Kara Joy “KJ” McKee: City Councilor & Changemaker
Kara Joy McKee, known as “KJ,” is a fourth-generation Oklahoman who is passionate about Tulsa. She is a wife, mother, business leader and change-maker who is impacting the community at large through her elected position as District 4 City Councilor. She focuses on positively affecting the community on a day-to-day basis while being mindful of the impact for future generations. Her philosophy is to encourage people to believe they can do better.
TK: Tell us about your family:
KJ: I married one of my best friends from college, and it turns out, he is not only as smart as all get-out, but he’s also an excellent dad! We used to plan events and play in a band; now we plan public policies and play with blocks. Nothing like getting stuck in-house with a couple people to really test how much you like each other. I’m fortunate to find that I like my spouse and our little one very much! My job is a stupid amount of difficult sometimes, and I wouldn’t want to do it without them having my back, keeping me going and making me laugh.
TK: How has becoming a parent made your life better?
KJ: My daughter is the touchstone who can ground me in the moment, remind me of my past, or project my hopes and dreams into the future. Little things bother me less, and the big things bother me more. I don’t know if it would have been like this for me had I had a child in my 20s, and I know every parent-child situation is unique, but as a 42-year-old mom I feel my life is more nuanced, and I’m more dedicated to being my best self because she is here.
TK: What does your family enjoy doing around the Tulsa area?
KJ: We dance outside when music is playing! If there is a good beat at Guthrie Green, Philbrook, Gilcrease, Gathering Place, Mayfest, Art Crawl, you name it, we don’t hold back. That can be a bit awkward when we are the only ones dancing, but I’d rather be part of the music and fun than miss out because other people feel too shy. The pandemic has also made it easier to visit our favorite restaurants for curbside pickup and a picnic in the park.
TK: What do you enjoy most about being a public servant/serving in your role as city councilor?
KJ: I like to help people craft our city and improve our quality of life. There are so many big dreams of who we can be as a city, and as individuals. When I’m not putting out fires and trying to build a better fire truck, I love looking for the ideas whose time has come.
TK: With everything you have going, how do you recharge mentally and/or physically?
KJ: With around 40,000 constituents, I could spend every waking moment answering emails and fixing problems and still have people wanting more. I need to remind myself every day that I don’t have to do it all, just do my best and do my part. Playing with my daughter and working in my garden are my main sources of solace, but I’m starting to go on walks more, too.
TK: What is it like being a city councilor and (fairly) new mom during a pandemic? How has it influenced your perspective?
KJ: I studied to be a scientist in college, not a politician, and the politicization of scientific facts has been very frustrating. That’s due to a mix of genuine confusion, unhealthy dynamics on social media, and a few bad actors who think making us afraid and angry will help their personal ambitions. Facing a pandemic was always going to be hard, but it’s lasted longer and caused more unnecessary suffering and death than it could have if we’d communicated with each other more effectively and been more willing to keep each other safe. My mother missed the second year of her only grandchild’s life because of the pandemic. I know many of my constituents and others in our community have lost even more. The pandemic has sadly uncovered how much work we still have to do to become a community where we look out for each other instead of finding new ways to fight with each other.
TK: What are you doing to educate people on hot-button pandemic topics, like wearing masks?
KJ: I was the first to raise the alarm at Tulsa City Council about the pandemic back in January 2020, and I haven’t let up since. I have been trying to help Tulsans be prepared and take action. I frequently talk to local media, and I consistently share quality information on Facebook. I also talk to people in our community every day. We all have a lot of good and bad information to weed through these days, so I take seriously the need to communicate as clearly and succinctly as I can.
TK: In line with your personal philosophy, how do you believe you are inspiring others to do better?
KJ: I try to ask questions to find out where people are coming from. I think we can all do better when we seek to understand before rushing to argue. A few people are really committed to being angry and rude, but for many others, asking questions can de-escalate the situation and help us learn from each other. Also, whenever I meet someone who wants to help, I try to connect them with others in our community who have similar dreams. As Kathryn Sullivan, the first American woman to walk in space, said, “The only thing any of us can do completely on our own is to have the start of a good idea.”
TK: What local programs do you find are most beneficial for Tulsans to support?
KJ: Housing Solutions Tulsa is doing heroic work helping our community members without homes get back on their feet. This got a lot of attention during this year’s winter storms when it became an emergency to get everyone indoors, but they were working with unhoused Tulsans long before that situation and long after, building the relationships that make it possible to deal with some of the hardest problems any of us can face.
A group that I’ve been closely involved with helping get started is the Tulsa Health Safety Coalition. These are local business owners who are committed to keeping their employees and customers safe during the pandemic and are developing a labeling system to communicate clearly about what precautions they are taking. Even when I’ve found our city, state and national policy responses to the pandemic frustratingly inadequate, I am heartened by these community-led efforts.
TK: Can you expand on your goal of engaging all members of the community to know what’s happening with our city government and how people can stay in the loop? Including learning about local programs?
KJ: I first became interested in city government as a college student in Norman. I attended a city council meeting as part of a class assignment, and I was inspired to speak up during public comments about bike lanes. Then, to my surprise, the mayor at the time asked if I wanted to be on the city’s bike advisory committee.
It really can be that easy to get involved. Even for a city as big as Tulsa, the number of people who regularly pay attention to city issues is small. That’s an opportunity for anyone reading this to make a difference, because while your voice might be lost in the crowd of people talking about national issues, you can speak up on the local level and find it much easier to be heard.
TK: What’s next for you?
KJ: I think my daughter is just about ready for potty-training. After that, the sky’s the limit!
To listen to the full interview, check out the Sharing Passion and Purpose Podcast by Nancy Moore on your favorite podcasting platform.