awardees. In addition to Ashley, Dr. Shawnee Daniel-Sykes (St. Martin de Porres), Judge Brittany Grayson (St. Francis), Mayor Marvin Pratt (All Saints), and Sr. Callista Robinson (St. Martin de Porres) all received awards.

“Nominations took place in the summer; Sr. Callista was a nominee from our office, the other awardees were nominated by friends, colleagues and church members,” he said. “This is a record number of nominees from Central City Catholic parishes.”

WISN 12 News This Morning co-anchors Adrienne Pedersen and Sheldon Dutes served as emcees for the event, which drew more than 700 attendees. The keynote speaker was Kim Godwin, EVP of news at CBS News.

“The comment was that this is the Oscars of the Milwaukee Black community,” said Mebrahtu. “Tony Evers and Tom Barrett were present and shared a few words. The event sheds positive light in the Black community, oftentimes portrayed with crimes and all sorts of social ills.”

While Ashley was not given a reason for her nomination, she assumes it was for the work she does at Legal Action of Wisconsin, particularly for her efforts in trying to expunge the old criminal records of those arrested but not charged with crimes.

“Legal Action is a nonprofit law firm that provides civil legal aid to persons who meet financial eligibility criteria who cannot otherwise afford an attorney,” she said. “I work in the firm’s road to opportunity project that has a mission of mitigating or eliminating civil legal barriers to employment, so that people can find family-sustaining employment. One of the ways we accomplish that is through the expungement process.”

Receiving this award was a great honor for Ashely, who is married to Dr. Kwadwo Owusu-Ofori and is the mother to a 9-month-old son, Myles.

“It was an honor to be selected and celebrated along with so many great people from Milwaukee who work hard every day to improve the lives of others. Milwaukee is home for me, so the award is especially meaningful, and I am grateful that the Milwaukee Times takes time every year to highlight the work of so many deserving individuals,” she said. “The event was beautiful; truly a gathering illustrating all the black excellence throughout the city of Milwaukee. I was especially moved by the portion of the ceremony that focused on the youth receiving scholarships. The students were so impressive, focused and clearly on a path to excellence.”

As a young Black Catholic, Ashley said she appreciates the significance of the BEA in that it correlates with scripture by focusing on the importance of putting others first, being kind to others and service to the community.

“That’s what the BEA highlights — black people from across Milwaukee doing just that,” she said. “There is so much emphasis on negativity these days, and I think it’s especially important in times of crisis to highlight the good work that people are doing every day in our city.”

As Ashley’s pastor, Fr. Michael Bertram, OFM Cap., was excited to see her win and appreciated being asked to lead the invocation.

“This is a wonderful way to highlight the great accomplishments of the people in the Black community,” he said. “Every year, they highlight individuals in a particular field and this year they focused more on law. We have two young women in their 30s from St. Francis who were recognized for their legal careers. Brittany Grayson was just appointed Milwaukee County Circuit Court Judge. She is a wonderful woman and then we have Kori Ashley of Legal Action Wisconsin. These women are both young and great women of faith who are doing a lot for the community.”

Fr. Bertram said he tried to pepper his prayer with a bit of levity to maintain a lighter tone.

“When Sheldon Dutes, who is my parishioner, introduced me, I came on stage and embraced him. I said, ‘Good evening, it is a pleasure to meet you.’ I am Sheldon’s pastor and Sheldon has gone to confession so if you buy me a drink tonight, I will tell you all of his sins,” he said, laughing. “I also told them after the prayer that there were a lot of Catholics in the room. It was Friday during Lent and they were staring at the beautiful piece of chicken on their plates. I said, ‘Eat the meat.’ They loved the invocation and said it was a thoughtful prayer. Some wanted to come to my church after the prayer and told me they appreciated the levity. It was a great event and it was an honor to be there and to be able to pray the invocation.”