This interview is part of a series on “Women in Public Affairs to Know,” by the McGuireWoods Consulting Women in Public Affairs initiative.
Chelsi Bennett, J.D. currently serves as the Virginia Government Relations Director for the American Heart Association. Chelsi began her career working for a global company with offices in over 70 countries. During her tenure, she managed diversity committees globally, and planned and executed events in India, Israel, North America, and the United Kingdom. She was elected in 2010 as the Commissioner/Supervisor of Soil and Water Conservation District Group 5 in Jacksonville, Florida. She served for 3 years and was the youngest elected female in Jacksonville’s history. She is a graduate of Florida Coastal School of Law.
After serving as an elected official, Chelsi was appointed by a Florida Cabinet member (statewide elected) to serve as a Senior Policy Advisor in Florida’s Capitol. Her portfolio included environmental, military, and veterans’ affairs. She has continued to use her policy and lobbying skills in Richmond, Virginia, where she now advocates for the Virginia chapter of the American Heart Association.
The interview below was conducted by Michele Satterlund, senior vice president on McGuireWoods Consulting’s Virginia State Government Relations team and Sara Clements, vice president on McGuireWoods Consulting's Florida State Government Relations team.
Question: In looking at your list of accomplishments, we noted that you were the youngest female ever elected to the Duval County Soil and Water Conservation District. I'm curious if you have always been so driven and what you attribute your motivation to?
Chelsi Bennett: Yes, over the years I’ve been humbled by consistent feedback of “Chelsi” as driven, ambitious and wanting to change the world.
I was born to two teenagers in the 80s, and my community was filled with hopelessness and lack of knowledge. Seeing first-hand how external factors can overwhelm and diminish a person’s dreams and potential motivated me to want to change that environment. My desire was to be the change I wanted to see.
Life has taught me that people could have different opportunities and outcomes in their lives with better education and visible examples of success. Too often our external factors have a huge negative impact on where we end up in life. My good sense told me if people knew more or had different opportunities, their next steps in life would have look different.
The racial injustice discussions occurring in this current climate are helpful because the subject of race is being talked about and brought to light. Growing up, my neighborhood was heavily policed. Friends and neighbors were targeted and it’s one of the reasons why I wanted to become an attorney. Seeing injustice up close inspired me to be an advocate and voice for the voiceless to ensure that one mistake did not ruin a person’s life. At the age of five or six, I didn’t necessarily have it in all of these words—that is, about reforming the criminal justice system—but my passion and my interest was the same. If you had asked me as a six-year-old what I wanted to be, the quick reply would have been to become the first Black female president of the United States of America. The model family we saw on TV while watching “Seventh Heaven” or “The Cosby Show” was not reality for anyone in my universe. There was a gap and I knew that I had a part in closing it.
Q: Can you talk about who, or what, influenced your decision to engage in public service, and what steps you took to completely start over in both a new location and a new industry?
Chelsi: My grandmother was a public-school teacher for more than 30 years and she, more than anyone, inspired me to engage in public service. Observing how she deeply cared about her students and honored her commitment to do so with all of her heart resonated with me and serves as a daily reminder to this day. With a deep desire to solve the problems that chronically plagued my community, I channeled my desire to be a voice and advocate into becoming an attorney.
While my heart for public service remains the same, subsequent events, experiences and a love for policy and lawmaking have led me to my current employment as a government relations executive.
In Florida I was very active. I always had a plate that was overflowing – from serving on boards, to serving as a local elected official, to serving at my church – being involved in my community was a part of my life and who I am. Moving to Virginia was humbling because of the immediate need to form new networks in a place where no one knew me. People didn’t know my past accomplishments or my record of community service. I was not used to being the new kid on the block and learning to start over was a tall task.
Looking back over the last four years, gratitude comes to mind because being the new person allowed me to grow beyond my imagination. In the beginning, I would end my days frustrated about how my work was being questioned, or not being known and people second-guessing whether or not I could accomplish things of substance. My husband would often remind me that people didn’t know me and didn’t know that when I say, "I’m going to do X, Y and Z," I’m going to do it. It helped with level setting because starting over when you have been successful is challenging.
Now I can truly say Virginia is my home. As a native Floridian, I’ve been blessed to learn about Virginia and its history, culture and art. This state has amazing people who are doing impactful work around entrepreneurship, justice, equity, and policy.
Q: It was interesting to learn that the American Heart Association is working on an initiative to allow water-filling stations in schools. Can you talk about this effort, as well as other issues AHA priorities that may not directly come to mind when it comes to heart health?
Chelsi: Water access in schools has been a priority of the American Heart Association for several years. Drinking adequate amounts of water can improve a child’s performance in school. It has also been shown to help with reasoning skills and short-term memory, making it easier for children to learn. Keeping the body hydrated helps the heart more easily pump blood through the blood vessels to the muscles. By providing ready access to free and clean water, we are also ensuring there is an alternative to sugary drinks, a leading cause of childhood obesity. I am proud of our work at the American Heart Association that focuses on opportunities to create the best learning environments for all students to succeed and stay healthy and hydrated.
Last year we began the education process with legislators that focused on requiring any new or majorly renovated school to have at least two bottle filling stations. This year, we will follow-up on that success in addition to educating lawmakers on the overall need for improved water access standards in schools throughout the Commonwealth.
The AHA successfully advocated for passage of the Virginia Food Access Investment Program and Fund that will improve access to fresh fruits and vegetable and expand access to SNAP and incentive programs. It was an historic moment when the governor signed the legislation and the budget, because as someone who grew up in the urban core, I know what it’s like to be surrounded by convenience stores and fast food restaurants. Another successful initiative we advanced last year was the passage of tele-communicator CPR. That bill will always be special to me because it was one of the first bills that I worked on as a first-year lobbyist. It requires all 911 dispatch operators to be trained on providing CPR and other medical assistance over the phone. At the time, several Virginia localities were not providing this service, especially in rural areas. We wanted to make sure that no matter where you are geographically, when you call 911, there is someone on the other line who has been trained to provide you with life-saving instructions.
Many times, when people think about the AHA, they put us in a box and fail to grasp how we looking at the whole person in terms of the issues that we advocate for. That’s one of the reasons why I love this work.
Q: On your site, Life with Chelsi, you have a blog post about your experience with depression. Can you talk about why you felt it was important to share your experience and what advice you have for people who suffer from this illness?
Chelsi: It was very important to me to share my journey because too often we stigmatize depression, anxiety, and other mental health illnesses. I started a prayer ministry several years ago and have encountered many powerful and successful people who have struggled with depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts. Their common thread was that they didn’t want to tell anyone. They were afraid of what people would think, how they would be labeled, and how it could ruin their reputation.
Four years ago, I moved to Virginia from Florida to marry my husband, Reverend Jonathan Bennett. I found myself in a major identity crisis because I no longer had the things that defined me – my job title, my status in the community, my network, etc. It was layered for me being in a new state and having a new marital status and last name. These many different changes took a toll.
My advice to people who are struggling with depression and anxiety is: 1) do not be ashamed, and 2) seek help. I am now in a place where I can say I’m grateful for that season of depression. It was tough and while it was even tougher to do the work to get out, I’m now more secure in who I am and I hope that in sharing my story, at least one person will no longer feel ashamed to ask for the help they need to be whole.
As you all may know, there are stigmas with mental health generally, but there are even more stigmas in the Black community around mental health and acknowledging those in public. I did a series last year on my podcast, Chats with Chelsi, where I interviewed three incredible Black women. These three successful women shared their story and how it affected different parts of their lives. I hope we are able to remove that stigma and people are able to get the help that they need. I am a living example that there is freedom on the other side.