Kelly Larson believes she has a duty. And it rests in the opportunity to act as an advocate for the most basic human rights belonging to individuals.
For more than 20 years, Larson has made that calling her career at the helm of the City of Dubuque’s Human Rights Department.
She and her team act as a resource for racial, cultural and gender groups, as well as the LGBTQ community and others.
“I think a lot of it has to do with my upbringing,” Larson said of what pulled her to the role. “I grew up on a farm outside of Epworth (Iowa), and from my family and school setting, I had very limited exposure to people with racial or cultural differences, except that my family was really active at Divine Word.”
The seminary — the only one in the country with a mission to educate missionaries for the Catholic Church — drew a host of students from different backgrounds. Larson and her parents would participate in mission projects with students, developing close friendships with many representing a variety of racial, cultural and economic roots.
She also had an uncle who was a member of the Brothers of Holy Cross and who was active in social justice issues.
“It was during a time when I was in my formative years, and it had a significant impact on how I started to see things,” Larson said. “Racism expands beyond our perception of the Civil Rights Movement. It got me thinking about years and years of systemic issues early on. That had a definite impact on my path.”
She went on to earn a Bachelor of Science in psychology, as well as a law degree from the University of Iowa, graduating in 1991.
Larson also would earn an Intercultural Professional Certificate from the Intercultural Communication Institute and become a certified administrator of the Intercultural Development Inventory.
After working as an assistant regional council in the Office of General Council for the Social Security Administration and the United States Department of Health and Human Services until 1997, she become director of the City of Dubuque’s Human Rights Department in 1999.
Under her leadership, the department has grown from a staff of two who focused on case investigations to four who work toward developing a shared responsibility throughout the organization and the community for advancing equity and inclusion.
“A big part of what we did initially was take in discrimination complaints that violated basic human rights laws, from housing to employment,” Larson said. “But a lot of the language we’ve developed today centers around prevention and how we can work together to be a more inclusive community.”
Where human rights departments traditionally act as enforcement hubs to address civil rights violations, Larson believed that to tackle systemic issues head on, enforcement was a reactive approach and a role that could be filled by the city attorney’s office. The Human Rights Department, she said, should be dedicated to prevention.
That transition, which took place in 2010, allowed the department to focus on systemic change within the city as an organization, as well as within the community.
In the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd, for example, it enabled the department to implement a proactive approach in creating a dialogue within the community to establish new goals.
Part of those, which Larson was instrumental in facilitating, include three approaches for interactions with others as a city organization, including an intercultural approach, a reach-in approach and a community engagement approach.
This is in addition to root-level changes and training opportunities Larson has implemented. Among them are establishing intercultural foundations courses for city staff and new employees, creating a Core City Equity Team, establishing bilingual brochures and signage as well as multilingual training for city staff and focusing on improving diversity recruitment and retention within the community.
“It includes a lot of constant training, and it’s highly emotional work,” Larson said. “A lot of times, we’re in a situation where people really are in crisis and there is a lot of pain and trauma. It takes a toll, for sure. But at the same time, I think it’s a real opportunity to really hear where a person is coming from and make an impact.”
Larson also has served as an adjunct professor at Clarke University and the University of Dubuque.
Previously, she was president of the League of Iowa Human Rights Agencies and vice president of the Regional Executive Council on Civil Rights.
In 2005, she received the Ruby Sutton Humanitarian Award from the Dubuque Chapter of the NAACP in recognition of outstanding service in the continued fight for freedom and justice. And in 2011, she received the Spirit of the ADA Award from the Great Plains ADA Center in recognition of her work to further equal access for people with disabilities.
Larson was a founding member of the Multicultural Family Center in Dubuque and serves on its board of directors.
Each of the opportunities, Larson said, have allowed her to broaden her perspective, something she believes is a challenge each of us hold.
“The most significant learning that takes place is realizing how your relationships to others makes a direct impact,” she said. “In the spiritual sense, it has broadened my perspective as a humanitarian, working from grace to understand when there are things said or done that come from a place of good int entions but that are harmful. There have been a number of times where people have extended that grace to me, and that was my opportunity to learn.”
It’s work and learning that is never complete, Larson added.
“One of the biggest challenges moving forward as a society is addressing the economic wealth gap, in addition to working to examine and remove systemic issues that exist,” she said. “It’s something getting worse and worse for more and more people on the national level, and it’s challenging. It means working more strategically to address advocacy and policy change. But it’s important work that needs to be done.”
When Larson isn’t doing this work, she said that much of her time revolves around nature, as well as spending time with her family. She has a daughter, 25, who has a degree in biology; and a son, 22, who just entered law school.
On being recognized — and nominated by many of her colleagues — as a Woman Who Makes a Difference, Larson said she is grateful for the community surrounding her that has never made her make the tough decisions alone.
“That’s probably the most critical thing,” she said. “To address so many of these human rights issues, it takes a community, not just one person. It includes asking questions that are outside of your comfort zone and hearing from people who might disagree and not want to hear from you. To make the biggest impact and break down any barrier, you need to find out how to navigate those constraints and be there to advocate. And it helps to have a community behind you.”