Karen Nelson was hired as the diversity and inclusion coordinator for the city of Appleton in July 2017. A native of Charleston, S.C., she has more than 25 years of related experience with Fortune 100 companies. She sat down with Insight Editor Margaret LeBrun to talk about how a diverse workforce makes for a vibrant community.
Insight: Why do we need a diversity coordinator here, now — or anywhere in Northeast Wisconsin?
Karen Nelson: We need a diversity and inclusion coordinator at this time in Appleton more so than any other time because of the atmosphere, the environment within our country. We have such a unique community here, more progressive than a lot of other cities in the state and throughout the country. It’s even more important to have a person whose sole responsibility is focused on diversity and inclusion.
Why are you the best person for this job?
I have a bachelor’s degree in chemistry, and I started my career as a bench chemist for Procter & Gamble in Cincinnati and switched over from the research side of the business to the marketing side at various other manufacturing companies until I landed at GE Medical Systems, now GE Healthcare, in Waukesha. I became very active with the NAACP in Waukesha and was very active in the community.
The president of GE Medical at the time, John Trani (with the help and encouragement of then-chairman Jack Welch, who decided to mandate that all of his GE businesses create a diversity department), said, “Go and get that Karen Nelson out of marketing to head up diversity for GE Medical Systems for all of the United States, Latin America and Canada.” That was my entry into the world of diversity, and I’ve been smitten with it ever since.
What does the word “diversity” do to trigger strong feelings from people, particularly in the workplace?
Some people really do dismiss it as trendy. I try to take a step back and talk about the multidimensional aspect of diversity because at first blush, most people think of diversity in terms of race and gender only. For me, it goes far beyond that, to what I like to call the invisible differences. People can have sight differences, they can be simply what I call differently abled, and some of those things are more invisible. It’s my responsibility to educate people in the workplace as well as the community that diversity does go well beyond race and gender.
What are employers getting wrong when it comes to diversity?
They’re focusing solely on the numbers. The numbers are important, but more important than the numbers is creating an environment where people will want to come and live and work — and stay. If we focus on quality-of-life issues, diversity will follow naturally.
My position in the city of Appleton was created some 20 years ago by Mayor Tim Hanna, as the intercultural relations coordinator. Appleton in 1997 was 97 percent white. By focusing on quality-of-life issues, such as sidewalks, safety, low crime, for example, that natural diversity over the course of 20 years has progressed and made this a welcoming community for all. Today, Appleton is 87 percent white.
What can companies and employers do to foster a more diverse workforce?
I would encourage employers and companies to work hard on creating culturally competent employees. What I mean by that is fostering an environment or an organization where people are culturally sensitive, people are treating each other with dignity and respect. A lot of that cultural competence will make people feel more welcome.
How can affinity groups make people feel welcome?
I happen to have the pleasure of having been the co-founder of two affinity groups at GE Medical Systems in Waukesha. The first one was the African-American Forum, which I am very pleased to say is still around, and the professional women’s group. What affinity groups do is they give that particular group a safe haven, a safe place to talk and plan and have mentoring, to be paired with a senior successful member of the organization when you’re an entry-level person.
What can employers do to make their companies a place where minorities will stick around?
It helps when you see people that look like yourself in the room. It doesn’t have to be a lot, maybe one or two for starters. It also helps when there are open lines of communication, where they feel listened to, they feel heard, they’re not just trampled upon, not just being used as a widget as a part of the machinery of the organization, rather being seen as a whole person. When they can show up and bring their whole selves to work, where they don’t have to hide where they live or who they’re married to or what their children look like. Where they can show up and bring their whole selves to work, more than likely they will feel welcomed enough to stick around.
What can our communities do to be places where people of color, specifically, feel welcome and less likely to leave after a short stint here?
This is where, to me, entertainment and the arts play a huge role. It’s important for communities to be places where people of color, specifically, feel welcome, when you have culturally interesting entertainment, you have movies, plays, music venues, musical artists, that are as diverse as the town.
That’s one of the reasons I’m here. We have everything any large metropolitan city has — the arts, a plethora of international restaurants, Mile of Music. It’s just been very welcoming for me, and I have thoroughly enjoyed the entertainment here.
In a community with a small percentage of minorities, the same people are often asked repeatedly to represent the minority population. How can we lighten up on those folks?
There’s clearly a lot of truth in that question. I have been asked by many organizations to join their boards. I have agreed to serve on three: Fox Cities Performing Arts Center, Celebrate Diversity Fox Cities and the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority International Inc.
What I would like to offer is for organizations to, perhaps as a part of their board development, focus more on being culturally competent and going through some training exercises. That alone can lighten the load where they don’t necessarily always have to tax out the few of us that are here.
Tell me about the regional diversity and inclusion organization led by Lawrence University’s Kimberly Barrett. What is that group trying to do?
The regional group that Dr. Barrett is working on has been an outgrowth of the Fox Cities chief diversity officer’s collaborative, which I’m pleased that she invited me to be a part of. We should be having our first meeting soon.
What is your goal here in Northeast Wisconsin?
I am pleased to announce that I have just kicked off the Dignity and Respect Campaign, an initiative led by me and the mayor’s office along with my partner in diversity, Dr. Kimberly Barrett, vice president of diversity and inclusion at Lawrence University. I purposefully chose the day after the Dr. Martin Luther King holiday in January as our “call to action time” to come together around our common humanity around the issues of racism, bias and equity and injustice in our society.
It will be a year-long journey that we’ll be undertaking, with multiple workshops and activities throughout the year that foster dignity and respect.
To learn more about it, I’m inviting people to our website, launched in January: Dignityandrespect.org/Appleton.