In ELLE.com’s monthly series Office Hours, we ask people in powerful positions to take us through their first jobs, 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 into office. Butler is a longtime organizer who, at 30 years old, became the president of SEIU Local 2015, the country’s largest home care workers union and California’s biggest union. She’s also a political consultant and strategist who served as a senior advisor to Vice President Kamala Harris’s 2020 presidential campaign. Now she’ll be helming EMILY’s List at a particularly precarious time for Democrats, as abortion rights continue to be threatened across the country and an all-important midterm cycle looms near. “I come to this very clear-eyed about what is probable,” Butler tells ELLE.com. In the organization’s 36-year history, she is also the first mother to be president of EMILY’s List. “Just because something is hard and you know that it’s going to be hard, that is all the more reason to lean into it and make a difference for the people whose lives are on the line.” Ahead, Butler shares more about how she’s approaching the 2022 elections, the biggest career lesson she learned from Harris, and the worst advice she’s ever received.
My first job
My first job ever was in sales and customer service at a company called Wireless One when I was in college in Mississippi. It was trying to bring cable and satellite television to places in the rural south. I was talking to people over the phone, and I learned I could actually have an impact on how those conversations played out just by thinking intentionally about the tone of my voice. I still think about that lesson very much today.
My worst job
I worked with a company that helped retail stores maintain and track their inventory. Either really early in the morning before the stores opened or overnight after the stores closed, a team of us would go into stores like Tuesday Morning and scan every button, every spool of thread, every needle. It was horrible.
The way my mother continues to inspire my career
She was always present. Her sacrifice was always very clear. Then, as I grew in my professional spaces, I was able to look back on the work I was doing at SEIU and connect it with the jobs my mom had. I worked with [certified nursing assistants] in a nursing home. When I was in the third grade, I remember my mom was a CNA who worked the 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. shift. I worked at SEIU as a national leader for our security officers’s organizing campaign. I remember my mom telling me that she was an untrained security officer carrying a weapon in some of the most dangerous projects in New Orleans. There have been parallels in my career and what I knew my mom experienced as a worker herself. I always felt like the work I’ve done has been my opportunity to continue my mom’s journey and to make those jobs better for the children of those workers. We weren’t the family that talked about elections or politics at the dinner table, but we were the family that talked about what it meant to be in service to others. What do we do to help somebody? In that way, I still think my mother’s influence carries me and propels me forward. What am I doing here at EMILY’s List in service of others?
How I approached taking on this role ahead of a challenging midterm cycle
History tells us that when a particular party is in office in the White House, the midterms are going to be tough. Also, look, I’ve only been a Black woman for 42 years of my life, so I know the expectation that comes associated with that, particularly in leadership roles. I understand the headwinds that Democrats are going to be facing from a political point of view, and I understand the challenges, particularly for a Black woman, working for what is known in labor movements as a very white, male space. I come to this very clear-eyed about what is probable. But I have worked with women in SEIU and in other campaigns who choose every day to do the impossible. The home care workers I worked for earned $8 an hour to $15 an hour. Living in California on either wage is incredibly tough, as is seeing your community crumble around you, whether it’s from toxic battery acid in the groundwater or smog creating chronic asthma in your child. These are women who faced tough situations every day, but who found power in working together. They fought to create something different. Just because something is hard and you know that it’s going to be hard, that is all the more reason to lean into it and make a difference for the people whose lives are on the line. This is a very challenging electoral moment. This is also a very challenging moment for our democracy. I could choose to sit on the sidelines and be comfortable, or I could choose to take the example of those women and be courageous. I’m going to choose courage every single time.
The biggest career lesson I learned working with Kamala Harris
Lean into your ambition. I think the vice president got a lot of criticism for being ambitious, but thank god she was. It was her ambition to serve that prepared her to be our country’s first woman and Black woman vice president, to pierce that glass ceiling. I also saw the proliferation and toxicity of misinformation and disinformation that’s targeted at women, particularly women of color. I think that is going to be one of those 21st century barriers to women being successful. That is an incredibly important lesson to be able to carry into my work at EMILY’s List—having a role to play in how we combat that, not just for our vice president, but for the women running all over the country.
What I would change about the workplace for parents
I’ve had very different roles over [my daughter] Nylah’s seven years, whether it was being president of the largest union in California or being part of a presidential campaign or working in the private sector to now being at EMILY’s List. What I have come to know and appreciate is we don’t get that time back. What I think is really important is the flexibility to be both a high-quality, present parent and offer the best of yourself in work. There’s time flexibility that is required there. There’s place flexibility that is required there. Having a workplace culture that supports parents being both things is important to move forward.
How I’m feeling as the first Black woman to hold this job
It is a good amount of pride and a great amount of responsibility. Gratitude for the board of EMILY’s List who made the choice to hire their first. Pride to be able to serve, by way of example, all the political operatives and young Black women who want to make a difference in their communities. Responsibility to be that example that is making a difference. Being the first Black woman to lead the organization is really about helping to facilitate the voice of Black women, who have always been the backbone of the Democratic Party, and help them know that they belong at EMILY’s List. I want to do that not just for Black women, but for brown women, for Native women, for white women. I think it is the best bit of work that I can do to be really focused on creating that political home.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.