For the past 12 years, Nia Trammell ’95, JD’98 has dedicated herself to government service, both as a professional civil servant and a volunteer — and, when the time is right, she will likely aim for elected office. Just not quite yet.
“I’m content with where I’m at right now, but I think at some point the time will be right,” she says.
Where she’s at right now is the State of Wisconsin Department of Safety and Professional Services (DSPS), where she is deputy secretary serving under Secretary Dawn Crim. The DSPS performs many of the same functions as the state’s former Department of Regulation and Licensing, such as handling professional certifications and monitoring prescription drugs.
Trammell comes from a family of civil servants. Born in Nigeria, she came to Madison in 1976 when her family relocated so her father could attend the University of Wisconsin. After earning a degree in psychology, he forged a career in probation and parole. Her mother studied education, also at UW–Madison, and became a librarian.
It wasn’t until Nia herself was enrolled at the UW that she chose law.
“I was looking at the business school and had the opportunity to audit a few law classes,” she says. “It was educational for me to see law students and how they were engaging with professors. It was a class where they had practitioners come in and teach as well. Being able to observe that really sparked my interest. That’s when I pivoted and decided to go into law.”
When she entered UW Law School, criminal defense was her focus.
“I wanted to be able to help communities as they grapple with the criminal justice system and how it impacts their lives,” she says. “After I got a flavor of the many different areas of law, I developed an interest in employment law.”
Through the school’s Diversity Clerkship Program, she landed a coveted spot at Michael Best & Friedrich during her first year in the UW’s law program. This spot grew into a nine-year stint of practicing commercial litigation, which included her involvement in a pregnancy-discrimination case that appealed all the way to the United States Supreme Court.
In 2007, Trammell started looking for government jobs that offered a more regular schedule.
“After you have children, you realize that you probably need a different pace,” she says.
During her job search, she happened upon a posting that sought an administrative law judge in workers’ compensation.
“I really didn’t have much exposure, quite frankly. I handled very limited workers’ comp cases, just one or two cases that ended up settling. But I just went for it,” Trammell says. “I studied, caught up on the law. I went and took the exam, interviewed, and competed with several hundred people, and I got the job.”
She held that position until just this year. When Governor Tony Evers defeated former Governor Scott Walker, she threw her hat in the ring with the transition team — and got the attention of former Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction Executive Dawn Crim, who had just been appointed secretary of DSPS.
“I think the combination of Dawn’s experience in licensing at the university, with my legal background — I think she felt like we’d make a strong team,” Trammell says. “It was a decision that I did not take lightly, but after giving it some thought I think that she and I could do remarkable things to carry out the new governor’s goals and mission for the State of Wisconsin. So I said yes.”
Over the course of her career, she’s also dedicated significant time as a volunteer and leader. For example, she’s one of the founders of the Urban League of Greater Madison Young Professionals, a volunteer auxiliary of the Urban League that empowers professionals aged 21–40 to develop personally and professionally while serving their community.
“[Former ULGM CEO] Kaleem Caire brought together a bunch of people, young folks, and said, ‘What do you care about in this community and what do you plan to do about it?’ So that really served as the impetus,” Trammell says. “And we decided that we did care enough about this community to actually form the Urban League Young Professionals as a means of supporting the work of the Urban League and then also branching off into other areas that [were] of interest to the group.”
Trammell has also served as a volunteer with Dane County Court Appointed Special Advocates, Girls on the Run, and Big Brothers Big Sisters. She has dedicated time to local government volunteer roles on the City of Madison’s Equal Opportunities Commission for eight years — two as president — and on the Police and Fire Commission, where she currently serves as president. She also now volunteers to help interview and place students in the Diversity Clerkship Program — the program that helped her into her first job.
“When a community has given me so much, then I owe it to pay back,” she says. “I can just look back at all of the strong supporters in high school, some of the minority counselors that encouraged me to focus and have an eye on college. When I think about my undergraduate career and all of the people that influenced me to excel there. And then at [UW] Law School, people were just incredible ambassadors for the students and made students of color feel like we belonged there, that we could succeed. And then you think about the village itself, all the people who adopted me. Aunties and uncles that, you know, weren’t necessarily related by blood, but who were always ‘Team Nia’ and wanted me to succeed. When you have those types of strong influences, you just feel that it’s incumbent to give back.”
But will that include giving back as an elected official?
“The seed’s been planted,” Trammell says with a smile. “But I always feel that you’ve got to do it when the time is right for you and for your family. I do know that there is a strong need to have people of color in positions of influence and in positions where they can help effect change and make a difference. And so I do think that a run will probably be in my future.”
For now, though, Trammell is focused on the new challenge as a deputy secretary in the Evers Administration and on raising her three children, including the “song and dance” of getting her 17-year-old daughter ready for college — with hopes her daughter will become a third-generation UW graduate.
“A parent’s greatest accomplishment is knowing that you’ve created a path for your child, and hopefully they go to where you were an alum,” she says.