Why We Must See Ourselves at the Table (and How to Get There)

I suspected that becoming an EP Fellow would be critical for my career, but I didn’t expect to be in a meeting alongside my personal heroes just a few weeks in.

So how did I wind up in the same small room in the White House as Marian Wright Edelman (founder of the Children's Defense Fund), Education Secretary Arne Duncan, John King (Secretary Duncan’s deputy, a former commissioner of education for the State of New York, and current Acting Secretary), Stacey Stewart (President/CEO of United Way-Americas), Michael Smith (head of the President's My Brother's Keeper Initiative), and Roberto Rodriguez (President Obama’s deputy assistant on the Domestic Policy Council)?

A bit of background: while I’m currently working with the Office of Innovation and Improvement at the U.S. Department of Education (ED), I had the opportunity to lend my expertise on another project.

The ED Office of the Secretary and the Office of Strategic Partnerships was launching a national cross-sector initiative to address chronic absenteeism and disconnected youth. As things happened, someone had heard about my experience in place-based philanthropy and asked if I could help bring funders to the table for a special White House convening.

I’m a strong believer in a “place-based” approach to community revitalization. It’s an approach that recognizes what communities have long known: challenges of underperforming schools, rundown housing, neighborhood violence, and poor health are interconnected and require comprehensive solutions.

Because of my professional experience in managing three national funder networks and supporting over 500 philanthropists, I was able to bring 15 new funders to the table for that meeting—and was invited to attend as a thank you for my contribution.

I’ll be honest, it was a bit of an out-of-body experience for me, to meet Mrs. Edelman, Mrs. Stewart, Mr. Smith, Mr. Rodriguez and other important leaders. For years, I’ve prayed about meeting Mrs. Edelman, and that day, my prayers were answered.

In fact, I was so thrilled with the experience that I posted about meeting my “sheroes” and heroes on Facebook. I’ll never forget one of the comments from a friend: “It’s interesting that you look up to these people, but we see you as one of them. One day a young person will be excited to sit at the same table as you. Enjoy the journey.”

That took me aback.

I’ve tried to stay humble and didn’t always think of myself like that, but I realized in reading that friend’s words that another young girl may look up to me like I look up to Mrs. Edelman. Most importantly, I deserve that right. For all of the emerging education professionals, system-level leaders, and change agents out there like me, be confident in knowing that we’re the new generation of thought leaders and problem solvers. We have to see ourselves in the room.

Each of us has an important role to play in making changes in communities nationwide and ensuring vulnerable children succeed, but we have to be here for the kids, not just for advancing our careers.

I grew up in a single parent home, and there was power in my personal experience and growing up seeing friends have very different life outcomes because of the educational opportunities (not) afforded to them. Now, I want to work on behalf of vulnerable children everywhere because I know the difference that education makes—and that I can be an advocate for change.

While there’s still a growth plan for my career and fulfilling my destiny, I wanted to share some wisdom that helped me along the way in hope that it will also empower you:

  • Use your experience. Technically, the “side project” I took on to bring funders to the table for a White House convening wasn’t part of my job description. But because someone knew I had the experience, I got an incredible opportunity to showcase my passion for philanthropic alignment, external affairs, and partnership-building.

Know and use your own experience. Keep your ears perked for projects and work that you can plug into—especially if it’s not part of your job description—and volunteer to do the work.

  • “Bloom where you’re planted.” My mother engrained that advice in me, and it made an indelible mark. She worked hard to find and send me to Baton Rouge Magnet High School —one of the best free, high-performing public schools in Louisiana—that changed my education trajectory. We may not have had a lot of options, but she found a way to help me bloom exactly where we were.

I remind myself of her advice almost daily. No matter the job I have or city in which I live, I seek to make the most impact where I can. Yes, I look ahead to work I want to do, and impact I haven’t yet made (futuristic is my top strength in StrengthsFinder), but I remind myself to stay right where I am and make a difference there.

  • Find people who will support your growth and advancement. I’ve been blessed to have some incredible mentors and sponsors, and I can tell you from personal experience that you can end up with a mentor from the most unlikely places.

To find and meet people who can help you, go to conferences, serve on boards, and volunteer in the area(s) of your passion. Engage in conversations. Join professional and social organizations to broaden your networks. Reach out to people you admire and cultivate deep authentic connections with them based on mutual value and support.

Often, we focus on building a broad network (knowing the most people) when we should focus on cultivating deeper, authentic relationships with the people we need to know. I want people to actually know who I am and the value I can add for them, just as much as I'm asking them to invest time in me. I attribute much of my success to doing just that.

Be prepared, however, for some people not being interested in helping or supporting you. That’s okay; keep looking until you find a handful of people who are truly invested in your success.

One of my favorite quotes (by Henry Thoreau) encourages us to “Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you’ve imagined.” In my career, I’ve been a teacher, an advisor to public leaders, a public engager, and manager of philanthropic networks. In everything that I’ve done, I’ve seen how much partnerships matter and getting the right people in the room to do something extraordinary. Make sure you’re in the room, too.

We have a lot more power than we think. Let’s use it.


Kimberlin Butler

Kimberlin Butler is a 2015 Education Pioneers Fellow, and working with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Innovation and Improvement to catalyze change for students. In her role, she leads strategy, operations, and communications as part of the newly launched Place-Based Initiatives Pilot Team and plays an integral role in driving collective impact strategies with education at the core for the Obama Administration. 


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