Create your own mission statement. As I said earlier, the work has to start within ourselves by knowing who we are and what we are called to do in this life.
As part of our series about 5 Things That Each Of Us Can Do To Help Unite Our Polarized Society, I had the pleasure of interviewing Brenda Gadd, Rethink Public Strategies.
Since 2003, Brenda Gadd has been managing campaigns and influencing public policy at the highest levels of state and national government. Through effective outreach strategies, Brenda has shaped legislative and budgetary outcomes as well as elections and advocacy campaigns throughout the U.S. Brenda serves as president of Rethink Public Strategies, a public affairs firm she founded in 2017. Her practice represents nonprofits and socially conscious companies in the public policy and political arenas, and she conducts advocacy and campaign training around the country. Giving back to the community and fulfilling a commitment to social justice is of the utmost importance to Brenda, and she currently serves on the national board for Emerge America. When she’s not advocating for clients or causes she believes in, Brenda recharges by spending time with friends and family, traveling, hiking, catching up on her reading list and enjoying live music in her hometown of Nashville, Tenn.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
Thank you so much for interviewing me! I grew up in a rural, small town in East Tennessee on the Appalachian Mountains’ foothills. My family was poor, but I didn’t know it as a child because there was so much love in our home. We had well water, which turned our scalps different colors, and we even had an outhouse! After my dad retired from the Navy, he became a pastor, and my mom was a teacher, so we were very involved in our local community of Sunbright, Tenn. As a kid, I loved watching shows like Matlock and Perry Mason — these shows made me want to be an attorney. I developed a genuine love for history and government in middle school. In 7th grade, I attended a field trip to the state capitol in Nashville. After learning about lobbying on this field trip, I desired to become a lobbyist one day. In 8th grade, we took a field trip to Washington D.C., and I was chosen as a student to put a wreath on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. I was in awe of the idea of American democracy, but I didn’t see at that time all the messiness of achieving that ideal democracy. As a young kid, I thought that democracy was the same for all Americans. I see things differently now, but that idealism hasn’t left me.
What or who inspired you to pursue your career? We’d love to hear the story.
I’ve had so many amazing people inspire me throughout my career, but I would have to say former TN State Senator Anna Belle Clement O’Brien, who was nicknamed “the first lady of Tennessee politics.” She was a tall, confident senator with flaming hair who represented my town’s district in the senate. I remember her speaking at our school (the school was k-5–12th grade in one school because it was so small). She talked about politics, and I’ll never forget her saying, “Politics is a beautiful word.” The way she spoke about politics grabbed my attention. She would say that politics is people; it’s in social sciences for a reason. Politics is about humans connecting and sharing what we believe and our passions. The word doesn’t have to be nasty, but it comes with the baggage that human beings carry. Her speech inspired me to pursue my career. When I started working on political campaigns several years later, I had the privilege of driving her to several campaign events. We formed a bond, and I was able to get to know her quite well before she passed away in 2009.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?
As an advocate, strategist and lobbyist, I have the privilege of working with many amazing nonprofits and organizations on public policy work. Currently, I’m working with a national domestic violence advocacy group to advance legislation that requires salons and barbershops to have training on how to help identify and assist domestic violence victims. Sometimes the only place a victim can go outside of the home is a salon, and the only person they can interact with is their hairstylist. Stylists need to be able to identify, approach and help victims effectively. I’m working to make this training a requirement in each state.
I was also recently involved with an election protection campaign to increase voter access in 14 states across the country. We broke the states down by regions and looked at people’s access to the polls to ensure a fair election. We provided infrastructure and identified processes to enable organizations to work together effectively to help voters. We also helped overcome many challenges, like absentee ballots and mail-in options during COVID, for voters in neighborhoods and regions often neglected.
None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Was there a particular person who you feel gave you the most help or encouragement to be who you are today? Can you share a story about that?
This is a tough one to nail down! Stacey Ofsanko is someone who comes to mind who inspired me to manage my first political campaign. She told me I could do it, and it helped me tremendously. We won the election by 248 votes. It was a pivotal election to shift control of the state senate back in 2003.
Another person who comes to mind is Commissioner Jim Fyke of the Tennessee Department of Environment who taught me to be mindful of how you treat people. He told me to be nice to people on the way up because they’re the same people you meet on the way down. Inevitably, we go up and down in life. Treat every person with dignity and respect, and it will come around for good. My previous interns are now people I work with and go to for advice. It’s a beautiful thing.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?
Back when I canvassed door to door for campaigns, a man came to the door hungover in only his underwear. I kept a straight face, asked for his vote and left materials with him. Somehow I stayed focused, but I learned there are certain times of the day to go door canvassing and, sometimes, it’s OK to walk away.
There have also been a few times when I was going to present somewhere and was not prepared with directions. I’ve arrived late and even ended up in the wrong city once or twice. Thankfully, Google Maps is now at my disposal.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
Most recently, I read “How to Be an Antiracist” by Ibram X. Kendi. The topic is extremely important to me personally and to my work in government relations and policy advancement. It’s challenging to apply anti-racism principles while attempting to move the needle forward on policies across party lines. Genuinely being an anti-racist is hard work, and it should be. I’m personally trying to apply these principles internally and externally in everything I do, think and speak.
Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?
One of my favorite quotes is, “Be nice to people on your way up because you’ll meet them on your way down.” This quote has been a motto of mine since my early days in politics. No matter where you’re at in your career, be kind to people.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
A good leader brings everyone along as they strive to achieve their goals. They’re not so focused on the result that they step over people. In my industry, a leader is someone with a conviction of values and passions that they stand for with a positive social impact at the forefront.
I experienced extraordinary leadership when I worked on a U.S. presidential campaign. Although you’re working as a team to advance a common goal, it can be a competitive atmosphere with many staffers competing for their next job. However, the leadership had everyone change their titles to make it less hierarchical and prioritized recognizing and honoring everyone’s work on the team. There was an incredible culture that I’ve not experienced much with other campaigns. Although the candidate didn’t make it out of the primaries, his team continued working with interns and staffers after the campaign ended to focus on job placement, interview coaching, resume building and more. The care showed for the individual’s life was a reflection of the leadership demonstrated by the candidate.
OK, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. The polarization in our country has become so extreme that families have been torn apart. Erstwhile close friends have not spoken to each other because of strong partisan differences. This is likely a huge topic, but briefly, can you share your view on how this evolved to the boiling point that it’s at now?
It’s easy to focus on the minutia of the moment versus the bigger moment in history where we find ourselves. We have the opportunity to be on the “right side of history,” much like we saw after the civil rights movements in the 1960s and the women’s liberation movements in the 1970s. We can look back with a clearer understanding of the social movement that helped move our country forward. I’m sure during those decades, families and coworkers were wondering how to talk to each other and approach sensitive subjects. Today, we are at another social awakening after seeing so many racial injustices, responses to Black Lives Matter and a hyper-partisan election that led to the U.S. Capitol building invasion. If we deny the moment we are in and try to find the “nice” way just to get along, then at a later time, we will be viewed as complacent and on the wrong side of history. We must move forward in genuine empathy and understanding. We cannot have one-sided conversations where we project an opinion without an open mind and heart to hear from someone who doesn’t see things the way we do. There has to be a “want to” attitude of desiring to apologize, repair and heal.
I have no pretensions about bridging the divide between politicians, or between partisan media outlets. But I’d love to discuss the divide that is occurring between families, co workers, and friends. Do you feel comfortable sharing a story from your experience about how family or friends have become a bit alienated because of the partisan atmosphere?
My immediate family and I vote differently because we feel personally and deeply aligned with values and causes that get tied to a politician who either agrees or disagrees with the issues. There have been times when I’ve been pleasantly surprised at family members being open to receiving new information who I assumed would be closed off. There are also family members who isolate themselves with like-minded individuals who often repost and reshare content that is not verified. I’ve learned that with close family members, it’s important to center the conversation on our family, our lives, our health and how we can help each other. However, there are times when we will drill down on topics related to policies, like criminal justice reform, women’s health and reproductive rights, police brutality, and other challenging issues.
In your opinion, what can be done to bridge the divide that has occurred in families? Can you please share a story or example?
When we come together to have conversations, we should start by divorcing the discussion from the news cycle or Facebook. There needs to be factually-verified points and evidence to back up what is being shared. Discussion centered around policies and how those policies impact people’s lives is a much more fruitful approach to a conversation. For example, the topic of police defunding can cause people to become defensive and put walls up immediately; however, they are not researching what that topic actually means. We come into conversations with a lot of assumptions that need to be peeled back. If you want to be heard and seen, you have to hear and see the other person. It’s so important to research and understand the policy. Policy is made better when both sides are at the table, and there is bipartisanship.
How about the workplace, what can be done to bridge the partisan divide that has fractured relationships there? Can you please share a story or example?
Workplace relationships vary depending on the culture of the company. Often, the culture is predominantly white or majority male or female, and we can often put all the pressure on the person that’s not in the majority to educate everyone. Building a culture of true equity and inclusion means bringing in outside speakers to help navigate and lead more significant conversations. It’s important to remember that it takes time to build a culture that is truly diverse and inclusive to everyone. It has to be a commitment, and people who have been hurt need to be given time to heal.
I think one of the causes of our divide comes from the fact that many of us see a political affiliation as the primary way to self identify. But of course there are many other ways to self identify. What do you think can be done to address this?
I believe it’s essential to understand your personal mission statement that identifies who you are and what you stand for. We’re more than our political party affiliation or our jobs. It forces us to go deeper within ourselves versus solely trying to identify with one of two candidates.
Much ink has been spilled about how social media companies and partisan media companies continue to make money off creating a split in our society. Sadly the cat is out of the bag and at least in the near term there is no turning back. Social media and partisan media have a vested interest in maintaining the divide, but as individuals none of us benefit by continuing this conflict. What can we do moving forward to not let social media divide us?
Before social media was as popular as today, there was a greater focus on negative T.V. ads. The difference was you couldn’t share, comment and let people know your thoughts immediately on the content like you can on social platforms. So much content that gets shared on social media has no disclosures on it. We have to continue to put pressure on these companies to regulate content that gets shared. Until the regulatory side happens, we have to take responsibility for what we post. Before sharing or commenting, ask yourself if you would say it if the person was in the room in front of you. Would that be your first interaction with them? That’s how social media operates. Be ready to accept criticism and learnings from what you choose to post. It goes back to your mission statement. Once you understand who you are and what you’re called to do, you have to decide what you want to put into this world.
What can we do moving forward to not let partisan media pundits divide us?
As consumers, we can have an impact on holding partisan media pundits accountable for offensive and insensitive content. Of course, not all media and reporters are unethical, and we should champion those who are truly ethical in their messages. Media pundits speak to their audiences, who are their advertisers. If the networks prioritize division and disunity, we should pressure companies to cancel their ad buys. Media is a business at the end of the day, and we should do what we can to not allow those who are divisive to dictate our lives and our news.
Sadly we have reached a fevered pitch where it seems that the greatest existential catastrophe that can happen to our country is that “the other side” seizes power. We tend to lose sight of the fact that as a society and as a planet we face more immediate dangers. What can we do to lower the ante a bit and not make every small election cycle a battle for the “very existence of our country”?
I don’t know that every small election cycle is like that because there’s usually not enough funding! I find that theme very common with larger elections because it gets people to the polls to vote for that candidate. Politics is a response to what is being talked about and cared about in our society. If we want change, we will have to stop taking an interest in polarizing communication styles. Every election cycle is significant, but it doesn’t have to be polarizing, as we’ve seen demonstrated on a national level. I think it’s tough on a local level because the community knows the candidates more intimately. We all can enact change on the local level, whether it be our school boards, city council, commissioners and more. These people will move up the political ladder to higher rankings, so we need to engage with them locally while we can.
OK wonderful. Here is the main question of our interview. Can you please share your “5 Steps That Each Of Us Can Take To Proactively Help Heal Our Country”. Kindly share a story or example for each.
- Create your own mission statement. As I said earlier, the work has to start within ourselves by knowing who we are and what we are called to do in this life.
- Repent for your wrongdoings. I believe that to say that you have never thought, said or done something polarizing would be a lie. I encourage people to do some soul searching. Apologize to anyone you feel you may have hurt, even if it was many years ago.
- Repair any damage you’ve done. After repentance comes reparations. If you need to make something right, don’t put it off another day. You won’t regret it.
- Evaluate how you communicate. Consider the question: are you projecting your opinion without room for open dialogue? Again, if you want people to hear what you have to say, you need to be available to listen. Communication is a two-way conversation, not a one-way social media post.
- Create an inclusive culture. Whether you influence your workplace or your own personal culture, invite people in who are different than you. We learn and grow alongside people who are different than us.
Simply put, is there anything else we can do to ‘just be nicer to each other’?
Listen without being defensive. Put yourself in someone else’s shoes and become an empathetic person. This takes time and practice! Even if you disagree with someone, you can still understand where they’re coming from if you take the time to listen.
We are going through a rough period now. Are you optimistic that this issue can eventually be resolved? Can you explain?
I’m always optimistic. We can rally together and shift the course of history, much like the generations before us have done. There is still progress that can be made when we reach across the aisle and show respect.
If you could tell young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our society, like you, what would you tell them?
You matter. Everything you do matters. Where you spend your time and energy matters. You can make a positive impact on this world. Your impact will start with those closest to you, and the ripples will be felt by many away from you.
Is there a person in the world, or in the U.S., with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
It’s hard to pick just one! It’s a tie between Jen O’Malley Dillon (Biden’s campaign manager), Teresa Younger (MS. Foundation for Women) and Glennon Doyle.
How can our readers follow you online?
This was very meaningful, and thank you so much for the time you spent on this interview. We wish you only continued success on your great work!