Born for Advocacy
Karen Mackey’s parents were a powerful pair. Her mother was a leader in local civil rights issues. A white woman, she married a member of the Santee Sioux tribe who was also a civil rights activist.
They preached servant leadership to their daughter Karen, who remembers wanting to be involved in equality issues as early as age 15. She was also raised in a comfortable, middle-class neighborhood, a luxury not afforded to many minorities, she says.
“I was raised knowing I had many, many opportunities that most kids of color never had,” says Mackey, now 63. “I had to make the most of that, and it was a necessity to give back to the community.”
At the same time, Mackey was grappling with her own identity. She didn’t quite understand her feelings during her high school years, but one thing was certain: She didn’t want to deal with them. It was the early 1970s, and she was afraid of the consequences if she came out in mostly conservative Sioux City.
But during her first year at Morningside College in Sioux City, Mackey fell in love with a woman. When she was 19, she came out to her parents, who responded harshly. They cut off ties, and Mackey was forced to quit school.
Mackey and her parents rectified their relationship five years later, and by the time Mackey was 30, she wanted to finish her education. She graduated from Morningside in 1990 and earned a law degree from the University of Nebraska in 1994.
Her calling to advocacy led her to a four-year stint as a public defender in the Omaha Tribal Court, where she represented defendants and collaborated with social service agencies to ensure they received necessary assistance.
In 2004, Mackey started what she viewed as a dream job, becoming the executive director of the Sioux City Human Rights Commission, which investigates discrimination allegations in the city’s public services. Eight years later, Mackey co-founded the Siouxland Pride Alliance.
“Karen has a deep compassion for all vulnerable or marginalized people, from Native Americans to immigrants to African Americans to the LGBTQ population,” says Susan Leonard, who has worked with Mackey in several endeavors. “I have seen how she attends to young people who have been mistreated or abandoned by their families because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.”
Her community work today includes a variety of LGBTQ organizations and Sioux City nonprofit groups, including one-off acts of kindness, such as finding homes for local LGBTQ youths forced out of their homes. She’s also a mentor through her work as a judo instructor. Mackey is a sixth-degree black belt, an elite rank, particularly for women.
“Everything in my life prepared me for what I do now,” Mackey says. “Even bad experiences helped me relate to other people. I have empathy for what they are going through.”
Legacy of Service:
Works as executive director of the Sioux City Human Rights Commission.
Co-founder of the Siouxland Pride Alliance.
Chairs the board of the Iowa Commission on Native American Affairs and serves on the board of the Iowa Department of Human Rights.
Serves on the board of the Siouxland Human Investment Partnership
and the Disabilities Resource Center of Siouxland.