NEW YORK—Most people aspire to move up in government to make a deeper impact. Not Alexis Grenell. She feels she can do more from the other direction.
After working for officials such as Sen. Jeff Klein, Sen. Joe Addabbo, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Grenell is now using her skills as a communication and political strategist to help non-governmental action organizations.
“I’ve had the good fortune to work with very sincere officials,” Grenell said. “Advocacy and government are not mutually exclusive, but I wanted to apply what I know to help organizations [with] issue agendas who didn’t know how to be effective as they could be.”
Grenell’s philosophy is, “You can make it if you try.”
Some may feel that the vision of America as the land of democracy and opportunity is more idealistic than realistic, but Grenell sees one’s ability to achieve change as none other than effective organization and communication, and she plans to help the underrepresented do precisely that.
Grenell’s mother helped Russian immigrants resettle during the mass immigration in the 1990s. Grenell saw first-hand how much hope people around the world place in the United States, and felt frustrated that many groups have not gained equal rights and are still underrepresented today.
She grew up hearing tales of her feisty great-grandmother, a destitute Jewish immigrant and suffragette, who was a member of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union.
“My great-grandmother got to see the changes that happened with labor unions and women’s rights within her lifetime: you can make it if you try,” Grenell said.
Grenell thinks of her great-grandmother when she writes women’s rights op-eds for various publications.
“But we’re still underrepresented today,” she said. “Women consist of 50 percent of the population, yet only 10 percent of Congress.”
The gratification of accomplishment may come slowly in advocacy, but Grenell’s conviction to help the underserved remains strong.
It’s for a class of people, who, up until that time, had not had a voice in Congress. It’s exciting how that can change people’s lives in a very meaningful way.
Grenell’s father is a neurologist with quite a hectic schedule; yet he always found time to take her out three times a week to talk.
They would get breakfast at Starbucks, read The New York Times, and talk about issues.
Grenell had a father who was passionate about women’s rights. “He instilled in my head that my ideas are valuable. I have certain rights and it is worth fighting for them,” she said.
Her parents never took her to Disneyland; instead, at age 4, Grenell went to Italy. Even today, she still remembers what it felt like to see Botticelli’s Venus and Michelangelo’s David for the first time. “The art was so beautiful, it was a shock, you never get over it,” she said.
Whenever Grenell needs a break, she likes to unwind at the Met by herself. “Art takes us out of our lives and brings us kindness,” she said.
At first, Grenell wanted to major in art history in college, but later felt she could bring about more change through communication. She had always been interested in people and the way they communicate. In high school, she used to join all sorts of eccentric meetings and clubs—such as The People Against Cars, a group that advocates for public transportation.
“You have to interact with people not like yourself,” she said. “To see people engage in issues like that, it’s fascinating, in a collective public forum to discuss ideas, it was exciting to see that those ideas could become something.”
“Politics is like human theater, except with very real consequences.”
Making a Difference
Today, at age 29, Grenell runs her own practice where she strategizes for clients in non-governmental action organizations, political reform groups, and some political campaigns.
One of Grenell’s clients is Common Cause, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that advocates for political change. The organization deals with a variety of issues, including redistricting.
The Constitution states that congressional, state, and local districts should be drawn every 10 years to reflect population changes. However, district lines are sometimes redrawn in a way that benefits incumbent and partisan interests at election time.
In 2011, Common Cause drew its own nonpartisan maps to recommend to officials.
“We had to effectively get our message across and be taken seriously,” Grenell said. “It was a daily event, getting the maps out there, going to hearings, and months of intense battling and gerrymandering.”
Although the Common Cause maps did not get adopted on a state level, it was taken to the Eastern District federal court, which adopted its Congressional redistricting plan, an enactment with profound consequences.
Prior to the adoption of this map, Flushing was not considered its own congressional district despite its large Asian population.
“These are the lines that got Grace Meng, the first Asian American member of Congress from New York elected,” Grenell said. “It’s for a class of people who, up until that time, had not had a voice in Congress. It’s exciting how that can change people’s lives in a very meaningful way.”
“It was amazing because this project could have been very much doomed—it could have been like, oh who cares you came up with some maps, they’re not official, you’re just a bunch of idealists,” Grenell said. “But those maps are in place right now.”
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