City Visionary: Bernice Butler

Memphis is a place full of seemingly tireless people creatively working to push the city forward—grit and grind doesn't just characterize our basketball. In this series, we introduce you to some of the city's visionary leaders who are facing challenges and innovating for solutions.

Bernice Butler came to Memphis by way of rural Georgia. She earned a bachelor’s degree at Georgia State University, then received her master’s degree in Public Administration from the University of Georgia. After completing her coursework, she set her sights on working in Washington D.C. where she intended to get a first-hand look at government in a fast-paced environment.

Now at Leadership Memphis, Butler is in charge of two programs as Director of Graduate Memphis and the Memphis Talent Dividend. The Graduate Memphis program is focused on working with adults in the Memphis/Shelby County area to get them re-enrolled in college or post-secondary education. The Talent Dividend program focuses on post-secondary access, advocacy and attainment for three groups: traditional high school students, 11th grade African American males in the eight Success High Schools in partnership with Leadership Memphis, and with adults for post-secondary education.

What did you learn from your experience in Washington? In Washington, I found the unique opportunity to learn about all four levels of government: city, county, state and federal. Through my Capital City fellowship I spent two years rotating through four different departments (Dept. of Youth Rehabilitation, Housing and Community Development, the local office of Homeland Security, and the Office of the State Superintendent of Education). Embedded in each office was an underlying system of performance management and accountability built on the precept of continual improvement. Through this experience I found my passion — a love of data and data analysis for performance management.

What brought you to Memphis? In Washington I worked in an appointed position. When the mayor was not re-elected, I went to work for the president of ICMA (International City County Management Association), in Saginaw, Mich. While working in Michigan, my mentor pointed me in the direction of the White House's Strong Cities, Strong Communities Fellowship, and that opportunity brought me to Memphis in August 2012 to work with Mayor A C Wharton’s office. I chose to move to Memphis because it was a place that I viewed as having a lot of potential. I was looking for a place where I could invest some sweat equity and see the city improve.

What is your belief about leadership? A city is only as good as its leaders and their visionary abilities.

What do you think is the biggest horizon for Memphis in the next five years? Creating a more densely packed downtown to attract the talent of 25 to 40 year olds is our next hurdle towards greatness. It is going that direction. There’s a lot of housing construction going on, condos and hotels. But we also need to develop the support services, like grocery stores. Memphis can gain world-class conferences and retreats so that people will want to invest global dollars here. And, if that happens, there will be a trickle down effect that will benefit other parts of our city.

What excites you about Memphis? Everything! I love its small town/big city mentality. You have Off-Broadway shows and so many cultural offerings found in larger cities, yet people know my name when I walk into a local coffee shop.

What change would you most like to see? I’d like to see younger people taking an active role in government. Memphis is a great place for entrepreneurs. It is a city that breeds and supports that type of spirit. We just need to see it cross-over into the public sector.

What excites you about your work? I never thought I’d end up in education, but in my job, it is really about giving people the foundation that they need in order for them to play a larger role. That’s what we are doing at Leadership Memphis. I feel like I’m a part of an organization that is helping people achieve their dreams.

What’s in store for the next chapter at Leadership Memphis? Leadership Memphis recently acquired Volunteer Mid-South. I believe that leaders should incorporate an element of [community] service to what they bring to the table. I’m excited to see how we leverage that aspect to help build greater community leadership.

Who do you admire doing work in the city? I admire Ruby Bright at the Women’s Foundation [of Greater Memphis]. I have served as a volunteer for the Women’s Foundation and have seen the way she leads the organization. I love the way the organization is structured. Senior business women and philanthropic leaders help develop the younger professional talent. The organization is very mission focused, which I think is vital to their success. They have a clear vision and have remained focused, which has really brought attention to women’s issues in Memphis.

What is one thing most people don't know about you? I can tap dance and still own a pair of tap shoes.

Read more articles by Emily Adams Keplinger.

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