Executive Director Terri Sharpley Reynolds shares how the National Black Professional Lobbyist Association fills a gaping need

The movement started by the National Black Professional Lobbyists Association is one that I’m very excited to be part of. Founded by Gregory Jones, John Heath and Yolanda C. Jackson, this organization started three years ago to increase opportunities for Black lobbyists and to promote diversity and inclusion in lobbying, advocacy, legislative and government affairs.

NBPLA Executive Director Terri Sharpley Reynolds has been a key part of bringing the founders’ vision to life. As an attorney who also has experience in government affairs and political campaigns, she has used her expertise and her network to help NBPLA grow quickly, even amid the Covid pandemic.

Since NBPLA has already made an impact in my life, and helped me make a difference for others, I welcomed the chance to have a “Terri to Terri” conversation over Zoom to learn from this #Firestarter. Here are some excerpts from our interview (edited slightly for length and clarity).

What need sparked the formation of the National Black Professional Lobbyist Association, and how did you become involved?

The three co-founders of this organization are all lobbyists at the state level. They were just having conversations, and they recognized that there was no real mechanism in place to promote diversity, equity and inclusion within the lobbying profession at the state and local level. And it’s really important because these lobbyists have a great deal of influence over the policies that are enacted at the state and local levels of government. Looking at the lobbying corps across different states, there was just a gaping lack of diversity of people of color represented. So they came together and said, “Let’s do something to fix this.” And a membership association was an obvious first step.

Greg Jones, who is the board chair, reached out to me and asked me if I could form an organization for them and help get it off the ground, since I have a background in associations. That was in the winter of 2019. We went through all of the formal steps to make it a real organization. When we launched in January 2020, it really took off. And the reason is because the need was so apparent. When people heard, “Hey, there’s this organization where we can start to talk about some of these issues and we can start to brainstorm solutions,” they just flocked to it.

What was it like growing a new organization amid the pandemic?

When we launched in January 2020, we had all these grand ideas. And then Covid hit. Essentially, for our first two years, we operate entirely in a virtual space. We had an HBCU summit; we had a legislative summit that was virtual. We had fireside chats where we just talked about a variety of issues that impacted the lobbying profession. And we would have great attendance and participation in all these online events.

It was challenging because so much of networking and authentic relationship-building is being able to see people, to talk with them, read their body language. But the silver lining of being virtual was that it gave us time to really build the foundation, talk with sponsors and fundraise without the pressure of having to hold expensive conferences and events.

When we had our inaugural membership meeting and conference in Birmingham, Alabama, at the end of October, all these people who had been seeing each other in virtual spaces were seeing each other for the first time and hugging and laughing together. So that was really cool.

Now that in-person events are possible again, what’s coming up for NBPLA?

Our next event coming up is in Las Vegas. We’re having our holiday networking mixer. We’re going to be doing this every year as a part of the National Black Caucus State Legislative event. We’ll have a networking mixer there where we’ll invite lobbyists, legislators and corporate leaders who are at that conference to come and network and build authentic relationships. So that’s our next event. Next year will be our first full year operating in person, and we’re in the process of building out that calendar now.

What are you most proud of that NBPLA has accomplished so far, and what are you most excited about going forward?

I’m proud that we have given lobbyists of color a safe space where they can come together and discuss and brainstorm — sometimes about the challenges that are unique to Black lobbyists. That’s how we start finding solutions — having honest discussions about challenging topics and feeling safe doing so. And I think we’ve done that. It was one of the main points of feedback that we got from our first annual conference. I’m also proud that we’ve been able to bring corporate sponsors to the table who support this vision. As our members are coming up with solutions and ideas, we have corporate partners that we can take these to so that we can start seeing some real change in the face of state and local government affairs.

 Going forward, the thing that I’m most excited about for this organization’s future is really being able to have a voice and influence within the profession and being a go-to resource for governmental, corporate and nonprofit entities that are truly committed to improving DE&I. Our goal is to be a place where they can come when they’re looking to diversify their talent pool and just adopting practices that truly improve equity and inclusion. And so in the future, I see NBPLA helping organizations and our corporate members figure out how to do that in an effective and sustainable way.

How have you used your unique talents and expertise in your work with NBPLA?

I have a natural gift for bringing people together and just building foundations that work. That has probably been my contribution to this organization — just putting those foundational practices in place that are required to make this more than a one-off event and into something that lives on in perpetuity. It doesn’t hurt that I’ve got this dynamic board of directors who have all these relationships and ideas and visions of what they wanted this to be. Making their vision a reality has been an honor.

How can readers of this article support NBPLA’s work?

Anyone who has an interest in public policy can be a part of this organization, whether it’s as a member or just following what it is we do. You can support the work by using our website, signing up for updates and supporting as a corporate sponsor, as a way of just recommitting to diversity, equity and inclusion. For any individual that works in this space, we’ve got a number of membership tracks that are designed for everyone from a student who maybe wants to be a lobbyist in the future all the way to legislative or city staff.  

What advice do you have for readers who want to start an organization to address a need that they have identified?

Figure out what nobody else is doing and where the gaping need is. Again, I sincerely believe that the reason we’ve been able to be as successful as we’ve been in such a short amount of time is because there was not an equivalent out there to what we’re doing. Then the other thing is — and I know this sounds simple — just take the steps to move the ball down the field, even if it’s just a little bit every day. I’ve got three kids: a 6-year-old, a 4-year-old and a 10-month-old. And I have my own law firm that I run and a host of other things. There was a lot on my plate, but I believed in NBPLA so much that it was worth putting in that extra work.

 Thank you for putting in all that work to answer a real need, Terri. And thank you for taking the time for this interview to spread your spark!

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