As a young mother during the early 1980s, Sherry Butcher joined her Eden Prairie neighbors to protest the expansion of what she calls the “seriously misnamed” Flying Cloud Sanitary Landfill, owned by industrial giant Browning-Ferris Industries (BFI). Faced with such a daunting foe, Butcher fortunately had someone watching her back-her year-old son, Nick. “I’ll never forget [carrying] that little fellow in the backpack,” she recalled. “We would be demonstrating against BFI and he had this little tiny sign that said, ‘BFI take a hike.'”
With palpable pride, Butcher recounted the grassroots campaign that forced the landfill’s closure in 1990. Driving past its closed gates, “every time, I feel so full of joy that people-moms-in the neighborhoods can make a difference,” said Butcher, now a three-term Eden Prairie City Council member and the director of Continuing Education and Customized Training at Anoka-Ramsey Community College (ARCC).
The landfill fight was one stop on what Butcher called her “path to leadership,” which began with her parents’ lessons on the importance of critical thought and social responsibility, and continued through her roles as a museum curator, educator and local politician. She has a unique perspective on the current national debate about the meaning of leadership and the politics of gender roles.
Thought and thoughtfulness
Butcher grew up in Fridley with her parents and two brothers. Her life and career choices have been influenced by both parents. Her father, James Butcher, a researcher and professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Minnesota, taught her to be inquisitive and self-aware. “He insisted on independent thought and having your own clarity of thought,” she explained. “[He emphasized] never making assumptions and always questioning what you’re thinking, why you’re thinking that and where did it come from.” Butcher followed her father’s scholarly bent by parlaying a deep curiosity of different cultures into a graduate degree in museum studies and a career as a curator of collections at the American Swedish Institute and the Science Museum of Minnesota.
Her mother, Nancy Palmer, was her role model for community service. “She was the great public servant and still is. The whole spirit of giving to community was something I learned from her and she learned it from her mother,” recalled Butcher. Butcher hopes that public service “must have a DNA component, and that her own sons Nick, now 27, and Neal, 20, are equally inspired by her involvement.
To preserve and protect
Butcher’s involvement in community work eventually led her from museum studies to municipal service. After several years as a curator preserving and exhibiting cultural artifacts, Butcher was ready for new challenges. “I had achieved a number of things that I’d set goals for-I wrote a book [“Historic House Museums”] and I had done a lot of speaking,” she said. After the landfill campaign, Butcher remained active in community environmental issues and, in 1992, she was appointed to the city’s Heritage Preservation Commission. Her new role combined Butcher’s interests in historic and cultural conservation and her ecological concerns. “There’s a connection between wanting to preserve and protect the environment and culture,” she noted. “There are so many archaeological sites in Eden Prairie … how do we protect that and also the environment and green space?”
Some in city government favored selling city property for revenue. “It feels like being a museum curator [again] and your board of directors has said, ‘We’re selling off the paintings,'” Butcher said. Determined to make changes and inspired by the citizens who led the BFI fight, she decided to run for city council. “All of those strings come together and they finally make a picture, something solid, where you go, ‘Wow. I’d really like to try this,'” she explained. In 1996, she won her first term on the Eden Prairie City Council. As an elected official, Butcher has learned that successful governance requires not only a vision of what needs to be accomplished but also the ability to model the way and inspire others to follow. Quoting the book “True North,” by former Medtronic CEO Bill George, Butcher also echoed her father’s words when she said, “The key elements of great leadership are self-awareness and self-assessment. You really do have to know who you are and why you think what you think before you can even model your vision.”
The “L” word
Leadership has been this campaign season’s hot topic-what is it, who has it, how much do they have and is it enough? Asked about the criticism of the presidential and vice-presidential candidates for the extent of their leadership experience, Butcher replied, “You can be a community organizer and be a wonderful leader. You can be the mayor of a small city like former Eden Prairie mayor Jean Harris and be a remarkable leader. And you can have better leadership qualities than someone who’s got a position, say, as president!”
She continued, “We all have biases [about gender, education, and politics] because we believe strongly one way or another. If you really understand who you are and what your biases are before you go into a decision-making process, it will help enormously to bring the most rational perspective, the most reasoned, effective process to the decision-making.”
Butcher believes that good decisions are often derailed by partisanship. “We have to make decisions for the greater good and not be biased just by one special interest or one political party,” she said, which may explain why she does not identify herself with either major political party. Although she was raised in a Democratic family, she once considered herself an Independent-Republican. Butcher was drawn primarily by the GOP’s fiscal policies but her pro-choice, liberal position on social issues did not go over well in the conservative party. “I wasn’t very welcome there and I wasn’t there for very long,” she revealed. “So now I’m just an independent and it suits me so well.”
Best of times, worst of times
As a self-described longtime feminist, Butcher is thrilled by the prominence of female candidates on the national stage but her excitement is tempered by apprehension. “It’s the best and worst of times for women. Never before have [we seen] each party have a woman in one of two positions,” she said. “[But] the obvious sexism in this country hasn’t changed and is institutionalized even in the media.”
Many believe sexism is behind the intense criticism and public scrutiny of Sen. Hillary Clinton and Gov. Sarah Palin. Could sexism discourage other women from running for public office? “Women already say, ‘I don’t want my child reading something about me in the newspaper that’s been misconstrued,'” Butcher confirmed, adding, “Because women still are the primary caregivers, they don’t always feel like they would ever have the time to run for public office.” Butcher worries about that. She referred to the 2002 state elections, when the number of female Minnesota legislators dropped to its lowest level since 1992, as “a call to arms for women.” That year, she developed the College of St. Catherine’s “Women as Public Leaders” program that serves as a discussion forum and offers leadership training.
However, she recognized the program’s value for all elected officials. “I remember waking up the next morning [after winning her first election] and going, ‘Oh my gosh-now what do I do?'” she recalled with a laugh. Figuring that others felt a similar anxiety, she launched The Public Leadership Academy for Elected Officials at Anoka-Ramsey Community College in 2007. “I wanted to raise the comfort level [of public office] and to really develop the leadership capacity of cities in our area,” she explained before describing how the academy helps participants identify their leadership philosophy, learn and adapt each others’ strategies and create a network of continued support.
Butcher remains dedicated to helping others navigate the “path of leadership” that she herself is still traveling. For someone constantly in motion, it’s no surprise that she’s moving even when she’s relaxing. “I love to dance! I’ve been doing it for 32 years,” she said. “It’s something all your own. You can go for an hour and leave it all behind.” But not for too long: She’s campaigning for her fourth term on the Eden Prairie City Council.