Brenda Gadd is the president and founder of Rethink Public Strategies – a firm leading policy change at all levels of government. She is an advocate for gender and racial equity, and a recognized expert on advocacy, leading campaign, advocacy and candidate trainings throughout the U.S.
Through effective outreach strategies, Brenda has shaped legislative and budgetary outcomes as well as elections and advocacy campaigns. She is a nationally recognized advocacy professional and was awarded the Top 20 in 2020 by The Advocacy Association.
Beginning her career working on political campaigns, she quickly rose through the ranks to serve as a chief of staff in the Tennessee Senate and then as a legislative liaison and lobbyist in Governor Bredesen’s administration. She later became the first woman named VP of Government Affairs of Civic Point, LLC and Frost Brown Todd, a law firm with more than 500 attorneys across five states.
Her career wins include conserving 8,600 acres for The Nature Conservancy, creating secondary ticket market reforms for Live Nation Entertainment, managing the successful statewide retention election of three Tennessee Supreme Court Justices, known as the “Keep Tennessee Courts Fair” campaign, and supporting immigration reform with the Tennessee Supreme Court and her DACA work with Tennessee Justice for Our Neighbors.
Giving back to the community and fulfilling a commitment to social justice is of the utmost importance to Brenda. She is a founding board member of Emerge Tennessee (organization focused on recruiting and training women to run for office and win) and serves on the national board for Emerge America as its Vice Chair. She is an appointee to Metro Nashville Mayor’s Gender Equity Council where she and others championed metro government’s first family leave policy and an overhaul in its hiring practices. Brenda is also a speaker and trainer for national women’s leadership and campaign training programs, including Vote Run Lead and Ignite.
Brenda Gadd is participating in BBBSMT’s upcoming Mentoring Matters event on September 22 from 5:30-6:30 p.m., where she will speak about the importance of talking politics and why it matters. Click here to join her table.
WHAT DREW YOU TO THE WORK YOU DO IN PUBLIC POLICY ADVOCACY?
Anna Clement O’Brien used to start every speech out with, “Politics is a beautiful word.” I love that, and it doesn’t get said anymore, but the fact is that politics is about people. It’s how we feel, how we interact and how we engage, and if we truly care about people, then you have to care about the politics of people. It doesn’t have to be something we run away from; it can be something that we actually see the human behind.
How I first started was more issue-based—I cared about poverty and hunger, and then my awareness continued to build out. It often starts with what you’re personally facing and your experiences. And once you become aware of and you see more things, it’s hard to unsee, and then we layer on top of that how we identify within the political spectrum. And some of that’s learned, some of that’s taught, some of that’s making those individual decisions, but that’s actually, I think, kind of exciting because every time you approach someone, they have their own life and learned experiences that actually matter. And so to get into that conversation, that’s where the real change and momentum can happen.
When I think about the public strategies, to me it’s all about the advocacy. It’s how we advocate, how we develop that public strategy, it’s all about the type of advocacy that we’re doing. And so that’s the thing I primarily work on is looking at a big picture, developing a strategy of thinking through, what are the right elements of advocacy engagement, when and where? Sometimes it’s power mapping, understanding the folks we actually need to influence, and how do we get there? And then having someone really smart help us craft language and communication around that.
HOW HAS MENTORSHIP IMPACTED YOUR JOURNEY?
First of all, that’s a huge part of it. I’ve had men mentors and women mentors, and both matter. Early on, when I got out of college, most of my college years were focused more on issues and not necessarily political party politics. But I got to know a candidate that I agreed with because of a particular position on an issue. And so I was just knocking on doors, volunteering on the campaign, and had an amazing moment where she just kind of scooped me up and said, listen, why don’t you take on more of this and start doing more. And there was a season of my life during a summer where I was doing a part-time job and was able to spend more time doing some volunteer work. It was a local candidate race. Like I said, I got engaged because of a particular issue and really just had someone give me more responsibility. Not only give me more responsibility, but she actually gave me guidance on it that helped me be successful. She really took the time to train me on some very specifics when it comes to getting out the vote, specifically for candidate campaigns, that translates to other issue advocacy campaigns.
Also, when this same candidate was then considering running for an open seat at the state legislature, I had another woman mentor who said, you should manage that race. And I was like, absolutely not, I don’t know what in the world I’m doing. She was like, I’ll be here, I’ll help you, you can do this. And she did, and I worked my tail off, and she made sure I didn’t fall off any deep ends.
And what happened next was getting an opportunity to work at the State Capitol as a chief of staff, as a staffer. And I wouldn’t have had that opportunity had folks not mentored and also sponsored me, and then the candidate saying, I trust you. So mentorship, sponsorship and trust. If I look back at it, I think that was one of the reasons I’m probably sitting in Nashville today.
HOW DO YOU APPROACH MENTORSHIP?
I think one way is to make sure I’m being responsive. That seems like a very simple thing, but we get incredibly busy, and I didn’t appreciate how busy the men and women who were taking the time out for me really were. And so if someone reaches out, and I’m thinking of a particular woman as a mentee, and when she reaches out, I try to immediately respond to say, can I circle back up with this? And give her an immediate response.
All of us will have mentors that come and go. Sometimes they’re in for just a season. Sometimes folks in our lives may not know that they’ve been a mentor. Sometimes there’s formal arrangements and sometimes there’s not. But one of the things I’ve learned from being a mentee is that responsiveness really matters, and I think once you’ve been a mentee, you can really remember that. I still have mentors and never want to do this life without that.
WHAT’S THE BEST PIECE OF ADVICE YOU’VE RECEIVED FROM A MENTOR?
Stop offering to get their coffee. When I was at an association, and I was the public policy director, I would sit in one of our senior committee meetings. We had senior attorneys, and there were only two women and one person of color, and the majority were white male, and the age status was north of 60. I was supposed to be leading the meetings, but I wasn’t able to get anything done and I was so frustrated. And the advice I got from someone was, stop serving the coffee. And it mattered in context of this particular time, and the point was to make sure they know you’re not their assistant, and you’re on equal par as them. We should always treat each other with kindness, and that was just a piece of advice that allowed me to hold myself differently in meetings to make sure I wasn’t getting run over.
I think once we establish ourselves, we can start changing that culture of what we expect of each other, no matter if you’re a woman or a man. I want us to sit in a board room where our expectations are that we would all try to serve each other in that sense, right? Hey, do you need something, do you want something? And that we value the staff that is providing us with those beverages or providing those accommodations the way we want them, and we have just as much appreciation for those folks. And so to me it identifies a whole change of culture we need.
IF YOU COULD GO BACK IN TIME AND GIVE YOUR YOUNGER SELF A PIECE OF ADVICE, WHAT WOULD IT BE?
Stop worrying so much. And that advice is good for me today, too. You can’t worry about the things you can’t control.
I had another piece of advice, and this statement used to kill me, and it took me a long time to understand what it means: What other people think of me is none of my business. And I hated that statement because I care what people think of me. Most of the work I do is all about whether or not I think that people feel they’ve been heard and that we’re doing the work in an authentic and meaningful manner that’s not harmful or hurting or degrading other people, which is a very unusual thing when we look at politics.
I’ve always thought about what other folks think of me, especially in the work I’m doing. Did they think I’m doing a good enough job; do I have their respect? But, as long as I hold myself to the character and the values I have set for myself, if someone else thinks something else, I cannot control that.
Brenda Gadd is serving as a Guest Mentor at our upcoming event Mentoring Matters, a professional group mentoring and networking event taking place virtually on September 22 from 5:30 – 6:30 p.m. At this event, you’ll have the unique opportunity to spend an hour with Brenda or another prominent leader of your choice. Brenda will be discussing the topic: Politically Speaking: Let’s Talk Politics, Why it Matters and How to Get Started. All proceeds go to support Big Brothers Big Sisters of Middle Tennessee’s programs and services.
Buy tickets to secure your spot today at www.mentorakid.org/mentoring-matters.