It’s an important topic because very often, in any public affairs campaign, something will happen that requires you to redirect your efforts — or, under the best of circumstances, offers you the opportunity to elevate the conversation and be even more effective than you’d imagined.
Can you offer an example?
I can, though it is a grim one. Everytown was moving forward on our efforts to reduce gun violence in the Chicagoland area when the July 4, 2022, mass shooting occurred in Highland Park. Because the Highland Park mass shooting occurred in an affluent, white neighborhood, the reaction from government officials and the media, etc., was heightened. And with that we could talk about where it is acceptable to have gun violence — in minority neighborhoods? — and where it was not, in affluent white neighborhoods like Highland Park. About this time, I happened totally by accident to run into the executive director of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, and Everytown and the Black Caucus began to work together to address some of the conditions that contribute to gun violence in minority neighborhoods — discrepancies in health care, for example, and in workforce development. Suddenly, in a moment, we’d been thrown a curveball and we had to pivot in our strategy and tactics — and we did, effectively.
It sounds as if you learned a great deal in a hurry from that experience.
I believe that’s true. I sure try, and you never know when you will learn something useful. During an internship, I worked closely with Angela Rye, CEO of Impact Strategies, who served as executive director of the Black Caucus. It was, as I say, an internship — nothing glamorous but really educational. I mainly shadowed Angela, and one day at some event she asked me to move her car. So of course I did. I got into her car, and the glove box fell open, and a lot of parking tickets spilled out of it. And I thought, “Angela Rye gets parking tickets the same as I do.” I learned something from that experience, and I have never forgotten it.
You grew up in Virginia and spent much of your career working in the Midwest, then came to Washington and are now in New York. Tell us about that.
It’s funny the way there are twists and turns in a career. I worked in political campaigns in Ohio, for example, and there was one election where all the candidates we were trying to help got beaten — all of them but Sherrod Brown. That can be pretty devastating when your candidates all lose. But I came to love Ohio. I remember Sen. Brown told me about how he was on a trip to the Middle East and a local asked where he was from and when Brown told him Ohio, the local said, “Ohio is America.” I like that, just as I like that slogan “Virginia Is for Lovers.” It gives you a sense that anything is possible in Virginia. I think on some level I must have fallen in love with America. There’s a story there, too.
I once had an idea — a plan — to drive across the United States and see the country. I was going to start in New York City. So I went to New York City and I never left. I had friends there, and at a party, I met a person who worked with Everytown. He told me they happened to be looking for someone with government affairs experience — especially government affairs experience in Ohio. One thing led to another, and that’s how I ended up at Everytown.
And you now live in New York?
I do. I live in Harlem, which is such a special place — one that has made such an important cultural contribution to American life. It is also a place where Black people are always welcome. There’s a vibrancy to Harlem. There’s the music, of course, but people are always grilling and hanging out. It’s wonderful. But there is also a real sense of community and of the importance of community. I noticed this during the pandemic especially. The moment that really hit, people were organizing food drives.
Harlem has a great history, doesn’t it?
It does, and in ways that will surprise you. I live right across the street from “the Grange.” That was Alexander Hamilton’s mansion. And it doesn’t look like something you’d expect to find in Harlem. It looks more like something you’d see in Colonial Williamsburg. Some say it was his answer to Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. And it’s in Harlem!