Whether she’s on or off the clock for the city of Lansing, Judy Kehler’s goal is to help the region and its residents realize their fullest abilities and capacities.
Promoted from treasurer to Lansing’s chief strategy officer just over a year ago, Kehler spends her workdays studying people, processes and services to determine how they can be made more efficient and more beneficial to the taxpayers. Outside of her municipal job title, Kehler’s focus is to foster accord and understanding as a certified diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging practitioner.
“With DEIB, what gets me up in the morning is desperately wanting everyone to feel valued,” Kehler said. “I want everyone to be able to live their best life to realize their full potential, and I want us all to be able to respect and honor and value each other.”
Kehler’s interest in DEIB came on the heels of a lifetime of “firsts.” Initially hired under former Mayor David Hollister’s administration, she was often noted as the first African American to serve as city treasurer, the first female treasurer and the youngest treasurer. Yet, Kehler said none of those quantifiers reflected her actual qualifications.
“I’ve always been the first of something. … So, it’s educating people and helping people to understand that when you look at me, you’re looking at an educated, qualified person,” she said. “Yes, I may happen to have this fantastic tan. But guess what? At the end of the day, we’re all professionals. And I’m the most qualified for the position. And this is what I’m going to do to help. It’s just kind of teaching people that the sex or the color of a person’s skin is not what you need to focus on.”
DEIB has become a top-of-mind issue in recent years. Some of that is due to a heightened social consciousness in racial disparities that was pushed to the forefront from widespread coverage of events such as the deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, Kehler noted; however, she added that some of it has to do with changing demographics.
“Companies know that in the next 10-15 years … the majority will be the people of color,” Kehler said. “And what does that mean when you’re talking about advertising a product? What does that mean about what your customer looks like? So, I think these conversations are taking place, No. 1, because of the financial implications; No. 2, because it’s morally the right thing to do; and No. 3, because of social climate right now.
“All these different things and topics are very interesting to me, and I am the type of person who likes to educate people and to work with people and to unify people,” she continued. “DEIB is definitely something that I feel is important. And I feel that it’s here, right? So, we have to know how to work with each other. We need to understand differences and to value people and to help people to feel valued in the workplace. And it’s not just race; its intergenerational, its ability, it’s the whole nine yards.”
That focus on inclusivity also translates to some of her work with the city of Lansing. The priority of Kehler’s work is with other post-employment benefits, or OPEB, and reducing unfunded liability and looking at alternative ways to fund future retiree benefits. However, one project she has been pursuing is a grant through Bloomberg Philanthropies Bloomberg Philanthropies to increase the literacy rate in Lansing schools. The $1 million grant is being awarded to the top 15 submissions in the global challenge, and it generated 631 submissions from 99 countries. In June, Lansing was informed it was among the 50 finalists still in consideration.
“In Lansing, I think it’s only 24% of our third graders that would be considered to be proficient readers. The other 76%, according to the law, would be held back. Twenty percent of our population is illiterate. Twenty-six percent of our population have college degrees,” Kehler said. “In talking with our economic development folks, we have lost opportunities in Lansing to grow businesses because we don’t have the higher level of education and training required by some of these new technologies or STEM companies or medical technology companies.
“I feel that we need to attack that now. Because not only does it impact the families, but it impacts the city overall,” she added.
For the city to partner with the school district is a matter of a rising tide raising all boats, Kehler said.
“We’re at the point where we can no longer operate in silos,” she said. “Why do people move into Lansing? For housing, schools, so we are trying to grow our tax base. We can no longer afford to only focus on what’s happening inside the four walls of City Hall. We have to step outside, and we need to partner with people. And the school district is in need of partnerships. … I’m a Lansing School District graduate. I believe in our schools, and I really believe that we also need to surround the schools and to help move our district forward.”
Just as using DEIB to help people reach their potential gets her up in the morning, the same can be said about Kehler’s dedication to her role in city government.
“As far as working in the city, you know, I was born and raised in Lansing,” she said. “There’s more for Lansing, and really my passion and desire is to see Lansing succeed.”