Martin Luther King “Day On” – 2019

Written by Brad Karger

Coretta Scott King shakes hands with New York City Mayor Robert Wagner as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., stands between them at City Hall.

“People fail to get along because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don’t know each other; they don’t know each other because they have not communicated with each other”

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

On January 21, 2019, Marathon County Government employees came together during the 2nd annual MLK “Day On” at the University of Wisconsin (UW) Stevens Point at Wausau campus to celebrate the 90th birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and to learn how to serve the residents of Marathon County better.

sharyn_heili“It was a wonderful event with excellent presenters. I am so happy that the County is celebrating Martin Luther King’s legacy in such an important, thought-provoking, and meaningful way and helping us make a difference in our communities.”

Sharyn Heili, Marathon County Public Library librarian
(Retired in January yet attended the MLK “Day On.”)


State Government, the Post Office, and banks in Marathon County offered their employees a paid holiday and the day off on MLK Day. Milwaukee, Dane, and La Crosse Counties gave their employees a paid holiday on MLK Day. But up until recently, none of the local governments in Central Wisconsin did much of anything in observance of the MLK holiday, even though it is both a State and a Federal holiday.

Before 2018, our County employees came to work on MLK Day at their regular time, did their regular work, and went home at their regular time. Just another day at the office — except most courts were closed because the judges are State employees.

Starting in 2018, however, Marathon County Government took a new approach to MLK Day, closed all non-emergency offices, and turned the January holiday into an in-service day with a focus on promoting a greater understanding of the County’s core value of diversity.

The idea was initially met with skepticism . . .

Some policy makers were concerned about members of the public who might be upset by the inconvenience of not being able to conduct County-related business. Or that there might be perceived unfairness as some County-level employees who perform emergency services would still be required to perform their regular work. These are all legitimate concerns, and as much as we could, we put plans together to address these concerns.

In the end, the County Board saw potential value in the in-service day idea and decided to give the “Day On” a try. It was requested that an evaluation be conducted, compiled, and presented to the County Board so that an informed decision could be made on whether the trial in-service day would become a regular part of the County calendar.

When the results were compiled, it became clear that the 1st annual MLK “Day On” was a HUGE SUCCESS! In fact, 97% of responding participants indicated that the MLK “Day On” event was of value to them professionally.

The results of the 2019 participant evaluations are not in yet, but I’ve talked with enough employees, during and after the event, to have a pretty good sense that the program was even better in 2019 than it was during the inaugural event!

At times, we had 5 venues running simultaneously this year. I obviously couldn’t attend every session personally, but based on what I saw and what was reported to me, some of the highlights and favorites are as follows:

Steve Bench

Steve Bench

Our opening speaker, Steve Bench of Generational Consulting, gave a presentation about a multi-generational workforce that delivered on content, humor, and energy in a way that I’ve never seen before! More than I care to admit, I had thought of millennials as the self-obsessed “Me, Me, Me Generation.” {Ouch!}

But after Steve’s presentation, I came to respect millennials’ demand for work–life balance and their push for career advancement. Actually, as I reflect on what I learned, I’m not that different than the millennials. {Wow, I came a long way in a short time!}

Andrea Huggenvik

Andrea Huggenvik

Our keynote speaker, Andrea Huggenvik, Executive Director of the YWCA-Wausau, taught us how to be more aware of our implicit biases and how we can create life experiences for ourselves that can help us challenge these unconscious biases.

What I liked best about Andrea’s approach to the topic was that it was non-judgmental. She offered practical suggestions to help participants avoid letting their biases guide their public service.

Yengyee Lor

Yengyee Lor

Yengyee Lor, founder of Faithful Consulting, led back-to-back sessions on “The Raw Truth of Association by Color” and “Hmong Women’s Leadership.” As I watched Yengyee speaking to an audience of 200+ in the theater, it made me reflect on how far Hmong people have come in our community and the rise of the young Hmong professionals in Marathon County. Yengyee grew up here, went to high school at Wausau West, and received her bachelor’s degree from UW-Eau Claire and her master’s degree from Lakeland College.

Yengyee addressed the audience with confidence and grace, and she relayed a powerful message. I was proud of her, and I was proud to be part of a community that helped make her success possible.

Vicki Resech & May yer Thao

Vicki Resech of MCDEVCO and May yer Thao of the Hmong Chamber of Commerce helped participants understand that the development of minority- and women-owned businesses will be a big part of our collective success in Marathon County and that forming partnerships aimed at achieving shared goals is the way our County will prosper.

May yer Thao and Brad Karger

“Thank you for the intentionality of the workshop topics and the intentionality of collaborations between organizations.

Key message in our presentation:

It’s a privilege to be in the roles we are in — It’s our responsibility to bring back resources and knowledge to serve all communities the best we can. What are we waiting for?”

May yer Thao

There are too many highlights for me to cover them all, but I do have to mention just two more . . .

Brett Barker

Brett Barker

UW-Stevens Point at Wausau History Professor Brett Barker, who spoke on the Civil Rights Movement in Wisconsin, was excellent when he was reviewing his planned presentation, but I have to say that when he got off script, he was even better! His insights on such topics as the Abolitionist Movement, the Fugitive Slave Act of Wisconsin, and how fear of Prohibition impacted the vote on Women’s Suffrage in Wisconsin were truly fascinating.

As rich as his presentation was in content, all I could think of while he was speaking was that Brett is the person I would most like to have teaching my children: kind, smart, funny, and humble all rolled into one package. He’s everything you could ask for from a college professor — and more!

Enos Martin

Mennonite Bishop Enos Martin bravely shared — with a capacity audience — his personal life story, introduced us to his family, and discussed the role of the church in his life and in the life of the Mennonite Community in western Marathon County. His presentation was so good and so many people were interested in what he had to say that we plan to bring him back this winter for a “lunch and learn” so that more people get the opportunity to interact with him and better understand our plain-clothes neighbors.

NOTE: We didn’t take a picture of the Bishop and his family because we came to learn that Mennonites believe that photos conflict with the Biblical prohibition against the making of “graven images.”

Maybe the most important part of the day came at the very end, when Professors Eric Giordano and April Bleske-Rechek reported their findings and recommendations of the Inclusivity Audit they conducted with the Marathon County workforce.

That audit included a survey of employees and a small number of focus groups involving young professionals, minority-group employees, and women in law enforcement. I was very pleased to hear that overall things have gotten progressively better at Marathon County. There is  room for improvement, but there is still a lot of positivity at Marathon County!

The audit pointed out that we need to:

  • Develop safe venues to talk about race and other differences — Right now, some people are censoring what they say because they fear offending someone. That’s not all bad, but we can help people develop the skills so they can say what is on their mind without fear.
  • Focus more energy on professional development for all people, but particularly those who are interested and those who are part of a minority group.
  • Talk about race and other differences all year round, not just on MLK Day — There is too much to learn to fit it all in one annual event. And certainly, the more we practice, the better we will get at it.

As I reflected on the 2nd annual MLK “Day On,” I was reminded that Marathon County contains:

  • People who are differently abled (some physically, some mentally)
  • Women and minority business owners
  • Mennonites
  • Veterans
  • Hispanic Americans, Hmong Americans, African Americans, Native Americans
  • . . . and many more.

In order to serve all of our residents well, Marathon County Government leaders and staff need to take the advice of Dr. King and invest the time to get to know one another by communicating.

On our MLK “Day On”:

We gathered as County employees.
We learned and communicated together in a safe environment.
We challenged our thinking.

And we took a BIG STEP FORWARD toward realizing the dream of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. — a dream rooted in The American Dream, that one day Marathon County will live up to the creed of the founders of our nation:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal” and that service to others (in our case public service) is one of the highest callings a man or a woman can have.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., addresses a crowd from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, where he delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech during the August 28, 1963, march on Washington, DC.

Our MLK in-service “Day On” with nearly 400 participants was a big investment of time and resources. On behalf of myself and the workforce I lead, I want to thank the Marathon County Board for making this event possible. As the term investment implies, there will be a return:

The residents of Marathon County will be better served because of the things we learned. I promise.

Brad Karger - Marathon County AdministratorBrad Karger

Marathon County Administrator

In his Administrator role, Brad Karger leads an organization with 700+ employees and an annual budget of more than $162 million. Brad has been in leadership positions with Marathon County for the past 30 years. He is known statewide for generating innovative ideas and solutions to problems, openness and transparency, and a commitment to community service that extends well beyond the normal workday.  Email Brad Karger.

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Image credits:

Dr. & Mrs. King photo by Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection (Sun staff photographer: Phil Stanziola).

MK image waving: See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.