Where in the World is William Powers?
By Jake Harper
Trying to keep up with Billy Powers is a difficult task. He’s lived all over the United States, rarely for more than a couple of years at a time. He worked with Sorenson Impact for about three years, though he only lived in Utah for six months, and in August he left the Beehive State and headed to the Big Apple. For most people, this kind of lifestyle would suggest a lack of commitment, but for Billy it means the exact opposite. The fluidity of Billy’s history is the perfect illustration of who he is and why he does what he does; he is a passionate person on a quest to help children in less-than-ideal circumstances. Getting to know him and learning to understand him is as interesting, and ever-changing, as following his location on a map.
Billy was born in Connecticut, spent several of his childhood years in Rhode Island, then moved back to Connecticut in high school. His upbringing provided the basis and beginnings of his desire to help disadvantaged children; many of his friends growing up had special needs. He attended college in North Carolina, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in political science from Davidson, and then left for Chicago, where he taught preschool while earning a master’s degree in education from Dominican University. He earned another master’s degree, this time in public policy, from what is now the Harvard Kennedy School of Harvard University in Boston. He moved to Denver for a year before heading back to Chicago. After a couple of years in the Windy City, he moved to Salt Lake to work on site at Sorenson Impact. He’s now en route to earn his PhD in education policy and social analysis from Columbia University in New York. If you lost track of what was going on in that synopsis, don’t worry, it’ll undoubtedly evolve again within a few years.
Billy first became involved with Sorenson Impact when he moved to Denver to head a feasibility study of preschool education changes in the Westminster public school system. Sorenson was funding the project, so Billy worked closely with a team from the Center throughout the study. After the project officially launched, he joined Sorenson Impact full time. He managed social impact feasibility studies, focusing primarily on early childhood development. Utah, as a state, was a fantastic, albeit very temporary, fit for Billy. When asked what his initial thoughts were upon arrival, he said, “Utah punches above its weight in terms of impact investing and social policy. So much of America is reflected in Utah: urban, rural, high SES, low SES. If you look hard enough, you can find a lot of problems on a small scale in Utah that [the country] is dealing with on a large scale. At the same time, you can find a lot of really cool solutions to these problems being built, tested, and implemented here.”
The problems that Billy is most interested in solving revolve almost exclusively around early childhood development. “What I came to discover in my time as a teacher was that high quality preschool available to high needs family has the potential … to fundamentally alter trajectories of low income children.” With that kind of knowledge, the projects he engaged in at Sorenson had an added measure of importance to him. The time he spent teaching preschool in Chicago gave him a profound sense of what he needed to do with his life. “The importance [of early childhood development] seemed so obvious, yet the investment by society was so strikingly low. I knew what I was doing was important, but it was so clear based off of the amount and type of funding, and the ways in which we were regulated, how the government and society felt about early childhood education. I realized that my greatest impact was not going to be in the classroom.”
This type of drive to improve the childhood experience of young Americans is far from standard. For Billy, it all came from his personal upbringing. He was given an incredible, high-quality childhood, which he believes prepared him to face some very difficult obstacles in his later adolescent years. Because of these obstacles and his life circumstances, he developed an admirable awareness of the world around him. “As you leave childhood, you start to realize that systems have an impact on the way that people live within those systems, and you start to see inequality and inequity. There’s always been a chip on my shoulder because I became conscious very early in my life that we live in a society that very much prioritizes people who are physically and mentally exceptional.”
Therein lies the goal of Billy’s efforts in the realm of childhood education. He wants to close the achievement gap and facilitate educational equality, especially for children that are disadvantaged by their circumstances.
A passion for helping kids in unfortunate circumstances is one of the consistencies in the life of Billy Powers. It’s important to remember this when you consider his transient nature. Billy has, according to one of his co-workers, “the most socially conscious case of wanderlust in history.” When he was asked about this attraction to change and impulsivity, he didn’t disagree with that assessment, but wanted to qualify it. “Some people are always on the move, trying to run away from something. I’m running in search of something.” The moment he feels the urge to do something, he follows it. “There is such an opportunity cost to preparing. I love the John Lennon Quote: ‘Life is what happens while you are busy making other plans.’ Life is nothing but winging it masked with personal management.”
It’s impossible to guess what the future holds for Billy Powers. Even Billy doesn’t know exactly where life will take him. He did say that he’d love to come back to Sorenson Impact. It’s shaped him and taught him many valuable things. “I’m really optimistic about the direction we’re going and the people that have steered us in this direction. I’m really excited to see what the future holds for [Sorenson Impact] and I’m deeply grateful for it.”
The Sorenson Impact Center is in a constant state of evolution, much like Billy and so many of the incredible people that work here. While Billy’s rock of consistency is early childhood development, the Center also has constants amidst the change and adaptation. These constants are things like revolutionary policy change, shaping the world to be a better place, and solving the world’s problems one impact at a time.
Best of luck Billy. You’ll be missed while you’re gone.