Welcome to SPN’s interview series where we connect with leaders from state think tanks to share their stories and learn how their insights might inspire our work.
In this interview, we talk up with Stephanie Whitt, Executive Vice President of the Beacon Center of Tennessee. Before coming to the Beacon Center in December 2017, Stephanie spent many years working in Tennessee’s state welfare programs and saw firsthand the impact policy can have on people’s lives.
Don’t miss her insights and advice for professional success!
SPN: How did you first get involved in the freedom movement?
Stephanie: Prior to joining Beacon’s team, I served as an Assistant Commissioner for Tennessee’s Department of Human Services, the primary agency in charge of administering our state’s welfare programs. I worked with Beacon on several welfare reform initiatives and became a big fan of their overall mission and vision of economic liberty for all Tennesseans. When an opportunity to work with them came open, I jumped at the chance to use what I had learned on the ground in state government to advance policies that have a real impact in people’s lives.
SPN: Was there a moment or a role model that inspired you to choose work dedicated to the cause of freedom and human flourishing?
Stephanie: I found working in state government, especially in programs aimed at addressing poverty, that most people really want to better themselves and be self-sufficient, but as a society, we have created systems that actually eliminate a person’s ability to do that. It’s very rewarding to me when we can change a policy and remove a barrier for someone so they can be free to pursue their version of the American dream.
SPN: Based on your observations, what do you think is the next big opportunity for the freedom movement?
Stephanie: That’s a really hard question! I have two:
Occupational licensing — removing barriers to enter into professions by eliminating or reducing the regulations.
Corporate welfare — ending the practice of the government picking winners and losers by handing out tax credits and cash payments to only a select few businesses at the expense of everyone else.
SPN: What do you enjoy most about being a part of a network working to promote freedom?
Stephanie: I like that every day is different, and every day presents a new opportunity to make a positive impact on someone’s life. Also, getting to meet and talk to like-minded people, who are all working toward similar goals across the country, makes you feel like we are connected to making an impact everywhere.
SPN: Where do you think the Beacon Center is making the biggest difference in people’s lives?
Stephanie: Criminal Justice reform. Beacon started the Tennessee Coalition for Sensible Justice and has advanced policy reforms in occupational licensing relative to a criminal record, expungement reform, and juvenile justice reform. We also secured funding for an incentive-based funding model geared toward reentry success and reducing recidivism.
SPN: In hindsight, is there anything you wish you had known before taking this job?
Stephanie: The amount of freedom people are willing to give up in exchange for the smallest return sometimes surprises me. So, no, there is nothing that I wish I had known, but I understand and appreciate how important the work we do is at a deeper level now.
SPN: What has been the best, worst, or most memorable moment since you joined the Beacon Center?
Stephanie: My most memorable moment was seeing short-term rental protections pass by one vote in the Senate… it was a literal nail biter, but all the hard work we put into it was worth it.
SPN: What resources and sources of information do you find the most helpful for your work?
The best advice I ever got from a mentor for personal and professional growth is to ask one person you admire out to lunch, even if you don’t know them, once a month. I put aside my anxiety about doing it and found it was much easier than I thought. People love the opportunity to share their story and advice with you.
SPN: What current issue or policy is nearest and dearest to your heart?
Stephanie: Healthcare and welfare reform.
SPN: If you had one piece of advice for others considering a career like yours, what would it be?
Stephanie: Never be afraid to take a risk and work for something you believe in.
SPN: When you’re not improving the world at work, where are you likely to be found?
Stephanie: The dog park with my dog, Barry, or eating at Lockeland Table, my favorite restaurant in Nashville, with my husband Holt. We also like to hang out with friends, cook a lot at home, travel, and catch the occasional live music event (it is Music City, after all!).