Valeisha Butterfield Jones Is Breaking The Mold As The Recording Academy's First-Ever Chief Diversity Officer

"I want to make sure that I leave no gift behind when I leave this earth."


Valeisha Butterfield Jones is no stranger to bossing up through career transitions. Sis has resume receipts that put the proof in the pudding of more than two decades of leadership. Let's see: She's been the global head of inclusion for Google, served as the national youth vote director for the Obama for America campaign, worked for the U.S. Department of Commerce, and served as the executive director at Rush Communications (think, Def Jam, Baby Phat, Phat Farm, and Hip-Hop Summit Action Network).

She was also the national director of diversity and inclusion for the Alzheimer's Association and was an innovator at HBO before that. Oh, and let's not forget she co-founded the Women in Entertainment Empowerment Network (WEEN), a nonprofit coalition that ensures adequate representation of women of color in entertainment roles that has impacted the lives of more than 80,000 young women across the globe.

Yes, Butterfield Jones has been booked, blessed, and busy.

Now, she's become a pioneer, serving as the first-ever chief diversity officer at the Recording Academy. (And she'll soon take on the role of co-president this August.) The organization is the driving force behind the Grammy awards and initiatives like MusiCares, which gave more than $20 million to aid creatives impacted by the pandemic.

"We have an opportunity right now to be the change that we want to see. That's one key goal," Butterfield Jones said in an exclusive interview with xoNecole. "The second goal is equitable outcomes for everyone. I'm always thinking about who doesn't have a seat at the table. Whose voice is not being represented and how do we lift as we climb and bring those voices and perspectives into the room? The last part is if you can see it, you can believe it. I think it's important to have Black women in roles like this, so I don't for a second take this responsibility for granted."

"I think it's important to have Black women in roles like this, so I don't for a second take this responsibility for granted."

xoNecole caught up with Butterfield Jones, knee-deep into getting in the thick of ensuring inclusivity and diversity in her new role, to talk about how she's been able to navigate the now-normal of working, connecting, and thriving during a pandemic and how today's young women can reach the career success they seek despite the current challenges.

xoNecole: You have successfully worked in a variety of industries, from tech to entertainment, to politics. What has been the common thread in your journey?

Valeisha Butterfield Jones: I've always said that I want to make sure that I leave no gift behind when I leave this earth. Impact and purpose are two of my core values and the drivers for me to make those decisions. It's been this nice 360-moment for me to return back to entertainment, but it's always been just part of my core and my passion.

It's been difficult for many women to make career moves, especially during a pandemic when graduates weren't even able to have normal undergrad experiences. How can we really go for what we want while overcoming the challenges?

I don't know a single person that hasn't felt like a fish out of water or that imposter syndrome. I know that, for sure I feel it whenever I make a big change. You're not alone. We all go through that in some shape or form, but do it anyway. So often fear can be the greatest motivator if you just use it to your advantage. I've now learned that whenever I feel the butterflies or I have the temptation to shrink in the room when I take on a new role, I've got to just really lean into that and use it as the fuel. I'm actually afraid, now, of the day that I start a new role and I have no butterflies. It just shows that you're alive and that you're human and you care. And don't lose the humanity of who you are in all these new positions and transitions.

"So often fear can be the greatest motivator if you just use it to your advantage. I've now learned that whenever I feel the butterflies or I have the temptation to shrink in the room when I take on a new role, I've got to just really lean into that and use it as the fuel."

Also, you've still got to set healthy boundaries and do it up front. We always have a tendency, especially as women, to want to do a great job, to over-perform, to over-deliver, however, don't do it at your own expense—the expense of your mental health. I've learned now to have mentors and the importance of sponsors—people who are going to say your name when you're not in the room. I've learned the importance of knowing when to just shut the computer off, put the phone down and be present in my real life outside of work.

You have an amazing group of power women friends and colleagues in your corner, and we all know that these sorts of connections help us all sustain ourselves in building careers. How have you been able to keep in touch and continue to connect?

I'm really blessed to have the most beautiful and amazing sister circle of just women who go hard. I'll also say that [having] a good friend means being a good friend and by that I mean so much as you receive you have to give. So for the pandemic, it's been hard, because we haven't been able to physically see each other, but whenever there's a job opp, we send it to each other in our group chat. We share therapist recommendations. We share in-home, Covid-friendly massage recommendations or even just offer a listening ear when we need it. It's nice to have friends who don't feel pressure but we lean on each other when we need it most.

Whenever someone needs to meet someone, we facilitate the introduction if we have the ability to. It just means taking that extra step as a friend to make sure whatever your sister needs, if you're able to, you provide it. Also, it's giving one another space and grace.

This has been great! Now, what's your advice for young women to work toward long and sustainable careers, particularly in entertainment?

First, you must have a bias for action. A lot of people talk a good game and can give a beautiful story around the work they've done, but it's not until you're able to really go into an organization and demonstrate that bias for action. It makes you stand out and become undeniable to the fabric of the company. It sounds simple, but it's not. It means waking up― every day―with that hustle, that mentality, and that go-getter approach to the work―every single day.

The second is innovation. The entertainment industry is constantly evolving and tech has shown us that we have to stay current, and stay fresh in our skills. All the time I'm participating in new workshops and taking new trainings and just trying to make sure I'm leveling up at every stage of my career still. We want to make sure our skills still match up to what our industry still needs.

"A lot of people talk a good game and can give a beautiful story around the work they've done, but it's not until you're able to really go into an organization and demonstrate that bias for action. It makes you stand out and become undeniable to the fabric of the company. It sounds simple, but it's not. It means waking up―every day―with that hustle, that mentality, and that go-getter approach to the work―every single day."

The last one―which is probably the most important one―is self-care and taking care of your mental health, your physical health, and your heart in this very competitive male-dominated industry. So often we operate as robots―getting it done― and then we look up one day and realize that our health has declined as a result. Taking care of your heart and your mental and physical health, taking breaks, using your vacation days, and just getting centered [is important]. Get a therapist. I really believe we all have to treat our health with more intention, especially during this pandemic and even coming out of it.

For more of Valeisha, follow her on Instagram.

Featured image by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images

ACLU By ACLUSponsored

Over the past four years, we grew accustomed to a regular barrage of blatant, segregationist-style racism from the White House. Donald Trump tweeted that “the Squad," four Democratic Congresswomen who are Black, Latinx, and South Asian, should “go back" to the “corrupt" countries they came from; that same year, he called Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas," mocking her belief that she might be descended from Native American ancestors.

But as outrageous as the racist comments Trump regularly spewed were, the racially unjust governmental actions his administration took and, in the case of COVID-19, didn't take, impacted millions more — especially Black and Brown people.

To begin to heal and move toward real racial justice, we must address not only the harms of the past four years, but also the harms tracing back to this country's origins. Racism has played an active role in the creation of our systems of education, health care, ownership, and employment, and virtually every other facet of life since this nation's founding.

Our history has shown us that it's not enough to take racist policies off the books if we are going to achieve true justice. Those past policies have structured our society and created deeply-rooted patterns and practices that can only be disrupted and reformed with new policies of similar strength and efficacy. In short, a systemic problem requires a systemic solution. To combat systemic racism, we must pursue systemic equality.

What is Systemic Racism?

A system is a collection of elements that are organized for a common purpose. Racism in America is a system that combines economic, political, and social components. That system specifically disempowers and disenfranchises Black people, while maintaining and expanding implicit and explicit advantages for white people, leading to better opportunities in jobs, education, and housing, and discrimination in the criminal legal system. For example, the country's voting systems empower white voters at the expense of voters of color, resulting in an unequal system of governance in which those communities have little voice and representation, even in policies that directly impact them.

Systemic Equality is a Systemic Solution

In the years ahead, the ACLU will pursue administrative and legislative campaigns targeting the Biden-Harris administration and Congress. We will leverage legal advocacy to dismantle systemic barriers, and will work with our affiliates to change policies nearer to the communities most harmed by these legacies. The goal is to build a nation where every person can achieve their highest potential, unhampered by structural and institutional racism.

To begin, in 2021, we believe the Biden administration and Congress should take the following crucial steps to advance systemic equality:

Voting Rights

The administration must issue an executive order creating a Justice Department lead staff position on voting rights violations in every U.S. Attorney office. We are seeing a flood of unlawful restrictions on voting across the country, and at every level of state and local government. This nationwide problem requires nationwide investigatory and enforcement resources. Even if it requires new training and approval protocols, a new voting rights enforcement program with the participation of all 93 U.S. Attorney offices is the best way to help ensure nationwide enforcement of voting rights laws.

These assistant U.S. attorneys should begin by ensuring that every American in the custody of the Bureau of Prisons who is eligible to vote can vote, and monitor the Census and redistricting process to fight the dilution of voting power in communities of color.

We are also calling on Congress to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to finally create a fair and equal national voting system, the cause for which John Lewis devoted his life.

Student Debt

Black borrowers pay more than other students for the same degrees, and graduate with an average of $7,400 more in debt than their white peers. In the years following graduation, the debt gap more than triples. Nearly half of Black borrowers will default within 12 years. In other words, for Black Americans, the American dream costs more. Last week, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, along with House Reps. Ayanna Pressley, Maxine Waters, and others, called on President Biden to cancel up to $50,000 in federal student loan debt per borrower.

We couldn't agree more. By forgiving $50,000 of student debt, President Biden can unleash pent up economic potential in Black communities, while relieving them of a burden that forestalls so many hopes and dreams. Black women in particular will benefit from this executive action, as they are proportionately the most indebted group of all Americans.

Postal Banking

In both low and high income majority-Black communities, traditional bank branches are 50 percent more likely to close than in white communities. The result is that nearly 50 percent of Black Americans are unbanked or underbanked, and many pay more than $2,000 in fees associated with subprime financial institutions. Over their lifetime, those fees can add up to as much as two years of annual income for the average Black family.

The U.S. Postal Service can and should meet this crisis by providing competitive, low-cost financial services to help advance economic equality. We call on President Biden to appoint new members to the Postal Board of Governors so that the Post Office can do the work of providing essential services to every American.

Fair Housing

Across the country, millions of people are living in communities of concentrated poverty, including 26 percent of all Black children. The Biden administration should again implement the 2015 Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule, which required localities that receive federal funds for housing to investigate and address barriers to fair housing and patterns or practices that promote bias. In 1980, the average Black person lived in a neighborhood that was 62 percent Black and 31 percent white. By 2010, the average Black person's neighborhood was 48 percent Black and 34 percent white. Reinstating the Obama-era Fair Housing Rule will combat this ongoing segregation and set us on a path to true integration.

Congress should also pass the American Housing and Economic Mobility Act, or a similar measure, to finally redress the legacy of redlining and break down the walls of segregation once and for all.

Broadband Access

To realize broadband's potential to benefit our democracy and connect us to one another, all people in the United States must have equal access and broadband must be made affordable for the most vulnerable. Yet today, 15 percent of American households with school-age children do not have subscriptions to any form of broadband, including one-quarter of Black households (an additional 23 percent of African Americans are “smartphone-only" internet users, meaning they lack traditional home broadband service but do own a smartphone, which is insufficient to attend class, do homework, or apply for a job). The Biden administration, Federal Communications Commission, and Congress must develop and implement plans to increase funding for broadband to expand universal access.

Enhanced, Refundable Child Tax Credits

The United States faces a crisis of child poverty. Seventeen percent of all American children are impoverished — a rate higher than not just peer nations like Canada and the U.K., but Mexico and Russia as well. Currently, more than 50 percent of Black and Latinx children in the U.S. do not qualify for the full benefit, compared to 23 percent of white children, and nearly one in five Black children do not receive any credit at all.

To combat this crisis, President Biden and Congress should enhance the child tax credit and make it fully refundable. If we enhance the child tax credit, we can cut child poverty by 40 percent and instantly lift over 50 percent of Black children out of poverty.


We cannot repair harms that we have not fully diagnosed. We must commit to a thorough examination of the impact of the legacy of chattel slavery on racial inequality today. In 2021, Congress must pass H.R. 40, which would establish a commission to study reparations and make recommendations for Black Americans.

The Long View

For the past century, the ACLU has fought for racial justice in legislatures and in courts, including through several landmark Supreme Court cases. While the court has not always ruled in favor of racial justice, incremental wins throughout history have helped to chip away at different forms of racism such as school segregation ( Brown v. Board), racial bias in the criminal legal system (Powell v. Alabama, i.e. the Scottsboro Boys), and marriage inequality (Loving v. Virginia). While these landmark victories initiated necessary reforms, they were only a starting point.

Systemic racism continues to pervade the lives of Black people through voter suppression, lack of financial services, housing discrimination, and other areas. More than anything, doing this work has taught the ACLU that we must fight on every front in order to overcome our country's legacies of racism. That is what our Systemic Equality agenda is all about.

In the weeks ahead, we will both expand on our views of why these campaigns are crucial to systemic equality and signal the path this country must take. We will also dive into our work to build organizing, advocacy, and legal power in the South — a region with a unique history of racial oppression and violence alongside a rich history of antiracist organizing and advocacy. We are committed to four principles throughout this campaign: reconciliation, access, prosperity, and empowerment. We hope that our actions can meet our ambition to, as Dr. King said, lead this nation to live out the true meaning of its creed.

What you can do:
Take the pledge: Systemic Equality Agenda
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Featured image by Shutterstock

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