S. Kent Butler says he’s an elephant in a world built for giraffes. And he is here to shake things up.
This metaphor comes from R. Roosevelt Thomas Jr. and Marjorie L. Woodruff’s book Building a House for Diversity: How a Fable About a Giraffe & an Elephant Offers New Strategies for Today’s Workforce, explains Butler, who became the American Counseling Association’s 70th president on July 1. The elephant and giraffe are friends, but their relationship falters when the giraffe invites the elephant home. The house is not designed for the elephant. It’s tall and narrow, so the elephant has trouble navigating this space and often smashes into doorways and walls. Rather than accommodating his friend, the giraffe suggests the elephant change itself to fit in the giraffe’s environment by taking up aerobics or ballet.
Like the giraffe, the counseling profession hasn’t always created space for individuals in marginalized communities to hold leadership positions, Butler points out. In the past 70 years, ACA’s leadership has primarily been white, with Butler being only the second African American man to serve as president.
“Leadership can look different and still be good,” Butler stresses.
As Butler notes, the counseling profession will have to continue to reshape itself to accommodate diverse leaders. “And this change will not be easy or comfortable,” he admits. “It will shake things up. Now we’re making way for other people to come into this counseling space and work together to build a better environment for all.”
Man meets moment
Cyrus Williams, a counseling professor and director of the counselor education and supervision doctoral program at Regent University in Virginia Beach, finds this era — one in which COVID-19 has laid bare this country’s health disparities, Black and brown people continue to lose their lives in acts of police brutality and racist attacks on Asian Americans continue to escalate — a perfect time for Butler to take the helm as ACA’s president.
Facilitating difficult conversations about racial reconciliation, co-conspiratorship and the effects of racial injustice on communities is his area of expertise, Williams says. “He’s been working at this since we met, this has been his journey,” he says.
Williams was working in student services at the University of Connecticut while Butler was studying for his doctorate in counselor education and counseling psychology. “There weren’t a lot of Black men on campus,” he says. “We found each other and became friends.”
Because they both shared a passion for working with low-income, first-generation college students, they later collaborated on several work projects, including scholarly publications.
Butler is a professor of counselor education and the former interim chief equity, inclusion and diversity officer at the University of Central Florida as well as a fellow of the National Association of Diversity Offices in Higher Education.
He also is a past-president of the Association for Multicultural Cultural Development (AMCD), a division of ACA, but as Williams notes, his presence extends far beyond that. Butler has made myriad connections within the association — not just as a leader but through scholarship and professional collaboration, he says.
It’s not just the many relationships that Butler has established that will make him an asset as president — it’s his commitment to what ACA represents, points out Ann Shillingford, his wife and colleague at the University of Central Florida. “He has a passion and dedication for the counseling profession — there’s no doubt that he takes it to heart,” she says.
Butler is also a people person, who is good at listening to people and getting to the heart of what they really want — “kind of like peeling an onion,” Shillingford adds.
She says that Butler is an introvert until he gets to know you. Williams agrees, noting that Butler loves gathering with friends and family. During graduate school, Butler hosted a holiday party for graduate students and friends at the clubhouse of Williams’ condo. Butler spent the entire day before the party gathering supplies. At 1 a.m., he was still running errands when he got caught in a snowstorm. He walked toward the clubhouse, holding a large pan of his aunt’s famous macaroni and cheese, and slipped and broke his ankle. The macaroni and cheese went flying in the air, but unlike Butler, it remained unscathed. He then drove himself to the emergency room and still made it back in time for the party.
“When Kent talks to you, he is fully engaged,” says Tony Crespi, a psychology professor at the University of Hartford and one of Butler’s former instructors. “You think you’re the only person in the room.”
Crespi also speaks of Butler’s sharp intellect and passion for learning. “I’m someone who gives written feedback on papers,” he says. “I want people to really write well, be persuasive.” Crespi says it’s not uncommon for students to groan over his rigorous standards, but not Butler. He would come to Crespi after class and ask him to go over the comments so that he could understand and make his articles better.
Because Butler came from a counseling psychology program, he could have easily chosen to become a psychologist like many of his peers did, Crespi adds. But instead, he was very intent on becoming a counselor.
“I think my journey has been one in which I was led to counseling,” Butler says. “I was doing the work of counselor in many roles before getting into counselor education.” As an undergraduate, Butler mentored a number of other students, and then as a graduate student, in addition to his work with college students, he worked with Upward Bound, a federally funded program that provides academic support to low-income and first-generation high school students to prepare them for college.
“I was always working with young people and helping them to become their better selves,” Butler says. “It became really important to me in my degree program to strengthen my skill set in a way that fit with what I was already doing.”
Talking about racial justice
If Butler is the man for the moment, the moment almost missed its man. Violent racism nearly erased the possibility of his existence long before he was born. When Butler’s mother was just 10 years old, an unidentified group of white community members set fire to the house where she, her 14 siblings, her father and her mother — who was pregnant with her 16th child — were living. The fire, which started in the basement, was ignited in such a way that the family was unable to access the doors. The oldest siblings broke some windows, jumped out and caught the other family members as they leapt down from the second story of the dwelling. Miraculously, everyone survived.
The family lived in a firehouse for a while afterward while Butler’s grandparents worked to make the barn on their property habitable. In an incident that was yet more proof of how much the neighbors didn’t want his mother’s family around, the barn was burned down before they could move in.
“Law enforcement didn’t pursue any leads even after my family told them about hearing voices in the basement before the fire started,” Butler says. And like so many other hate crimes, these cases of arson were never solved.
And yet Butler’s mother and father, who also grew up surrounded by signs that blatantly advertised society’s complete rejection of Black people, “still persevered,” he says. They saw the good in the world and made sure that Butler and his sisters knew that — despite the messages they might receive from society — they were in no way less than anyone else.
Butler says that over the years, his mother taught him not to spend his energy on causes that are unwinnable or to argue just to argue. He has used that lesson in his racial justice work as a reminder to meet people where they are.
“Me going toe to toe with someone to try and solve an issue is not going to change anything if we aren’t listening to each other,” he says. “If I’m only speaking to hear my point and I’m dismissing yours, then I am not going to help change the narrative. If I want to make people understand where I’m coming from, I have to set a tone and create a space where people can hear me, and I have to speak with enough authority about what I know so that people will listen and take it in.”
At the same time, Butler points out that it’s difficult to get white people to come to these conversations. “The false narrative of fragility gets in the way,” he explains. “To be truthful, racism was not perpetuated from or benefited by fragile people. So, in that vein, we should not legitimize that white people are powerless against dismantling racism.”
“We need white people to recognize that this is not about them,” he says. “This is about racism and … systems that are in place. All of us have a role in that and so opposed to me having to come and cater to your guilt or fragility, what I want to do is come to the conversation.”
“We already know what the issue is,” Butler continues. “I’m not here to hassle with you about whether or not you are racist. I’m here to highlight the fact that racism exists, and we need to change the system. So, get out of your own way. It’s not about you at this point, it’s about trying to change the fabric of America so that all people can be accepted and be a part of the American dream [and] the access to equity that I think all individuals should have.”
Butler asks white counselors to become not just allies but co-conspirators. Allies often are the ones who approach Butler after he speaks about social justice and racial issues or after a meeting and say, “I really like what you said,” leaving Butler to wonder why they didn’t speak up during the meeting. Co-conspirators, however, help pave the way for marginalized populations through education and anti-racism work and speak out against racism when people of color can’t be or aren’t in the room.
In fact, what people say when he’s not in the room is just as important. “Say it in the room,” Butler stresses. “Be there and help move the narrative forward in the room. People who are willing to speak up, stand in the gap [and] help change the narrative, those are the co-conspirators.”
Michael Brooks, an associate professor of counseling at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, agrees that “it’s time for other [white] people to put action behind their words.” He and Butler met through AMCD and have forged a bond based not only on professional interests but also on the difficulties of being a Black man in counselor education.
“Kent is a large man with a dark complexion — he gets judged well before you get to know him,” says Brooks, who has a similar problem. Butler and Brooks often discuss how they have to be mindful of what they say and what gestures they use because they are constantly at risk of being misunderstood, misinterpreted and stereotyped.
Brooks is excited that another Black man has been elected as ACA president, but as he points out, “the fact that Kent is [only] the second Black, African American male to be president should be embarrassing, and the counseling profession should be asking itself why it’s taken so long.”
Brooks is also aware that there is only so much one can do in a year, so he hopes the counseling profession has reasonable expectations of how much Butler can accomplish during his presidency.
Football, family and far-flung places
Although Williams often has to remind Butler about maintaining work-life balance, ACA’s newest president does take time to relax. Shillingford says he’s a huge Dallas Cowboys fan and has assembled so much merchandise that she finally put her foot down about more memorabilia entering the house. She also admits to occasionally diverting Cowboys’ apparel to Goodwill.
Butler also loves listening to music — particularly jazz, rhythm and blues, and gospel. He declares himself a night owl, which he admits is a problem when you have to get up early. He’s prone to staying up late doing work and occasionally watching shows he previously recorded.
He and Shillingford love to travel — for work and pleasure. Some of their favorite places include Barcelona, Hawaii, St. Thomas, Dominica and South Africa. Butler says he would like to return to Africa and visit other countries, particularly Liberia because he discovered through DNA testing that he has family roots there. Butler and Shillingford also relish spending time at home with their 9-year-old daughter, Summer Joy, and Shillingford’s son, Justin, who is 21.
One could say that Butler is now hoping to use his personal and professional life experiences to help the counseling profession become its best self.
Because racial injustice and other inequities have imprinted themselves in such stark relief, “we have to pay attention to how systems are affecting different groups,” Shillingford says. Butler is hoping to use his platform to address issues of diversity linked not only to race and ethnicity but also to gender, disability, immigration and other intersections, she says.
Butler’s overall goals for his presidency include helping the profession realize that people from varied groups and intersections can be leaders. “I think so often we look to a leader to be a certain type of person,” Butler continues. “We need to bring all people to the table. It’s about inclusivity.” He also plans to create leadership initiatives that help to develop future diverse leaders.
Counselors should bring diversity to their client base as well, he adds. He urges his fellow counselors to consider what the profession is doing to dispel the stigma and distrust held by marginalized communities to help people see counselors as a supportive resource that can help them navigate life’s challenges and improve their mental wellness.
Because the presidency is only for one year, Butler has spoken with Williams about how he hopes to create initiatives that will continue to thrive long after his term ends. Butler “wants to be able to replace himself,” Williams says, with leaders who will continue the work of fighting injustices and eliminating disparities within mental health care systems.
He also wants to make sure that the counseling profession maintains the current momentum for diversity, equity and inclusion. He hopes to help counselors begin to engage in difficult dialogues and become social justice advocates.
Butler is at a point personally and professionally where he is ready to speak his truth. “This is my story, my narrative,” he says. “I’m coming to expose you to my experiences. I’m going to be truthful about who I am. I’m not here to step on toes, but if your toes are in the way, move.”
Read S. Kent Butler’s first presidential column from the July issue of Counseling Today: “Shaking it up and tapping you in”
Laurie Meyers is senior writer at Counseling Today. Contact her at LMeyers@counseling.org
Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.