Tell us about your current job role and employer. What are you currently working on?
Ballot Initiative Strategy Center (BISC) is the only national progressive organization exclusively focused on ballot measures. We work across the country to create a coordinated strategy on ballot measures and pass policies that improve people’s lives. I provide strategic advice and guidance to national and in-state groups looking to deal with an issue on the ballot. I also oversee several programs areas including training campaign staff, our state legislative program focused on protecting the ballot measure process, and overseeing our annual national conference.
What key personal and/or career experiences led you to where you are today?
I’ve been lucky to have jobs that have challenged me and allowed me to constantly expand my skill set. I’d never even heard of a ballot measure until I started working at Planned Parenthood Action Fund in 2011. On my first day they told me I was going to Mississippi to fight a ballot measure – and I had no idea what they were talking about. But being open to learn and being trusted by my employer to succeed ended up sending me on an entirely new career path. It’s a theme that’s existed in every job I’ve had. Taking the chance, even though I wasn’t guaranteed 100% success and being trusted to do so. Whether that’s when I took over a specific training program for new college graduates at EMILY’s List, running the statewide operations for the DNC in Connecticut in 2010, or going to Kenya to teach youth there about organizing, I was trusted to lead.
What is the most challenging aspect of your job? How do you navigate that challenge?
We’re a small team but we accomplish a lot. I think it can be incredibly challenging to remember that my goal is to help people do great things, not to do it for them. I know a lot and have expertise but I’m not always the expert on that specific situation. I try to go into every situation confident but humble enough to really listen to what I’m being told. I can’t be helpful if I’m not really listening and people aren’t going to trust me if it’s clear I already have my own agenda.
What advice would you give to Wake Forest graduates about developing their personal life habits after college (finances, health, values, work/life balance)?
Your career and your life aren’t going to happen in a straight line. You might have a plan, but be flexible in following it. I’ve had a lot of varied job experiences but they all teach me something and help build skills that allow me to advance. Don’t get caught up on titles and really look at the work you’re being asked to do. Ask if it’s in line with your values and will it help you get where you’re going. Also, work is a part of your life but it shouldn’t be your life. Balance doesn’t mean all your commitments are perfectly spread out at all times, but make sure you’re making time for what you value.
We know that relationships are important for any kind of development. How do you build and maintain your network?
It’s a bit embarrassing but I actually schedule time to check-in with people. I create calendar reminders so I can send a quick email, make a quick phone call or whatever to make sure people know I still want to be in relationship with them. And I try to make sure that I’m not making an ask every-time I talk to people. Identifying our shared values means that I can not talk to someone for weeks or months and there can still be trust and respect when we reconnect. So whenever I’m traveling and talking to new people I try to make sure I’m actually listening to what they’re saying and identifying what we have in common. Then I follow-up.
Tell us about your mentoring relationships. What impact have these relationships had on your career and life?
I’ve been lucky to have mentors who have occasionally believed in me more than I believed in myself. When I went to Kenya for a consulting job, it wasn’t because I’d applied but because a mentor thought I’d be good at it and sent it my resume. She didn’t even tell me she’d submitted it until afterwards! Having people in my life who are supportive but also willing to ask me the hard questions (and sometimes push my boundaries) made me feel safe to take chances.
What advice would you give to current Wake Forest students and/or young alumni who are interested in working in your industry?
Just do it. It’s not always glamorous and can sometimes be hard to explain to people! But if you believe in what you’re trying to accomplish, go for it. Don’t get caught up on titles – in political work titles are free – and pay attention to what you actually get to do. Show up, do the work and you will advance. But also value yourself and your boundaries. Politics can be all consuming and knowing who you are is key to making it through.
What’s next for your career? What future goals or plans are you pursuing?
Ironically even as I’m filling this out I’m preparing to transition to a new role at a new organization. In May, I’ll be moving into more of the resource support side of political work. I’ll be really focused on how we can support grassroots groups to address the issues that directly impact them, with a special focus on traditionally under-represented groups. I spend a lot of time thinking about how we shift whose voices get the most attention in politics and working to support those directly impacted feels like a natural next step.
Story published in April 2019. For current updates about Kellie, visit her LinkedIn page.