BURKE — Billie Sutton may not be holding a public office, but that has not stopped him from trying to build diversity in community leaders.
Sutton’s run in politics, which began in 2011, was put on hiatus after failing to defeat Gov. Kristi Noem in the 2018 South Dakota gubernatorial race. He was the state's Democratic candidate. As he moved away from the public eye, Sutton found that people around the state admired his leadership style and he found a way to continue to make an impact through the Billie Sutton Leadership Institute.
The program, started by Sutton and his wife Kelsea in 2019, is a free year-long seminar for a select group of young professionals that are seeking to become leaders in the community. It has also developed an opportunity to create more diversity in leadership positions around the state.
Eight of the 12 members in the recently announced second class of the Leadership Institute are women and nine of the 13 members of the first class were women. There is also diversity in race and background, which allows each member a chance to discuss new perspectives throughout the program.
“I think that gives you a different perspective on where people come from and it just helps everybody learn from each other and understand that everybody is different, but we’re all similar,” Sutton said. “One of the important parts about being a good leader is recognizing people’s differences, but also finding out ways to bring people together around what we have in common.”
Sixty-five people applied for the second installment of Sutton’s Leadership Institute, but there are no age requirements. Applicants were chosen based on their passion and what kind of community project they want to pursue while in the program.
With most of the program being conducted online and more frequent one-on-one calls because of COVID-19, this year it was decided to break each group into subgroups based on the projects they are working on for the year.
Last year, a Sioux Falls-based leader, Heather Krause, partnered with local non-profit organizations to gather more than 800 packages of women’s products to distribute to low-income women throughout the city. Another leader attempted to work to push legislation to provide more funding for South Dakota’s needs-based scholarship to lower educational costs for students.
"It's important to persevere, to never give up and give people hope," Sutton said. "It's really interesting to hear all these different stories, perspectives and challenges that they've faced."
Sutton, who was paralyzed in a rodeo mishap in 2007, hopes that the diversity extends beyond gender and race and encourages members of the disability community to apply in hopes of moving into leadership positions within their communities.
“When I think about the challenges I face as a person with a disability, we’re living in a world that wasn’t built for a person with a disability,” Sutton said. “People with disabilities are really able to overcome, think outside the box, creative and thoughtful. My disability has grown me as a leader, because it made me show more empathy toward people that might be going through struggles and it made me think about life differently.”
With racial upheaval on the rise throughout the country during the last month following the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer, many are calling for new and diverse opinions on how to improve cities and communities, which puts Sutton’s program in a prime position to make an impact in the future.
Attempting to bring people together has been a staple of Sutton’s leadership style and he hopes he can instill that upon his charges this year.
“Things have gotten so decisive, not only nationally, but in South Dakota,” Sutton said. “We need to be better at bringing people together around our common values and shared values. We’re looking for leaders that can grow in that way and be good listeners and being action-oriented. … We can always find ways to work together and that’s a big focus of our leadership program.”