Diversity and inclusion should be more than committee buzzwords

When Kristie Goforth ran for mayor of Monona, she wasn’t running to make history. She was running to make a difference.
Kristie Goforth standing and looking off at the distance
Kristie Goforth wrote a guest column for Madison Magazine. (September 2021)
Photo by Paulius Musteikis

This past spring, when I was running for mayor of Monona, news broke that I could make history as the first Native American mayor in the state. That didn’t seem right, as so many Natives serve their tribal governments, but when I did some online research of elected municipal officials I found one county board member (Isaiah Funmaker in Jackson County) and only four Native city council members in Wisconsin at that time: Arvina Martin in Madison, Jenny Van Sickle in Superior, Wahsayah Whitebird in Ashland (who soon left office) and myself, in Monona. It was surprising, and disheartening, but I wasn’t running to make history. I was running to make a difference.

As a result of the article, two men — one former Monona alder and one business owner, both of whom still serve on a city commission — took to Facebook to claim I was not Native American. I suddenly found myself in the painful position of defending my identity and proving my heritage publicly. As I posted photos of my tribal card and a lengthy rebuttal of their accusations (no, I don’t receive casino earnings; no, the tribe didn’t pay for my education) tears streamed down my cheeks.

Native people have been targeted for centuries — the federal government literally tried to eradicate my dad’s side of my family — but this felt like a personal attack from men active within local government whose friends defended them as “good progressives.” Worse, when my post went viral, they lamented how hurtful my response had been to them.

As I read about my own humiliating experience in the news, I was reminded of another article I’d read in February in which Dr. Alex Gee said, “What I’ve found in Madison is that white liberals have … been problematic to Black progress.” I do not consider myself a person of color. I recognize the privilege I have in my white skin. But am I Native American? Yes, I proudly am — though if you’d asked me that when I was 16 years old, the answer would have been different. And even as I prepare to turn 50 this month, I’ve never felt a part of the white, educated group of insiders that make up the power and leadership structure of Dane County.

I grew up a member of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians in Michigan (Anishinaabe). My dad and half-siblings lived on the reservation. We lived in extreme poverty, but there were gifts. I weaved ash baskets with the women on my island. We harvested sweet grass while sharing stories about our past, our futures and our present-day challenges. I especially loved the stories of Mishibijiw, the underwater panther or sea creature that lived in Lake Superior. That’s where I first learned how supportive women can be, and how important it is to have circles for honest sharing and empowerment. I have women in my circle today who help me thrive, and I’m grateful for that. Mostly I’m grateful to have grown up at all, because my sister did not survive our challenging childhood. She was killed when she was just 13, when I was 12.

In order to receive tribal scholarships or grants, I would have needed to attend a university in Michigan. But I chose the University of Wisconsin–Madison, which means I had to work two jobs through college and take out loans. I am a proud first-generation college student, but growing up in poverty made me feel like I couldn’t contribute to my community. That’s why I’m compelled today to volunteer and contribute, especially for those who find themselves on the outside looking in.

Kristie Goforth portrait

Photo by Paulius Musteikis

I didn’t win the election. Some voters told me the incumbent mayor was more experienced, but I owned a business for 10 years. I served as the executive director of the Monona East Side Business Alliance for five, and I’m currently the executive director of Free Bikes 4 Kidz Madison. My successes in leadership are well established. But I believe this controversy undermined my campaign and helped portray me against my challenger as the “bad woman” versus the “good woman.” Bad because I challenge the status quo. Bad because I haven’t lived in Monona “long enough.” Bad because I bring up issues that affect the underrepresented. I believe the behavior I endured not only inhibits inclusion, promotes fear and prevents people from living up to their full potential, it holds all of us back.

The most important experience I have to offer is that I know what it’s like to be poor and on the outside. I can reach those I might inspire, because they inspire me. No one should be made to defend their identity or culture in 2021. Diversity should not be just an academic study or empty initiative. We can launch innumerable diversity and inclusion committees, but without action, they are exercises in futility. Unless people from all backgrounds are elected to office and hired in positions of leadership, we will continue to see talented people leave. And unless people in positions of privilege and power take an honest look at their roles in this cycle — especially those who claim to be supporting diversity — nothing will ever change.

Kristie Goforth is a guest columnist to Madison Magazine and serves on the Monona City Council. Learn more about her at goforthmonona.com.