Whether we realize it or not, everything in life comes full circle. And, Ashley Allison is the perfect example of that. When Former President Barack Obama first ran for office in 2007, Ashley was a journalist and high school teacher who was inspired to get involved with his campaign. From volunteering in her Brooklyn neighborhood, and eventually working in South Carolina for the primary race there, Ashely’s college days of organizing protests were paying off. After graduating from Brooklyn Law School three years later, she moved back to Ohio, where she had grown up, to work full time on Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign.
Now, as the founder and CEO of Turner Conoly Group, Ashley uses her years of experience as a changemaker to redefine the political landscape, on her terms. Named after her maternal and paternal grandmothers, the Turner Conoly Group was created with the intention of using indigenous practices to guide our steps. From advocating for civil rights to formally declaring her stances on CNN, Ashley refuses to be silent but does not mind being a silent force.
Her Agenda recently spoke with Ashley on speaking her truth, moving forward as a nation, and being a part of the historic Obama administration.
Her Agenda: You’ve been a strong force in civil rights, which is why it’s such an honor to speak with you. Though it’s 2021, it still seems that America is stuck in a cycle of police brutality and racial inequality. As someone who is familiar with the law and politics, what do you think is the next step for us to escape this?
Ashley Allison: We definitely have to keep fighting for justice and electing officials who will carry the voices of the people who they serve. I’m not just talking about the White House and in Congress, but state legislatures and city halls. We need to elect people who will speak for us in the tough times and the easy times. Fighting for social justice can be very exhausting and feel very disappointing, but hope is a discipline. You really have to be active and hopeful for a better day.
We are trying to fight white supremacy, which is a huge institution. Sometimes, small wins feel like they don’t even happen, but it’s important for us to see the progress that we have made. From the inception of the #BlackLivesMatter movement to where we are now with having conversations about qualified immunity and police accountability. Just a decade ago, those conversations weren’t happening. Have we ended the cycle of police violence? No. Is that the goal? Absolutely. But we have made progress and it’s because everyday people have come out, stood up, and made their voices heard. We need to keep doing that in order to end these vicious cycles.
Her Agenda: As a Black woman who is not only in the political realm but also acts as a political commentator for CNN, have you ever had moments that you feared for your safety or hesitated to say something dreading backlash?
Ashley Allison: As Black women, we always feel like we have to be twice as good as our white counterparts. That can present itself in different ways like what we say and how we do our job. There’s a couple of things that I always take into consideration. One, my well-being is the most important thing. If I ever feel unsafe, that is not an environment that I have to put myself in, and I remove myself from it. If I’m not well, then I can’t do the work that I’ve been put on this Earth to do. The second thing is that I’ve personally had great honors and privileges of being in rooms that I never thought I would be in. I did have to dig deep and find the courage to say things that are unpopular. But why am I in that room if I don’t say those things? I want people to know if I am in a room that they are not in, I will be fighting for what is right. Those are my morals, those are my values, that is how you build authentic relationships to actually shift power.
Doing on-air commentating, people want to hear what you have to say. People don’t want to hear talking points, people want the truth. And, sometimes, the truth hurts. You can’t get trapped by the Twitter wars, backlash, and people calling you names. You have to tune that out. If everyone was agreeing with you, you probably weren’t doing something right. There have been times when I have thought, ‘Should I say this?’ But you have to stand in courage, stand in truth, and show up for your people and for yourself.
Her Agenda: I read that your company, Turner Conoly Group is named after your grandmothers, Betty Lucille Turner Walls, and Catherine Elizabeth Conoly Allison. Though you are two generations removed from them, have you found any similarities between your story and theirs?
Ashley Allison: Both of them helped raise me and were very different. My grandmother, Betty, grew up in the depression, had a high school education, worked, and raised her family. She knew how to turn nothing into something, she was a woman of faith, and had a fight in her. She was 4’9 but when she saw something wrong, she stood up and always made her voice be heard. My other grandmother, Catherine, had a college education, went to graduate school, and was a teacher and a professional woman, which was very hard in that era. She had a fight in her too but was a silent force. She would walk into her room and you would know that she was there. She used the power that she had to open doors. I try to embody both of them by making something out of nothing and also being a silent force.
I also named the firm after them because the work that I’m doing is bigger than me. There is nothing wrong with naming your firm after yourself, but I wanted it to encompass the experiences of Black women. I thought it was a great honor and tribute to two women who helped me have a great life and experience but also did so much for their communities and families.
Her Agenda: How do you hope that Turner Conoly Group changes the way that people interact with social movements and politics?
Ashley Allison: I have done a bunch of different things in my career. I’ve been a teacher, worked in political campaigns, non-profits, and the federal government. In each of those instances, I’ve learned about how work can be intersectional and collaborative. I am also a person of faith and believe in our rich history as descendants from Africa. I believe in using indigenous practices and calling on our ancestors to get us through these really tough times. You don’t have to be of a certain religion to work with our firm but you do have to be grounded in truth and authentic in yourself. People are jaded by politics because they don’t believe that it has any transparency or honesty. The Turner Conoly Group aims to bring in these indigenous practices of truth-telling and strategy to break the cycles that we talked about earlier. You can pass a bill but you cannot legislate hate out of someone’s heart. Turner Conoly Group wants to pass those pieces of legislation and do the soul work to get us to a better place in this country.
Her Agenda: On Twitter, you recently posted a 9-year-old throwback picture of you and President Obama from the night before the 2012 re-election. As close as you were to the first Black president and as big of a role that you played in his administration, did you feel in those moments that you were a part of history?
Ashley Allison: Every single day I was happy to be there. I would go up to the gate and think, ‘Is my badge going to work today? How did I end up here? How did I get this privilege and this honor?’ Whatever you are doing, if you show up to work and you don’t like what you do, you need to do some soul searching and ask if that is where you need to be. While working with President Obama, I knew that history was being made and I knew that there was a responsibility to protect that history. That meant showing up and doing the hard work every single day and showing up to have those tough conversations. People depended on us doing that; we were public servants in that moment. It was an honor and privilege that I still can’t believe actually happened, but I reflect on it a lot. It made me a better person and led me to where I am in my career right now.
Her Agenda: One of my favorite quotes is ‘As we walk, all of our ancestors walk with us.’ As you take these important steps towards creating a more just world, who are the people that you believe walk alongside you?
Ashley Allison: Definitely the ancestors. Definitely God. And, my family and friends who love me in my best and worst moments. Since I was a little girl, I’ve had mentors who I’ve sought counsel from and who hold me up when I am too weak to walk for myself. I often don’t make a move without seeking counsel from them, sitting in deep reflection, and prayer. [These practices] ensure that I’m making the right move and doing it for the right reason. All of these people walk with me literally and figuratively.
[Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]