Kelda Helen Roys
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Interviewee: Kelda Roy
Interviewed by: Kathyrn Block & Suzanne Phalen
Transcribed by :Yher Khang and Patlong Lee
What is your connection to Wisconsin?
My dad describes me as a nice Wisconsin girl. I was born in Wisconsin and grew up here. I moved back to come Lawsful? at UW- Madison. I lived my whole life here primarily in the Madison area.
What are some key memories you have from growing up in Wisconsin?
When I was born up until around age 6, my family and I lived in Taylor County, which is up in central Wisconsin itís a rural area. We lived in a one room school house that my parents renovated into a house of swords. I have a lot of early memories from basically growing up in rural Wisconsin. We would go to a little Amish bakery and dry goods store that was several miles away from the house; we had a little pet goat named Penelope?, we had a little pond, and my parents grew a lot of vegetables. It was sort of an idyllic rural hippie existence so I remember lots of long winters and short summers. We moved down to Madison when I was in first grade around the north side right away. Thatís where we lived and that is actually where my family still live. I have remarkable things about growing up is how my vision of Madison has changed as an adult coming back. When I was growing up, I thought Madison was a small town, maybe a little boring, and not much to do. I did a lot of show choir in theaters and things with jazz hands. When I came back from law school I realized that Madison is interesting and vibrant place to live; but, I think people who grew up in Wisconsin donít necessarily appreciate it until they come back later. That certainly has been my experience and my three younger sisters are starting to enter that phase too. Theyíre like "Oh actually we did have it pretty good with these beautiful lakes and the ability go out to hike on these state parks." For me, the kind of essential things about Wisconsin as a state are all the access to do outdoors activities. That is something about our heritage and a strong part of our identity as Wisconsinites. Outdoor activities like boating, hiking, hunting, etc. In Madison specifically, in this intellectual progressive cultural statue as for our size that weíd, I think itís remarkable and coming back from New York City I can appreciate that is something unique in the Midwest not in an urban big city like Chicago. Madison is pretty great in terms of restaurants, art, and diversity; all the things that are important aspect of having a good life.
What path has your career taken over the years?
Definitely not an expected one I would say. I went to college at NYU and I started out as a theater major, so I actually did a full academic course at NYU just like any other student in the college part of sciences? You also do a studio program and I also had a roommate who was a neuroscience major and she was incredulous? that I worked harder than she did because you do these two parallel tracks?. I finished in three years, and during the middle of my second year I decided I wanted to work more with politics and the drama department wasnít helpful with that. I transferred to school of individualize studies at NYU which is called Gallatin? And they allowed me to design my own major. I ended up a BA rather than BFA. Politicsí drama and cultural studies are really interesting. My love for theaters and arts always has been a way to expand oneís perspective and teach and communicate with people. Another reason also is to help promote change and social justice. Itís a powerful thing when you can realize humanity through the arts. Iíve always been politically active but I also saw myself as an artist and musician and now itís sort of the opposite. I came back to Wisconsin for law school but before that I sold real estate in New York. I worked for a residential luxury marketing company and it was the height of the booming in the real estate. It was amazing for me as a 19 year old I was working full time during my last year of college and after college I did real estate. This was an interesting perspective because there was so much money in real estate. I would contrast what I was doing with my mom and her social worker. I would think about how her work is more valuable compared to what Iím doing. Iím basically helping rich people get another fancy condo or apartment. My mom is saving children from abuse and yet her work was valued at much lesser rate than mine, and I was a 19-year-old kid and she had a masterís degree. I started thinking about social utility and what I wanted to do with my life and that idea lead me to law school. I came back to Wisconsin of three reasons. One being that my family lives here, two in state tuition and three was that they gave me a generous scholarship. The other schools I have been accepted to I couldnít find any financial aid but I knew I wouldíve come out of there with maybe one hundred thousand dollars of debt to go to Michigan or one of these others schools. Whereas Wisconsin I would come out with very little law school debt. Also knowing that I didnít want to become a corporate lawyer so I decided that was the right decision. I came back and lived my life different. I worked in a law firm in Istanbul, Turkey? I loved that for the summer. I also did European international law and studied in the Netherlands at a law school there. Iíve been interested in international and intra-country? and legal regime. And I also did the innocence project in law school which opened my eyes about the flaws in any human administer criminal justice system. It gave me a real sense of sensitivity to this power of government to destroy peopleís life. A sense we have to be so careful and judicious and using that power. Itís critical that there are safe guards and the safe guards we have, have not been etiquette. Time and time again hundreds of people have been released from prison with decades and life long sentences from death row that is shown to be factually innocent of crimes that were convicted. Those are the couples of things that I was interested but I didnít know what to do. I was a summer associate at a big cooperate law firm that does murders and acquisitions. The attorneys that was practicing there were at the top, you donít get a job like that without being the top of law school class and going to a fancy school. The work I felt was not interesting by the way they were profitable is by having lawyers specialize one thing and you do that thing over and over again. Particularly I was at a young age and I was not interested in doing that. I was looking for other opportunities, meanwhile I have been working on campaigns for other candidates. I work on Kevin ___ for governor, Howard Deanís race for president. Iím always volunteering and by doing my duty as being an "A" citizen by getting involved. In my last year of law school, I was looking at so many different things. I applied to be the executive director of _____ Wisconsin which I thought was quite an outside possibility that they would hire a new law graduate to that job. I was also applying to other jobs such as smaller firms, to other none profits and I actually was applying to join the military as a judge a vacant general.. the jag core?. I actually received a commission to two different branches from the air force and navy, so I couldíve gone in. It wouldíve been an interesting experience and I would have liked to serve in the military. Itís something that I still think about but I realize I have to enforce the "donít ask donít tell." Thatís something I felt so fundamentally wrong that I would not be able to do that. That was what made me say that I donít think I can do that cause you know when youíre an attorney, you have to do what your client wants and if you canít do that job you have an obligation to recues yourself. Thatís the reason why I didnít end up going to the Jag Core? And ended up getting the job at _____ Wisconsin. It was a fascinating and interesting job. It was absolutely my dream job because I would get to do public speaking; media work, public policy development, research and writing, longing, and electoral work, and run no profit management. I would get invited to schools and travel around the state and meet people because of the work that was so sensitivity regarding reproductive rights is a very personal and private issue, which is the point. Thatís why itís a decision between women and their doctors, not government decision. Some women would come up after talks, and talk about personal stories about abortion or had miscarriage. It was hard for them to talk to their families. One story a woman told me was when she was pregnant in high school and her parents forced her to give baby up for adoption. That was fascinating and I started doing that for four years and thinking about whatís next. Dave Travis who is state represent from north side of Madison for three decades who was retiring and some friends of mine saying how I should run for office. I of course dismissed at first, I thought they were punking me. Eventually, I started thinking about it more seriously as a way to make a difference. I always thought of myself as someone who is an advocate who would reform the system from outside but I realized you have tremendous ability draw media attention and focus on the issues that are important to you if youíre an elected official. Your ability to make that change is if youíre inside the room where decisions are made is much greater than in most cases outside of that room. So I took a leap of faith and ran for office and I won, and here I am.
Is there anything you career you wish youíd done differently?
I think Iíve been tremendously lucky. Everyday I walk into this building feeling with a sense of gratitude and responsibility that Iím here. Knowing what I know now feeling blessed as I do to be able to serve as a state represented. Iím delighted with how my life and career developed at this point. At times I thought if I wouldíve stayed as a cooperate lawyer and stayed in New York and work with real estate, Iíd probably retired by now. As my partner said one time that every decision you make proves how little you value money; he was saying at as joke because time to time Iíve made decisions that Iím not going to make much money but thatís okay. Going of and traveling and attorney? my back on careers that would make more money, and instead of going work for nonprofit where I have to raise my own salary and I donít raise money I donít get paid to government service. Iím very happy with the way Iíve gone and all those other paths I donít have any regrets not taking them because I feel like I had a taste of them. It wouldíve been great to think about being an opera singer and just travel around the world in sing; however, those are all fantasies everyone has. I love what Iím doing and I canít imagine having a better job than the job I have right now. I love this work and love being able to do that.
How has being a woman influence or affect your career?
Iím very lucky I grew up in the time that I did and the parents that I had that said I could do anything; you can be president, I can be a doctor, truck driver, or anything careers open to you that arenít shut off because you were a woman. I went to law school and half my law school classes were woman. In that sense Iím the real beneficiary of not having to think about it most my life being a woman and how it might shape my opportunities available to me. Thatís the real luxury we all have and the future generation. However, I still see that there is deep misogyny in our cultural and society as a whole and I think thatís more difficult to change. We can graduate women from medical school, law school, college and open up to more male nurses and female business executives. But there are some really big conundrums that we haven't solved yet. As I go into my thirties, those are becoming quite real for me. Watching my friends struggle with when's the right time to have children, how can I have a rewarding career that I've been being prepared for. From a young age being told that I can do anything but realizing that I maybe can't do everything I want and now you basically need two incomes to have a household and to be middle class, which wasn't true in the earlier generations. So there's all these different kinds of pressure we haven't figured out in society how to deal with that. Are we going to offer paid family leave? Are we going to have quality childcare for people? We're still far away from doing the things that other developed nations have done in terms of supporting a balanced life. It's almost off the radar screen. These are questions that I think require some deep thinking and having women in office is probably the only way that these questions are going to receive that consideration. Right now we are at the lowest level of women in the Wisconsin legislature in twenty years, twenty two of ninety nine legislatures are women. I think partially because I worked in the Reproductive Rights Movement and because I'm the youngest legislature currently serving, I often get asked "What's it like to be a women in the legislature?" People look up to me as the "spokesperson" for women, although of course I'm not the spokesperson for women, I'm just the spokesperson for myself. But I do think that the decisions that are made and the issues on which people focus are different when there are significant numbers of women in the room. Women are seen to have greater capabilities when there are not so few of them that their presence is a surprise because women can then be seen more as individuals. There are a lot of parallels with people of color coming into situations where they're in the minority. If you have one or two people of color in a room of twenty white people, that's a very difficult position for them to be in because they're so visibly different. But if you end up with a room that has a lot of different kinds of people, whether its age, gender, racial diversity, ethnic background, religious diversity, or any of these kinds of things that make up the society that it actually is in the world. It becomes much easier for those participants? to be valued as an individual rather than proxy representatives for a group that they belong to. We're still in that transition phase for women. I will say that when I was running for office, it was one of the most competitive primary reasons of state partially because Madison's politically active, partially because the seat have been held for so long. There were a dozen people who were thinking about running, talked about running, or their names were floated and only me and one other person were women. That was a little shocking to me and its one of the reasons that I thought "This is ridiculous." We ended up in a race where we had five, me running and one woman. That to me, is demonstrative of the difficulty that we have in recruiting and retaining women to run for office. We also see this in business. I always think about that law because that's my background, but first year associates, there are about equal number or women and men but every year after that towards partnership, the number or women fall off. Part of that is because at the higher levels women often times have financial means to drop out of the work force for awhile. That isn't an option for the vast majority of women. I also think it shows that we still have quite a bit of work to do before we reach full equality.
With employment, has the rights and equality of women changed or significantly getting better?
I think that's undeniable. Look at society twenty years ago, the way that any hill was pilloried? for talking about sexual harassment, which was seen as "Oh, those women are complaining again." It was something that was not given creams as a problem in the workplace. We really have created a much better legal structure for women to be in the workplace and you see that everywhere. Again, we have these underlined cultural social issues that haven't been resolved. It isn't necessarily so much about women, but also about what's the role of men? Men want to be present parents for their children, they want to be good partners to their spouse. What does that mean about masculinity? Women of your generation and men of your generation have certain expectations about the kind of partners that they're going to have, the kind of work that they're going to do, the kind of experiences that they're going to create. They're starting off the basis of equality and really wanting equality. What does that mean when, almost always, it's the woman who drop out of the work force for her children? How can me make that a true choice, a choice that works for each family? Women still lag behind in science and engineering careers. What, if anything, should we be doing about that from a public policy perspective. These are all open questions. It took the election of Barack Obama in 2008 to have meaningful equal paying legislation because the Supreme Court had overturned that when they saw systemic discrimination over twenty years, a woman getting paid less than her male counter port. The Supreme Court said "Oh, because you didn't discover you were getting paid less than the men who are working at that company for twenty years, it's too late for you to sue." It's an outrageous position that basically having those equal pay laws made them meaningless. We still had to go back to the Democratic Congress, to the president saying "No, discrimination is wrong whenever it's discovered and it should be revinied? It was a better equal pay act that I believe was the first legislation that President Obama signed into law. Two steps forward, one and a half steps back, its incremental and it continues, even at these very basic things that we've taken for granted. Yes, women should make the same as men. They should, but how is it enforced?
What are some important life lessons that you would like younger generations of women to be aware of?
Believe in yourself. I think having the self-confidence to say "You know, I'm going to apply for that job even though it's a stretch. I'm not sure if I'm qualified or going to be able to do it but I'm going to try and learn something in the experience." Ask questions, I'm the beneficiary of help and mentoring in your rank of all kinds of people. Women and men who don't even realize the impact that they had on me. Teachers had encouraged me; friends called me and recruited me to run for office and I thought they were joking. Ask for help, ask people to do informational interviews or read over something you've written on your rťsumť? Do that for other people because one of the things I strongly believe is that as a young woman, as a political activist, I have an obligation to help foster that specific engagement and sense of social justice in other people. I always have a rivet? internship program. One of my favorite things is that we have these small, talented, young people and they're doing real policy work. It's not like getting coffee or anything. I think itís an obligation that continues and it will ultimately help you. I always joke, some of these interns are going out in the world, some day one of those interns is going to get me a job. Helping someone else is not going to take away from your own success, it's only going to increase that. Finally, I'd say don't be afraid to make a change. If you think that you want to do something, but it's not working out it's okay to just walk away and say "I'm going to try something else for awhile." It's okay to fail and try again. Keep trying until you succeed, but it's also okay to change course and do something that's totally different. I'm thirty-one, and I've done that now more, I think, four times since college. I think that's more and more the norm.
As a representative, what has been some of the specific legislation that you've worked in the past?
I've only been in office for about a year and a half and I've come to realize all legislation is a group endeavor. You can't do anything in this building on your own, by yourself. With that, there are pieces of legislature that I've been kind of the leader on and really pushed from start to finish. One of those that I'm very proud of is the BPA Free Kids Act. This is ground breaking legislation where, I think second state in the nation, to ban under toxic chemical called Biphenyl A? commonly known as BPA from children's bottles and sippy cups. That is really a market departure. Unfortunately, what we've seen is that with toxic chemicals, anything from pesticides to plastics, things in our drinking water, mercury, by products of manufacturing have just been pumped into the world, into the air, water, and soil without any consideration of their state of safety. That is a tremendous failure of government and it's really the United States that has done the worst job in the devolved world of protecting citizens from these kinds of harms. We put so much effort into telling new parents and pregnant women how they're supposed to behave in order to protect their fetuses or their kids from all the harms of the world, but yet we turn a blind eye to the emerging scientific evidence that show that these chemicals can cause tremendous harm, tremendous damage. We can't even begin to understand for the development of young children, infants, and fetuses; their physical, brain, emotional, and cognitive development. That's an issue that I'm really interested in. Traditionally, it's been the government that's regulated chemicals. Now the states are saying "Hey, federal government, you have not done your job." We're starting to see a little reversal of that under the Obama administration, which is good. At the same time, women and children are not supposed to eat fish that are caught in the Great Lakes. Almost every lake in Wisconsin is filled with polluted fish. We can't do this work fast enough, I guess is the disappoint. With the BPA Free Kids Act, this was one little step towards having a regime regulating toxic that actually protects people and says "If you want to start putting X chemicals on your crop, or in a particular product, we're going to use precautionary principles that you have to demonstrate it won't do harm before you can do it" rather than saying "Well, we don't know what this does. We know it causes cancer and reproductive failures in lab rats, but you can do it anyway." That's been the surpavailing? aspect. That's one huge, huge thing that I think I'm interested in continuing working on. The most important issue facing our state right now are clearly long term high quality job creation, economic development, and getting our state budget in order. We've taken a number of steps collectively as a democratic caucus to look at those economic development and small business measures than, I think, have ever been passed in the legislative session. I'm proud of that, really innovative and interesting ideas for helping to remote very traditional Wisconsin industries like agriculture, diary, cheese making, meat processing, and manufacturing to the really high tech emerging industries like bio tech, medical device manufacturing, and clean energy. That, I think, really exciting thinking about how we're going to foster a strong, diverse economy for the state in the future. I think we've done a pretty remarkable job in being innovative, being creative, and putting some of these tools into place recognizing that government has a limited ability to stimulate the economy and set the rules for the economy. I take that back, we said the rules of economy but we can't create an economy of nothing. Those are some of the most interesting things that I think I've gotten to work on.
In your opinion, what is some most important issue for the government to address?
I think fundamentally, state government has to get its budget under control. By that, I donít mean just cutting spending. Weíve actually already done the most drastic cuts in history of the state in the last budget. We have to be realistic about what public services must we provide? What public services do the residents of Wisconsin need, want, and deserve to make Wisconsin a good place to live and do business? How are we going to fund those things? And unfortunately, weíre sort of operating under a nineteenth century tax structure; itís a very old fashion tax structure. We really havenít updated modernized that revenue structure and yet weíve continued to chip away at it by creating all these little loop holes and tax breaks, on which some are good, or promote meritorious activities. But what theyíve ultimately have the effect of doing is creating a huge structural deficit, where we can no longer fund even the most basic things even at an adequate level. Our education system was the pride of the state and was at the top of the country and yet we are at risk or seeing our great educational system, K-12 and our university systems; seeing them seriously harmed in a way that we would not be able to fix in a long time because of chronic, underfunding, and shrinking budgets. And if we donít figure out a way to have a progressive, fair, transparent tax structure that funds the things that we need in order for the state to function like schools, like our universities. Thatís what separates Wisconsin from Alabama and Mississippi, the great schools, highways that work, clean parks and lakes, areas for recreation. If we are not going to support those things, then we might as well just say "Well, forget it, weíll just be at the bottom and we can kiss our economic future goodbye" because we wonít have an educated, productive workforce thatís going to be able to sustain the state in the next generation. Thatís very serious but using the t word, talking about taxes is something thatís very difficult. Everyone knows itís a problem, but you have this very strong partisan divide where democrats wantÖyou know, weíve taken some steps to close some of the most egregious loop holes, like the Las Vegas loop hole. The Let Big Multinational Corporation outsourced their profit, come into Wisconsin, makes a bunch of money, and pretends that they didnít make any money in Wisconsin using sort of counting tricks. Weíve closed that loop hole, but what we havenít done is weíve seen the tax structure start to flatten over the past couple decades, so that the people with the most means are actually paying the least. That shifts the tax burden onto the middle class and onto the poor and that is why we can no longer fund these public services. We have to talk about that, we have to think about that, and we have to have the political courage. Frankly, the political courage is really needed on the republican side because privately you would hear a lot of thinking conservatives say "Yeah, this is not sustainable." Weíve already cut, cut, and cut and maybe there are somethings that can still be cut but we canít just shut down our schools, state government, our highway department. In that case, we have to make sure weíre going to be able to fund those programs in a fair way and remove that burden from the lower class and middle class, and the poor. Show stopper.
Is there anything else you wanted to add?
No, thatís it. Are there any other questions that any of you guys had?
Thank you very much for being in our interview.
Yeah, my pleasure. Thanks in advance for making me sound smarter and inarticulate.