Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Karen Kubby Talks Politics, Art & Activism

Karen Kubby is the Executive Director of the Emma Goldman Clinic for Women, a feminist reproductive health care clinic that, despite its name, serves both women and men in Iowa City. Her name is one of the most recognizable on the national progressive political circuit and she is considered one of the foremost experts on successful campaign strategies for left-leaning candidates. Karen spent 11 years as an activist member of the Iowa City City Council and has volunteered her time and considerable expertise to a variety of progressive issues including the support of local labor unions, environmental protection, women’s rights, affordable housing, the public library and the new Johnson County dog park. An artist as well as an activist, Karen made her living for two decades (1980-2000) as a potter and beadworker, participating in art fairs throughout the Midwest. On a recent warm, October afternoon, Kubby and I sat on the front porch of my house and discussed the origins of her activism, her time on City Council, her artwork and the state of feminism in America today.

Meg White: Karen, thanks for taking the time to sit down and talk with me. I want to begin by asking why you initially became an activist? Your father was a fairly high ranking military officer as I recall. Do you see any connection here?

Karen Kubby: Well, it certainly set the stage for me being a peacenik but as much as I rebelled against the content of my father’s career, I always loved the process he used. Many of my methods are definitely my Dad’s. You can’t get any more of a bureaucratic framework that’s hard to change than the United States Army. My Dad was an officer but I always saw him trying to work within the system to change it. He tried to make things work better for the people in that system – dress codes, policies, benefits, all that stuff. And my Dad and I agree on a lot of stuff. He’s against the war in Iraq, thinks it is a terrible use of military power and there are lots of Pentagon people and military strategic planning folks who also disagree with the government’s current stance there.

Meg: So what do you consider to be your first endeavor into activism?

Karen: Well, my mother would say that it was in Girl Scouts at camp and I was always sort of hanging with the kids that no one else would hang with. I’m Jewish and daily mitzvahs – daily good deeds – are a very important piece of that cultural heritage. I think there are a lot of activists throughout history who share that faith and that implementation of faith. The Jewish heaven is on earth and so if you look around you and it’s not heavenly, you work to make it as heavenly as possible before your time’s up.

Meg: You are often described as a leader in the Progressive Community. How do you define the term “progressive”?

Karen: That’s like the biggest question because it’s a really simple answer – public policy and personal politics that speak to economic, political and social justice. That’s also very broad and you can define some really perverted things as economic justice so you have to pay close attention to the details. It really is public policy and personal politics that speak to these things but then we can argue like hell about what that means in any particular moment. That’s why it’s a simple answer but also huge.

Meg: You were an extremely popular city councilor despite being very open about your self-identification as a socialist. What do you attribute this to?

Karen: I think people supported me because they trusted my process. They trusted that even if they disagreed with my overall process, even if they disagreed with my core ideology and core values, they trusted that I did my homework. I was open to new information and would be willing to change my mind and explain it half-way articulately. They didn’t have to guess with me.

Meg: What was the most difficult part of being on the Iowa City City Council?

Karen: Just last week I was at the dog park coo-ing over a couple of cute dogs and a woman said, “Hey, didn’t you used to be on City Council?” I said, “Yes but that was seven years ago.” She said, “Oh we stopped watching after you left.” This was disappointing to me because I want people to be interested in larger issues beyond personalities. When I was on Council, a lot of people saw it as an ongoing soap opera - they wanted to see who was going to scream at me that week. There was a lot of disrespect there. An element of it was almost abusive, really, in that my colleagues could not handle me being a peer because of my age, my gender and my politics. It shouldn’t have been allowed to continue.

It gets old after awhile and it wears on you. As a survivor of domestic violence, I‘m very self aware of when I’m being abused and when certain lines are being crossed. I tried to handle it constructively. I would say “Well, Mr. So and So, that was really rude but I think your second point is very interesting and we should spend some time talking about that because it’s important.” I tried to be a role model of a different way to deal with conflict – how not to escalate but to de-escalate, move ahead and be productive.

Meg: How do you maintain your commitment to keep working to make your community and the world a better place? What in particular motivates you?

Karen: Anger. Anger and compassion along with a little bit of manic energy. There’s still a lot of injustice in the world – even in this community. It’s a beautiful and privileged community but there is still a lot of injustice. There’s just a lot of work to do. You do a little bit everyday and then you get somewhere. Anger and compassion are very easy partners. When you know that there are children going to bed hungry at night and you care about that, it makes you angry.

Meg: Karen, you are a self-identified feminist. These days I often hear younger women saying something akin to, “I’m not a feminist or anything but……” and then they say something which is essentially of a feminist nature. What do you attribute this to? Why has feminism gotten such a bad rap?

Karen: I think the term has become associated with man-hating and that has a negative connotation. I think some feminists are man-hating but most just dislike living in a system which benefits men the most. I know things are cyclical and I hope future generations become comfortable identifying with the term. I am a feminist. I think it’s an easy way to let people know you believe in gender equity which is scary to a lot of people. Well, tough.

Meg: Okay, let's switch gears here. Can you tell us about your artistic life? How you first became interested in pottery and beadwork.

Karen: My grandmother was a seamstress and did bead work. She did a lot of bead work on handbags, wedding dresses and cashmere sweaters with monograms so I was around it whenever I was around my grandmother. When I was a student here in town at Helen Lemme in the fifth grade, my art teacher, Sue McNeil, introduced me to clay. Ever since then I’ve been doing clay. I like to throw on the wheel. I let the clay speak to me – some days I’ll have a design in my head I want to paint on a bowl but I just can’t do it but I could throw plates all day. I just honor that process.

Meg: If we could put time on fast-forward, what are you up to twenty years from now?

Karen: I going to have gray braided into my hair. I’ll probably be wearing these same pants. I’ve had them for 25 years and they’ll probably be good for another 20 and they’ll be in fashion again. I’ll be gardening, I’ll be beading and potting and I’ll be walking my dog, or three of four of them. I’ll be an activist – maybe the issues will be different, I hope they’ll be different but they probably won’t. They will be economic justice issues and water. Water is next big issue. It’s the next oil. It already is but I don’t think people recognize it. It will be much more overt.”

Meg: Will you still be Iowa?

Karen: Probably. We have the richest soil on the earth, why would I ever leave?