Now in her third year of service to the federal government, Alison Grigonis, a member of Pokagon Band of Potawatomi, is on her way to becoming a fixture in Washington, D.C. But like many American Indians who come to the capital to work for Uncle Sam, she keeps her roots close. In fact, they are a big reason she is there and why she stays.
In mid-February, Grigonis, 30, took the post of Senior Director, Office of Cabinet Affairs. Located in the White House Office, Cabinet Affairs serves as liaison between the president and his cabinet, coordinating communications, policy, and logistics and managing issues that involve multiple federal agencies.
Grigonis works on Indian Affairs issues as well as issues related to any or all agencies in her portfolio, which includes the departments of Education, the Interior, Health and Human Services, Transportation along with EPA, HUD, NASA, and the Social Security Administration. She said her role demands weekly interaction with the chiefs of staff of those agencies to discuss Administration priorities.
Prior to her Cabinet Affairs appointment, Grigonis served as a legislative assistant for U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) from 2013 to 2015. She was assigned to the Indian Affairs, education, and telecommunications portfolio. In 2012, she worked as a staff attorney at the National Indian Gaming Commission. Fresh out of law school, she represented tribal governments on issues involving fee to trust, gaming, and natural resources at Anderson Indian Law, a Washington, D.C.-based firm.
Although born in Muskegon, Michigan, Grigonis lived most of her childhood years in San Diego, California, where many of her relatives, including her great-grandmother, had relocated. As a youth, she often went back to her tribal community, particularly in the summertime, to reconnect with her extended family and culture. In 2006, Grigonis received a bachelor’s degree in Political Science and a minor in American Indian and Indigenous Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and obtained her J.D. at the UCLA School of Law in 2010.
When asked how her education and experience prepared her for the Cabinet Affairs post, she said, “Spending time in Indian country and representing tribes gave me a deep appreciation of the challenges, but even more so, the innovative work tribes are doing to respond to the needs of their communities. My work in Congress and in the Administration has allowed me to better understand the system as a whole and how tribes interact with it.”
In 2013, President Obama issued an Executive Order establishing the White House Council on Native American Affairs to improve collaboration between federal entities and the 566 federally recognized tribes. The council is comprised of the heads of more than 30 agencies, councils, and offices. With Cabinet Affairs among them, Grigonis participates in policy initiatives developed to address the council’s priorities.
One of the council’s priorities is to expand and improve educational opportunities for Native American youth. To address it, in 2014 President Obama launched the Generation Indigenous (Gen I) initiative, aimed at improving outcomes of Native youth by removing barriers to success. A few Gen I programs underway are the National Native Youth Network, created to expand resources for Native youth and to encourage them to make connections; the Gen I Native Youth Challenge, which calls upon youth to connect with other local youth to collaborate on community projects; and Native Youth Community Projects, a demonstration program, administered by the Department of Education, that provides grants to tribal communities to identify barriers blocking youth from positive educational and life outcomes and to develop and implement strategies to remove them.
Working on Gen I gives Grigonis a chance to make a difference on an issue that she believes is imperative—making Indian youth a priority in all corners of the Administration. “I believe youth are a proxy for all of Indian country’s issues and represent the place where we can make the biggest impact with our resources,” she said.