The Social Scientist: Karen Nelson
Karen Nelson knows that a lot of her peers tend to stress the emotional side of things when advocating for increased diversity. As the Diversity and Inclusion Coordinator for the City of Appleton, that’s not how she approaches things. To Nelson, everything boils down to facts and data.
“I guess I’m left brained in a right-brained world,” she said. “I always have an analytical lens, which is unusual in my work. My driving force is to make things as research-based as possible. I can stand my ground when making an argument while being less emotional and more fact-based.”
Nelson took the job as Diversity and Inclusion Coordinator in July of 2017.
DIGNITY & RESPECT
She hit the ground running by launching the Dignity & Respect Campaign in 2018. The campaign is an opportunity for community members to “reinforce their commitment to creating environments for all to work, live, learn and play — with all of our differences,” according to the program’s website. It is a local emphasis on a national campaign that offers simple, but effective, ways to encourage kindness and acceptance.
Part of the program includes taking an online pledge to exhibit strength and dignity in the community. At the campaign’s launch party in 2018, 113 people took the pledge. Since that time, more than 2,500 worship leaders, neighbors, employees and community members have signed on.
In 2019, Nelson introduced the 2.0 version, which she called “A Deeper Dive: Truth & Reconciliation,” which has focused on igniting community-wide dialogues surrounding inclusion. As 2020 approaches, Nelson is gearing up to introduce version 3.0, which will emphasize racial equity.
“Conversations around race are difficult and can be uncomfortable to some, but we are all-in and committed to the task of working to achieve racial equity and advance opportunities for all in The City of Appleton,” she said.
A VOICE FOR ALL
Nelson’s role isn’t specific to racial inclusion. “Giving a voice to people who are not normally heard is what drives me to wake up and tackle each new day,” Nelson said. “I like to tell people sometimes I feel like the mother of 11 children. There are 11 federally protected classes of inclusion in our society. I work doubly hard to not lean to one affinity group, but to advocate for each 11 of my ‘children.’”
Nelson’s workday isn’t a traditional 9-5 gig. She’s up at 4 a.m. to pray, listen to gospel and R&B radio and gear up for a day that’s often filled with meetings around the city. She also attends the majority of Appleton’s cultural events.
While she loves to participate in the various celebrations and festivals, it also leaves less time to unwind with her husband and high school sweetheart Stanford.
“So much of my community work is done on evenings and weekends. So we don’t necessarily have a lot of couple time then,” Nelson said. “But he comes with me to a lot of the community events. We do couple stuff when we get away traveling.”
The Nelsons have two grown children: 32-year-old daughter Sable is an attorney in Richmond, Virginia. Son Stanford II, 26, works in IT in Milwaukee.
While today she’s a regional expert on diversity and inclusion, she started off her career as a chemist. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Chemistry from Bennett College in North Carolina and was one of the few graduates who had a job offer directly after graduation. She moved from a chemist into a formulator before switching directions and entering marketing for products like hair care, breast implants and X-ray accessories.
“You could say I have gone from being a chemist to a social scientist creating a more cohesive community,” she said. Despite her love of scientific research, she increasingly found herself drawn to social justice causes.
“It’s the foundation of my childhood with my parents,” Nelson said. “I come from a very conservative Christian background. The only real activism that we got to actively participate in with my parents’ blessing was the Martin Luther King Jr. nonviolent approach.
We never were the Malcolm X “by all means necessary” direction. That was fundamental to shaping me through my life. I credit my parents for channeling our social justice.”
Nelson was a member of the NAACP Youth Division, where she learned the nonviolent responses to violence. “Our mentors taught us the mental aspect when you’re facing verbal or physical attacks: Keep your composure, keep your wits about you,” Nelson said. “It’s just as relevant now as it was 100 years ago.”
Nelson’s work is gaining fans throughout the region. While Appleton has had a diversity coordinator for 22 years (more recently it added the inclusion tag), it is thanks to Nelson’s leadership that the City of Green Bay is now following suit. In November, the Green Bay City Council passed its 2020 budget, including for the first time a diversity and inclusion position.
“Diversity and inclusion at this time is even more needed than ever,” Nelson said. “Take a look at the environment in our country. “We see it here in Appleton and it’s more progressive than other places in the state and nation. Here in Appleton we want to be intentional about changing the narrative about diversity and inclusion.
We want to be moving toward a place where we can all be accepted for all our differences.” She said the conversation about how to accomplish true diversity is an evolving one.
“Inclusion has evolved over the years. Previously, it was just about getting diversity. Now the ‘inclusion’ part is getting to be a part of the party,” she said. “Diversity is being asked to come to the party. But what’s the fun if you’re standing along the wall and nobody’s asking you to dance. Inclusion is being asked to dance, not just be a fly on the wall.”
It is that spirit of leadership that drives Nelson. “We’ve been approached by Oshkosh, Menasha, Sun Prairie and Sheboygan to launch regional efforts to understand our process and our journey,” Nelson said.
“We tell them ‘let us tell you our story,’ but this is not cookie-cutter work. Don’t look at the City of Appleton as a road map. Every municipality is going to be different. Build off of what you have in your community. Every community’s journey will be different but make it your own journey.”
Just as the diversity and inclusion programs look to history for guidance, so does Nelson. One of her key role models is her mother, Kathleen Ferguson, who defied all odds and earned her master’s degree in the segregated South before Karen was even born. She also looks to the words of the first black woman to travel in space aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavour, Dr. Mae Jemison, who said, “Never be limited by other
people’s limited imaginations.”
Nelson hopes that the younger generations look to her and her peers for inspiration in the future. “I can see that happening right now. Little girls, my own daughter, look up to me,” she said. “I don’t do it for that reason, but it does warm my heart when I see that gratefulness and appreciation.” w