As executive director for local nonprofit Free Bikes 4 Kidz Madison, Kristie Goforth is determined to give away 2,021 bicycles this year to children and families who need them.
Goforth, 49, is not only passionate about creating transportation access but also fostering economic development, caring for the environment and supporting the arts. In addition to serving on Monona’s City Council, she grew the Monona East Side Business Alliance into an economic hub, serves as a Dane County parks commissioner and co-founded the Momentum Urban Arts Fest.
Though her bid for mayor of Monona in the spring against incumbent Mary O’Connor wasn’t successful, Goforth feels like she started a movement with her positive outlook and ability to inspire others.
“Because of that, I have a good ability to mobilize people,” Goforth said. “Although I didn't win, I have to say, I feel like I did start a movement here of people being engaged.”
Goforth moved to Monona in 2014 when she was hired to run the Monona Chamber of Commerce. She transformed the chamber into the Monona East Side Business Alliance and tripled membership in 18 months.
She grew up on an island in Lake Huron in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan on the Canadian border. Her dream was to attend college but growing up as the daughter of a single mother working three jobs made that challenging.
It wasn’t until a cook at the Door County restaurant she was waitressing at encouraged her to pursue college did she make that dream a reality. She graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison with degrees in conservation biology and geography, with an emphasis on cartography and urban planning.
You’ve been an alder on Monona’s City Council since April 2020 and ran for mayor. What inspired you to run for public office?
When I was running the chamber, it didn't take long for me to realize that Monona definitely had walls up around it. I think it had to do with that kind of resistance of, "We won't be absorbed by Madison. We're not Madison. We're distinctly different than Madison." I felt like we really needed to put down the drawbridges on either end of Monona Drive and really open our chamber up to the east side of Madison and build bridges there, because we have a community of 8,000 people who just weren't big enough to support our own chamber of commerce.
I was really proud of the work I did there. I could have taken that to city hall and done a similar type of work in elevating Monona’s brand, really carving out an identity and establishing it as a community for the future.
You've said you represent a new generation of leadership in Monona. What does this mean and why is it needed?
When you're running for office, you have to demonstrate that you're the better candidate, and so you have to have a critical set of eyes. But I think those who are critical of the way things are is because we are the optimists. We can see how much better things can be for everyone, not just a select field. I just see untapped potential everywhere I look in the city.
I often said through the campaign I believe that Monona has the potential to be one of the best small cities in America. We have all the ingredients here, we just need someone who knows how to pull them together. I would have loved that opportunity and while that's not there for me now, I will still continue to be a voice for people who are unrepresented and maybe aren't considered in some of our decision-making.
Had you been elected mayor, you would have been the first Native American mayor in Wisconsin history. Despite some progress made locally in terms of representation, there are still firsts to be made in 2021. What did this mean for you?
It’s amazing and disappointing. I actually did a little digging and I was like, "How many Native American city council members are there in Wisconsin?" and I believe there are four. It’s really shocking to believe that Native voices are still barely heard and rarely represented, and says a lot about where we are and how far we have to go.
It takes a lot of time, energy and resources to gear up for and run a campaign. Where’s that excess energy going now? What’s next for you?
We're hoping to start a program with area schools to start an apprentice program for bike mechanics. We would focus on schools that already have an auto mechanics apprentice program up and running. Transportation is a fundamental need for everyone and this would be one more way to tackle the challenges we face with transportation shortages.
I have had people tell me I should consider going bigger in politics than Monona and that I should look at state politics. But after experiencing a rough local campaign and getting a peek behind the curtain of politics, sadly I don't think someone who truly cares about people and is unwilling to compromise their convictions can be successful in that ecosystem.
I'm a community builder who has the ability to mobilize people and help them become inspired. Free Bikes 4 Kidz Madison is doing some incredible work and we have opportunities to grow the organization, so our roots run deeper in the community. There was a time in my life where I never thought I would be in a position to contribute to my community. Since I have that opportunity, it's something I am compelled to do.
How does your role with Free Bikes 4 Kidz Madison influence your public service work?
This is probably the first time in my professional career where I'm primarily working with communities of color. That has just been fabulous. It has been wonderful to just be immersed by populations that we don't see a lot of representation, especially in Monona.
The transportation equity piece is another really big thing that I'm just super passionate about. Without transportation, you can't get a job. Are your kids getting to school reliably and even as a recreational pursuit, transportation can be a major barrier. It's something we really need to work on and I cannot wait for the day when we can have a Regional Transit Authority here. That is going to be a gamechanger for the state of Wisconsin, if we can get there.
What would you say was one of the most influential moments that led to where you are today?
I grew up with a single mom who dropped out of high school at age 16, and we never ever rose above the poverty line. She worked three jobs around the clock. I remember in high school when I was 16, 17, hearing a lot of the teachers asking my classmates, "Where are you going to go to college? What do you hope for the future?" None of them asked me that question.
If there is one way you can (influence) a young person's life, it is by asking them that question and not just asking the white, affluent children that question, but asking all people that question, no matter their backgrounds.
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