Charity Jackson is the Junior Press Secretary at the AFL-CIO where she started as a Fellow and worked her way up. Charity is responsible for developing story ideas and pitching the press on labor-related issues. No day is typical for this rising communications star, especially during a presidential election.
WWPR’s Molly Mitchell sat down with Charity for the July edition of Power Points to learn more about how she went from wanting to go into law to discovering her passion for communications and her favorite District date spot.
MM: What drew you to the world of communications?
CJ: Actually it was a bit random to be completely honest. After graduating from Wellesley, I took a job at a law firm down the street from the White House – and I ended up hating it. Loved the people at the firm but most days I didn’t speak to anyone and it was literally me, myself and I. My co-workers were great but you’re constantly trying to bill more hours and slog through your cases. I realized that I missed being more creative in the workplace. Some sort of outlet that wasn’t just writing ‘redact’ on documents. Then one of the partners at the firm recommended a growing startup so I went to work there for a few months. When I got there somebody had just quit and my new boss looked at me and said, ‘Great! Now you need to run our weekly radio show.’
MM: Wow. I feel like that’s often how big career leaps happen.
CL: Right. So I ended up running this weekly radio show with the former Governor of Utah [Jon Huntsman] and I booked guests for him. Anyone from political reporters to academic experts depending on that week’s news cycle — I absolutely loved it!
MM: And you had never thought about communications before that?
CJ: No, not till that experience. From running that radio show I realized how big the world of communications was and that I could do so many different things with it and work for a lot of different places.
MM: Tell me about the decision to work at the AFL-CIO.
CJ: I made the move because I wanted to get a more traditional communications experience. I joined as a fellow in 2014 and I’m not from a union family so at the beginning there was a learning curve. We have 56 affiliates and there’s always a ton of policy to learn. For communications I think it’s a great place to start because you have to learn a lot of issues very quickly. You really learn how to prioritize when there are so many policies coming through.
MM: You’ve moved up from Fellow to Junior Press Secretary — how would you describe your current role?
CJ: Essentially each day I make sure I am advancing specific issues that matter to working people and I make sure that I’m promoting Liz Shuler our Secretary-Treasurer, she’s our second highest ranking officer.
MM: Is there such a thing as a typical day for you?
CJ: No [laughs] not usually. But there are a few constants. Every morning we have a stand-up meeting outside my office and we go through what’s moving in the news. We plan out what we need to be pushing, what we need to be responding to. But besides that 9:30 am meeting anything can happen!
MM: So no typical day but any typical tasks?
CJ: Definitely! Throughout the week I could be pulling together a briefing memo for Liz Shuler for an upcoming interview or event with talking points, drafting an op-ed or statement for an AFL-CIO expert or pitching reporters on the election.
MM: What do you think is the most difficult aspect of your job?
CJ: Sometimes it can be making a break when you’re trying to pitch stories. The Labor Movement has been around for a long time and often people can have a stereotypical view. So when I tell a reporter that we are doing a panel on black hair at work sometimes the response is, ‘No you’re not,” or ‘Really?’ And I say, ‘I promise we are!’ We represent over 6 million women and we’re the largest women’s organization in the US and we do a lot of work around women. So this idea of AFL-CIO being a bunch of old guys just simply isn’t true. We’re so many things.
MM: What’s the most gratifying aspect?
CJ: Well the flipside of it being hard to pitch the Labor Movement means that it’s extremely gratifying on the other side when a great story gets coverage. Recently I was with Liz at the United State of Women Summit and she spoke at one of the plenaries right after President Obama and it was great. Then she did an awesome interview with Refinery29. Those little moments where you feel your messaging is getting out there is just the best.
MM: What professional experience have you learned the most from?
CJ: I’m still early in my career – I graduated college in 2012. So luckily I haven’t had a terrible moment yet. But I will say that initially learning about the Labor Movement was a little bit overwhelming and working with so many brilliant people in this department could sometimes leave me feeling a bit insecure and lacking in the confidence to speak up and share my ideas.
MM: How did you overcome that feeling?
CJ: It took me looking around at all my fantastic co-workers putting out their ideas and seeing them either fly or a superior say ‘Hmm, that’s not the best idea. Let’s rethink it.’ So then I started coming more into my own and claiming more of the workspace. Then I felt confident enough to say, ‘I think we should do X, Y or Z with this. And not only do I think we should do it I am going to do it.”
MM: I feel that’s so important to talk about because even though now women have heard this a million times from Lean In etc., women often don’t speak up as much as their colleagues.
CJ: Definitely post college in DC I wasn’t as confident as I had been on campus at Wellesley. Also as a woman of color that adds another layer to being confident in the work place. It’s a battle every single day. Sometimes when briefing a VIP colleague you really just need to fake it till you feel you’ve made it even when you’re terrified on the inside.
MM: What do you believe is the biggest barrier to female leadership?
CJ: I think acceptance of women in certain positions as well as differing communication styles. These are broad sweeping statements but we can often be communicating in one way while men communicate in another way. For me personally if I’m communicating with someone of the opposite sex and if they appear even slightly hostile or agitated — and it could be that they’re having a bad day and nothing to do with me — but I’ll immediately step down. Whereas another man’s response to that might just be ‘Sucks to be you today but I’m still pushing forward with my agenda.’ Also I think it’s hard to imagine yourself in a space where women haven’t been before because you don’t have any role models. The importance of having a mentor that’s been a trailblazer is really important. Men don’t have to go through that struggle. They’ve been in every space and held every highest possible office, while women are still making great strides trying to get there.
MM: What keeps you motivated?
CJ: Especially working in the Labor Movement there are so many issues affecting working people everyday. I grew up in the suburbs of Texas, went to an all-girls prep school and then on to Wellesley, finally landing in DC, which is the first city I had ever lived in. When I got involved in the Labor Movement my eyes were opened to a variety of issues that previously to me had only existed in a textbook. That’s what keeps me motivated day in and day out: someone’s not earning the wage they should be earning because of outdated laws, women still don’t have paid maternity leave and that results in a huge barrier to women moving up the food chain. The fact that women still have to worry about that in the US in 2016 is absurd. Those are the things that motivate me to keep pushing even when it’s frustrating.
MM: I’m sure that the election this year is keeping AFL-CIO busy. Does that influence AFL-CIO’s communications strategy?
CJ: This is my first presidential cycle with AFL-CIO – I did the midterms. We are definitely all hands on deck for the presidential election. But I think everything that we’re fighting for is still the same. We have a platform that we rolled out last January 2015 called our Raising Wages Summit” that encompasses a whole platform including equal pay for women; better maternity leave, childcare that’s affordable; healthcare solutions. Now we just shift that to saying we are looking for candidates who are committed to raising wages. So it’s a shift in messaging but at the core it’s the same.
MM: How do you define success when it comes to a communications campaign?
CJ: Getting in the news cycle and having people discuss a topic in a new way.
MM: I know you blog for AFL-CIO’s website. What do you think makes a blog post stand out?
CJ: The post needs to have an interesting lens. I also try to connect our work with things people do in their everyday life. The more people who can relate to your piece, the better. If you can explain how an issue impacts someone’s daily life in a concise and interesting way that’s perfect.
MM: How do you keep up with the news cycle?
CJ: I use Twitter. I don’t have cable at home but I do have cable at my office. Normally with Twitter I have multiple tabs open with different streams that I’m following.
MM: What’s the first thing you do in the morning?
CJ: Check my email. I’ll still be blurry-eyed tapping on my Fitbit to make it stop buzzing and scrolling through my phone.
MM: What’s your favorite thing about DC?
CJ: Any job you want is in this city. People are pretty responsive when you reach out to them about learning more about their time in a certain position or field. I love the experience of exposure and the wide-rage o people you can meet here. Although they all tend to be type A.
MM: What do you gram the most of?
CJ: Mostly pictures of my friends and me. It’s definitely not a curated account.
MM: What are three things every professional woman should carry in her bag?
CJ: Band-Aids. You need to have Band-Aids! After that your business cards and a phone charger.
MM: Any DC hidden gems?
CJ: A great date nightspot is Iron Gate. It’s very romantic and cute. But it can also be fun to go with your girlfriends when you want a more intimate quiet place.
MM: What’s your favorite place for happy hour in the city?
CJ: I love El Centro.
MM: What advice would you give to newly minted college grads?
CJ: First of all – welcome to the party! Trust your gut. I got myself into a few different work situations where I was more excited about the opportunity so I silenced the little feeling in me saying, ‘This may not be the best fit.’ If your gut is trying to tell you something listen. Don’t be afraid to pass on an opportunity even if it sounds fantastic. And don’t be afraid to network, to ask for help or to identify a mentor in your own office. Because people — nine times out of ten — are more than willing to sit and chat.
To learn more about AFL-CIO check out: http://www.aflcio.org/About
Follow Charity and Molly on Twitter: @CharityNJackson and @mollyemitchell