Learning as They Lead: Reflections from the Heart of Public Service

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Today we hear from local officials about the realities of public service, revealing the demanding nature of their so-called part-time roles. Councilman Benton Blount, Councilman Karuiam Booker, and Trustee Anne Pressley share insights into the learning curve, community impact, and the importance of engagement in governance. Through their stories, we gain a deeper appreciation for the dedication required to make a tangible difference in the lives of constituents. Listen as they reflect on the challenges and rewards of serving our communities.

Links:

Benton Blount Government Page

Karuiam Booker Government Page

Dr. Anne Pressley Government Page

Transcript

Katy Smith:

Over the last few years, we’ve interviewed almost four dozen candidates for office. We get to share with you their plans, their qualifications, and what they hope to do if they are elected. But what is their view after they get sworn in?

Today you will get to hear from three first-term elected officials about their surprises and what they learned. Councilman Benton Blount is a county council member representing District 19, generally, the Berea area, having won the seat in the Republican primary from Willis Meadows who’d served for 16 years. Greer City Councilman Karuiam Booker represents District 2 in Greer. Trustee Anne Pressley serves Area 24 on the Greenville County School board. They are interviewed by Derek Lewis, who is a former elected official – coincidentally, he was Anne Pressley’s predecessor on the school board. He’s executive director of Greenville First Steps and our advocacy roundtable chair.

They talk about their surprises entering public service, the rewards they’ve experienced, and how they help constituents navigate local government.

We’ll put a link to each of their pages on their local government websites.

We thank them for their service and hope you learn how to navigate local government through your elected officials.

Derek Lewis:

Well, we’re just so thrilled to have all three of you guys here with us.

First, before we get started, thank you for your commitment to serve as an elected official.

I know from personal experience that it takes a lot of extra time and effort and energy and attention to do that and juggle your day jobs.

So thank you guys all for being a part of that.

Councilman Blunt, maybe we could start with you. This is your first term on county council.

What’s been your big aha about serving as an elected official that may be something you weren’t aware, something you weren’t sure about before you got there?

Benton Blount:

Well, I don’t believe that anybody’s going to believe that this wasn’t a setup, but you actually coined it perfectly just previous to me talking is that this is not, this is a full-time part-time job because it’s definitely not considered a full-time job.

But if you don’t put in full-time hours, you get behind really quick and you have no idea what’s going on and you’re like a deer in the headlights.

And it’s… when I first got on council, you know, the first couple weeks or the first couple meetings, there were several moments just because of the workload that we had…

I was just like, I have no idea what this is. I hadn’t had time to look through it.

And I had to do a lot of, you know, soul searching to make sure that this was what I was cut out for, because it does take a lot of extra time that a lot of people don’t realize to do the job correctly.

Derek Lewis:

Well, it is incredible when you think about the number of things you have to be an expert on two weeks after you get elected.

Like there’s no on-ramping of, let me tell you how roads work.

Like you are now an expert in all things county council.

Benton Blount:

And there’s definitely no period of time where you get to go in and learn the trade. They pretty much open the door and say good luck.

So you’re you’re you’re learning on the fly, which is it’s concerning when you have, you know, citizens lives that you’re dealing with.

So it makes you want to really dig in and learn quickly.

Derek Lewis:

Trustee Pressley, you have come onto the school board in a seat that, you know, really needed a leader.

So I appreciate you stepping into that school board seat. What was your big aha from your first couple of years now on the board?

Dr. Anne Pressley:

I’m going to echo what the gentleman to my left said.

I chose to run because I was retiring from 28 years in public ed, and I wanted to stay connected.

And it was a great way to do that, hopefully, which I was elected.

The time that it takes is unbelievable in a good way. But you want to do everything.

You want to be everywhere.

And to study the issues and to be prepared for those meetings as well as you possibly can, it takes time.

And it was jarring at first when I realized that I didn’t think it would be any easy task or any, you know, I didn’t think that it would just require minimal time.

But it was it was quite a wake-up call because it can… it is a full-time, part-time job. I’ll echo that.

Derek Lewis:

I remember my first school board meeting. I learned what a booster club was, which was a new experience for me.

But I had spent a lot of time in elementary schools but had never really experienced high school athletics.

And booster clubs have very different priorities than, say, the PTA or the principal may. And that was a huge, huge eye-opener for me.

Dr. Anne Pressley:

Yes, they do.

Derek Lewis:

Councilman Booker, what about you?

Karuiam Booker:

Yeah, I’m going to echo exactly what they’re saying. The time is extensive, especially me with a younger family.

But another thing that kind of was eye-opening for me was the roles of government across the board are very similar at the county level, at the municipal level, and then even at the school board level.

There’s a lot of similarities. So it’s just been refreshing that they’re all echoing the same mantra here that we all have those struggles, but definitely, the time was a big thing.

Derek Lewis:

Yeah, those crossovers between the city council priorities and growth, for example, and how a school district handles growth and how the county or how the city of Greer handled growth, there are some real opportunities for collaboration, but there’s also some different opinions about all of that.

You know, one of the things that I have enjoyed talking to elected officials about is kind of what do you get out of it?

You know, what’s been the most rewarding part for you of service?

So, Trustee Pressley, when you think about your time on the school board, like what’s been the thing that’s been most rewarding for you?

Dr. Anne Pressley:

The most rewarding thing has been my ability to be in schools. And I was at the State Department for eight years prior, and there were a lot of layers between us and the schools across the state.

And so when invited, I’m there with bells on because we can actually see, and that is an amazing thing.

So if we’ve allocated funding for something, we can actually see the results with the boots on the ground and how that’s being implemented and how it’s impacting why we’re there in the first place, which is the students.

That has definitely been the most rewarding thing.

Derek Lewis:

And what about you, Councilman Booker? When you think about this first term, what’s been the most rewarding thing for you?

Karuiam Booker:

The most rewarding thing for me was when I first got on council, they were doing the redistricting process.

And during the redistricting process, my council district looked very differently.

Well, now after redistricting, I tell people I have the truest cross-section of Greer in which I’ve got low to moderate income. A lot of the help organizations, all the housing authority properties, but then also I serve downtown Greer as well.

So talking about demographics, they’re all over the place.

So really the biggest thing for me was being able to touch those different sectors and being a trusted confidant that they can come to me with their concerns and I’m going to listen to them and do my best to try to resolve them or come to some resolution for them.

Derek Lewis:

Yeah, it’s interesting because I think about when I was on the school board, you know, you’re right.

Like if you voted to give every teacher 50 books, you could go into their classroom and see the 50 books and immediately see the impact.

I’m not sure if I put a stop sign out. I feel like I’d have to stand at the stop sign and wave at people to get some appreciation for the work.

So maybe it is harder to find the constituent that specifically benefits from that thing.

Karuiam Booker:

Yeah, it’s great because I feel like I got a very vocal district.

Derek Lewis:

Okay.

Karuiam Booker:

I never have a time in my email when I don’t have someone reaching out about something.

And it’s all over the board, which is great.

Just being able for people to reach out to me and bring their concerns to me.

I’m not able to help them all the time.

But we’ve got great organizations in Greer that can help them.

And also the things I can do, I’m willing to do those as well.

Derek Lewis:

Awesome. And what about at county council? What’s been the most rewarding thing for you?

Benton Blount:

I would say ultimately more than anything that you would experience day-to-day on council as far as we’ve done amazing things like visited SCTAC and see the release of the new F-16.

And all the things that we’re doing that are bringing more interest to Greenville County.

But to me as a councilman, the thing that’s brought me the most personal satisfaction is actually being able to provide something for a constituent and them call back and say it worked and we got our problem solved.

I guess maybe a week ago, this is the first time it’s happened to me in this capacity, but a husband and wife, elderly couple, walked up to me in Walmart in the neighborhood market and stopped me and just said, I just want to say thank you for being vocal and speaking out and giving us information.

And to me, that’s what a representative is supposed to do.

And so I take pride in that every time I’m actually able to solve a question, solve a problem for somebody, or find a solution where they didn’t think there was one or to be able to collaborate with the staff to figure out something that was dealing with zoning or with a building permit that originally they didn’t think they would be able to accomplish and they figured out a way to do it.

It just makes you feel like you were a part of a solution that wasn’t there sometimes for 10 years even.

They’ve been trying to work on something and just because of an idea that you threw out, it helped solve the problem.

Derek Lewis:

It’s awesome that all three of you kind of mentioned the impact that you have on the people that you serve.

And I know when I watched your campaigns, that was something that was important to all of you as you were campaigning was I want to be accessible to our constituents and how do we build relationships with the people who we serve.

I wonder, do you have an example of maybe in Greer, maybe how constituents have engaged with you and maybe any advice you would give to people who are thinking about like, how do I have an impact with my elected officials?

Karuiam Booker:

So my campaign was run very grassroots, very boots on the ground.

I was able to galvanize over 50 volunteers and kind of fortify.

We want things done in our community. I ran a very community-based campaign in which we gave out over 700 backpacks with school supplies, had fish fries, gave away hot dogs, gave away t-shirts, had a block party.

So I was very different of the approach typical of politics.

But, you know, if you’re going to be a community servant, I just love being out in the community and being able to help people and really understand and quantify the problems that they’re facing.

And so any advice I would give to someone is don’t be scared to get out there and talk to the people, understand the challenges and the concerns they have because it’s very easy to kind of isolate yourself at City Hall and insulate.

Like in the national level, we’ll see, you know, once you kind of get in there, you create this environment around you, create some insulation between you.

But people at the end of the day, they just want to know that you care, care about them.

Derek Lewis:

What about with county council? What advice would you give people who are thinking, I need to contact my county councilman, I need to give them my perspective on things?

What constituent engagement advice would you give?

Benton Blount:

I guess it would kind of be a two-fold thing because I’ve thought about this a lot actually in the last couple months.

But I would say simply starting with an email because you can get easy access to email addresses for all your elected officials.

And that way you can be as thorough as you want. You can write as long of a letter as you want. You can include all the information in it.

And that way we can read it, we can see it, and then we can follow up with a phone call and actually have a discussion. It’s harder to have those discussions where they’re feeding you all this information through the phone versus something where you can go back and read it.

So I’d say the easiest first step is just to reach out to your elected official with an email.

And then it also kind of puts that elected official in the place where they need to respond to that, too.

And then if they don’t, then you could follow up with the phone call and different things like that. But I would also say.

And I’m only saying this for myself because I know that everybody’s different, but it’s way easier to engage with people that are seemingly nice than people who instantly are screaming at you. And I’ve had that happen quite a bit.

Derek Lewis:

So don’t put all caps in your emails.

Benton Blount:

Well, only all caps when it really means something. I’ve done that before, too. But it really I believe that there is this kind of a weird feeling about elected officials almost as to you voted for them.

So you own them in a way. And I’ve never… I’m not a politician yet.

I don’t consider myself that.

So when I get somebody who says you will do this to me, you will do this for me because I’m your voter.

And I have to remind them, I know there’s also 50 other thousand people in my district that I have to take care of as well. And it just, the relationship that you develop with your elected official can get you a lot of things done if you’re nice about it.

And if you’re not nice about it, it’s in life in general, it’s hard to deal with people that aren’t nice to you.

So I’ve, but again, I do it, I realized the end of the day, we’re dealing with a lot of passionate issues and people are concerned.

So I do expect to have some, you know, some people who are very passionate and it may come across in a rude way, but my job is to try to help that situation the best that I can for that constituent, regardless of how passionate they may be.

Derek Lewis:

And on the school board, like when you think about like, because your constituents could be five years old, they could be the parents of an 18-year-old, or they could just be people who live in the district and pay taxes, but maybe don’t even participate in any school activities.

What advice would you give those constituents who want to engage with their school board member?

Dr. Anne Pressley:

I’ve been a stickler since I was elected and probably before, definitely before.

I was very clear about this during my campaign.

Call, text, email, whatever works for you the best.

Now, I do agree if the call is very layered or if the text is…

And when you’re dealing with people’s children, there’s always passion and urgency behind that, as it should be.

Normally, I will walk the individual through kind of, I don’t like this term, but the chain of command, so to speak, as far as the communication chain.

Because if it’s an issue in a building, you want to make sure that the administration is aware of it.

And if they’ve been cut out of the conversation, that’s always a critical issue.

So those are the first questions that I ask, not in a blaming way or in a you should have done this, but just to make sure that that individual is aware that that conversation should take place because it’s going to have to anyway. So it really slows the process down.

Just being available and listening. When, in some of the best prior professional development I ever was on the receiving end of, dealt with active listening. Truly listening.

Not thinking somewhere else in your head or what your next comment is going to be. Truly listening to every single thing, concern that an individual has, and then asking questions to make sure you understand every single thing that you possibly can before giving even any advice.

So I try to let that person, whomever it is, literally talk themselves out until I even ask a question.

And sometimes that’s harder to do than others because you want to go ahead and try to fix the problem but my availability, my information is out there and I learned that the minute I filed to run.

It was about 30 minutes later and I was at my computer and a gentleman called me with some really robust questions.

So my information is out there. It’s there for a purpose and that’s my responsibility as a trustee.

Derek Lewis:

All right, so you guys have all given some great tips. Go to public meetings where there’s an opportunity for you to speak with your elected officials, send emails, and correspond with them, kind of giving them background information, making sure that you’re specific about what your needs are so that you can get maybe directed to the staff who could support that work.

I’m wondering if any of you have examples or stories you’d like to share of maybe a constituent engagement that, that maybe, uh, would be a good lesson for other people. I’ll start with mine and then give you a chance to think about yours.

One of the ones that drove me the most crazy was, uh, my son played T-ball while I was on the school board.

And I felt like every T-ball game, there was someone waiting for me at home plate to stand between me and the fence to talk to me about something that was going on at Mauldin High School while I was trying to, you know, be a parent.

You know, we’ve talked about the fact that these are part-time elected official roles.

You did not give up your career. Your family did not agree to you devoting 80 hours a week.

And that was a real difficult adjustment for me was how do I create a boundary that says, I want to hear you. I see you.

I also am here for something different.

Do you have any examples?

Karuiam Booker:

So my approach to a lot of the meetings that I take, especially events, I try to center around my family.

So if you have an event going on that is family-friendly, I’m more likely to go to those type of things.

So I got invited to go to a church one day and the lady invited me there and my family is sitting down.

And if I’m with my family, I try not to be super politician type guy.

But the lady comes up to me and says, I know it’s Sunday, but I hate to touch your spirit.

Then it goes into this long litany of things that she needs done in the community. I was like was this her ploy just to get me here the.

Derek Lewis:

Lord has called me to tell you something while you’re sitting here in this pew with your family yeah that’s a hard one yeah.

Benton Blount:

Yeah I guess I’ll give you an example of something that’s currently happening and it kind of shows you if you have a good relationship with your constituents that it can make a difference and I guess more to say to the constituent this is how you get the representative on your side even more. But we have a zoning issue currently where a family for over ten years has had goats and chickens in this community and everybody around them loves the goats and chickens.Nobody had a problem with them but then, fast forward to 2023, end of 2023, and some new families have moved into the area because of all the growth we’ve had.

One of the families did not like the goats or the chickens, so they sent a letter to our department.

Our department doesn’t know any of these people. We’re the ones who have the relationship with them.

Come to find out, this had been land that was not zoned to where you could have goats or chickens.

The county hadn’t caught it for 10 years. It had just been there, and the community was accepting of it. So council was about to basically tell these people you have to get rid of these animals that some of these kids had grown up their whole life with, I think a 13-year-old.

And I had met the family and talked to them. I talked to the community, and I knew that this was not an issue.

This was an issue with one family, and I understood that they had a problem with it. But I basically went to bat for this family.

I had no really invested interest. The county had every right to do what it was doing, but because I knew legitimately, I talked to these people, I spent time with them, I talked to their kids, I saw their chickens and their goats.

And so in the council meeting, I’m more of defending them because they’re good people that are trying to do the right thing. They just are in an unfortunate circumstance.

And when you get those people, when you get representatives who see your passion for what you’re concerned about, that’s the ultimate representative.

They’ll go to fight for you.

And that’s, that’s an experience I’m in the middle of. We still haven’t completely figured it out, but council, the other councilmen in other districts don’t know this family either. So they’re, they’re learning who they are through me.

And just because of how passionate I was for that, we’re actually taking a look at it, trying to figure it out. And that’s how that organizational relationship works together well.

Derek Lewis:

Well, it’s great that they could find you because I think, you know, one of the challenges I think that staff have, right, is that the regulation is written and I’m supposed to follow it.

And I’m not really given the flexibility to decide you don’t have to pay taxes or you can have two goats, but you can’t.

And so it is kind of up to those elected officials to help families navigate policies that may be in place that may be affecting them.

Benton Blount:

Yeah. And there’s so many policies in Greenville, whether it’s municipality, whether it’s the county that have been around for a long time.

So there’s some things that we might not catch until last minute that need to be changed.

So like with this instance, maybe there’s a zoning consideration we need to think about putting in that makes something work for issues that we missed, that in the instance that it’s rezoned later, it reverts back to the former zoning rather than stays the same.

There’s always a way. We just have to put the ordinance out there and make it something that the staff can follow.

Dr. Anne Pressley:

This was a stinger. Probably the most difficult thing that I’ve encountered involved an individual.

And I have some constituents who see things in very black-and-white ways.

That it’s this, this is the solution, this is what we should.

And this actually involved dress code, which is a very hot-button issue for a lot of reasons.

And I had the privilege of working for three years as an administrator at a high school in this district that had a very, very high poverty index.

Students who were not from very affluent families or even middle class.

And I had an individual after a board meeting, uh, walk up to me and make the declarative statement that there were ways that we were talking, I was talking about this gentleman, that young man that I was dealing with, and his pants were slacking.

And as an administrator, I had to address that.

And I could not understand why he just wouldn’t, you know, pull them up to his waist.

And so finally he looked at me and he had tears in his eyes and he said, I still get, this still gets me.

He said, here’s why, Ms. Preslley. And he pulled him up to his waist.

He said, because they’re floods.

And so his pants were… because he would have been picked on.

So this lady comes up to me after the board meeting. This is one of those that ran long over this discussion.

And she said, well, she said the PTA at that school could have helped that gentleman.

We just had a couple of administrators present that their PTAs have clothing closets and that would be no problem. I said, ma’am, there was no PTA at the school. There was not one.

And then she made the statement that a student’s socioeconomic status has zero to do with their ability to learn.

And I had to keep my face fixed and keep a pleasant smile and thank her.

So sometimes stuff can come out of people’s mouths that is so shocking if they haven’t been in that situation and have not seen what that looks like.

And we’ve used the word boots on the ground, what that looks like in a school building, and the struggles that our children bring to the table in a lot of situations.

So that was a rough one. I had to go right around the block before we reconvened.

Derek Lewis:

Which is a tough one because, you know, again, two-thirds of your voters don’t have kids in school.

So the last time they were in a school was maybe 18 years ago when they were in a school themselves.

So if they remember what their school was like when they were 18, and now they’re projecting that on their 40-year-old self, like things have changed a little and they haven’t seen it.

Well, I just can’t thank all three of you enough for your willingness to serve.

I think, you know, we said at the beginning, but, you know, I think these part-time elected official roles that become full-time commitments really take a lot of courage and willingness to stick your neck out.

And I just appreciate all three of you for your leadership in the community and your willingness to share with us ways that we can better engage with our elected officials.

Benton Blount:

Thank you very much.

Dr. Anne Pressley:

Thank you.

Karuiam Booker:

Thank you.

Catherine Puckett: Simple Civics: Greenville County is a project of Greater Good Greenville. Greater Good Greenville was catalyzed by the merger of the Nonprofit Alliance and the Greenville Partnership for Philanthropy. You can learn more on our website at greatergoodgreenville.org. This is a production of Podcast Studio X.

Image via Kruck20 from Getty Images on Canva.

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