Civic Leadership Academy Alumna Takes Gerrymandering Case to U.S Supreme Court

Oct 3, 2017

By Dan Weissmann

Ruth Greenwood says her Civic Leadership Academy fellowship came at an especially opportune time: When it started, in early 2016, she had recently taken on a new role, managing a team for the first time: the lawyers and clients in an ambitious voting rights case. 


“I was hoping that our case would go somewhere and be a big deal,” said Greenwood, now senior legal counsel with the Campaign Legal Center.

It has. The case— challenging the state of Wisconsin’s Congressional district map—will be heard by the United States Supreme Court on October 3.  

Greenwood credits CLA with helping her learn to manage the team effectively. “Although we are a very smooth, happy team now, there were some bumps along the way,” Greenwood said, adding that discussing those bumps with her CLA cohort “basically got me through.”

She also credits CLA with helping her address the logistical challenges of holding together a team with members across the country. “We had lawyers in Wisconsin and another lawyer who had moved to Washington state,” said Greenwood, who is based in Chicago. 

The team also included people in different roles—not just attorneys, but also the plaintiffs in the case, and activist allies who weren’t technically part of the case and couldn’t be part of decision-making, but wanted to be involved. 

Inspired by a principle from Harry Davis, Roger L. and Rachel M. Goetz Distinguished Service Professor of Creative Management at Chicago Booth, that teams work best when every member knows their own roles and others’ roles, Greenwood created new internal communications structures. She created separate email and phone lists for the different teams, so everyone had access to the same information.

Another member of Greenwood’s CLA cohort, Betsy Leonard, recalled observing Greenwood’s growth. “Over time, I saw how she was able to transition from a technical and policy expert to a leader who effectively engaged stakeholders – many of whom had different positions, approaches, and constituencies – to move policy and practice forward,” said Leonard, Heartland Alliance’s vice president of engagement and a member of CLA’s alumni committee.

In fact, Greenwood credits Leonard as a key mentor in learning the nuances, not just the logistics, of leadership. 

In an exercise early on in the program, Greenwood had identified adjusting her verbal communication style as a goal. When Leonard shared some tips, Greenwood recognized a potential role model.  

Later, faced with a difficult moment in her work, Greenwood reached out to Leonard for help. “I have this vivid memory,” Greenwood said, “of grabbing her in the hallway [between CLA sessions] and saying, ‘Hey, I need to talk with you about this.’” 

“This” was a delicate negotiation Greenwood was anticipating with a couple of colleagues, one with whom Greenwood had found it especially challenging to work.

Leonard advised her to think through what each person’s interests were, and to start negotiations before bringing everyone together. “So I sent out an e-mail [to each party] saying in advance how I thought the call would go and what I thought everybody's interests were,” Greenwood recalled. “And I think they thought I was kind of crazy.”

Nonetheless, when the phone call happened, Greenwood got what she wanted.

“I remember sending a Facebook message to Betsy,” said Greenwood, “and being like, ‘You are my spirit animal! I just pretended I was you for the whole meeting, and it worked!’”

Although the call revolved around a seemingly small issue, tactics for a single deposition, Greenwood said it was worthwhile. “It meant that we had all the evidence that we needed at trial, which means when we're in front of the Supreme Court we're able to refer to the things that we need.”

Greenwood also says she’s carried that strategy forward, and she no longer needs to write a 10-page memo in advance of every call. “I can think in my head: ‘What's their interest? What's my interest? Who else do I need on my side? Should I talk to some other people before I do this call?’ And that comes a lot more naturally,” she said. “And I guess I can tell that it's working because I am a lot less stressed at work.”