Kathleen Plunkett’s community resume is more than 40 years long and starts right in her Russian Jack neighborhood in East Anchorage, where she volunteered with the Russian Jack Community Council and eventually served 16 years as the council president (1990-2016). That fact alone testifies to Plunkett’s stamina and devotion as a volunteer.
One of the ways that devotion paid off for her Russian Jack neighbors was in the creation of three neighborhood parks – San Antonio, Williwaw, and Nola Polar Bear – that gave neighborhood kids good places to play. All three took years and multiple partners both public and private to pull together. All three exemplify Plunkett’s perseverance, consistency, and faith that “change occurs one person and one step at a time,” because it doesn’t stop with one person and one step. “If everyone can bring along another person and then another person…” That’s the bloom of change that happens when what Plunkett calls a “core group” gets a project going, shows what can be done, and soon has people asking “is there something I can do to help this as well?”
Plunkett’s volunteer work expanded from Russian Jack to the rest of East Anchorage with her participation in United Way’s Weed and Seed initiative of the early 2000s, another public-private partnership that sought to reduce crime and its causes and create opportunities for building stronger neighborhoods – and give residents a stake in them.
That wider reach led her to run for the Anchorage School Board, but as Plunkett recounted, it wasn’t a straight-line decision; she was thinking Anchorage Assembly. What made her decide to try for the school board?
“Two words,” she said. “Tim Sullivan.”
Sullivan, a friend, and longtime East Anchorage advocate and activist, chided Plunkett for her disappointment when one of her community council colleagues pre-empted her in filing to run for the Anchorage Assembly. She said Sullivan told her he was tired of her griping and urged her to draw up a list of pros and cons about why she wanted to run for office. She did.
“All of the pros and all of the cons were around kids,” Plunkett said.
She realized “I’ve been thinking of the wrong area for my passion.”
Unsuccessful in her first race, Plunkett won her second and served three terms on the Anchorage School Board (2009-2018). One of her primary missions there was keeping kids who were suspended or expelled for drug and alcohol violations in school, whether at Benny Benson, SAVE, or some other program, rather than simply lose them, with all of the individual and community consequences that follow.
And she became a leadership committee member with ARISE (Anchorage Realizing Indigenous Student Excellence), a Cook Inlet Tribal Council organization dedicated to academic success for Alaska Native and American Indian students. This related directly to her leadership teamwork with United Way’s 90% Graduation by 2020 initiative. “If we didn’t work with our Native kids, we were never going to reach 90 by 2020,” she said.
That focus fits the new iteration of 90 by 2020, United Way’s Cradle to Career partnership. Plunkett is a member of Cradle to Career’s Team of Champions, community leaders dedicated to equity in providing all children in Anchorage the means to thrive in school and beyond.
She’s long been a partner of United Way, a Tocqueville donor, and a volunteer in workplace campaigns at ConocoPhillips, a kindred spirit in building common ground for positive change.
She credits former Alaska lawmaker and Anchorage School Board president Gretchen Guess for a lesson in collaboration. She said Guess once told her that “I find something in common or something positive with everyone I work with, whether they’re my favorite person or not.” That generosity of spirit has powered Plunkett’s community career, from school board policymaker to pocket-park lilac planter to emcee at school concerts. It’s the volunteer mindset that makes the extra mile a matter of course and includes a standing invitation for company.
“You can accomplish a whole lot more together than you can individually,” she said.
Kathleen Plunkett not only said it, she’s lived it.
So when she allows, “I will tell you I have rose-colored glasses,” she’s not confessing a naïve view. She’s earned the tint and sees true.