Don’t cross Charisma L. Troiano. Some people might be content to complain from the sidelines, but this Salt Shaker is like a modern day Superwoman, speaking out against wrongdoing wherever it arises. As press secretary at Democracy Forward, she handles communication for the organization, fighting corruption and improving the lives of the American people. Previously, she worked as press secretary for the late Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson in one of the largest prosecutors’ offices in the country. There, she worked to draft and implement policies and initiatives related to criminal justice reform, wrongful convictions, combating gun violence and restoring community relations with law enforcement. Charisma also served as the legal editor for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. We sat down with her to talk politics, change and dressing the part.
How would you describe the central mission of Democracy Forward?
At the core of everything we do is the fact that government corruption hurts real people. When our government operates behind closed doors to make critical decisions affecting the lives of the American people, that's a problem. I work with a team of smart and creative lawyers, policy analysts, researchers and communications professionals to expose corruption and wrongdoing within the Executive Branch and file lawsuits on behalf of those who are hurt by these actions.
I look at Twitter the moment I wake up (I'm an early riser), because that's the president's primary form of communication (take that as you may) and I switch back and forth between the morning news shows. Before I hit the office, I've also read through a slew of newsletters in a variety of policy areas to get a sense of what's happening in more wonky spaces and checked through news stories both inside and outside the Beltway. My typical office day consists of meetings with our various litigation and policy teams, working through press plans and products with our communications team and frequent coffees (I switch to tea after 3PM) or phone calls with reporters and my counterparts at partner organizations. Some form of social media is constantly on my screen because the news truly never stops.
How did your career path lead you to Democracy Forward?
I'm a lawyer (though not practicing in my role at Democracy Forward) and spent time at a firm before transitioning to the role of legal editor at the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, one of the oldest newspapers in the country (Walt Whitman was once an editor). I covered a lot of trials and civil court rulings in Brooklyn (which is also home to a pretty busy federal court, the Eastern District of New York) and used my professional training to breakdown legal trends for a general audience. This position allowed me a chance to discuss as a legal commentator for NBC4 and a local Brooklyn cable television news show, BKLive. Shortly after, I was asked to join the Brooklyn District Attorney's Office (one of the largest DA offices in the country) as press secretary under the late DA Ken Thompson— who, in 2014, began his term as the first black district attorney for the borough. I think the legal knowledge, writing and communication skills learned in law school coupled with the client interactions experienced as a practicing attorney— all of which were further honed as a journalist and as a spokeswoman for a high profile public office— laid the groundwork for my current role at Democracy Forward.
What are some of DF’s most significant accomplishments?
We're a fairly new organization, but in less than two years we've filed over 70 lawsuits across nearly two dozen agencies. Some of the cases I'm most proud of include our lawsuits that forced the Trump administration to stop rerouting funds for teen pregnancy prevention to abstinence-only programs. We not only exposed the anti-evidence Trump appointees who directed this illegal action, but our victory, combined with those of other grantees who mounted similar challenges, meant that the entire $100 million federal program was saved for 2018.
Our team also revealed former Department of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke's use of wildfire funds to pay for his unrelated private helicopter rides as fires raged through the West Coast. And we forced EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt to reinstate grant funding to the award-winning newspaper the Bay Journal — a grant that was unlawfully rescinded by a political appointee unhappy with the news outlets coverage of President Trump’s environmental policies.What is the most challenging aspect of your job professionally? Personally?
Professionally, the most challenging part of my job is breaking through an ever changing news cycle. Reporters are interested in covering stories about the real impacts of unlawful policy actions and the folks behind those efforts, but when the President tweets or makes an offhand (and oftentimes false) comment, there's also a responsibility to report that out.
Personally, my husband and I live in Brooklyn, NY though I work in DC 5 days a week. He's a huge supporter of my career goals and the work of my organization. But we are maintaining a long distance marriage (I come home to BK every Friday and am on an early Amtrak train every Monday) and that can be a bit taxing on all parties. So, it's essential that we make the weekends about us. We don't have children (yet), so we work to tune out of world and tune into each other. It's helpful that he's as much of a news junkie as I am so I don't feel too guilty about checking social media...occasionally...
How has your career influenced the way you shop for clothes?
I move around a lot. Whether between New York Penn Station and DC's Union Station or meetings or coffee dates or traveling out of town to work press events with our clients and partners. And I'm a New Yorker, so I walk very fast and need clothes that are flexible, stylish, and professional with an edge. So for example, I'll wear a skirt, but it'll never be pencil.
When you are not working, what outfit feels most authentically you?
In the winter, knee high socks are a staple! I wear them with everything: over tights, leggings or under ripped jeans. Top that with a tee or basic sweater , a leather jacket and a pair of heels and I'm set.
What is your advice to people who feel like they are not pulling their weight politically and want to help but don’t know where to begin. Got any tips?Honestly, my primary tip is to stay informed and vet your news sources. You definitely don't want to inadvertently spread fake news. And all politics is local. No matter your political lean, engage your Congressional delegation, whether on Twitter, a letter or a call to their DC or district offices. Let your voice be heard!
Can you share give a quick DC City guide, where to shop, what to do/see, and where to eat?
No matter where I work, NYC will always be the place to shop for clothes, though a friend just clued me in to Rent the Runway (I know...I'm late). DC really is the best for museums, so if you come to this town, be sure to take advantage. It's a great way to learn. And right now, I'm truly obsessed with empanadas at this Cuban spot called the Colada Shop on T Street and the white pizza at the Pines of Rome in Bethesda, Maryland.
LIGHTNING ROUND - What's in your Bag?
Lipstick or chapstick?
Loose change or change purse?
Cookie crumbs or keep it clean?
Crumbs for sure. I'm always carrying snacks
Car keys or metro card?
Metro card (I don't even know how to drive)
Book or tablet?
Book! Same goes for my planner...pens and paper
Essential oils or Advil?
Sunglasses or reading glasses?
Sunglasses. I'm definitely that girl that wears her sunglasses inside. You know...the harsh overhead fluorescent light ;) I have an amazing pair of Ferragamo sunnies I got at Nordstrom Rack!
FILL IN THE BLANK!
The Salt the strap that is so me is the Hazel.
The dream bag I would pair it with is the Chloe Marcie Bag
The most essential thing in my bag is my Swell bottle filled with ginger lemon tea.
The most embarrassing thing in my bag is a broken heel.
The most random thing in my bag is ginger and lemon juice packets.
I always carry Stevia in case of emergencies. (I'm really trying to stay away from sugar)
Describe the inside of your bag in 5 words or less.
Charged and ready for any scene.
Meet Elsa Marie Collins, social impact strategist and co-founder of impactful US/Mexico border organization, This Is About Humanity. She also works to bolster causes like Latina empowerment through She Se Puede and voter registration with I am a Voter and the movement for Black lives with Harness, among others.
We chatted with this busy working mother about her experience growing up at the border, and how we can help make this world a better place for our children.