Jeramey Jannene
City Hall

Bernadette Karanja Named Milwaukee’s Chief Equity Officer

Longtime city workforce leader is new CEO of improving racial and equity outcomes.

By - Jan 12th, 2023 05:37 pm
Bernadette Karanja. Image from Milwaukee City Channel – City Clerk’s Office

Bernadette Karanja. Image from Milwaukee City Channel – City Clerk’s Office

The City of Milwaukee will soon have a new Chief Equity Officer.

Mayor Cavalier Johnson nominated Bernadette Karanja for the two-year-old position which heads the city’s eight-member Office of Equity and Inclusion.

A Kenyan immigrant that came to the United States 22 years ago, Karanja has spent the last seven years as the Common Council’s workforce development coordinator and head of the Office of Workforce Development. She previously worked for Employ Milwaukee.

“I am clear on the heavy responsibility that this role carries for my city of Milwaukee,” said Karanja to Finance & Personnel Committee on Wednesday. “One can only hold this role with the ability to continuously learn about racial equity and inclusion.”

Housed with the Department of Administration, Karanja would be the second person to hold the role. She would replace Nikki Purvis, who resigned last year to become the new CEO of the African American Chamber of Commerce of Wisconsin. Karanja praised Purvis’ work and called her a friend.

“My personal life and work experience is driven by solving equity and exclusion issues,” said Karanja.

The new chief equity officer holds a bachelor’s degree from Kenyatta University in Nairobi, Kenya and a master’s in business administration degree from Alliant International University in San Diego.

Her confirmation is a virtually foregone conclusion given her strong relationships with the Common Council.

“First of all, I’m really disappointed that you’re leaving us,” said Alderman Michael Murphy. “I’m very proud to move approval.”

“It is great to know someone as skilled as Bernadette is taking over the position,” said Alderwoman Milele A. Coggs, who sponsored the creation of Karanja’s current role. “I look forward to working with you.”

Ald. Scott Spiker, whose office is near Karanja’s current office, said he will miss their chance encounters. “Every time I go to my office I have the opportunity to pop my head in and learn something new,” he said. “Another in the line of really impressive appointments by the mayor and his team.” He praised Karanja’s ability to distill information into a format lay people can understand.

Committee chair Marina Dimitrijevic also expressed her support.

Karanja isn’t the only one making the jump from the City Clerk‘s Office to the Department of Administration. Two individuals that currently report to her will also move to the newer Office of Equity and Inclusion. “There are a number of things that have been going on that we want to make sure don’t disappear,” said Karanja, referencing their work on youth-violence-prevention through employment, equitable sourcing and creating transit routes to suburban job centers

The seven-member Equal Rights Commission is already housed within the office. The Office of Equity and Inclusion is responsible for coordinating equity efforts within city employment, but also working on small business development, accessibility practices and contracting.

Dimitrijevic noted that the office will also play a role in how the city manages its severe fiscal issues, including possible service changes. Karanja said she would be taking part in the mayor’s accountability-in-management meetings with departments to understand how the budget is impacting policy implementation. “While we do have that fiscal cliff we are looking at, we are really going to be examing and analyzing very closely how best we can utilize what we already have before we seek additional funding,” said Karanja.

“I just want to say on the record that I want you in the room and in those conversations,” said Dimitrijevic. “I do worry about the impacts on populations in our city that have been historically negatively impacted.”

The committee unanimously recommended approval. The full council will vote on her confirmation on Jan. 17.

According to the city’s 2023 budget, the equity officer position is to pay $96,095.

Johnson, following the retirement of Department of Administration director Sharon Robinson, must also find a new individual to lead the overarching department.

Categories: City Hall, Weekly

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