Starting as an intern, “I was like: ‘Who wants to work at the Health Department?’” she said, feeling resistant to the thought of getting stuck in the old ways of public health.
At the department, Paine learned about data and the ways it can tell a story. “Who controls the data controls the story,” she said. “And that isn’t necessarily reflective of the community’s experience.”
While many may know Milwaukee for its high rates of segregation and incarceration that disproportionately affect its Black and Brown communities, Paine has always looked at how that data tells real stories of her home city.
Having grown up a student in the Chapter 220 program — a state-led effort on integration that bused city students to predominantly white suburban schools — she learned how to navigate spaces that were “racially isolating” at an early age.
“And at the same time, I was helping to change those spaces just by being present,” she said. “You learn the rules, and then you learn how to bend them or break them to be that disruptive innovator to create social change.”
She earned her master’s degree from UWM’s Joseph J. Zilber School of Public Health, where she said she learned that “when you opt into public health, you don’t get to opt out of leadership.” She was nominated to serve on the Wisconsin Public Health Association’s board in 2017— and that year’s theme was health equity.
As the only board member of color, she worked on “a platform of compassionate activism” to address her own experiences and those of other underrepresented identities in public health.
“You’re hyper visible and invisible at the same time, but I wasn’t quiet about it,” Paine said. “I was ready to take calculated risks.”
“Lilliann has been so motivated and triumphant in embracing the hurdles she’s encountered and not letting them hinder her,” said Jennifer Woo, an epidemiologist and close friend since they met in 2014 in their “Structures of Inequality and Population Health” graduate school class.
In the bureaucracy of the public health system, Woo said, those who cling to the old ways of practice represent the structures that hold back communities from thriving.
Paine doesn’t let anyone get away with that, she said.
“She holds fast to her convictions, but she’s not someone who is actively grabbing for the spotlight,” Woo said. “She is very supportive of the community she comes from and wants to see it be the best that it can be.”
Paine’s relentless activism and advocacy planted seeds that led to a resolution declaring racism as a public health crisis in May 2018.
Milwaukee County and the City of Milwaukee became the first places in the country to declare racism an emergency and to commit to creating changes in 2019. That pushed many state and local governments nationwide to make their own declarations, according to Pew Research.
“Little did we know, the declaration of racism as a public health crisis would be a guiding light for us as a city and a country,” Kowalik said.
As she began to rebuild the department, she knew Paine should be by her side.
“The Health Department needs Lilliann; the city needs Lilliann,” she recalled thinking before offering Paine the job in 2019. Paine is the first chief of staff to serve Milwaukee’s health commissioner.
“It was Jeanette coming back that convinced me that I should come back to the Health Department,” Paine said. “I felt like with her leadership, real sustainable change could happen — and I wanted to be a part of that.”