Kelsey Perdue’s penchant for variety in her professional life has led her to a new role she says is tying together all of her life experiences and pursuits.
Perdue, a native and current resident of Grand Rapids who previously worked as assistant technology campus director for Grand Circus, accepted a position last fall as Kids Count project director for Michigan.
Kids Count is a national initiative of the Annie E. Casey Foundation that measures the well-being of children at the state and local levels and uses that information to shape public policy and other efforts to improve the lives of children and families.
In the Mitten State, the initiative is administered by the Lansing-based nonprofit, nonpartisan Michigan League for Public Policy.
A 2012 graduate of Howard University in Washington, D.C., with a Bachelor of Science degree in human development and a minor in political science, as well as a certificate in Spanish language studies from the Autonomous University of Barcelona in Spain, Perdue partly credits her experience growing up in a diverse family and neighborhood for her interest in social issues.
Her mother, Harriet, is a first-generation American whose parents emigrated to the U.S. from the Netherlands, and her father, John, is a Black southerner who grew up in rural Alabama and moved to Michigan after serving in the military. He went on to become an entrepreneur, owning a corner store and several rental properties on the southeast side of Grand Rapids before his retirement.
Perdue said her parents’ differing racial, cultural and linguistic identities — as well as their emphasis on caring for their neighbors — contributed to what she considers some of her greatest strengths today: curiosity, adaptability, a passion for building relationships and a thirst for understanding social systems.
She said her childhood neighborhood, near Eastern and Franklin, was a close-knit community where everyone looked out for each other, but during high school, she heard it characterized as “a bad part of the city” based on crime rates.
“I’d seen these jarring differences in narratives and experiences, and I’d always been curious about that — why do communities look and feel like so different from one another? I’ve always been a reader, so (I would) look into it and consider historical context as well. I started thinking about systems and laws very early,” she said.
Perdue went to Howard to become a civil rights lawyer. But as she dug into her classes at the historically Black university, where she said conversations were “not just centered on the victor” but looked at history through a special lens to understand today’s outcomes, systems, structures and laws, she began to be interested in sociology and anthropology, as well as political science.
While studying abroad in Barcelona, Spain, she noticed “global similarities” between the haves and the have-nots based on who was begging on the streets, who the vendors were, how they were treated and the role that race played.
After college, she spent a year teaching in Santiago, Dominican Republic. Although she felt a freedom in being able to walk down the street and blend in, at the same time, she was not fluent in conversational Spanish, which meant she sought out American friends to give her the space to be herself. Perdue took from that experience empathy for how immigrants to the U.S. can live here for many years and learn to navigate the system “and be fine, but still be pretty insular because they need that sense of community.”
Upon returning to Grand Rapids, Perdue had to start over in entry-level jobs because she lacked a professional network in a place where “who you know” is how you get ahead.
She worked for the city of Grand Rapids, then the YMCA of Greater Grand Rapids, where, after less than a year with the organization, she was promoted to program director and worked on improving community health outcomes in two counties.
In 2017, Perdue jumped at the chance to join Grand Circus, a local workforce development startup in the tech industry, which gave her more project management experience.
Meanwhile, she was always volunteering, which led to an organic expansion of her skills, abilities and connections, as well as the realization that she would like to work in the advocacy space in a full-time, paid capacity instead of as a volunteer.
When her current role opened up, she saw it as an opportunity to combine her knowledge of education, health, workforce development and nonprofits in a policy and advocacy capacity.
“I get to learn and talk about important issues, advocacy and policy all day and my professional journey so far feels like it's coming full circle. … The diversity of roles and industries I've worked in finally make sense to those who questioned why I didn't focus on just one thing. I understood my professional decisions but understand not everyone could.” Perdue said.
“And there would be times where I would then question, ‘Am I doing the right thing?' But I knew I was interested and talented in a variety of things, and I think the most interesting work is done where industries intersect. When I got this role, it really just affirmed that everything was OK, and those experiences prepared me to walk in my purpose.”
Perdue said she has already come to love her job, with its supportive, flexible culture made up of “people who are curious and want to make the world a better place.”
She said there will always be something for her to learn at Kids Count, which keeps her busy.
“We house a lot of data that we aggregate from a variety of sources related to children’s wellbeing. We look at everything from education to child abuse to health and safety and more. We then we use that information to try to improve the lives of children. We work with community partners, legislators and other stakeholders to ensure they know the positive trends, as well as the negative trends, where might we need to focus and how we can address that issue through policy. We use data as a guide to our work — it’s what we call data-based advocacy.”
Part of the goal for Kids Count is to help nonprofits see how incorporating advocacy into their strategic plans will change outcomes and heal broken systems more than just administering programs that put a Band-Aid on the issues, Perdue said.
“When I started my career in education, I had an ‘aha moment’ pretty early on. I realized that no matter how hard I worked — I could teach for 24 hours a day, I could put in 200%, my materials could be top-notch — but if the kids go home to communities that are under resourced and families that are under resourced, under invested in and underestimated, how far can my efforts really go?” she said.
“We need to heal the larger community, and you do that through policy.”
Perdue said rather than looking several steps down the line and setting ambitious goals for her career in the next five to 10 years, she is taking this year to go deep into her new role, as well as to learn more about herself as a young professional with questions, who doesn’t have life figured out, but who brings value to the table as a thinker and a doer.
“I know that I don’t have a lot of money, but I have ideas, I have time and superb execution that I can give to any issue or project. … That’s really what’s made those tables better because I’m there.”