Longtime MAPE Leader Ken Rodgers retires from MnDOT
Educational opportunities may have brought him to Minnesota but meaningful work and making a difference in members’ lives helped keep Region 8 Director Ken Rodgers here.
Rodgers retired from the Department of Transportation (MnDOT) last week after nearly 15 years working for the State of Minnesota. When he first began working on disability issues at MnDOT his boss introduced him to his new colleagues by saying, “I first met Ken 10 years ago when he was suing the Department of Transportation for not having an ADA Transition Plan.”
Rodgers had simply been asking MnDOT to do a transition plan as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) required.
At MnDOT, Rodgers worked on accommodation issues for employees, 5,000 across the state. “My experience being a blind individual, usually the first reaction people have is caution. ‘How can you possibly do this work, you’re a blind guy.’ No one said it but I could feel it. This invisible shield goes up,” Rodgers said.
“I started doing my job and eventually won people over. I really believe in collaboration and negotiation. There’s nothing two people can’t solve if you want to solve a problem; especially if you’re told no and I believe yes. There’s always a way forward,” he added.
Rodgers said this has always been how he operates but admitted these skills were enhanced when he took a negotiations course as a graduate student at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota. His class instructor was Margaret Anderson Kelliher, who later became Commissioner of the Department of Transportation.
Rodgers wound up excelling at what he did. MnDOT was doing hundreds of accommodations every year while most agencies were doing fewer than 100. “Some agencies didn’t have a full-time person like me. I was doing this all day long, it became well-known to ‘Call Ken at MnDOT’ if you had an accommodation question,” Rodgers said.
Rodgers had a successful teaching career in California before changing careers to nursing. He was accepted at the College of St. Catherine’s in St. Paul, MN, “which has one of the country’s best nursing programs,” Rodgers added.
He later joined the cardiac unit nursing staff at Abbott Northwestern. Rodgers said he enjoyed being a nurse but developed eye issues and while doctors could repair the retinal detachment, he also had a rare retinal eye disease and became blind within the year.
He said he sat at home depressed for a year before “getting the nerve to call rehab services for the blind” and attending what he called “blind school,” where he learned to cook, use a computer differently, read Braille and navigate transportation systems.
“Problem solving is one of my super powers. I’m constantly exercising that problem solving ability. I’m not smarter than a anyone else, I just have to problem solve more than anyone else just to keep me safe in my environment,” Rodgers said.
Rodgers has supported unions since he was a child. “My first job in California was at Disneyland and I was a ride operator for the Jungle Cruise and Pirates of the Caribbean, and a union member. My dad was a union person back in the old days when you’d go to the union hall and get a union job. When he had a job, I considered us wealthy. When he was between jobs, we lived a really meager existence. In my mind, unions were good because they provided for my dad to bring home enough money so we would be comfortable.
“As a Teamster, I knew the union was responsible for the safety breaks I got working the ride. As a teacher, I was in a union. Being part of the union made it feel bigger for me because I was with many more teachers. The same with the nurses’ union and with MAPE,” Rodgers said.
Rodgers first learned about MAPE when he was an intern at the Department of Employment and Economic Development and got involved with some planning within the local. When he transferred to MnDOT, he made an appointment with the union representative and was told the local was “dying” because no one was willing to step up and lead. He convinced her to have one more meeting to announce she wasn’t going to continue her union work. “At that meeting, someone at my table said they’d be president, another said they’d be treasurer and so forth. I asked if I could be parliamentarian. The local didn’t end — it just grew from there,” Rodgers said.
Since the COVID-19 breakout and the shift from in-person to remote work, Rodgers said there has been “a much greater emphasis on intentional reaching out to members “We were one of the first locals to create a floor captain system. MnDOT has eight floors plus basement, so we identified people on each floor and assigned them to reach out to new employees. That became our membership engagement committee.”
Rodgers said the individual relationships he has developed over the years will be what he misses most after retiring. “The majority of employees who deal with medical conditions or disabilities are coming from a place of fear. They’re afraid they’re going to lose their jobs. People don’t always want to say they need an accommodation — part of it is shame and embarrassment. I help them understand they’re not asking for a handout — they’re asking the agency to meet their legal obligation to provide you with support. It’s unfortunate the law says, ‘If you have a disability, we’re required to support you’ — we should be helping all employees do their jobs better,” Rodgers added.
Rodgers says he has witnessed extreme change over the years at MAPE and as a member of the Board of Directors. “The leadership we have now believes in our strategic goals. The power of MAPE is its people. To maintain this, we have to be transparent and open. Our organization belongs to our members, and they have to know what’s going on. The decision-making can be pretty intense sometimes with 21 people with their own opinions, but we’ve come to learn how to land on agreement over the years. Learning how to respect each others’ opinions was a trait we had to learn. I think we are in the right place at the right time. While there have been many organizational improvements over the years there is still work to be done. We have to keep on keeping on.”
Rodgers said he has several plans for retirement: traveling with his husband and guide dog Yuri on a leisurely Amtrak trip on the Empire Builder across the northern route of the country, becoming fluent in speaking Spanish and learning to play the piano.