Story by Mary Martin. Photos by Jan Osborn.
As Chief of Staff for the City of Dallas, Kimberly Tolbert brings a passion for access and inclusion, along with a deep understanding of the way policies can impact every resident. From her collaboration efforts with local nonprofits, to building programs that allow residents to connect with city employees, Kimberly is working to make room at the table for creative problem solving and new ideas.
Growing up in Tyler, Texas, Kimberly was given an intimate look into community organizing. Her grandparents stepped in as second and third primary parents to help her single mom raise three girls, and through that extended family, Kimberly was introduced to the labor union movement. Her uncle served in many leadership roles within a labor union. “During my 8th grade year, over the summer, my uncle sent me off to a camp sponsored by the AFL-CIO,” Kimberly shares. “I learned how to get the vote out, and what labor unions are. And those were the things that mattered to my family—it was all about equal rights and ensuring that people treated you with fairness. I believe that shaped my understanding around taking care of the people who take care of us.” Due to that early experience, Kimberly focused her career aspirations on politics and policy, with dreams of becoming a lobbyist.
It was during Kimberly’s undergraduate work at the University of North Texas (UNT) when a professor offered her another career path. “He told me that I have a different view on these issues and that I didn’t need to be a politician, I needed to be the one who made the politician look good. I needed to be an implementor,” says Kimberly. That interaction reminded her of a similar conversation with her grandfather a decade earlier. “I was just about eight years old and I would ask him all of these questions about why one side of town had streetlights and ours didn’t. Or about why our streets were full of potholes and south Tyler was different,” Kimberly shares. “I remember one day my grandfather said, ‘Instead of you continuing to ask me all these questions, why don’t you go do something about it?’” That moment stayed with Kimberly, and as she considered her professor’s suggestion to move away from politics and into a career that created change from the ground level, something began to shift.
Kimberly finished out her undergraduate degree in Political Science, and then was granted a Patricia Roberts Harris Public Affairs Fellowship to continue her eduction at UNT, earning a masters degree. But the gift of education was not something Kimberly took lightly. “I knew if you just do your part, if you work really hard then those other doors that need to open would open for you. I know that because that is how God has worked in my life,” says Kimberly. “For me it was a sense of urgency because I knew that education and using my mind was going to be how I moved forward. It wasn’t going to be because someone could write a check for me. Do your part and everything else comes with it.”
But doing her part wasn’t always the easiest path. “I’ve listened to people make excuses about everything, but I remember a time growing up that if I came home and the lights were off because the bill couldn’t get paid, that was no excuse not to do my homework,” says Kimberly. “I lit a candle and got it done. Because it doesn’t matter what the situation is, it’s what you make of the situation.” Today that experience and work ethic has culminated in a role that influences every part of city life, where Kimberly directs operational affairs for the City Manager’s Office, overseeing projects from communications and outreach to diversity and strategic partnerships. She spends her day meeting with various leaders and resident, but on her days off, you’ll find her tucked away at her favorite coffee shop, in the Harwood District, Magnolias Sous Le Pont. Sitting in the corner with her coffee and book, Kimberly is recharged for the work ahead.
Kimberly began her career with the City of Dallas in 1998 as Assistant to the City Manager, working her way to become Assistant Director for Finance and Administration for the city’s aviation department. She then took on a role at the North Texas Tollway Authority (NTTA), and was promoted to Director of Strategy and Innovation. When she came back to the City Manager’s Office as Chief of Staff, Kimberly brought her collaborative focus, knowing that the city cannot solve every problem alone. “The city will never have enough resources,” says Kimberly. “Never. There are too many issues. We have to be the lead conveners. We have to bring people in and ask them what they can do that we cannot do well.” Kimberly points to issues of homelessness and affordable housing as key places where partnerships truly impact quality of life. “Dallas is so blessed to have an active nonprofit community. They have wrapped their arms around the city for many years. Because of that strength and the diversity of the interests, our city is given a lift. Dallas may not have the beaches and scenery and mountains, but what Dallas has is great people.”
Together with the City of Dallas staff, Kimberly is working to open doors to the public so that more ideas can be shared and implemented. Programs like neighborhood-based district offices, a data academy, and the Dallas Innovation Alliance are creating more equitable access to city leaders and decision-makers. “We have to be intentional about how we share information and getting City Hall out of City Hall. We want people to have the opportunity to have a voice within the district where they live,” she says. Kimberly acknowledges that in order for Dallas to grow into its status as a leader in equity and innovation, and chip away at larger issues of division and poverty, there needs to be more partnerships and less finger pointing. “We are going to be better, but we are only going to be better together,” Kimberly says. “It takes the alignment of our values—we all want to have certain things done—and then rolling up our sleeves and getting to work.”
If you would like to take the first step to getting involved in the policies and programs at the City of Dallas, Kimberly suggests starting with the Boards and Commissions process. “These boards are essentially consultant arms for the city. We are always looking for more people to be involved,” says Kimberly. She also encourages everyone she meets to get involved in any kind of neighborhood organization or cause-based charity. “When we can all come together, then we share the results and the rewards, and everyone gets what they need.”
As Kimberly looks out across Dallas and its potential over the next decade, her thoughts go back to Tyler. “I describe my Tyler experience just like my Dallas experience,” she explains. “People talk about the haves and have nots in Dallas. The North versus the South. But we had the exact same issue in Tyler. Seeing my family and hometown face the same challenges has shaped my perspective. Even though my mother worked three jobs, sunup to sundown, I never thought I was poor. My mom was an incredible cook and somehow found a way to make these great meals. But we had neighbors down the street who didn’t have that same type of setup. So my sisters and I would pack up all the extra food in the pots and bring it down the street and give it to miss Judy.” It is that service to others that still drives Kimberly, not her list of accolades, but the practical ways in which she is able to make people’s lives better.
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