Im ELLE.com ‘s monthly Office Hours series, we ask people in powerful positions to walk us through their first jobs, their worst jobs and everything in between. This month, we spoke with Laphonza Butler, who recently became the first woman of color to lead EMILY’s List, the powerful political action committee that works to elect pro-choice women. Butler is a longtime organizer who, at age 30, became local president of SEIU 2015, the largest home care workers union in the country and the largest union in California. She is also a political consultant and strategist who served as a senior advisor to Vice President Kamala Harris’ 2020 presidential campaign. Now she will lead EMILY’s roster at a particularly precarious time for Democrats, as abortion rights continue to be threatened across the country and a very important mid-term cycle looms. “I come to this with my eyes very clear on what is likely,” Butler told ELLE.com. In the organization‘s In 36 years of history, she is also the first mother to be president of EMILY’s List. “Just because something is difficult and you know it’s going to be difficult, that’s one more reason to lean on it and make a difference for the people whose lives are on the line.” Coming up, Butler explains how she approaches the 2022 election, the biggest career lesson she learned from Harris, and the worst advice she has ever received.
My first job
My first job was in sales and customer service at a company called Wireless One when I was in college in Mississippi. He was trying to bring cable and satellite television to the rural south. I was talking to people on the phone and learned that I can actually make an impact on how these conversations go just by intentionally thinking about the tone of my voice. I still think about that lesson a lot today.
My worst job
I worked with a company that helped retail stores maintain and track their inventory. Either very early in the morning before the stores opened, or overnight after the stores closed, a team of us would go to stores like Tuesday Morning and scan every button, every spool of thread, every needle. It was horrible.
The way my mom continues to inspire my career
She was always there. His sacrifice has always been very clear. Then, as I grew up in my professional spaces, I was able to look back on the work I was doing at SEIU and relate it to my mom’s jobs. I worked with [certified nursing assistants] in a retirement house. When I was in third grade, I remember my mom was a CNA who worked from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. I worked at SEIU as a national leader for the recruitment campaign for our security guards. I remember my mom telling me she was an untrained security guard carrying a gun on some of New Orleans’ most dangerous projects. There were parallels in my career and what I knew my mother went through as a worker herself. I always felt that the work I did was an opportunity for me to continue my mother’s journey and improve these jobs for the children of these workers. We weren’t the family that talked about elections or politics at the dinner table, but we were the family who spoke about what it means to be of service to others. What are we doing to help someone? That way, I always think my mom’s influence carries me and propels me forward. What am I doing here on EMILY’s List serving others?
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How I approached this role before a difficult mid-cycle
History tells us that when a particular party is in power in the White House, mid-terms are going to be tough. Also, listen, I’ve only been a black woman for 42 years of my life, so I know the expectations that come with it, especially in leadership roles. I understand the headwinds Democrats are going to face from a political standpoint, and I understand the challenges, especially for a black woman, working for what is known in labor movements as a very white male space. I come to this with my eyes very clear on what is likely. But I’ve worked with women in SEIU and other campaigns who choose to do the impossible every day. The home helpers I worked for earned between $ 8 and $ 15 an hour. Living in California on either salary is incredibly difficult, as is seeing your community crumbling around you, whether from toxic battery acid in the groundwater or from smog. creating chronic asthma in your child. They are women who have faced difficult situations on a daily basis, but who have found power by working together. They fought to create something different. Just because something is difficult and you know it is going to be difficult, that is all the more reason to lean on it and make a difference for the people whose lives are at stake. This is a very difficult electoral time. . It is also a very difficult time for our democracy. I could choose to sit on the sidelines and be comfortable, or I could choose to take the lead of these women and be brave. I will choose courage every time.
The biggest career lesson I learned working with Kamala Harris
Rely on your ambition. I think the VP received a lot of criticism for her ambition, but thank goodness she was. It was her ambition to serve that prepared her to be the first black woman and vice president in our country to break through that glass ceiling. I have also seen the proliferation and toxicity of misinformation and misinformation that targets women, especially women of color. I think this will be one of the 21st century obstacles to women’s success. It’s an incredibly important lesson to learn from my work at EMILY’s List — to have a role in how we fight this, not just for our VP, but for women running across the country.
What I would change in the workplace for parents
I had very different roles on [my daughter] Nylah’s seven years, whether it’s being president of California’s largest union or part of a presidential campaign or working in the private sector to now be on EMILY’s list. What I have come to know and appreciate is that we don’t get this time back. What I think is really important is the flexibility to be both a high quality present parent and to offer the best of yourself at work. There is time flexibility that is required there. There is a flexibility of location that is required there. It’s important to have a corporate culture that encourages parents to be both things going forward.
How I feel as the first black woman to hold this position
It’s a good dose of pride and a big dose of responsibility. Thanks for the board of directors of EMILY’s List who made the choice to hire their first. Pride in being able to serve, for example, all political agents and young black women who want to make a difference in their communities. The responsibility to be that example that makes the difference. Being the first black woman to lead the organization is really helping to facilitate the voice of black women, who have always been the backbone of the Democratic Party, and help them know they belong to the list. EMILY. I want to do it not only for black women, but for brunette women, for native women, for white women. I think it’s the best job I can do to be really focused on creating this political home.
This interview has been slightly edited and condensed for clarity.
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