Apr 11, 2022 21 min read

Finding Joy in Working Toward Equity - With Kristy Kumar

Image of guest, Kristy Kumar, with quote from transcript about Connections.

Episode 24, 32 min listen

The City of Madison, Wisconsin asked itself: "What if we had an initiative focused on race? What if the entire city thought about race when they thought about the budget, or when they thought about hiring or when they thought about retention? What would that world look like?"

What indeed?


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Link to information about the City of Madison's Equity and Social Justice Initiative.  

YWCA Madison: Racial Justice Summit

Government Alliance on Race and Equity (GARE)

Economic Policy Institute, Race in the Heartland: Equity, Opportunity, and Public Policy in the Midwest

Race to Equity: A Baseline Report on the State of Racial Disparities in Dane County, October 2013

Urban League of Greater Madison, State of Black Madison 2008: Before the Tipping Point

Suggested reading from Kristy's comments on sources of inspiration:

Mia Mingus:

Leaving Evidence Blog

Soil: A Transformative Justice Project

Adrienne Maree Brown:

Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds (From my bookshop.org site)


kristy kumar (she, her, hers) is an experienced social justice organizer and manager working to co-create anti-violent, joyful, and equitable communities. She currently serves as the City of Madison’s first Equity and Social Justice Division Manager for the Department of Civil Rights. She is tasked with the exciting work of developing a new Equity and Social Justice Division for the City. kumar oversees a wide ranging portfolio including, the Racial Equity and Social Justice Initiative, Disability Rights and Services, Neighborhood Resource Teams, Language Access, and Environmental Justice.

Her work experience includes leadership in community and youth-organizing, higher education, coalition-building, and interpersonal violence prevention. She was a Fulbright Scholar in Malaysia and has worked with a number of organizations to lead anti-human trafficking efforts. kumar received her M.A. in Human Rights focusing on race, gender, and equity from the University of Denver and a B.A. in Political Science and Global Poverty and Practices from the University of California, Berkeley. Her passions include all things food and eating, gleaning wisdom from her grandmother’s non-recipes, making art, and exploring the woods with her loved ones and dog, bonbibi.



Ame Sanders  00:11

This is the State of Inclusion podcast, where we explore topics at the intersection of equity, inclusion, and community. In each episode, we meet people who are changing their communities for the better, and we discover actions that each of us can take to improve our own communities. My name is Ame Sanders, welcome.

So today, we’re happy to welcome Kristy Kumar. Kristy is the Equity and Social Justice Manager for the city of Madison, Wisconsin. Welcome, Kristy.

Kristy Kumar  00:20

Thank you so much for having me. It’s a pleasure to be with you today.

-About the City of Madison

Ame Sanders  00:33

So, before we get started talking about your work, maybe you can tell us a little bit about the city of Madison, the county, and sort of the racial climate that you have where you live?

Kristy Kumar  00:35

Of course, yeah. I think when thinking about context, it’s really important to name that I come at a particular point in the story of this context. And so, I think recognizing and honoring that it’s a generational context, that there are so many that came before me that really even allowed me to kind of take up space in this way. In thinking about contexts, we have to honor the land that I’m on, which is Ho-Chunk land in Madison (it’s also known as Teejop, which means the Four Lakes). The traditional stewards of this land are the Ho-Chunk people who have a long history, pre- and post-colonization. And it’s a story of resilience amidst a lot of pain and violence and so I think that that story of resilience should be honored when we’re recognizing context and space.

To the question in the 2022 context, it’s very basic form. Madison, in many places, consistently ranks as one of the best places to live in the United States. Now, I don’t know what their metrics are or what their research is or what they’re doing to make these kinds of lists, but it’s absolutely known that we’re meeting all these like “Best Places to Live,” “Best Place to Work,” “Best place to raise a family.” And that becomes coupled with this idea that it’s a progressive liberal space where everyone gets along. That’s a narrative.

I think there’s another narrative, and those are the narratives that are actually taking the lived experience of black indigenous people of color (BIPOC). You mentioned in our conversation when we were talking about me coming, some reports that if you look at data, Wisconsin has some of the worst racial inequities in the nation. With Wisconsin ranking last in the disparity between Black and white children. We’re talking about some extreme disparities when you take that racial lens. So, that’s also a narrative.

When you ask the question, what’s the context? To me, the question is, which one are we centering? Which context are we grappling with? Which context are we paying attention to? And what new narrative are we interested in building? Because neither of those are really like, wholeheartedly “it.” There’s a lot in between. I’m interested in that context, those new narratives that we can create that really start to be intentional about talking about race and equity and social justice.

-Why Establish a Manager of Equity and Social Justice?

Ame Sanders  03:17

So, tell me a little bit about what prompted the city to create your role and what the city wants to accomplish. We’ll talk a minute about what you’d like to accomplish, but what is the city hoping to accomplish with your role?

Kristy Kumar  03:42

So many factors led to the creation of my position, some that I’m aware of and there’s so many that I’m not even aware of. There are so many folks that perhaps weren’t saying in so many ways we need this position in this place, but they had been articulating a need for city government to invest fiscal resources to develop a position that tends to these important issues. I’m overwhelmed, honestly, when I think about all the different types of labor that went into making this happen.

There was this confluence of things; there was no like strategic plan, or perhaps some folks did have a strategic plan around this. But, there’s generations of activists who have been asking for racial equity to be at the foundation of what we do in city government. There was a series of fantastic reports that came out from Race to Equity, Urban League of Greater Madison’s “State of Black Madison” report that were quantifying using qualitative and quantitative data to share the lived experience that BIPOC folks know to be true and have been saying beyond the “reports sphere.”

There are community organizations and nonprofits who’ve been saying a lot of this before the buzzwords of equity came into play. I feel like that’s fairly new, but people have been saying, “Hey, we need affordable housing. We need health care. We need our children to go into schools that feel safe and culturally appropriate and that tend to their wellbeing.” All of those things are part of the equity conversation, we might just not be using those kinds of words.

So, you have all those that I described as push factors from the outside from like the community-based perspective. But then there was a lot of push happening internally within the halls of city government, where you had essentially what I’d say city staff organizing in a really organic way. They were doing this on top of their other jobs. They were organizing in coffee shops, in boardroom meetings, saying, “Hey, what if we had an initiative focused on race? What if the entire city thought about race when they thought about the budget, or when they thought about hiring or when they thought about retention? What would that world look like?” They were literally doing that dreaming and they organized to create the racial equity and social justice initiatives in around 2013.

There was one other model of this, I think out in Seattle at the time, but it really wasn’t widespread at this point. A huge thank you to all of those push and pull factors. Going into 2020-2021-2022 contexts, where you put this against a national landscape. You’ve got the movement and organizing for Black lives, you’ve got BIPOC-led uprisings. You also have supportive alders in the city of Madison and a supportive mayor, Mayor Rhodes-Conway, who believed in this and is part of the foundation of the values that she wants us to uphold at the city.

So, that whole confluence led to this, so I think it’s important to name all of those different stakeholders. Eventually, it landed in the Department of Civil Rights. So, across the country, there are equity divisions and offices and they’re situated in different places. Sometimes they’re in the mayor’s office, sometimes they’re their own department and sometimes they’re in the Department of Civil Rights or a human rights office. In the city of Madison, we’re at the Department of Civil Rights and we’ve created a new division that stands along our Affirmative Action and Equal Opportunity division. So, I serve as the manager, and we have a really expansive portfolio. My portfolio covers racial equity and social justice, disability rights and services, language access, neighborhood resource teams, and environmental justice. The job means that all of these things are in conversation with one another. I think that’s what the city imagined that these things wouldn’t be above or below one is more than the other that they get to be held together, because they all collectively depend on one another to see success.

-Why Did You Take the Role?

Ame Sanders  08:06

So, you just described some really important factors–push and pull factors–that help the city to create the role that you have. You’ve described the portfolio that you are responsible for which is really important and I love the idea that these subjects are in conversation with one another and these topics are in conversation with one another. Probably equally important for the people who are listening is what made you decide to take this role? So, we know you talked a little bit about how the city decided, but how did you decide to take this role?

Kristy Kumar  08:40

Yeah, thank you for the question. To answer that, it’d be helpful to describe my background for you and for folks, which would get to my why. So, I was born in India and immigrated to Sonoma, California, of all places with my family as a young person. So, I identify as first-generation Malayali-American with deep roots in South India, in Kerala, professionally.

My background is in social justice, primarily around community organizing, community care, and violence prevention work. I’ve worked as an educator in public schools, as a case manager and a crisis responder working with survivors of trafficking and gender-based violence, and in higher education working to develop cultures of consent and healthy relationships. Prior to this position, I worked at Brown University leading cross racial and ethnic coalition building among BIPOC communities. I decided to work at the city of Madison, because ultimately, I’m interested in collective liberation and I think that there’s a role for the government in this pursuit. I have often been in that pursuit outside of government spaces, so admittedly this is new for me to be on this side of things. But, I think that there’s value and that there are folks invested in city government who believe in the concept of collective liberation.

In my previous roles, say when I was working around gender-based violence work, I felt like I was always bringing in race and class and ability. I’m like, “Hey, let’s think about how these interact.” And then when I was working on coalition-building around race, I felt like I was like, “Hey, but wait, what about the gender piece? What about the ability police? What about the immigration piece? What about the language access piece?”

So, I came to the city of Madison, because to me, the job was an opportunity to say, it is your job to think about all these things. It is not extra. It’s not like a footnote. It is your job to build the capacity for the city to collectively hold all of these things in conversation with one another. Folks invested in these types of frameworks aren’t fighting against each other, but working together. I know that government has been a barrier to exactly what I’m talking about. So, let’s name that deep irony. Everything that I’m poetically thinking about in a new world, we have to recognize that government has been a barrier to justice and continues to be a barrier to justice. But there was a unique opportunity where a division in a city was interested in building solutions that were more compelling than these injustices, right? So doing the work of building solutions and so that’s why I came here.

-Focus Areas and Programs

Ame Sanders  11:45

So, since you’ve been with the city, how do you feel you’ve been able to realize that? What areas are you focused on and what programs are you guys implementing to make that difference that you want to see in the world?

Kristy Kumar  11:58

I’ve been in this position for a year, and a friend asked me, “What are you proud of? Or how have you seen the work manifest?”

For me, I think the unit of measurement that I’m particularly interested in is relationship building. To me, that is what this work is. It’s care work. It’s relationship building. It’s learning how to be right with one another and to care for one another through harm and conflict and frustration.

So, what I’ve seen is the work of relationship building, which is slow until it’s fast. We teach that in our social justice facilitator spaces that we’re trying to build. We have a saying, where trust doesn’t need to be built into these grand gestures. Trust happens in Zoom meetings all the time. Like when we started this call I said I wasn’t feeling so well and you said, “Well, if you need a break or if you want to take care of yourself, we prioritize that.” That’s a moment. We just met each other. So, that’s the work of trust, it’s slow until it’s fast. That’s what I’ve been predominantly committed to is like, how do we build the spaces, aka meetings, aka Zoom rooms, aka phone calls, that feel equitable in and of themselves? Because if the meeting or the phone call or the email isn’t loaded with care and equity, then for sure our strategic plans will not be. For sure, we will fail.

So, I’ve been mostly really excited to see kind of like the seeds settle around those relationship-building pieces that we’re trying to do at the city.

-Partnerships and Relationships

Ame Sanders  12:56

So maybe that’s a good point to ask: what are some of the partnerships or relationships that you’ve established as you’ve gone about doing this work? And also, where do you look for inspiration, advice, or hope, if you will?

Kristy Kumar  13:06

So, I’ll speak locally first. We have a fabulous YWCA chapter who has a racial justice arm of that chapter. They have a beloved conference that they do every year. It’s the Racial Justice Annual Summit. I got to join this year for the first time and it was virtual, so we actually had people from all over the country joining. If there’s anyone in our area, I urge you to consider coming to the YWCA’s Racial Justice Summit. And what’s interesting is, to answer your question, they had some of my favorite practitioners that I looked up to at the summit this month. So, I’m really thinking about them.

I’m thinking about Adrienne Maree Brown, who many know as many things. She’s a doula. She’s a social justice facilitator practitioner. She’s a transformative justice practitioner. She just does so many different things–writer, activist–all the things.

The YWCA also had Mia Mingus come on and Mia Mingus is one the founding members of the transformative justice and disability justice movement. Really huge in the Bay Area around doing the work with the organization Sins Invalid and for resources has a phenomenal blog called Leaving Evidence that I would highly suggest to anyone interested in accountability work. So just that the Y it was phenomenal to log on and see folks I’ve been following for years speak directly to me, to us, to Madison. It kind of brought some worlds together for me.

Additionally, I think about GARE. You’ve probably heard folks talk about GARE, the Governmental Alliance on Racial Equity. They have their annual conference coming up in a few weeks. I went virtually last year, and so I will be (fingers crossed) going in person to meet real people. So, I’m excited to grow some networks in some community there. But beyond that local Madison, the YWCA and then the GARE national context, I really think that racial equity and social justice work necessitates creativity.

-Where Kristy Finds Inspiration

We’re not going to figure out the world’s greatest problems without robust creativity, reimagining things that we never thought were possible. So, I really like to find inspiration outside of perhaps your typical sources. Find it in art, find it nature, find it in creative expressions. I love thinking about my grandmother and her recipes as inspiration when I’m doing this work. Quite honestly, like, how did she make something happen out of nothing? All these systems kind of going against her, she found joy and solutions. So, I really think we have to like look beyond perhaps the government setting to find hope.

Ame Sanders  17:05

Maybe the threads that you talk about coming together in your organization and the conversations that are taking place, what are some of the areas that you think other communities out there should be thinking about?

-Disability Justice and Interdependence

Kristy Kumar  17:17

Absolutely. So, within our Disability and Rights and Services program, I’m really excited because we’re in an awesome new partnership with a local organization called the Wisconsin Board for People with Developmental Disabilities. Specifically, we’re working with their Partners in Business Initiative, which helps service providers and employers support workers with disabilities to be successful and independent.

The Wisconsin Act 323 was passed in 2018 and provides grants and technical assistance to help businesses meet workforce needs by hiring and supporting those with intellectual and developmental disabilities. So, the city of Madison has been doing this for a long time, even before our new partnership and before this new division. That’s something that we have experienced in. What’s really exciting is this last week we had a presentation where we talked about this initiative in the racial equity space. So, there’s all these different racial equity meetings, right? And so we actually were like, “Hey, we’re talking about disability rights and disability justice. Yeah, we’re in the right meeting. We’re at the right place. Y’all are in the right spot.” Because these two things are connected. There are folks of color who have disabilities, right? This is a truth that needs to be honored and our strategies for developing racial equity are actually in alignment with our strategies for disability rights and justice.

And so, we talked about different tenets of disability justice, and one of them is interdependence. It’s this idea that we need one another; we all do. To the very core, we need one another to be well. This is not some strange initiative that makes us think outside the scope of how we often think. It’s like, hey, employees help each other and that’s what we need to do for this initiative to take off and for hiring managers to see the value in this type of work. So we’re really trying to thread this concept of interdependence throughout the different initiatives we have and connect it to our value of wellbeing at the city.

Ame Sanders  19:34

You said the city was organizing, even before you came onboard? Obviously, you’re somewhat of a catalyst for making that happen within the city. How is that being received?

Kristy Kumar  19:46

So, I’ll say it’s being received really well and I’m grateful to the folks that have come before me who have set the conditions by which people are able to receive me well. So let me tell you about what I mean.

In 2013, if I had been saying things that I’ve been saying, I don’t think I would be received well, because people did so much work at meetings at conferences and spaces, to push people’s thinking and learning so that by the time I joined in 2021, it was like, “Yeah, we believe in equity.” It kind of seems like pretty standard operating procedure but that’s because so many people had to go through really hard environments to get folks there. That’s why it’s really important for me to say I joined at a particularly privileged part of the story.

-There is No Golden Ticket in This Work

Now, I will say there are difficulties, of course. I’m in that particular moment where I would say a lot of folks are like, “Yeah, I agree. Just tell me what to do.” And I just laugh. I’m like, “Well, if only I could hand you a blueprint that would get you to where you need to go. We actually don’t know, we have to fumble through it together, and I need you to be along for the ride.” So, I think the hard part is when we have complicated answers to complicated structures, and people want the golden ticket. When I think about how people have received me–you know, I don’t come from city government, I come from working with students, I come from working with artists where we take a lot of joy in getting to know one another and relationship building. Maybe the cultural moment for me was realizing that if you’re in a meeting with me, you’re probably going to be spending the first 10-15 minutes on a check-in question. We’re not going to skip it. And that is the meeting. I remind folks all the time, like, “I know, you all are thinking, ‘When is the meeting gonna start, because we have an hour and 15 minutes in and we’re just getting around, doing the round robin check in?'” This is the meeting. We do need to know one another to do this work. Time can bend, because we can still leave on time. We don’t go late, because we did the check-in. And so I think that culturally, people were a little cautious in the beginning because they I could see them looking at their clocks. But, we’re at this place where they now expect that from me and my team, and I’m just so grateful that they’re willing to dive in in that relational way.

Ame Sanders  22:22

I love your answer and I want to revisit a couple of parts of it because people who are listening may not be in the same space and time in their community that you find yourself in Madison. So first, what you told us is there is a place where communities can accept that working on equity and inclusion and social justice is the norm. And that you can find yourself in that place. Yes, it requires some hard work to get there and, in your case, you feel that many people before you did a lot of that hard work, and some of the heavy lifting and pushing and pulling to make that happen.

But, you can find yourself in a place where that is an accepted norm from which you can then continue the work. So, I just want to celebrate that for a minute because I don’t think everybody who’s listening finds themselves in that same place. Some are just beginning the journey and they wonder if they will ever be at that place and others may be further ahead in the journey than you are or I am in thinking as well. But there are a lot of people who are not quite there yet and so I just want to celebrate the fact that you feel like Madison is and that it makes your work more possible, more positive, more achievable by working together, even if sometimes people wish there was a golden ticket for taking the next step because honestly, all the steps in this are somewhat difficult. They can be joyful, too, and that’s one of the things I wanted to come back to.

-Anti-Violent and Joyful

When I read the announcement about your position, since it’s relatively new, I was a little surprised when your boss said in the announcement, “Kristy Kumar is an experienced social justice organizer and program manager working to create anti-violent, joyful, and equitable communities.” I totally get the “equitable communities” in the job description, right? But “joyful” and “anti-violent”? Say a few words about that. That’s an interesting way for him to have chosen to describe your job.

Kristy Kumar  24:32

Yeah, I’d love to share. So, for me, the anti-violent concept is similar to the concept of like anti-racist versus not racist. So, like anti-racism is a conscious choice, anti-violence is a conscious choice. That means actively working on understanding, explaining and tending to the roots of violence, so we can transform it. So, it means a commitment to reexamining the social structures that we support, rethinking our implicit core beliefs about race and other social systems.

Then kind of from that place, I think that joy is possible. And I think that joy has to actually be like a discipline. Folks will say hope is a discipline. Joy is also a discipline. Dr. Cornel West famously said “Justice is what love looks like in public.” We kind of separate these concepts–justice, equity, diversity, inclusion–they’re kind of separated from these concepts like joy, belonging, and love and care. So, if there’s any opportunity for me to say that those are informing one another, I’m going to take the moment to say that those inform one another because I love strategic plans, I love color-coded blueprints, right? Please believe me that I love all the documents that say, you know, this is our plan, and we’re gonna get here and there.

But we’re not where we are for a lack of plans, right? We haven’t yet reached like racially equitable societies for lack of plans and research. The reason we’re not there is because we haven’t necessarily been taught or allowed to do an embodied practice where we are connecting the joy and the dignity piece, the belonging piece, the care piece, into our work. That’s why those words are meaningful to me.

I think I told you earlier if the meeting isn’t equitable, the outcomes won’t be equitable. If the meeting isn’t joyful, the outcomes aren’t going to be joyful. So, I think we can’t just labor on with painful processes in the name of justice. We can’t just labor on with meetings and forums that don’t feel right thinking, well, we’re doing this to create a better world for future generations. So that’s my piece around the joy. And it’s hard. Okay, it’s not joyful every day, every moment. Let’s go be honest. Like, Angela Davis says, “Knowledge is produced through struggle.” So, you got to earn it, you got to earn the joy, for sure.

-Connection Needs to Be Designed

Ame Sanders  27:18

There’s a question that it makes me want to ask you. You’ve been at this job for about a year and so clearly, you’ve had some time to reflect on taking on this role and changing your focus. So, if you could go back in time and give yourself some advice back before you took the job, what would you tell yourself?

Kristy Kumar  27:41

I would affirm. Well, let me back up, I joined in a pandemic. I joined with the Zoom world. I think that’s really important to like my own processing of my own story because there’s so much possibility with this type of connection. Like got to meet and we got to talk today over Zoom. We had some technical difficulties and we were able to adapt. There’s a lot of opportunity.

Disabled communities have been telling us for so long that there are possibilities outside of in-person work. And so, we’re at that place where we’re now actually kind of manifesting that. And in the Zoom world lose what I call the moments in between moments. So, let’s say there was my first meeting. I would probably meet you on the walk there, like on the way there to the room? And I’d probably tell you, “Hey, I’m new. Do you know where room 201 is?” And you’d be like, “Yeah, of course.” And then we’d chit-chat. Then maybe we’d start the seeds of a relationship. I didn’t have that. I still don’t have that. We’re still on Zoom. So, I joined and the screen starts and we’re all boxes.

So, I think I would tell myself that I need to focus on the conscious unboxing of myself. You are not a box. You are a whole person. Connection needs to be designed. I tell folks that all the time when we’re training and doing facilitation on social justice. Connection needs to be planned for. We can’t assume it’s going to happen. We have to plan for it. We have to tend to it. We have to plant the seeds to grow.

So, I had to kind of like make my own moments in between moments, which at times felt like I was taking up energy or space like “Hey, could I talk to you just casually? It’s not even a big deal, but can we just connect over a virtual coffee?” I wasn’t having those moments in the hallways. I think about that anytime we have a new employee come. So, we’re actually thinking within the equity world, how can we revolutionize our onboarding processes? How can we make sure that folks have someone they can they can talk to who are onboarding buddies? How can we design connection in today’s remote world?

Ame Sanders  30:05

I love that wisdom connection has to be designed and planned for and I love the fact that you would give yourself some room and some advice about that and how the challenges of COVID have affected you but affected us all but also created so many opportunities for us. So, that’s a lot of good wisdom that you just shared with your earlier you and us as well. Kristy, I just want to thank you so much for taking time to talk with State of Inclusion today and really appreciate your wisdom and your insight.

Kristy Kumar  30:42

Thanks so much for having me. It’s been an honor and I’m excited to stay tuned and listen to the more wisdom coming my way with all your next guests. So, thank you so much.


Ame Sanders  30:54

I loved this discussion with Kristy Kumar today. It was encouraging to know that I’m Madison, Wisconsin, they’ve reached a point where their work with equity and inclusion is part of their city’s business as usual. Kristy also reminded us that equity and inclusion are all about relationships and trust. She told us that equity and inclusion live in the smallest everyday actions that we take in those meetings and those phone calls in the emails, and if those individual small actions are not equitable and inclusive, our big outcomes together never will be. She also reminded us that while the work we all do in equity and inclusion and in transforming our communities can be challenging, and it’s not always easy, it can be and should be joyful.

This has been the State of Inclusion podcast. Join us again next time. And if you enjoyed this episode, the best compliment for our work is your willingness to share these ideas with others leave us a review. We’d love your comments. Thanks so much for listening.


Guest: Kristy Kumar

Host: Ame Sanders

Social Media and Marketing Coordinator: Kayla Nelson

Podcast Coordinator: Emma Winiski

Sound: FAROUT Media

Ame Sanders
Founder of State of Inclusion. A seasoned leader & change-maker, she is focused on positive change within communities.
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