American Studies
American Studies

Kelly Sowards Opot- Executive Director, Harris County Youth Collective

Fri, July 20, 2018
Kelly Sowards Opot- Executive Director, Harris County Youth Collective

Gaila Sims: When did you graduate from American Studies at UT, and with what degree?

Kelly Sowards Opot: I graduated in 2002 with a Plan 1 Bachelor’s in American Studies.


Gaila Sims: As the Executive Director at Harris County Youth Collective, what does your day-to-day work look like?

Kelly Sowards Opot: There really is not a day to day in my work. Pretty much every day is different. The Collective is a backbone organization for a systems change initiative, which means we have a small staff working with leaders across multiple systems and sectors in Harris County. I host and facilitate a lot of meetings for a variety of reasons around leadership, system alignment, problem solving, community engagement. Other parts of my week include research and data collection, connecting with elected officials and attorneys, building support for our work on a State and National level.


Gaila Sims: How did you become interested in working with nonprofits?

Kelly Sowards Opot: I always knew I would work in social justice, though the path I would take was unclear. I volunteered and worked with different kinds of nonprofits after receiving my bachelor’s degree and pursued policy as a graduate student. I’ve worked in both the public and nonprofit sectors and have always believed that the most innovative and longest lasting support for all people exists within mission driven (rather than profit driven) organizations. When the focus is the bottom line, regardless of how mission driven a for profit organization claims to be, the energy goes to ensuring that profit is met not that individuals are served. That said, I believe nonprofits should be valued in the same way that for profits are valued. There tends to be a focus on how much nonprofits should operate like for profits, when really there is value to both. One is not inherently better than the other and both have smart passionate people that can learn from each other.


Gaila Sims: What projects or people have inspired your work?

Kelly Sowards Opot: Wow…there are a lot of people and projects who have inspired me, it is hard to narrow it down. I’d say my first inspiration came from my parents and their commitment as parents to teaching my brother and me values of equity, justice, peace. They both had corporate jobs but were in high school and college in the 60s and 70s and definitely influenced by the social movements of that time. And then when I was a kid in the early 90s, I’d say a lot of hip hop artists and social uprisings during that time awakened me to what was happening outside of my little bubble. Janet Davis, Steven Hoelscher, Joao Costa Vargas were all professors in my undergraduate years who inspired me to think about social movements, the context of place and groups in our experiences. Ragui Assaad was a never actually a professor but worked at the Population Council where I interned while he was still associated with the Humphrey School who really influenced the way I thought about what work could mean for me. Those are big picture people who have had a direct impact on my life and how I approach work. It’s really hard for me to think about specific projects, because I like to think about systems and how they connect projects. So, efforts around that, like the ones I was involved in when I worked for CSH, specifically around supportive housing and connecting housing services to Medicaid, building coordinated access to housing with services that support people with the highest needs (as opposed to the easiest to serve), integrating public and private funding to ensure the community has one vision around how we develop and target housing resources. That’s inspirational. It’s hard work. I also get huge inspiration from people with lived experience in the systems I aim to improve. Our collective has a youth advisory board comprised of young adults who have been involved in the child protective and juvenile justices systems and both of my staff have experience with those systems. It is a voice that is often missing from the conversation, though there seems to be more of a push to listen to people with lived experience when you are trying to come up with solutions. I am inspired by the resiliency and dedication all of them. I am inspired by the fact that they continue to partner with me, come to the table and support our work even when, or because, their experiences have been pretty terrible. It is also a good reminder for leaders within the systems that it doesn’t take an exception. Everyone has the wisdom of their own life, everyone has value and something to contribute. Our systems haven’t been set up to include, but to require. I’m inspired by that change.


Gaila Sims: How does American Studies inform your work? How does your background in American Studies help you in your work at the Harris County Youth Collective?

Kelly Sowards Opot: I credit my degree in American Studies to so much of my success. The history of social and political movements, of understanding sub-cultures within our culture and really supporting people that had radical ideas about how to approach work have made such a huge impact on me. Even more than in my graduate studies, the skills in writing concisely, thinking critically, connecting movements and ideas and having to defend those with your peers. Those are things I do every day in my job. It gave me a lens of understanding difference, diversity, adversity, marginalization that really has given me a unique perspective and has contributed to my success. It taught me about people who dared to be creative, and dared me to do the same.


Gaila Sims: Do you have any advice for students in our department about how to get the most out of their experience at UT?

Kelly Sowards Opot: Trust the process and the wisdom. I remember taking my first AMS class with Janet Davis my freshman year and I thought “this is it!!” I was sociology or something like that before but I said these are all the things I’ve always wanted to learn. I was so scared and I remember going to talk to her and asking what am I supposed to do with this degree? She really listened to me and encouraged me. I shifted from wanting to be a lawyer, to wanting to be an academic to having no clue. It was certainly a journey but the writing skills I obtained through my undergraduate degree set me apart in my field. The critical thinking skills you gain are really something that I feel like you don’t get in the same way with a business degree or even communications degree. You have the freedom to learn about things that nobody else thinks about or understands. That’s powerful! It really is such a well-rounded degree. Also stay in touch with your professors. I still keep in some kind of contact with Janet and Steve. Even though I don’t necessarily tell them or even talk to them that often, I credit them with so much of becoming who I am today. They were such powerful influences on that critical time in my life and have been people that I have always been able to return to.


Gaila Sims: Do you have any advice for students in our department who are interested in pursuing work outside academia, but still want to utilize the training they've received from American Studies?

Kelly Sowards Opot: Don’t sell yourself short. The skills you have from this degree are transferable to so many sectors. You’re not pigeon holed into one type of career. You can do anything. Really. You can do anything. If I ever see someone apply for a job with an AMS degree they get an interview. It’s what sets you apart from the pack. I pursued an advanced degree and AMS is a good base for that if that is your interest. I love learning and trying new things. Throughout my career I’ve kept jumping into things I know nothing about, but I know I can figure it out. Use your American Studies to tap into how others have done it and how you connect things that not everyone is capable of doing. And, honestly, find others who have taken the path you want. The job I have didn’t exist when I was in undergrad but I reached out to people who I thought were doing interesting work to talk about how they got there. I love talking to people about my journey and figuring it out. I’m still figuring it out. If you think what I do is interesting, reach out to me!



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