Joni Madison, who, in a previous life was McKinney’s chief operating officer, dropped by the agency recently, giving us the perfect opportunity to check in with her and see what she’s been up to as Chief of Staff and Chief Operating Officer for HRC (Human Rights Campaign). Joni’s life is remarkably different, but the skills she brings to her work and the values and principles she lives by haven’t changed in the least.
You’ve been with the HRC more than two years, what challenges have you faced that have surprised you?
When I took the job, I thought Hillary would be elected, and I would be walking the halls of Congress helping get the Equality Act done.
But when Trump was elected, the whole world changed. And we were faced with not necessarily evolving LGBT rights but facing real and dire threats to our community. And it all started with the trans military ban, and then there were a whole host of Obama-era rollbacks on the LGBTQ front.
So my world changed, the HRC’s world changed, as well as anyone who identifies with a progressive movement—their world has changed.
But HRC, we dug in real deep, and within 48 hours we created a strategic plan that really paid off in the midterm elections. And the end of some of those strategies will also play a role in the 2020 presidential election.
So, yeah, a funny thing happened on the way to what I thought my next five years would be.
How have you been able to maintain a positive outlook on the world in the face of monumental challenges to fairness and freedom?
Listen, I could not do what I do if I didn’t keep a sense of humor. I have not lost my sense of humor and I have not lost my optimism.
It just changes how you greet each day if you think there’s no hope. And we can’t lose hope. And so I’m very mindful of that. But I’m very mindful that what’s happening culturally and in the external world is very daunting for people, and very challenging, so I hope everybody will find their hope and their joy, regardless of the current situation.
Political turmoil and vitriol seem to be the order of the day in our nation’s capital. How do you and HRC manage to fight the good fight in the face of that?
There’s a silver lining in what they say: ‘get woke.’ And there are very different versions of that, but I think it has awakened people to be fearful of complacency and the status quo.
And for HRC, it created a world where progressive organizations had to start collaborating with each other in ways that had not been done before. We knew it would be a key strategy by the Trump administration to divide people on issue-based matters. So a lot of credit goes to those who instinctively knew that. Immediately following Election Night 2016, we were calling leaders of ACLU, NAACP, Planned Parenthood and HRC organizations and committing to each other in ways that we had never worked before.
Can you describe what a “typical” day is like for you with HRC? Or does such a thing exist?
You can have your whole day planned and it could be a Trump tweet that can totally derail a whole day. Because he can tweet something that is very politically polarizing— whether it’s directly attacking the LGBT community or it’s attacking a woman’s right to choose. And if you do not react in real time, if you do not curtail or balance the conversation, there is real ground that can be lost—and there is real ground to be gained.
So, depending on the winds of change, we are there to resist word for word, issue by issue.
We’ve always thought of you as the ultimate North Carolinian, but has Washington become a place that feels like home now?
My home is where my wife, Gina, is. We sacrificed a lot over the last couple of years, living apart, and now we finally have a home in Chevy Chase. And I’m just so grateful to do the work I do, and now I’m able to go home every night to her and my dogs. They are my touchstones and sanity.
But when we think of home and our idea of home, what we long for is North Carolina. And we’ll be back.
We just see this as an amazing opportunity to do some good in the world—and to make some good trouble. And we feel very blessed to be able to help make an important difference in the world.
And our intentions are to come back to North Carolina, because there’s a hell of a lot of work to do here, too.