An Interview with Jennifer Cunningham
Please briefly describe where you work and your role. I am a partner at SKDKnickerbocker, a firm with 95 staff and four offices (Albany, NYC, DC and LA). We are a full service public affairs firm – everything from research and paid media, to speech-writing and press. We like to say that we understand the intersection of press, politics and policy, and can help our clients achieve a legislative or regulatory result, advocate for an issue or win an election.
What do you find most challenging about your work?
Finding a way to juggle my time so I can give my clients what they need when they need it. And I need to get it all done while trying to quickly process a veritable tsunami of incoming news adds to the challenge. I also still struggle with the internal self-doubt, especially at the beginning of every job – do I really know how to do this? Will I be able to succeed? But perhaps the biggest challenge is managing the stress that all of this generates.
What obstacles have you faced as a woman? What stereotypes have you encountered?
I’m older and my career is more established, so I encounter far less obstacles because of my gender then I did when I was younger. That said, the sexism is still there. I believe I must work harder to earn the respect and trust of a client when I start working with them than I would if I were a man. I’m questioned more often. And, oh my, mansplaining. We didn’t use to have a word for it. This one is perfect.
Was your experience as a Superdelegate positive? What surprised you most about the process?
I was floored by how deeply emotional it was to be on the floor during the convention. I really didn’t expect to feel it so profoundly. I was full of hope listening to so many people talking about the need for social and economic justice. I was really proud and lucky to be part of it. And then the election happened.
I was surprised by the level of engagement by the Sanders’ supporters. I received calls, emails and even hand written letters. Some relayed why they supported him. Many of the email ones were “copy and paste”. Some were self-righteous and very disdainful of the choice that I had made to support Hillary. Overall, they were very passionate and engaged, and I respect that.
How do you define success?
There’s really no one way to answer this. I measure professional success by looking at whether I am proud of the work that I’ve done and whether I’ve helped my clients achieve their goals. But I also judge success by whether I’ve made the world a better place – not every day, but enough to believe that in some small way, I’ve done something that matters. It’s why I’ve chosen the jobs I have – unions, government and political campaigns.
What do you think is a key asset of yours that has contributed to your success?
I am very passionate when I am committed to something and I am willing to work like a dog. I also think I’m able to inspire people who work for me.
What keeps you happy + emotionally healthy?
Spending time outside and making time to exercise are a big part of it. Increasingly, I have been focused on how to live more in the moment and be brave enough to keep trying to live an “authentic” life. I continue to battle demons that make it hard for me to deal with social situations, but I’m working on it.
What are three things you need to have on hand while working?
My laptop, my phone and increasingly, my reading glass (ugh).
What's the best advice you received early in your career?
Don’t agree to do something in three months that you wouldn’t agree to do next week.
What women inspire you most?
Women who are talented and smart, and confident enough to know that they are.
What are you most proud of?
I’m most proud of the times that I’ve used my skills to improve the lives of people. Working as the political director at the healthcare workers’ union, I was the lead strategist at increasing state funding for raises for hospital, nursing home and home care workers. I ran the NYS marriage equality campaign. And I helped Eric Schneiderman become the NY Attorney General. I think he’s done an amazing job, and I’m proud to have helped get him elected.
What would you tell people who feel discouraged about the state of the union?
We are all incredibly discouraged. Anyone who has been part of the fight for social and economic justice is watching the progress we’ve been able to achieve under threat. The only thing that has made me feel better is getting a chance to fight back. I’m very lucky that I work with organizations that are doing just that. Right now, we need to minimize the damage until we can turn things around.
Right now, there are so many amazing groups that need support so they can fight the good fight and I’m heartened that contribution to groups like Planned Parenthood and ACLU have risen. I support these folks, but I’m also passionate about stopping climate change and preserving the environment. I support the Open Space Institute, an environmental conservation group that works in NYS and other locations from Maine to Georgia.