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WSDA's New Executive Director Bracken Killpack Takes the Helm

When you first meet Bracken Killpack, WSDA’s new Executive Director, one of your first thoughts might be, “This guy is young.” Fresh faced and just 32, Killpack is probably younger than most newly-minted EDs by a decade, if not more. 

But many, like WSDA Board member Dr. Dennis Bradshaw, see Killpack’s age as a benefit, saying, “I think being younger helps him a lot — younger people have a more accepting perspective, and they’re willing to look at things from every angle, whereas the older we are, I think we get more tunnel-visioned and more apt to have a ‘my way or the highway’ perspective. In the changing political landscape we inhabit, that attitude can be dangerous. Having someone who is young and open to listening to any idea without prejudice or the influence of age actually makes him a better leader.” The selection committee agreed — they wanted someone younger who could understand issues from the perspective of the membership and could see it through. Killpack says, “The fundamental difference is there is a group of dentists who have been practicing for 30 years who aren’t as vested in the problems that dentists face today because they’re at the end of their careers. Younger dentists are thinking about how all of the issues play. Part of that is age, and part of that is their challenges are different than the dentists who came before them.” 

Also, while dentists well into their careers share a homogenous quality — many went to UW, are male and white — that is no longer the case. Killpack says, “UW provides only a third of the new dentists coming to the area, the people themselves have different ethnicities, genders, needs, and political viewpoints.” Additionally we’ll have the first graduating class of mostly women dentists soon– and that’s never happened before. 
Regardless of his age, part of what makes him so right for the post is his political provenance, and not just the “I went to college and I majored in Poli-Sci” kind of stuff — though he does have that — he got his tassel in ’05 from Willamette University. Killpack cultivated and grew interest in politics organically from an early age, drifted for a bit to dabble in theater and improv (that’s right, improv), and then found his way back to the political mother ship in college. And here’s the thing: this young guy has packed more life, more experience, and more joie de vivre into his 32 years than most people twice his age. That’s why he’s Executive Director of the WSDA. Oh, and did we mention that he’s smart, and nice, and funny? Everyone, it seems, says that about him.

Good fortune
From their first, fortuitous meeting, when she asked Bracken to help her hang a poster in her room freshman year, his wife Kate knew he was different. “He was kind, warm, and tall…which helped,” she says, easing into a laugh. Joking aside, Kate says she saw enormous potential in him from that time forward, noting that when he ran for Hall Council he was articulate, funny and smart — and that when he spoke, people stopped talking and paid attention to him. “He had a quality people responded to, and he stood out because he came to the table with actual ideas and substance,” she recalls, “and I had the sense that he would likely be super successful someday.”

Of course, wives are supposed to support their husbands, so her objectivity could be called into question, but she’s quite clear about the potential she saw in him then, and still sees in him. “It’s not surprising to me that he’s become an Executive Director at such an early age,” she says, “I’ve seen many examples of times when he has come in and been able to work with diverse groups of people and constituents. He truly understands what their motivations are, what’s driving them, and what they’re responding to in a way that most people can’t. People have a hard time separating their personal feelings to really get to the root of a situation, but he does it really well, and he’s calm. It’s an innate quality he has.” Dr. John Lo, who has known Bracken almost since he first came on board at the WSDA a decade ago, agrees, saying, “What impresses me the most is his organization, his ability to track different things and pull them up at a moment’s notice. He’s pragmatic and always looking for solutions. In private moments if he’s not happy with the way things are running he will let you know. But he’s able to take what he has and work with it. He’s very open minded – he’ll take solutions offered by others and evolve them, he’s not at all close minded – that’s why I enjoy working with him because policy is never black and white.”

An insulated life
So how did this kid, who by his own admission grew up sheltered and isolated in Logan, Utah, become this exceptional leader? He says his childhood was unremarkable, and notes, “I grew up in a small town in a beautiful area, and I thought that everyone had an amazing canyon and mountains in their back yard. It wasn’t until I went to college I discovered that it wasn’t that way. I didn’t have a sense of what the larger world was like until then.” Killpack was the oldest of three boys. His dad worked in quality assurance for a company that made medical devices — and later for Dentsply, where he works to this day. His mother is a hairdresser. In high school he developed his interest in politics, recalls enjoying presidential races on CNN, ran for student council, and says he wrote a lot of reports on presidents. He paid attention, and connected the dots between how laws prescribe what we can and cannot do, and saw that in order to create change you have to take the time to understand the issues and learn how to improve the process — early lessons that would stand the test of time.

He attended Willamette on a theater scholarship, but dropped the major and the scholarship after the first semester. He loved theater – had started an improv group in high school, and worked to revive one while at Willamette, but found that theater was taking up too much of his time. As Kate explains it, “He was in college to do new things, have new experiences, and meet new people, and instead was in the theater rehearsing, building sets, and blocking staging every night.” In fact, it wasn’t until he dropped the major that he was around more and the friendship between he and Kate had the room to grow. Fate had intervened, and not only did Bracken have time to get to know Kate better, he had time to pursue his own political aspirations. 

In his senior year he ran for President of student body unopposed, but he ran his campaign very seriously. He and Kate made signs and put them up all over campus, they made flyers and he gave speeches, and when he had the chance to speak to the student body he was always well prepared with notes and talking points. There was never any sense that he knew he was going to win or felt that he didn’t need to try his hardest. Kate says, “I think that’s a testament to his work ethic and commitment. He’s always had the ability to work with disparate groups – in college he not only worked with the Board of Directors and college administrators, but he was able work with the Greek community, the theater geeks, the politics department, and others. He had respect from a lot of different groups.” How is he able to do this? Kate says, “He has a great calm demeanor and the ability to make people comfortable with humor. He’s passionate about the things he cares about  and able to articulate a bigger picture and longer term vision. He can see the whole story — so many of us, myself included, get hung up on the details or emotion.” 

Bradshaw agrees, saying “He is really accepting of anybody, doesn’t take his position or knowledge and use it to create a hierarchy. I remember a few years back at the PNDC when Bracken helped us move boxes without a second thought. There was no task too menial, he really wanted to help out and learn about the PNDC because it was important to him. It was fun to see his willingness to learn.” Dr. Ashley Ulmer seconds that, saying, “Let’s not forget how intelligent he is. He’s really patient, but he also is able to focus in on what is really important, so he doesn’t waste time on things that don’t matter. He’s caring, takes time to really listen to what people are saying, and makes sure that they know they’re being heard. He’s very good at that.”

Giving back
Willamette has a proud heritage and history of community service and of producing a great number of Peace Corps volunteers for a school its size. When Bracken and Kate were in school, Kate’s cousin was in The Gambia with the Peace Corps, and they followed his service with interest. Bracken had always wanted to go overseas, and the idea intrigued them both. They put a pin in the idea, and moved to Seattle after graduation. Soon after, Bracken answered an ad in Craigslist and came to work for the WSDA. The couple applied for the Corps and waited for an opening. And while they both prepared for the experience with open minds and realistic expectations for the rigors of the corps, neither could have prepared themselves for the road ahead and the struggles they would face.

A rocky start in Panama
While the couple never assumed Panama would be a cake walk – neither had a command of the language, they would be living in poverty-stricken areas of the country where the need was greatest, and they would be likely performing manual labor to a degree greater than either had in their life — they didn’t anticipate just how dangerous their first six months would be. Kate elaborates, “I could talk all day about our experiences in Panama, but I think the main thing for us both individually and as a couple is that I believe it made us stronger people. Especially in our first six months – we had a tough transition and a lot of health issues, and we were not in an entirely safe living environment in the beginning that really tested us. We relied more upon each other in that period than I have ever relied on anyone in my life.” The two spent their first Christmas in the hospital, sick for three days. Kate wasn’t sure she could make it, and wanted to leave. “I remember him saying that he thought we would regret it if we gave up, and that he thought we should give it another try,” she says. “I am so glad we stayed. As hard as things were, he helped me to understand that it was too soon to give up on something we had been really excited to do, and that we could turn it around and find a way to make it a better situation for us, and therefore be able to help the people we were sent to work with.” Calling the period the hardest she’s had to endure in her life, especially physically, Kate was grateful that she had the support of her husband. “In that regard, it was amazing. Now, it just feels like anything life throws us we can handle. I feel like it changed our perspective on the importance of family and supporting each other no matter what. In terms of how Bracken changed through the experience, I think he gained a new level of depth and understanding of the world around us.” 

Once in their new community, the real work of being in the Peace Corps could start. “We were living with farmers in a cinderblock house,” Killpack says, “but we saw people with very little who were very happy. In a lot of ways we realized it was what our grandparents and their parent’s lives must have been like in small towns in America — that sense of community and of ethics. That’s an experience that you really can’t get in the states anymore.” 

The couple immersed themselves in their new community, working side-by-side in projects ranging from building mud structures to working closely with government agenices, which could be an exhaustive process. Kate says, “It was an amazing opportunity for Bracken to hone his leadership skills — he was working with government organizations that operated in a structure of blatant favoritism — we had to be very persistent, and always polite because we were representing the Peace Corps and the US. We had to put aside personal feelings and make small steps.” The couple’s main project was helping a group of cattle ranchers in their community get a grant from the United Nations for a pasture improvement program. They knew nothing about pastures and cattle, but the people of the community did, and they were able to help them develop the idea into a proposal for funding, put together timelines and budgets, and construct logic models. That was the skill set they brought to the table — they worked with the stakeholders in the community and helped them figure out how to engage in that process. It was a great project for Kate and Bracken, who had never worked together professionally, because it gave them the opportunity to use their complementary skills to problem solve. Kate says, “I am very detail oriented and thorough, Bracken is very strategic and thinks on a bigger scale. He was great at seeing the vision when it was harder for me — and you have to remember that this was all in Spanish, and we had to know words for cattle that we didn’t even know in English.” Killpack utilized his skills at connecting the right people, while Kate would coordinate logistics such as meetings and transportation and other needs prior to the meetings. “It was a partnership that worked very well for us in terms of complementing one another,” says Kate, “That’s still true today here back home” When they left Panama they were unsure if their grant would be funded, but it was, and last year they returned to Panama to see the fruits of their labor.

The Peace Corps experience changed them both dramatically. Killpack returned with an acute understanding of the privilege and access he’s afforded simply by virtue of his race and gender that he didn’t fully appreciate or understand prior to their time in Panama. He gained a much broader perspective on life, the struggles people in other cultures face, and that happiness can, and does, transcend. “Panama, helped me realize what happiness is,” he explains, “it’s not an accumulation of things, it’s more of an emotional, internal state of being. I learned that from people who had hard lives, but who are very happy, really enjoy life, and wouldn’t want it any other way. They love their lives, their families, their religion, and that they get to be themselves. I’m not saying that all people living in poverty are happy, but we met many people in that environment who found happiness in their lives despite their poverty. That came into focus in the Peace Corps.”

Back in Seattle
For Killpack, there was never really a question of returning to WSDA when his service with the Peace Corps was through — he’d always enjoyed his work with the Association and particularly, working with dentists. “His grandfather was a dentist, his dad is in the industry, so there’s a thread there,” says Kate. More than just the dental connection, though, Killpack has always seen the WSDA as something special and different than many others like it, “So many associations are rudderless — they meet for the sake of meeting and talk about problems but never really do anything. This Association has put resources in place to actually move forward on issues. We’ve always been strong and effective in legislative advocacy, but I think that we do a lot of things well – we’re responsive, answer problems, and put programs in place for our members that make a difference.” 

Upon his return he immersed himself in politics and all things related to the Association, taking a keen interest in how all the puzzle pieces fit together. As Bradshaw noted, “He is willing to help at every level – it has always impressed me. He wants to learn every facet of it down to minute detail, has called me with questions about PNDC — simply so that he could have a better understanding of how the conference works. It makes him a more rounded leader -— most leaders wouldn’t care for that level of minutiae, and that’s something he did long before he was in consideration of the ED position.” 

Applying for the Executive Director was a natural evolution for Killpack. It aligns beautifully with his strengths — he’s bright, skillful at bringing heterogeneous stakeholders together, finding commonality, and working through differences. He’s a powerful, articulate communicator who happens to love that role, and he’s friendly, popular and social. He even claims to like attending DQAC meetings, which is hard to believe. And while he loves the political process and will still be involved to a certain degree, he’ll be leaving that largely to Anne Burkland now that he’s at the helm of the Association. “This year I will have a lot to do with it because of all the transition happening in the organization. And, of course, I’ll be involved in future legislative sessions because charting our political course as an association is an important part of the Executive Director’s job, but I won’t be handling the day-to-day tactical discussions, which I will miss.”

Challenges ahead
When reviewing the kinds of challenges he faces in the coming years, insurance reimbursements are in the forefront, and Killpack is intent on working to make the dental insurance market more competitive by providing more options. “As long as everything isn’t the same type of PPO product,” he says, “ I think that would be a benefit.” The immediate need is in the legislature, however. “That’s always just about being in the trenches and delivering on the issues that are important at the time,” says Killpack. 
Beyond that, he says WDIA’s expansion this coming year is exciting and will be important for the insurance division and the Association as a whole. He wants to focus on making educated assessments — analyzing data and formulating decisions based on specific populations rather than guesswork, and utilizing new databases like Aptify and software will bring that to fruition. “Once we transition to Aptify as an organization, we’ll have access to organized dentistry’s database, so the resources will be in place for more targeted analytics. I will credit ADA with getting much more sophisticated in the last couple of years – they’re in a position that they could be very helpful to us in other areas, too. In the future we might be able to target specific demographics in specific zip codes for PNDC marketing, for instance — I can imagine a lot of uses for the tech and the information.”

And, speaking of the PNDC, Killpack knows that the years ahead are crucial for the conference. “I don’t think we’ll see any major changes through 2016, but we will have big decisions to make. We’re going to be able to extract qualitative and quantitative data about what people want in a conference, and that’s going to shape how we proceed. We’re trying to figure out how we can attract more assistants and hygienists to the conference because that’s where we’ve seen the greatest decline. Dentist numbers seem to be holding steady. But it ties into the question we have: 20 years from now, should the PNDC still be one big event or will it be something completely different? I’m not going to enter into these discussions with preconceived notions — I want us to collect data and information that will help us make the best decisions going forward. I’m much more concerned about process than outcome.” 

Killpack knows that it’s not just about what we as an Association want or what our members want — we’re just one piece in the grand equation, and we have to take the global perspective into account, “The bigger part of all of that is not so much what we want, but how the world around us is changing,” he says, “We’re seeing all kinds of reforms in health care —in general medicine more than dentistry, but a lot of crucial shifts are happening. Consumers like the state and large employers are thinking about making health care better and cheaper, and that’s putting a lot of interesting pressures on medicine. So, while you may have the ability to shape a course by degrees, you ultimately have to play in the environment that exists. The members ultimately set the broad course of where they want to go and it’s up to us to maneuver within those parameters based on how things develop.”