When Russia Chavis Cardenas was in the third grade, her teacher smiled at her and said, “I’ll bet you end up working in policy or government.”
“I don’t know how she saw that, but she did,” Chavis recalls vividly. “She saw it at a very early age.”
For young Chavis, the civic engagement seed had been planted – but it wasn’t until she learned about lobbying in class that her eyes truly lit up, that a passion was suddenly struck.
“And I remember saying that, when I grow up, I want to be a lobbyist!” Chavis laughs. “People would always give me this look like, “Ugh, disgusting, a lobbyist.’ And I’d say, “No, not a lobbyist for oil companies or some toxic beverage company, but a good lobbyist: a lobbyist for the people!”
Chavis, a California native, cultivated that passion promptly. She pursued a B.A. in Legal Studies and Politics from the University of California, Santa Cruz, then earned her Master of Public Policy (M.P.P.) from the University of Southern California – along with a graduate certificate in Geographic Information Science Technology to boot.
Chavis then landed a position with the California Legislative Analyst’s Office, where she worked on the state’s ballot initiatives and ballot markups; later, she joined the California Governor’s Administration, where she helped update the automated voter registration system at the Department of Motor Vehicles. But despite how meaningful she felt her work, Chavis also felt something was missing: the ability to intertwine public policy with her second labor of love, health of body and mind.
“I’m also a registered yoga instructor, and one piece that has always stayed with me is, how do I bring the yoga mind and a mind of wellness into public policy work?” Chavis recounts. “And yoga, for me, has a lot of health benefits. So that’s what intrigues me about the intersection of health and civic engagement: trying to think about ways to bring the yoga mind to this work, as a way to help folks who wouldn’t think there’s a space for them in policy work, but it’s actually really needed.”
That’s when, last year, Chavis became involved with Civic Health Alliance (CHA) as Director of Strategy and Partnerships. One mission of this work, she says, is to engage more health professionals in civic discussions that could ultimately shape public policy. “I have found that the science mind of medical doctors, nurses, practitioners, and all the allied professionals can really lend itself to good policy discussions and conversations,” Chavis explains. “And I’m really encouraged and inspired by the idea of helping the medical field engage more in the policy process, because their level of subject matter expertise is phenomenal. I would like to see more of the profession engaged in policy discussions and providing what they see in their clinical settings, in their care settings, in the research they’re working on – just sharing that with decision makers,” she says.
One CHA program that especially excites Chavis is #TraineesVote, an initiative to bring civic engagement into medical schools and residency programs. “It’s really peeling back the layers [of civic engagement] – what does it look like, how to prepare testimony, how to have a meeting with an elected official or their staff, what you should share, how to be proactive in your conversations – and really getting people comfortable flexing that muscle,” Chavis explains.
As if her plate isn’t full enough, when she’s not teaching yoga or conducting civic trainings, Chavis works as the Voting Rights and Redistricting Program Manager for California Common Cause (CCC), an organization that lobbies for voting rights, redistricting reform, and government transparency to strengthen the state’s democracy. On the radio waves, too, does Chavis have the chance to stretch her yoga mind; along with her friend Josephine Pugh, she hosts the Black Maternal Health podcast for Her Health First California, with the mission to decrease maternal morbidity and mortality throughout the state of California and nationwide.
But for Chavis, some of the most meaningful impacts have blossomed from her work not as a policy worker, but as a concerned community member. In one recent example, she and fellow community members from Los Angeles County tirelessly petitioned their elected officials to remove diesel freight containers from an underserved community, as the freights were blowing exhaust through families’ homes – thus posing a serious health risk.
In response to the petition, many of the smoke-emitting freights were removed from community land, Chavis reports. And it’s glimmers of hope like these, success stories of instilling the power back in the people, that keep her fervidly inspired – all the while staying grounded and present through the yoga mind.
“The yoga mind has to come back into play – to detach from the criticism, and to really ground myself in the fact that I believe what I’m doing is for the good of the people,” Chavis explains. “It’s about remembering that my intentions and the recommendations I make, and the things I am fighting for, are really trying to ensure that individuals of all races, colors, shapes, creeds, and sizes have full access to participate in our democracy.”
As for Chavis, her heart feels full with purpose in doing this work, in having finally realized “that little third grader’s dream.”
“There are these big interest groups, and the big lobbyists have folks at the table – but few people sit at the table for the people,” Chavis points out emphatically. “And now, as an adult, I can actually say that, yeah – I am a lobbyist for the people.”