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Meet Burlington's new director of racial equity, inclusion and belonging, Kim Carson

Colorful faces together on isolated background.
Kim Carson will serve as Burlington's new director of racial equity. She says she comes to the role with a unique skill set of being able to "see both system and individual so that the system doesn't get lost and also the individuals that we serve don't get lost."

Last month, the Burlington City Council met and approved Mayor Miro Weinberger's appointment of a new director of racial equity inclusion and belonging in the state's largest city. Kimberly Carson will take over that role. That's after Tyeastia Green, the first person to hold that position, resigned almost eight months ago.

After two years in that job, Green said she felt unsupported in her work to make Burlington more equitable.

At a press conference announcing the appointment, Carson said she chose Burlington, that her children will attend school here, and also work here.

Recently, Vermont Public's Mary Williams Engisch spoke to Carson about her new role and the experience she brings to it. Their conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mary Engisch: Welcome, Kim!

Kim Carson: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

Kim, I mentioned in the introduction why Tyeastia Green left that job. She said she ran into roadblocks trying to fulfill her role as the racial equity, inclusion and belonging director. How are you thinking about that history as you start your your new role here?

It's always in the back of my mind. I think with anything with history, you don't want to put yourself in the position to repeat it. But you also want to use it to inform how you move forward. And so she's always in the back of my mind and how I navigate the space and this work.

And you've referred to yourself as a transformative behavioral strategist. How do you define that?

The majority of my work was working with children and families in the child welfare and delinquency systems, as well as coaching and working with kids all the way in track and field from 5-year-olds, all the way up to Olympic athletes.

And I see anything that we want to develop or move from a behavioral standpoint, and looking at the spaces where we need to change or move from a behavioral concepts. How does our thinking, our feeling, and our actions all coincide together to really make that change we need to be effective? And so when I think about it that way, that's how I lead and how I teach and how I kind of make meaning of the world.

A person smiles broadly at the camera. They are wearing small pearl earrings, square-rimmed glasses and their hair is in braids and pulled back into a pony tail. They are wearing a white collared shirt with a tan sweater over it.
Burlington Office of Racial Equity, Inclusion and Belonging
Kim Carson came to Vermont from Des Moines, Iowa, where her family members were active leaders working toward civil rights. Carson says her grandparents were some of the "unsung heroes" of the racial equity movement there.

And how can that unique skill set apply to this new role in Burlington's office of racial equity and inclusion?

Being able to be a person that can see both system and individual so that the system doesn't get lost, and also the individuals that we serve, don't get lost. And that we're constantly trying to move to the space of continued improvement.

You're coming from the Iowa judicial branch. And in the years that you were working there, where you led diversity and equity initiatives for 2,000 employees, is there something from that experience that really worked well when it came to moving the needle on equity?

Absolutely. And I think was more informed by two things: one, the work that I did with children and families. And I learned very early on that to not center myself in the work, but it was really about the people that I was serving.

And I think that will inform this work. More importantly, because no matter how I feel about something, it puts you in a space where you're always listening to understand, not to respond.

Even though I may be a Black woman with many identities, the people that I'm talking to may not share those identities that I'm serving. And so I always want to be paying attention to make sure I'm meeting the needs of those who need it the most.

On top of that, when you're dealing with a court because, you know, in essence, it's supposed to be this neutral arbitrator. And so when I looked at that, there's concepts of procedural fairness and procedural justice. And what I want to make sure is that I'm always being procedurally fair.

And procedurally, just in the way that I do the work and the way that I guide the work and teach the work and work within the work.

You just mentioned that you'll listen to understand and respond. Can you point to some leaders who have made that sort of model work really well?

For me, living in a space that was very similar to Burlington, which was Des Moines, Iowa, at a time where, you know, you're in a state, that's not necessarily the epicenter of diversity, necessarily.

My family was huge in the civil rights movement there. Both of my grandparents were unsung heroes. And I think, you know, they weren't out front. There's nothing named after them. But people in the community knew that they moved systems and people to greater and more positive impacts.

And I think the leaders that I would say in a community that you're looking for that embody those things are the people that are both present yet invisible.

It's the people doing the work in the community and leading those initiatives that you never hear about. Those who are I see that embody that type of leadership. And so I pay attention to those that may be the quiet majority that are actually doing the work.

Especially in a white state like Vermont and in a city like Burlington that's slowly becoming diversified, this work needs not be put on already marginalized groups. What will collaborative work look like in your role?

One of the things I want to do first is kind of lean in with curiosity, and just be in the room and be a fly on the wall to figure out what Vermont is.

And then understand from a perspective of then, what are those that we're working with and are speaking for? How do they see Vermont? And figure out what the middle ground on it is.

So that those that feel like they're getting, or that are getting these disparate outcomes, or not feeling included or belonging, that we really do something impactful and systemic to change the way that they just live life.

And my goal is really to listen and learn and hear the people and inform my work by what the people tell me.

You know, we talk about being data-informed. There's multiple ways to get data. So it's not just about the hard numbers, it's also about the qualitative experience that you hear through people's experiences, but also when we're dealing with emerging cultures in new cultures and underserved cultures, and people, their ethnographic stories.

"[M]y goal is really to listen and learn and hear the people and inform my work by what the people tell me."
Kim Carson, Burlington's new director of racial equity, inclusion and belonging

Often white folks, they've, of course, say they want change, but they tend to not keep their foot on the gas, how might you help white people move from that training space to action, to keeping the foot on the gas?

Part of that process is we have to find that hook. It has to matter. No one — whether they're Black or white, or anything in between — changes unless there's a cost. And so for me, I feel like my job is to highlight that cost, right?

How do you not take care of those that are the most disenfranchised? Prove a cost to those that are not being disenfranchised. When we can see the commonality in our experience and how this also impacts you, that's gonna make people move.

And I just think that's really what my job is, as the director of race equity, inclusion and belonging. It's to make sure we're highlighting, telling those stories, sharing those experiences, creating opportunities to belong together.

So that this is not just "us versus them." That white people or any people are seeing that this is also part of their story, and causes them harm as well.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message.

Mary Williams Engisch is a local host on All Things Considered.
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