As the city’s new Civil Rights Department director, Norman Davis wants to expand Madison’s civil rights “footprint.”
The department largely oversees contracts and aims to be a check on the city’s inclusion policies. But Davis takes a broader approach to running the department.
“We look beyond those kinds of regulatory obligations to really making connections for the community,” Davis said. “It’s not just kind of the day-to-day rigor of ensuring compliance and non-discrimination, but it’s what innovative and creative things can we do?”
For example, he introduced an entrepreneurial assistance program called UpStart after the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation sought city funding to build the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery building on UW-Madison’s campus, but had already begun work on the project.
“I proposed this UpStart program, so that we could move forward with the project but so WARF could also be responsible to the public for the funds they were receiving,” Davis said.
The UpStart program, launched in 2013 and is a collaborative project of WARF and the UW-Madison Small Business Development Center. It aims to support women and members of minority communities as they launch new businesses.
Davis took over the position in July, but he is not new to working for the city. He first started working for the city’s Department of Transportation within its Targeted Business Enterprise offices in 2001 before working as a contract compliance officer within the Affirmative Action division.
In 2006, then Mayor Dave Cieslewicz grouped the Affirmative Action Division and the Equal Opportunities Commission under one roof as the Department of Civil Rights. Davis also served as the Affirmative Action Division’s interim director.
“We want to make sure that no matter what protected class an individual finds themselves a part of, that that’s not a predictor of outcomes for them, whether it’s race, whether it’s gender, whether it’s disability status,” Davis said. “Any protected class should not be the predictor of outcomes for success for anyone, and so that’s kind of the charge that we run with.”
Davis grew up in Flint, Michigan and moved to Wisconsin in 1989 to attend UW-Madison. He studied engineering but said he has always had a passion for civil rights.
“I really wanted to find out the truth about who I was and really be able to think critically about the world that I lived in,” Davis said. “I always wanted to make sure that I and my community had the best possible options.”
In the coming year, Davis said he wants to expand the department's reach within the community. The department will be launching a Raise Your Voice campaign and partnering with the library to host trainings for the community on civil rights and how to do business with the city.
Davis has lived in several of Madison’s neighborhoods, including on Allied Drive, West Badger Road and Darbo Drive in the Darbo-Worthington neighborhood. When he was living in these areas he said he felt “disconnected” but holds on to that feeling to drive his work.
“I want to stay in touch with those experiences, and I want to use that to better reach out to our more marginalized communities,” Davis said. “We want to very honestly make contact with each segment of our community and get their true experience not just so that we can say that we did, but that we can in a very tangible way include that in our priories and ultimately the city’s priorities.”
What are your responsibilities as director of the Department of Civil Rights?
We‘re cast largely with being a regulatory agency. So our Affirmative Action division ensures that our contractors, our vendors, even our community-based organizations are in compliance with our procurement rules, our purchasing rules, our contracts. They are receiving and requiring affirmative action plans on a daily basis, determining whether or not those entities that we spend money with are meeting the city’s goal of inclusion within their workplaces. They’re also looking at the city’s own workforce and whether or not our departments ware making progress to be at parity for their own staff their own employment levels.
Our Equal Opportunities Division takes complaints for any business, any public space, any housing provider within the geographic bounds of the city of Madison to ensure that discrimination is not taking place on the basis of any protected classes that they cover. Our Disability and Services Rights program tends to interpret and apply the (American Disability Act) rules, the city’s own disability rights and services initiatives to make sure that individual with disabilities are not precluded or there's not artificial barriers for individuals to participate or be able to get information from the city of Madison, and that goes for our vendors and contractors as well. Our Equity Coordinator (Tori Pettaway) really looks upstream to find out what can we do early on and try and remove barriers so that race is not a predictor.
I love the work that we do. Sometimes it’s seen as another hurdle or another government regulation. The government has always been interested in the welfare of the people, whether or not that was fair across race, whether or not that was fair across gender has not always been the focus. It’s our office’s responsibility to make sure that it is the focus. We have to be that mouthpiece for the community.
What are your goals for the Department of Civil Rights?
As I think about the Department of Civil Rights, a lot of the work that I’ve done over the past 15 years is to really highlight our footprint. But as I think about moving forward I think about the fact that we want not just highlight our footprint but raise our profile in Madison.
It’s time for us to make special efforts to make sure people know that we’re here and that we take civil rights and their issues seriously. And that we are in a position and willing to do whatever we can even if the concern is not something we can address, it’s not within our jurisdiction, we want to help individuals find those resources. That’s one of the reasons I pulled together all of the civil rights practitioners in Dane County and had a discussion about how we can work better together. Because if I can’t do it, if Dane County can do it, if some of the community-based organizations can do it — the Urban League, Centro Hispano — if they can do it, I want to have those partnerships in place so that everybody in Madison is fully supported, so that we don’t have issues falling through the gaps and we don’t have persistent civil rights issues and concerns that go unaddressed.
That’s my chief aim for the next five years. So we’ll have some goals under that but to really raise the profile of the department and to create a hub within the Madison Department of Civil Rights, so that we can be that point of contact for our colleagues and individuals in the community.
What is the state of civil rights in Madison? Where are we at?
In a word, I would actually say hopeful. And I say that because I’ve seen the application of the tools that we have actually yields results. It actually yields progress when we use it, when we operate in the way that we have been authorized to operate. I’ve seen a number of individuals hired through our compliance efforts by our vendors, contractors. I’ve seen greater use of our community-based organizations by the employers that we do businesses with.
The other thing that I’ll say is hopeful is I read the (Multicultural Affairs Commission) survey and the recommendations that came out of it, and I know that we're taking it seriously. I think that other managers are also taking it seriously. Nothing had been done like that. No kind of climate survey had been done for any employee, not to mention employees of color and so I think it’s being used as a real opportunity for us to look at what we are doing right and what we need to do better.
I’m always, as a manager, focused on progress. I’m also an organization and systems kind of thinker, so I recognize that there might be a lot of inputs going into the system, but I’m more focused on the outputs. Additional inputs don't necessarily equal better outputs, and so I like to take a critical look at what we’re putting into the system to determine whether or not we can get more out of it.
How has the presidential election affected you in your role as DCR director?
We’re paying attention to whether or not there are instances of discrimination, harassment that seem to be heightened. We’re always looking for that but with some of the things that I’ve heard reported in the news lately, we’re just looking at our radar to make sure that we’re aware of any additional instances or concerns that we would need to address.
I’ll say that I think there’s been a lot of framing of the “us and them.” And I don't think that’s particularly helpful, and that to me is not civil rights. As I mentioned, it’s our responsibility to make sure that regardless which protected class you fall into it’s our obligation to make sure that an individual’s protected class status doesn’t predict outcomes.
We can’t frame things in an “us and them.” We’re required to serve all of Madison, all of the employees of our contractors that don’t operate in Madison. The city of Madison contracts nationwide and even into Canada, and so we impact employers from California all the way to New York and their workers and they all have a right to lodge a complaint with our office. Regardless of political affiliation, regardless of race or, as I mentioned, any of the protected classes, we can't look at an “us and them,” we have to look at it’s only us. It’s really only us.
Unfortunately, throughout the 40-, 50-year history of affirmative action and equal opportunity in Madison, given certain times, some groups have been the targets of hate. We are here to help support all groups that are experiencing discrimination and harassment. And not only that, but we are here to help create opportunities for individuals that happen to belong to one protected class or another. I think that there has been a certain amount of trauma that has been experienced by a lot of different people over the last, I don’t know however long the election has been doing on, I hope that things get better. But the Department of Civil Rights will be here to help make sure that our community and those who work with and for the city of Madison are protected.
What did you think of resolution approved by the City Council reaffirming the city’s commitment to “inclusion, equity and justice?”
It’s a little bittersweet because why should the Common Council need to reaffirm that? That’s always the issue or one of the issues with civil rights. Like I said, I love my job, I love the work that we do, but not to wax so philosophically, but we’re here because of the human condition. This is unfortunately part of the “us.” We just want to be that agent that helps us to be better, and I think that I feel bolstered by that restatement of commitment by the mayor and Common Council. Again, it gives me hope to know I can look to that kind of guidance. I can look to that tone they’ve set and perhaps there’s some innovative things we can explore together with the mayor and Common Council to further that commitment in terms of policy.