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HIGH PROFILE: Darren Damon Peters remembers childhood atmosphere of ‘it takes a village’

From Clinton campaign to Entergy to company founder, Darren Peters has had a crazy career. But his childhood atmosphere of ‘it takes a village’ helped mold him into the man he is today. by Renarda Williams | March 28, 2021 at 7:41 a.m.
Darren Peters on 03/10/2021 in Little Rock at Central High School for High Profile cover.(Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Cary Jenkins)

Darren Peters holds a successful career as founder and managing partner of the Peter Damon Group in Washington. It's a public affairs company that specializes in advocacy, lobbying at the federal and state levels, business development and event management services.

But this role is the pinnacle of a Mount Everest of sorts that Peters -- described by those who know him as a man of quiet, calm demeanor who never gets rattled -- has climbed via the number of moving-shaking, wheeling-dealing roles he has had, paid and unpaid, throughout his adulthood: Chief of staff for the Office of Policy and International Affairs, U.S. Department of Energy. Senior-level manager for Entergy Corp. Publisher of a Little Rock-based magazine that highlighted and celebrated diversity within the Black community. Campaign strategist for Hillary Rodham Clinton.

"Something I say, and I've been saying for some time ... and that's just 'Keep it moving forward,'" Peters says. If someone comes to him and tells what they want to do, his reply is "OK, let's figure out how best to go about getting it done. I'm not going to be discouraging. I'm going to be encouraging."

A typical day for Peters involves getting to the office, probably around 8 a.m., having his first meetings with the executive team, then going into the staff or team meeting. There they discuss clients' needs. Then come the phone calls and virtual meetings during which Peters builds relationships.

"Those things are just ongoing. We're continuing to move forward to make sure we have those relationships taken care of. So I usually ... get finished [with] work on a good day, maybe 7:30." But, he lives this way by choice.

"I think working, doing the grind every day -- to most people it's hard work, but not hard in a negative sense. It's just what it takes to get it done."

HUMBLE BEGINNINGS

Peters, 53, has come a long way from humble beginnings in Little Rock.

He grew up around the corner from Central High, his alma mater, the one boy in a single-parent household with an older sister and a younger one. (He also has a half-brother.) His father figure was his grandfather, with whom he went to live after his grandmother died. "A good portion of my formative years were with my grandfather ... probably from age 12 on up," Peter says. Because his grandfather was God-fearing and churchgoing, Peters himself was very active in church.

He fondly remembers growing up in an "it takes a village" atmosphere.

"That was very, very much intact ... but not just from the parents in the neighborhood. It was really the people like my age and a little bit older who were very engaged in providing a different type of education.

"A lot of people think that getting educated in the streets [has] all these negative connotations to it." But there are advantages, he says. "You learn confidence, you learn teamwork, you learn a lot of different aspects that you can utilize later in your life. ... We had some good folks in the neighborhood."

As a youth, Peters pondered being a lawyer. At the time of his upbringing, it was ingrained in him that after attending college, "you're going to get a job somewhere, and you're probably going to work there the rest of your life. ... You want a stable kind of environment.

"So, like most folks, I guess I was expecting to do the same. Inside of me [I knew] it wasn't necessarily what I wanted to do. But I was on that path."

Peters' record as a good student landed him at Hendrix College in Conway after graduation from Central in 1986.

Peters cherishes his time at Hendrix.

"It was a great, great experience in some instances, and it was a tough experience," he says. "From a cultural perspective, there [were] not a lot of African Americans on campus. The good thing about that is because there were so few, we were a very, very close-knit group of folks."

Among those folks was one of Peters' closest friends and former college roommate -- Darrin Williams, now chief executive officer of Southern Bancorp Inc.

Williams says his relationship with Peters goes back to them attending kindergarten together at Central High School when it had a kindergarten program. "It was when we were both back at Central as high school students that [our] friendship cemented, and now he is like a brother to me," Williams says.

"He is a 'salt of the earth' kind of guy," Williams adds, describing Peters. "I could not ask for a more loyal, honest and supportive friend. ... He is also about the most honest person that I know. He is going to tell you the truth whether you want to hear it or not."

It was also while at Hendrix that Peters met his wife, Vivian. She was a student at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway. The two have been married 28 years and have two children, Brandon, who works with his father at Peter Damon Group; and Sydney, a student at the University of Nebraska.

INTRO TO POLITICS

After graduating from Hendrix in 1990 with a political science degree, Peters got a job at the former Metropolitan National Bank, then he applied to law school. During his first year of law school, he left to join the campaign of former President Bill Clinton.

Peters was sent out on the campaign trail -- "a young Black political operative, traveling around the country ... ahead of these primaries, going into the Black communities, telling them about Bill Clinton.

"It made a huge difference for them to see people that looked like them, already working with this governor from Arkansas that they [didn't] really know a whole lot about."

Working with the Clinton campaign, Peters says, "was one of the greatest experiences I've had in my life. ... I learned so much."

Once that successful campaign ended, Peters went to Washington and began working at the Department of Commerce and the Minority Business Development Agency before joining Clinton's re-election campaign. After that, he went to the White House and the Department of Energy.

At the White House, Peters served in the Presidential personnel arena, helping to review candidates who were looking for jobs within the administration. From there, he went to the U.S. Department of Energy in the Office of Policy and International Affairs. He went as a special assistant in that office, but after some time the assistant secretary made him the chief of staff.

In 2000, Peters returned to Little Rock to become manager of system government affairs for Entergy Corp. He also became involved in community work, serving on the boards of the Single Parent Scholarship Fund of Pulaski County and Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families; helping bring City Year here; helping begin the local chapter of 100 Black Men and chairing the Central Arkansas Transit Authority Board.

PLAYING UP THE POWER

Then came PowerPlay magazine.

When he was in Washington, Peters was selected to be a part of a group, the American Council of Young Political Leaders. The group was made of four Republicans and four Democrats. Peters became friends with a city councilman from Phoenix. "He was telling me about this publication that they were doing that was highlighting Black folks," with a strict focus on Black-owned businesses.

Peters concluded that a similar magazine would be good for Arkansans. He wanted "to be able to expose African Americans who are doing positive things to show that we're not a monolithic type of people. I mean, we have diversity within [our ranks]. We're not just Democrats; we're Democrats, Republicans, Independents.

"So we assembled a team" of key community members for a meeting.

He didn't know anything about magazine publishing. Someone suggested he reach out to Sericia Rouse, now Sericia Nelson, who went on to serve as the magazine's editor.

Nelson recalls being "intrigued" by Peters' vision.

" [I] thought he must have been a pretty smart and cool guy to have assembled such an impressive group of folks who were willing to be a part of his idea."

She praises Peters as a hard, savvy worker. "I daresay that you are not likely to outwork him. He's also astute enough to surround himself with people who balance him out."

The magazine had a successful run of some eight years, eventually spinning off into the PowerPlay Awards. Peters even added PowerPlay TV. Everybody involved with PowerPlay, including Peters, worked on a volunteer basis.

Peters tried to pick PowerPlay back up after returning to Washington. It lasted a couple of issues there.

"We still talk about, every now and then, just doing a special edition."

CLIMBING THE CAREER LADDER

Peters had returned to Little Rock after being approached by Entergy executive Kay Arnold while still at the Department of Energy. She'd asked if he was thinking about coming back home; there could be an opportunity in Arkansas for him and she wanted to talk to him about it if he was interested, she told him. That led to the Entergy job.

"Kay Arnold became a great mentor to me," Peters says. "I'd never been in a corporate world, not like that. And she helped guide me through that Entergy corporate maze. It's a great company but, just like anything, you kind of [have to] learn how to do business."

Peters was allowed to take a leave of absence from Entergy to do advance campaign work for then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, who had decided to enter the 2008 presidential race. Clinton wanted him to travel with her and help with some of the political activities. He and Clinton's team traveled every day, "sunup to sundown" and got to know one another well.

Traci Otey Blunt, now senior vice president for communications for the National Football League, was a member of that team.

"Darren is one of the most consistent people I know," Blunt says. "He treats everyone with the same respect -- you can be the person cleaning the building or the President of the United States, and he treats you [with] the same respect and kindness."

After Clinton lost the primary, Peters returned to Entergy. The powers-that-be asked if he would go to Washington and work at the company's offices there. He did so, serving as the director for federal government affairs until Clinton reached out again. She wanted his help with her 2016 presidential campaign.

So Peters went back on the campaign trail. "Unfortunately, we didn't have the results we wanted."

He did return to Entergy after Clinton's loss. But the desire to begin his own company burned within him. In 2017, he took the plunge and did so using the experience and relational capital he'd amassed from his past jobs.

Once word got out about what Peters was doing, he began hearing from people who sought his expertise. "I would say 99% of our business has come from somebody who just recommended us."

That doesn't surprise another good friend of Peters' -- Arkansas Lt. Gov. Tim Griffin, a fellow Hendrix alumnus who saw Peters as "someone others wanted to be around and befriend."

In 1995, Griffin moved to Washington to work as a federal prosecutor and needed a place to stay.

"Darren was married with a young family," Griffin says. "He asked if I wanted to stay with him in his Maryland home. ... Of course, I took him up on it," and crashed in Peters' basement.

"He showed me around and helped me get settled in. ... We had lots of good conversations talking about life and the future."

PAYING IT FORWARD

Peters, who credits several organizations with helping to shape him as a youth, continues to pay it forward as a success coach for The Cypher, a Washington-based group of Black male professionals providing guidance and support to other black males, and he continues to support charitable organizations in Arkansas.

He gets back to the Natural State fairly often, and attends an annual "Boyz' Weekend" that he and five of his friends, including Williams, have been attending for nearly 20 years. With the exception of last year, they usually get together in Hot Springs in June.

Peters enjoys playing golf. He's also a foodie, enjoying sampling different types of food from different restaurants, and likes to travel.

Maturity, he says, has taught him that "the older you get, [the more that] you just want to be happy."

"You realize that it's certain things that you think make you happy, but [they don't]. Along the way, you should be able to find out what really makes you happy and then just go for that."

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