Ashley Allison: Everyone Needs a Seat at the Table
There are many voices in the United States that government has struggled to hear, thus failing to consider every point of view when it comes to policy making. While government has made progress in listening to marginalized communities, much more work remains to be done.
In this episode of Deciding Factors, our guest played a large part in moving government closer to the goal of including these groups in the discussion, listening their voices in order to create policy that can better benefit every American. Ashley Allison was deputy director and senior policy advisor of the White House Office of Public Engagement during the Obama Administration. Her portfolio included managing a team that worked with the LGBTQ, Muslim, African American, disability, and entertainment communities. Allison’s primary policy focus at the White House was criminal justice and policing reform.
Ashley Allison has more than a decade of outreach, organizing, and campaign experience, along with an expertise in crisis management and coalition building. Most recently she served as National Coalitions Director for the Biden Campaign. She also served as the deputy director and senior policy advisor under Valerie Jarrett in the White House Office of Public Engagement. Her portfolio included managing a team that worked with the LGBTQ, Muslim, faith, African American, disability, and entertainment communities. Allison’s primary policy focus at the White House was criminal justice and policing reform. Prior to joining government, she worked on healthcare enrollment and partner engagement at the non-profit Enroll America and on President Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign doing statewide African American voter outreach in Ohio. Allison is a graduate of Ohio State University. She also spent seven years in New York earning her Juris Doctorate and master’s in education while working as a high school special education teacher.
Eric Jaffe: The Office of Public Liaison was established in 1974, following the resignation of President Richard Nixon, to help demonstrate that the US government could be trusted to be transparent and engage with the public. Under the Obama Administration, the Office of Public Liaison was renamed as the Office of Public Engagement and cast as, “The front door to the White House, through which everyone can participate and inform the work of the president.” Their stated goal was, “to create and coordinate opportunities for direct dialogue between the Obama administration and the American public while bringing new voices to the table and ensuring that everyone can participate in the work of the president.”
My guest today played a large role in moving the Obama administration closer to this goal. Ashley Allison was deputy director and senior policy advisor in the Office of Public Engagement where she worked under Valerie Jarrett. Her portfolio included managing team that worked with the LGBTQ, Muslim, African-American, disability, and entertainment communities. I talked with Ashley about her efforts at the White House focused on criminal justice and policing reform, including the ban the box effort to remove the check box that asks job applicants if they have a criminal record. While the federal government has made progress in listening to marginalized communities, much more work remains to be done. And given Ashley’s even more recent experience as National Coalitions director for the Biden campaign and her current work at her firm, the Turner Connolly Group, advising companies on diversity, equity, and inclusion, I can’t think of anyone better suited to address these issues. Ashley, welcome to the podcast.
Ashley Allison: Thanks so much for having me.
EJ: So maybe we could start by just talking about your role in the Obama White House. You worked on public engagement. What is public engagement?
AA: Sure. So the Office of Public Engagement, actually it used to be called the Office of Public Liaison and they would just distribute information out in other administrations. Under the Obama administration, they changed because they really wanted to engage with the public. The president can’t be everywhere, but the staff and what we call OPE, Office of Public Engagement, we would meet with groups. We would meet with individual stakeholders and really listen to them about what they’d wanted to see the president take action on. So whether it was on gun violence or criminal justice reform or immigration, we often were the first touchpoint for the public to really listen to what the president’s agenda is, have meetings, discuss policy.
EJ: There’s 350 million Americans. How did you and the office choose sort of which groups to engage with?
AA: Yes. Well, we didn’t talk to everyone, we made our best efforts. You know, honestly the door was always open. So even if you were not politically aligned with the Obama administration, I have stories where I was meeting with folks from Koch Industries on criminal justice reform or very conservative Republicans, but we really just met people where they are.
So for example, one of the issues I worked on was when Ebola was really taking an impact on Western Africa and there was concerns about it coming over to the United States. We met with faith-based organizations, international aid organizations. Oftentimes people we might not already have had a working relationship with, but we picked up the phone and we said, what are you hearing? What are you seeing? How can we help you? But one thing that Valerie always used to say to us is that it’s not enough to have a set of groups that you always work with. You always want to be expanding your circle. So we would go into communities and try and find that small community-based organization that never had heard from the White House before. And we would be that entry point.
EJ: How would you ensure that the information that you received would make its way back into the policy-making process?
AA: There’s a couple of different ways. You know, we would do our nightly reporting where every night we would send up an accounting that would go to the head of the office, which was Valerie. And then those things that were necessary would go up to the chief of staff at the White House. And then all the different offices would see what the Office of Public Engagement would do. Valerie would get it. And then every morning she would take that information into a senior staff meeting with the most high-ranking people, sometimes including the president and flag those things. And we would often then meet with the groups again and bring people from the policy councils to make sure that they were hearing straight from the groups and we weren’t becoming kind of conduit for it.
Washington gets a bad reputation of kind of just being these like inside backroom deals that are being made. But we have to listen to people and OPE and coalition building is really, really all about that. And I often say that the reason why you have to listen to the people is because the solutions are closest to the people proximate to the pain. With people signing up for the vaccine, if you can’t get on a website, we need to know that. If your broadband is not working for whatever reason, I’m not going to know that it if you don’t have access to broadband in Arizona, if I’m sitting here in Washington, DC and never reach out. So we have to talk to the people and then we really shaped the policies around their experience.
And not everyone does it, but I fundamentally believe that if we do that, there are things that people are more aligned on than we actually think. But we’re just not always listening to the people. Have the responsibility of carrying the message back, but often we people in to actually tell their own story. And I think that’s really important as part of what we do around coalition building is that I don’t need to represent everyone. They should be able to represent themselves, and we need to have seats at the table for everyone so that their voices and experiences and diverse lifestyles can be a part of the discussion and solutions.
EJ: There’s this narrative out there about the Democratic party. And it’s reached to people in rural areas. You were actually out there meeting with people across the country. Is the disconnect between the Democratic party and people in rural areas real. Or is that more of a narrative?
AA: I will say I feel like people say that the disconnect the Democratic party has is with every population. It’s like, Democrats are not connected to young people. Oh, we’re not connected to rural people. Oh, we’re not connected to black people. You know, I think that is like a storyline that is not actually true. We did a lot of intentional engagement around rural America and also just making sure that people understood that… I think folks think rural America may think of white people, but rural America is very diverse. And in fact, in the recent American Rescue Plan package that was passed, some of the farmers came up and said, this is the most substantial relief package we have seen for black farmers, but farmers in general, in my lifetime.
EJ: What does it mean to be coalitions director on the Biden campaign? And how does that differ from the work that you were doing in the Office of Public Engagement?
AA: Coalitions is a word I think that is being used a lot now. And it’s actually the first time to my knowledge the word was used in the way it was on the campaign. The theory is the same as that not one group needs to carry all the water to win an election, to get a policy path, that we build almost like a quilt, a blanket, something woven together where you have enough voters from different communities patched together to win. Traditionally, though, that work is called constituency engagement, where you have people focused on a particular community like an African-American engagement director. And we had that, but the theory on this was really bringing people together and saying, we are more alike than we are different and we need to stop.
There was such a polarized climate that we were living in during the last summer. And it was really an effort to bring as many people to the table and say, we can do this. We can get through this pandemic. We can get our economy back on. We just need you to trust us and vote for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. That’s the thing about coalitions is that everyone doesn’t agree on everything. You have to have enough respect for the person sitting next to you to say I disagree, but I respect you enough to still sit at this table and try to figure out a solution.
EJ: When you were conducting your work out there, talking to different people and groups around the country, were there any issues or topics that came up that were surprisingly bi-partisan?
AA: I think the issue that has the most bipartisan support, not every policy point, but the issue is criminal justice reform. You have Newt Gingrich, Van Jones, the Koch brothers, the NAACP, all in a coalition to Grover NorQuest. I wasn’t doing meetings with them and I’m like, I never thought I’d be sitting across the table from these folks. Ultimately like the acknowledgement that the system was broken and that it needed to be fixed. And that has been the commitment that I’ve seen through the Trump era. You know, the First Step Act was passed with bipartisan support. I think it’s one of the only pieces of legislation that actually was passed in that administration with bipartisan support and continues to be an issue that I think will have bipartisan support. Now, all the other ones, I think there is a great chasm to be filled, but criminal justice I think is the one that I continue to see support in.
EJ: You’ve started your new firm and you’re advising corporations. What advice would you have for business leaders? We know that the country is more divided than it’s ever been. So people are holding very different views. How would you advise business leaders try to unite their teams around common goals during this era when people are so divided?
AA: Yeah. I often see corporations try to do work externally in the world and put out commercials and initiatives before working internally to get their own house in order we say. So the first thing I would tell them is start inside. Start having those conversations, bring people… You may be the president and CEO of a company, but you might not be a facilitator on issues around racial equity. There are people like me, there are people who have spent their whole career learning how to have these conversations that can sometimes feel very tricky. So bring people in to help you go through this work. Don’t be afraid, but create safe environments for all your employees, particularly your employees of color, and then make sure that whatever your message is, that if you’re going to speak about an issue around disability rights, you should have someone who is a part of the disability community in your strategy sessions.
Don’t try and come up with solutions for people for a certain community without having that community represented and really relying on their expertise. Diversity in corporate America has been an issue that people have been talking about for a very long time. Well, now is the opportunity to kind of put your money where your mouth is. And just like I was saying about the Democratic party, corporations are stronger when their employees and their leadership, they are diverse and they truly represent this country. So I think that many are doing great work and I hope more take this not to make it about politics, but just make it about doing the right thing, get your own house in order, and then start doing some external work and rely on people who are really trained in this space to guide you through the process. You don’t want to try and boil the ocean. Pick something that you really are passionate about, that you care about, and that you can commit to.
It really hurts efforts when big corporations do a drop and then create a new story and then kind of disappear and don’t really have a commitment for the long haul. So make sure you’re truly committed. I think one example that a company did that I could lift up is Airbnb. They felt like there were accusations of discrimination on their platform. Airbnb is still committed to figuring out and making sure that that platform is a place where everyone who wants to experience some other destination or place to live can do it without discrimination. And so, they made a commitment and they’ve done it over the years. And I’m sure they will continue to do it. Don’t boil the ocean. Identify something you really care about. Even if it’s something like the whole voting rights conversation that’s going on right now, it might not be something that you had a long-term interest in, but if you’re going to engage in it, be in it for the long haul.
Now, for people who don’t always have their voice represented, I even have to do this as someone who has built many, many coalitions. It’s like, if you’re putting an effort together, take a second look at who is a part of the team that’s putting it together. If you know how to do this analysis, who’s missing? Who is not represented? What voice do we need to have at this table? If that’s not your strength, ask one of your colleagues. Like, do you think that this is the right configuration of folks? I will say it, if you are like trying to solve an issue about communities of color and the whole table are full of white people, like that’s not it, that’s not the way to do that. Right? You need to like expand your circle and make sure that folks are really represented at the table. And I said it earlier, but I’ll say it again. It’s really, really important for people who have had that lived experience to be a part of the solution and finding a way to bring them into the conversation, particularly in corporate America.
EJ: Is there anything else internally that you’ve seen companies do that you think is really wise and we’d benefit from hearing about?
AA: Yeah, I think… So when we were doing the ban the box effort, sometimes companies work together. And so even though I think we’re seeing this with the vaccines, even though there are companies that normally are competitors. It’s like, actually we are all aligned. And we think that people should have a second shot and be able to get a career. So there were about 20 corporations, Target, Walmart, who you would normally think are somewhat competitors, who came out together saying we’re going to ban the box. And they knew that their unity in that moment with send ripples across the ecosystem in corporate America for folks to really take a look at their policies around whether or not there’d be a checkmark.
Recently, companies like Patagonia on our voting rights, they’ve been really vocal and they led an effort to give people the day off to make sure that they could vote on election day because they knew there might be long lines and challenges to make sure people can vote. But I will say that groups like Patagonia and Airbnb that I mentioned, they did not try and come up with those solutions on their own. They went to the advocates who work on this and said, we are thinking about doing X. Is this the right approach? We are thinking about putting this disclaimer on one of the companies on one of the streaming platforms. We are thinking about putting this disclaimer on some of the content on our platform, is this the appropriate language? They asked the experts.
Now, sometimes even in this day, you see people put out statements and you’re like how do people still put these things out? And you just know. You say, man, there was not a black woman looking at that. Because they would have said, that is not what you want to say. There was not an immigrant who took a look at that because if you had, it would have been flagged and would have prevented you a lot of backlash. So those are just a couple examples of things that I think a couple of companies have done really well.
EJ: Well, Ashley, we really appreciate you taking the time to have this conversation today. We wish you the best of luck at your new firm, Turner Connolly Group. So thank you so much.
AA: Thanks for having me.
EJ: That was Ashley Allison, former deputy director and senior policy advisor for the White House Office of Public Engagement under President Obama and National Coalitions director for the Biden campaign.
One of my biggest takeaways from our conversation was the importance Ashley placed in going out and actually sitting down with the people whose perspectives you seek to represent, to hear firsthand from them about how your policies can have the biggest and best impact on their lives. As Ashley said, we need to have seats at the table for everyone so that their voices and diverse lifestyles can be a part of the discussion and solutions. This reminded me of my earlier conversation on the podcast with Admiral John Polowczyk who felt that his efforts to improve supply chains used to combat COVID-19 were greatly strengthened by talking to the healthcare professionals working on the frontline. We hope you’ll join us next time for a brand new episode of Deciding Factors featuring another one of GLGs council members.
Every day, GLG facilitates calls with experts across nearly every industry and geography, helping our clients with insight that leads to true clarity. Feel free to leave us a review on Apple Podcasts. We’d love to hear from you or email us at email@example.com if you have feedback or ideas for future show topics. For Deciding Factors in GLG, I’m Eric Jaffe. Thanks for listening.