Chris Butts said he learned a long time ago that he was going to be different.
Butts is the vice president and chief learning officer for The Executive Leadership Council’s Institute for Leadership Development and Research. He was featured speaker for the University of Maryland Global Campus Office of Diversity and Equity event on Jan. 16 celebrating Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service—and is a self-described anomaly. After all, he told his audience, he is a “white guy [who] joined the historically black Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity.”
The unique path that led him there helped him discover his own answer to what Dr. King called life’s most persistent and urgent question: “What are you doing for others?” By continuing to share some of his story, Butts said he hopes to help others answer that question for themselves.
He grew up in Florida in the 1970s and ‘80s when, he said, for the “good of society” school districts across the country were rezoned and busing was initiated to force integration. By the time he was in the fifth grade, four or five busloads of children from what he referred to euphemistically as the “other side of town” arrived at his elementary school every day, and he often wondered what it must have been like for those students to be “placed in this climate, this culture that was not comfortable . . . not very warm and accepting.”
Upon entering the sixth grade, Butts would find out for himself. He had expected to attend the same school where his sisters had gone. Instead, he was among those bused across town to integrate the middle school predominantly attended by African American students. “The divide was so great at that time. My family was not accepting,” Butts said, adding that they spent his entire first year fighting with the school district to get him reassigned.
And while his family fought, Butts floundered. “It was challenging. I did not have the support at home to be successful. My entire world was flipped upside down,” he said.
Though he didn’t know it then, change was coming. And by seventh grade, Butts said he adapted. He adjusted. He focused on his education and on socializing. “I was the only white kid starting on the basketball team, and back in middle school that’s a big deal.”
His newfound and growing knowledge about Martin Luther King Jr. became his guide. Butts said that while he remembers little if any discussion of him during elementary school, King’s impact, his legacy and the injustices that he stood up against were regular topics of discussion in middle school.
“With those teachings and with me having the experiences I was [having] at school I was now teaching my family.” It was a casual process, something that took place in the give-and-take of conversation. He remembers gently challenging his mother when she automatically locked the car door while they were driving through a certain part of town. “Why do you think this neighborhood is unsafe?”
As middle school came and went, Butts said he realized there was a purpose behind his challenging—to help others broaden their thinking, to recognize and dispel their stereotypes. “I was becoming the person I was meant to be,” he said.
It all gelled for Butts after his first unsuccessful semester in college when he received a letter from the dean inviting him to do better or leave. He thought about how King had graduated from college when he was only 19 years old and had immediately gone on to seminary school. And he thought about King’s missive that the goal of a true education is intelligence plus character—and set out to achieve that goal.
He identified students on campus who were dedicated to their studies and started spending time with them. He began working with at-risk youth, helping them to transition from grade to grade through secondary school and into college.
“And as I continued building these relationships, having this reach into the community, I realized I wanted more,” Butts said.
So he sought to associate himself with an organization “so great” that it embodied all the ideals he aspired to achieve and endeavored to live up to every day, one that is committed to academic excellence, dedication to community service, integrity and honor. And that led him to the fraternity that King had joined—Alpha Phi Alpha.
“It has become part of my personal brand. It is part of who I am,” Butts said. He added that there is a certain level of vulnerability in relating his story and “putting himself out there.”
Even so, he said that when it comes to the question King posed so many years ago, “What are you doing for others?” he’s willing to do so to help others “shift their paradigm” to help them be more understanding of others’ experiences. “I can share with you my life story and help you have that shift or at least think about it a little bit to determine what you might be able to do for others.”
About Christopher C. Butts, EdD
As its Vice President and Chief learning Officer, Chris Butts is responsible for leading the design and development of programming, research, consulting, and coaching for The Executive Leadership Council’s Institute for Leadership Development and Research. A trusted advisor to executives in both the private and public sectors on complex human resources and employee relations issues, he has facilitated more than 10,000 hours of training on leadership, diversity and inclusion, civility in the workplace, and other topics.