Career Profile: Prentice Butler, AB'02
South Shore native, University of Chicago alumnus, and Alumni Association volunteer stewards meaningful change in Chicago’s 4th Ward
An alumnus of the University of Chicago with a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science, Prentice Butler now serves as the Director of Constituent Services for the office of Alderman William D. Burns, who represents Chicago’s 4th Ward. As Director of Constituent Services, Butler is the public face for the Alderman’s office, linking constituents with resources that help solve problems and build community. As Butler put it, the local alderman’s office is the “first resource” for citizens looking to make change in their community, and the culture of Chicago is such that aldermen tend to be very responsive to the needs of their constituents.
For his part in this process, Butler spends time at community meetings three to five nights a week in the neighborhoods that comprise the 4th Ward: Bronzeville, Hyde Park, and Woodlawn. In addition to these community action meetings, Butler participates in Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy meetings, where citizens have an opportunity to speak directly to the Chicago Police officers that serve their neighborhood regarding issues they have observed. Butler pointed out that, often, citizens do not realize that resources such as the community action councils and Chicago Alternative Policing meetings are available to them until they are in a situation in which they need help, and thus one unique aspect of Butler’s job is that he is often working with people in difficult situations looking to find a solution.
While an undergraduate student at the University of Chicago in the late 1990s, Butler worked for the University Community Service Center (UCSC), then under the direction of First Lady Michelle Obama when she was the Director of the UCSC and Associate Dean of Student Services. Butler explained that the goal of this department was to ensure that public service was an integral and meaningful part of the College experience. During his time with the UCSC, Butler worked closely with Pam Bozeman-Evans, who went on to assume the position of UCSC Director and Associate Dean of Students in 1999. Butler pointed out that both women “were very much advocates for public service and making sure that it was established in the University community[...] people tend to go to school one place and do not engage the community in a meaningful fashion. Michelle and Pam made sure that the engagement through the UCSC was meaningful and honest.” Among the initiatives driven by the UCSC were service projects coordinated in conjunction with other nonprofit agencies from across the city, as well as Friday workshops during which UCSC students and leadership discussed substantive issues in the community such as a reproductive rights, education, and healthcare.
Now a community leader in the very same neighborhood in which he got his start in public service through the UCSC, Butler said that he is working to use the same skill sets from UCSC as he works to connect people with resources. Some of the issues that are of importance to residents of the 4th Ward today are education, access to jobs, and affordable housing. “Hyde Park is unique in that it has a diverse population of citizens that are concerned about fairness and equity,” Butler noted.
Prior to his career in community service, Butler considered pursuing a Law degree, and held a position at a bankruptcy law firm for several years as means to further explore this interest. There, Butler interacted with Southside families that were being impacted by the 2008 economic collapse, and experiencing job loss and home foreclosure. Butler said that this position served as a “wake up call” for him in terms of the effects of law and policy on everyday citizens, particularly as he saw the “evisceration of an entire generation of wealth” during the late 2000s. Being confronted with these issues as part of his full-time job reignited Butler’s interest in making and perpetuating positive change in the Southside community.
Butler’s greatest challenge since joining the Alderman’s office has been remaining nimble, adaptable, and empathetic. “When working with the public, often times people come to you with a lot of anger and pain because of issues they are facing. Because of this, it is important that I shift my focus away from my personal reaction [to the situation] in order to get to the heart of their struggles and how the Alderman’s office can help,” Butler said. As for his achievements during his time with Alderman, Butler cites his impact in the general improvement of the 4th Ward community. “There is always room for improvement in any neighborhood,” Butler said, “but the Alderman’s office has done a great job juggling the needs of community members and stakeholders.”
In addition to his full-time position under Alderman Burns, Butler also volunteers his time back to the University as the President of the University of Chicago Association of Black Alumni (UCABA). Butler was drawn to this group through his connection to Kwabena Holder, a friend from his college days and founder of the group. UCABA was established in 2006 as a means to build and sustain a network for black alumni of the University of Chicago. Butler noted that black alumni do not always feel a strong connection to the University, and thus the goal of UCABA is to address the concerns of this segment of the alumni population and to encourage black alumni to give back to the University through volunteerism or other engagement. “Some people think that if their needs are not being addressed by their alma mater, then they should cease to be involved, but if you want to see change happen, you cannot push away. You have to take a seat at the table,” said Butler. It is with this philosophy that Butler and other leaders of UCABA try to remedy the issue of re-engaging black alumni who do not feel that their needs and concerns as alumni are being adequately addressed by the University.
Reflecting back on his time in the College, Butler highlighted Allen Sanderson’s Economics 198 and 199 courses as two that every student studying Political Science should take, as they opened him up to how the United States economy works more deeply than he had been aware of prior to taking these courses. Additionally, Butler remembered John Mearsheimer’s course on War and the Nation State as “simply great.” He highlighted this course as one of the best political science classes that he took at the University due to the depth and breadth of material covered.