alumni Spotlight

May Alumni Spotlight with Kimberly O’Neil, MPA ‘00


How does one contend with the dichotomy of excelling at something they don’t particular enjoy doing? In this month’s alumni spotlight, Kimberly tells us how public speaking can be an asset even if it’s not a pleasure, what it’s like being the youngest African American woman in the country appointed as City Manager, and more.

You’ve served in a variety of municipal governments in Fort Worth (TX), Glenarden (MD) and New York City. Were any of those experiences particularly exciting, challenging, or meaningful?
For more than 20 years I served municipal governments around the country in some capacity. Each position, regardless of hierarchical placement, has provided some level of excitement, challenge, or meaning that cannot be compared to the other positions. As I was afforded opportunities to grow in my career, without hesitation becoming a City Manager provided the most excitement, the greatest challenges, and had the most meaning. In that role, I understood the importance of the decisions that I made and the impact on the community that I served. When you are working in that type of role, you may not always recognize the magnitude. My ‘aha!’ moment came after I left that position and followed the progress of the initiatives that I worked on.

You’re the youngest African American woman to be appointed as a City Manager in the country. Did you grow up with a drive to accomplish a goal such as this?
Not at all. I had no clue that I was the youngest until a research group called to interview me. It still did not sink in at that time. I remember the request for the interview coming in after an experience I had during a statewide conference. Most City Managers in Maryland did not look like me - age, race, or gender. It was noticeable and very uncommon. I went to the City Manager’s luncheon at the conference and was asked who I was representing. I responded “City of Glendarden” and they immediately followed-up with “no, what City Manager?” Although it was never said, I interpreted it that they assumed I was an executive assistant, chief of staff, or some position along those lines. Everyone looked a little confused when I responded that I was the City Manager. Unfortunately, I had grown accustomed to that.

It was only after I moved on that I began acknowledging the accomplishment. If my accomplishment helps someone else to get in a door or believe that they can push through a barrier, then I have a responsibility to share my story. I honestly do not believe most barrier breakers focus on becoming the first, youngest, or only because the process in getting to whatever level can be challenging. When you do not fit the perceived look for certain positions, there is this level of awkwardness when others recognize your role. This is one of the reasons why I am so committed to helping younger women, people of color, and those from disenfranchised communities maximize their opportunities. There should never be limits placed based on who you are, what you look like, or where you come from. We have to normalize inclusion in various fields so that we are not shocked by who shows up and we focus on the quality of work that they can provide. It’s imperative that we get to that point.

What is it you love about public speaking? Can people who lean more to the introverted side become good public speakers?
Honestly, I do not like public speaking but I know it is one of my top skill sets. Most people do not believe that I am more on the introverted side because I am so vocal, when needed. I love to make a difference and if it requires me to speak in front of an audience then that is my charge. I think what I love most are the outcomes. It’s more strategic for me in that I know I have a commanding presence that can be used for good when offered an opportunity to speak. It’s about sharing stories for those that may not be able to and using my reputation to bring more do-gooders to the table. If I had to own public speaking as part of my life, it is truly for the love of the community over my need to be in front of an audience.

What was your experience at the Marxe School like? How do you feel it benefitted you and your career?
The Marxe School provided a foundation that helped me to excel in my career. When I look back over what I have been able to accomplish, I am grateful for the lessons that I was able to use throughout my government career and now as an entrepreneur within the social sector.

I am also an advocate for public institutions. There is a value that many do not realize. I started at Baruch approximately 4 years after starting my career in government, and 3 months after completing another CUNY graduate program. Weeks before my final semester at Baruch, I was offered a great employment opportunity out of state. I had to leave a few weeks before the end of the semester because they were unable to delay my start date. My professors, especially Dr. [Frederick] Lane, were so accommodating; they worked with me. My official graduation date was shifted to the end of the summer, but I did not have to worry about moving, finishing up my capstone, and graduating at the same time.

Now that I am an adjunct professor for two different public universities, I recognize how professors can shape the potential with every student that sits in their classroom. My time at CUNY has helped to shape how I engage with students and my understanding that not every student is going to fit the structure I have laid out for each semester. Through my classes in political science and public leadership, my hope is that I am influencing the next group of dynamic difference makers in our country in the same way that Marxe did for me.