In the latter half of 2020, two graduates of Catholic schools were named to high-level appointments within the city’s government.

Marlaina Jackson, a 1997 Messmer High School graduate, became the interim commissioner of health for the city of Milwaukee in September, taking her place at the forefront of the health department’s efforts to combat the coronavirus pandemic.

Makda Fessahaye, a 2007 graduate of Dominican High School, was appointed by Mayor Tom Barrett in December to serve as the city’s foremost human resources officer in the role of director of employee relations.

Both women hail from families who prized education, leadership and service to others — values that they say were more fully developed during their time in Catholic education.

“My Catholic education taught me to treat people with respect and dignity and to be open and welcoming — I think the core values of the Catholic Church really embraced that,” said Fessahaye. “I think that’s something that subconsciously I’ve embraced throughout my career.”

“We’re a small Catholic school, so my graduating class was 53 individuals,” said Jackson of Messmer. “We truly were a family and I, still to this day, am connected with most of those 53, and that really speaks to the closeness and the family environment we had. What we learned was to understand that we are here to serve others and to take care of each other.”

A sense of belonging

The eldest of Fessahaye Mebrahtu and Tsebaot Hailemichael’s three children, Fessahaye’s roots in the Catholic Church run deep. Her parents’ families are both heavily involved in the Catholic Church in their native Eritrea. Catholic education, she said, “was important to my family so that it would ground me in my faith, but also so it would teach me about service to others and to really have the values and the traditions of the Catholic Church as a part of who I am as a person.”

Her parish, All Saints in Milwaukee, was an especially formative part of her upbringing, and Fessahaye is still a music minister and member of the gospel choir there.

After attending several different Catholic parish schools for elementary and middle school, Fessahaye selected Dominican for high school because of its academic rigor, its diversity and its extracurricular offerings.

“I felt like I could be academically inclined but also have the experience of being a leader in my school. I didn’t have to be pigeonholed in one thing or another — there was an array of things I could do outside of my classwork,” she said.

After graduating from Dominican, Fessahaye studied communication with a minor in political science at Northwestern University, returning home to Milwaukee to study law at Marquette University. She went on to work at the Wisconsin Department of Corrections in various capacities for more than six years and in February, she will leave her role as administrator for the Division of Adult Institutions for the state of Wisconsin Department of Corrections to begin her new job as employee relations director for the city of Milwaukee.

Her work both in the DOC and in the city of Milwaukee will be a continuation of the ethic of service she learned at Dominican, she said.

“Being a public servant can be difficult and it can be challenging, but you do the work because you have the department’s mission and values at the forefront and you want to ensure you’re doing the best for the department, for the people in your care, for your staff and for the state of Wisconsin,” she said.

Servant leadership in a pandemic

As a student at Messmer High in the 1990s, Marlaina Jackson spent a lot of time volunteering to fulfill the school’s service requirement. Ask her today and she’ll tell you that’s the biggest takeaway from her four years at the school — care for others and servant leadership.

Little did Jackson know that, more than two decades later, those values would come in handy as she tackled a global pandemic for the city of Milwaukee.

“I do think at the end of the day that is what we are here to do — to help and to serve,” she said. “Whether we’re serving small, one-on one, helping our mother or grandmother get the snow shoveled, or whether we have the great opportunity to serve an entire city, that is what we’re here to do.”

When she came to Messmer in 1993, Jackson’s parents were seeking a more challenging academic environment for their daughter. Messmer offered that, plus a diverse environment and solid values that the Christian family was drawn to. While at Messmer, Jackson was a cheerleader, a member (and president) of the National Honor Society and active in Spanish Club.

“I remember feeling like my teachers cared about me — particularly my math teacher, Ms. Mathay. They took interest,” said Jackson. She went on to graduate from Florida A&M University in 2001 with a degree in healthcare administration and management.

Makda Fessahaye

Marlaina Jackson