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THE SYCAMORE INSTITUTE IS AN INDEPENDENT, NONPARTISAN PUBLIC POLICY RESEARCH CENTER FOR TENNESSEE
Leslie Hafner has served in senior leadership roles for multiple Tennessee governors and top lawmakers during an extensive career in and around state and local government. Having staffed campaigns in various positions since age 11, Leslie is native to the world of election analysis, political insight, booth-manning, and issue advocacy.
Leslie is currently senior vice president, governmental affairs for OMNIA Partners, Public Sector, the largest group purchasing organization for public and private sectors. In this role, she leads OMNIA Partners’ nationwide efforts in lobbying, government, and regulatory affairs.
She has worked in both chambers of the Tennessee General Assembly, most recently as chief policy officer to the first female Speaker of the House of Representatives, Beth Harwell. In this role, she focused on juvenile justice reform and steps to address the growing opioid crisis.
For the six years prior, Leslie served as senior advisor and chief lobbyist to Governor Bill Haslam. She maintained a 95% passage rate of all administration legislative initiatives, recruited and trained a network of professional departmental liaisons, and coordinated the daily agenda for the governor’s senior staff.
Leslie also served in the administration of Governor Don Sundquist. She held positions on the governor’s communications, legislative, and special projects teams before moving to the Department of Finance and Administration as the commissioner’s executive assistant and lead lobbyist.
Since 2013, Leslie has helped to host groups from Israel, Japan, and the Philippines as an ambassador for the American Council for Young Political Leaders.
As a Policy Analyst for The Sycamore Institute, Bryce conducts research and analysis on the often complex policy issues that impact the health, prosperity, and well-being of Tennesseans. He joined Sycamore in 2020.
Bryce is a Ph.D. Candidate in political science at Vanderbilt University, where his studies focused on how institutions shape behaviors and the effects of laws that prevent people with felony convictions from voting. He also holds a master’s degree in political science from the University of Georgia and a bachelor’s in history from Towson University. While in school, Bryce taught graduate level courses in statistical analysis for five years as a summer teaching assistant at the Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research.
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Edwin S. “Ed” Roberson is a former CEO of Christ Community Health Services, which provides health care to the underserved in Memphis, and a past partner in the accounting firm of KPMG.
Now retired, Ed has served on numerous nonprofit boards, including Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare as chairman, Duke University Divinity School, and Porter-Leath. He also serves on corporate boards including Consol Energy, W.M. Barr, and Infocare. Ed has been involved in fundraising for numerous political campaigns in Tennessee, including those of Senators Bill Frist, Fred Thompson, Bob Corker, and Lamar Alexander, and he is a former treasurer of the state Republican Party.
Ed is active in Germantown United Methodist Church and many community endeavors. He is married with two children and 4 grandchildren. He received his undergraduate degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and an MBA from the University of Georgia.
Pamela Carter is a retired President of Cummins Distribution Business, a Global Fortune 200 company, and the first African American woman elected as a state attorney general in the United States. She began her career as a litigator and prosecutor, served as deputy chief of staff to the governor of Indiana, and was elected attorney general of Indiana in 1992.
Carter is Chair Elect of the Nashville Symphony Board and serves on the boards of four public companies: CSX Inc., Hewlett Packard Enterprise, Enbridge Inc., and Broadridge Financial Solutions. Carter is a member of Teach for America National Board. She is a graduate of the University of Detroit (A.B.), the University of Michigan (M.S.W), Indiana University School of Law, and Harvard’s Kennedy School. She retired in 2015 and is married with two married children and two grandchildren.
Karen Pershing serves as the Executive Director of the Metro Drug Coalition in Knoxville, Tennessee. A Certified Prevention Specialist II and a 2014 graduate of the UT Consortium for Social Enterprise Effectiveness, she earned her Bachelor of Science in Human Development and Family Studies as well as her Master’s Degree in Public Health from the University of Tennessee.
Ms. Pershing’s numerous honors include the Tennessee Public Health Association’s 2016 Partners and Leadership Award, the 2017 FBI Community Director’s Leadership Award for the Knoxville Field Office, the 2018 Knox Biz Healthcare Heroes Award for her work in addiction and recovery, and recognition from the Tennessee Department of Health for work in prescription drug abuse prevention.
Karen is a member of the Tennessee Public Health Association, Executive Women’s Association, UT Chancellor’s Associates program Class of 2016, the Women’s Addiction Services Leadership Institute Class of 2014, and the Leadership Knoxville Class of 2013. She also serves on the boards of Harmony Family Centers and the Prevention Alliance of Tennessee.
Sheila Calloway is Davidson County’s Juvenile Court Judge, winning election to an eight-year term in 2014. A native of Louisville, KY, she came to Nashville in 1987 and earned her bachelor’s degree and law degree from Vanderbilt University.
After graduating from law school in 1994, she worked at the Metropolitan Nashville Public Defender’s Office in both the adult and juvenile systems. In January 2004, she was appointed by Judge Betty Adams Green to the position of Juvenile Court Magistrate, where she served until announcing her intention to run for the position of Juvenile Court Judge in November 2013.
Judge Calloway was sworn into office as Juvenile Court Judge on August 28, 2014. She uses her unique combination of humor, passion, and judicial wisdom to change the way we look at justice in the United States.
Sheila also serves as an Adjunct Professor at Vanderbilt University, where she teaches in the Law School, and at Belmont University’s College of Law, where she teaches Juvenile Law.
Kyle Spurgeon is president/CEO of the Jackson Chamber, Jackson, TN. The organization represents 1100+ business members in Jackson/Madison County and parts of West Tennessee.
Before joining the chamber, Spurgeon was vice-president, corporate relations for Jackson Energy Authority. He has also served as marketing director for the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development. He has helped facilitate project locations representing more than $2.5 billion in capital investment.
He holds a B.S. in public relations/marketing from Murray State University.
In 2006, Kyle was awarded the Community Service Award by the Jackson/Madison County Sports of Hall. In 2009 and 2015 respectively, he was awarded Community Service Awards by the Mother Liberty CME Church in Jackson and the West Tennessee Healthcare Foundation. In 2018, he was honored by the University of Memphis with the Gene Smith Friend of Lambuth Award.
He is a past president of the Tennessee Economic Development Council, past president of Tennessee Chamber of Commerce Executives, and past board member of the Southern Economic Development Council. He presently serves as chairman of the Tennessee Economic Partnership. He is a board member of The Sycamore Institute, The Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame, Complete Tennessee Advisory Board and the Governors Foundation for Health and Wellness. Kyle is a 2017 (Class IV) graduate of Leadership Tennessee. He was recently named the 2019 Tennessee Chamber of Commerce Executive of the Year.
Kyle is married to Melissa, and together they have five children and one very happy/spoiled dog. They enjoy running and traveling.
Jason B. Rogers serves as Vice President for Administration and University Counsel at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee. In this capacity he is responsible for Belmont’s legal affairs as well as its government and community relations, risk management, regulatory compliance, and campus security functions.
Jason joined Belmont University in 1998 after ten years of practicing law in Nashville. While in private practice, he advised and represented nonprofit corporations including numerous colleges and universities. Jason has earned academic degrees from Baylor University (B.A., with honors), Vanderbilt University (J.D.) and the University of Pennsylvania (Ed.D., with distinction). At the University of Pennsylvania, his research focused on the impact of religious mission on the civic engagement initiatives of urban universities in the northeastern United States.
A 35 year resident of Nashville, Jason is committed to the local community and charitable activities and has served as the treasurer of The Healing Trust, president of the board of directors of The Next Door, Inc., a program committee co-chair of Leadership Nashville, and a representative to the Parent Advisory Council of Metro Nashville Public Schools.
Kristen Keely-Dinger is the President and CEO of The Healing Trust, a private foundation created to provide grants and support to nonprofits that foster healing and health for vulnerable populations in Middle Tennessee. Kristen has experience in prevention education, community organization, and volunteer administration. Kristen received her Bachelor’s of Science in Neuroscience from Vanderbilt University, her Master’s of Science in Social Work from the University of Tennessee, and is currently a Licensed Advanced Practice Social Worker. Kristen was selected as a 2007 Southeastern Council of Foundation Hull Fellow and is a graduate of the 2011 Nashville Emerging Leaders Class.
Brenda Gadd is the president of Rethink Public Strategies a woman-owned, public affairs firm that brings experience in delivering results in strategic advocacy development and implementation in all levels of government and focuses on engagement tactics such as coalition building, direct and grassroots lobbying, collective impact, messaging, and solutions to public policy needs.
For more than 15 years, Brenda has been influencing public policy at the highest levels of state government and politics in Tennessee, helping to shape legislative and budgetary outcomes as well as elections and advocacy campaigns. Her work has supported the goals of countless businesses and nonprofits and impacted the use of millions of dollars in tax revenue.
Having served as both a legislative liaison in the governor’s administration and in numerous lobbying and public policy roles in the private sector, Brenda understands all facets of effective advocacy and organizing from developing grassroots support to leveraging grass-tops outreach. The combined experiences of successfully managing a statewide campaign for three state Supreme Court justices in 2014 and serving as the Tennessee Bar Association public policy director, give her a comprehensive understanding of politics and policy from the campaign trail to policy making.
Brenda spends most of her free time giving back to her community and lifting up causes in which she believes. She serves on several boards such as The Equity Alliance Fund, Tennessee Equality Project, as well as the domestic violence center and shelter the Mary Parrish Center. She received the Athena Young Professional award for her leadership, work and service to her community in 2019.
She is a proud board member of the nonpartisan public policy research center The Sycamore Institute, Tennessee Lobbyist Association, Lawyers’ Association of Women’s Marion Griffith chapter, Nashville Cable (women’s leadership organization) and a former chapter director of the New Leaders Council. She’s proud to encourage women to run for office and to be one of the founders of Emerge Tennessee and serves on national Emerge board of directors. She is a regular contributor and a consultant at the Center for Nonprofit Management on Advocacy and a national trainer for Vote Run Lead. When she’s not working or volunteering she is back home in East Tennessee hiking the mountains or visiting with family.
Stewart Clifton is an attorney and since 2001 a public policy advocate with a practice focused on nonprofit organizations. He provides advocacy, monitoring and consulting services for several health, social welfare, justice and environmental groups, including:
Alzheimer’s Tennessee, Center for Nonprofit Management, League of Women Voters of Tennessee, National Association of Social Workers – Tennessee Chapter, Radnor to River, SchoolHouse Connection, Tennessee Alliance for Legal Services, Tennessee Association for Adult Day Services, Tennessee Association for Children’s Early Education, Tennessee Association of Pastoral Therapists, Tennessee Conservation Voters, and United Ways of Tennessee.
A Nashville resident since 1969 and member of Tennessee Bar since 1977, Clifton received a BA and JD from Vanderbilt University and Vanderbilt Law School. He served as a staff attorney for the Legal Aid Society (Nashville and Middle Tennessee) and staff attorney and executive director of the Tennessee Alliance for Legal Services for over two decades.
Clifton serves as a founding board member of The Sycamore Institute, a volunteer member of the Tennessee Bar Association government affairs committee, and a board member of Tennessee Interfaith Power and Light. He recently completed two terms as a trustee for The Healing Trust and 10 years of service as chair of the public policy committee and board member of United Ways of Tennessee.
He served from 1987-1999 as the elected Metro Nashville Councilmember for District 18 and from 2000-2017 as an appointed member of the Metro Planning Commission.
Jim Bryson is Founder/President of 20|20 Research, Inc., a qualitative research firm started in 1986. The company provides global online research software and services and operates qualitative research facilities in Nashville, Charlotte and Miami. Jim serves as Deputy Commissioner for Parks and Conservation for the State of Tennessee where he is responsible for all the State Parks.
He has been active in state politics, serving four years as a Tennessee State Senator and was his party’s nominee for Governor of Tennessee in 2006.
Jim previously served on the Board of Directors for the Marketing Research Association, the Marketing Research Education Foundation, and as a community board member for the Baptist Healing Trust. He served three terms as President of the Qualitative Research Consultant’s Association, an international association of qualitative research professionals. Research Business Report named Jim as its Market Research Executive of the Year for 2013.
Jim is also Founder/President of The Joseph School, a school for poor and orphaned children in Haiti. He is a graduate of Baylor University and received his MBA from Vanderbilt University.
Associate Director of Operations and Engagement
As Associate Director of Operations and Engagement at The Sycamore Institute, Brittney provides support for day-to-day management and operations and leads the team’s statewide engagement efforts through community events and symposiums.
Brittney joined Sycamore in 2019 with nearly a decade of experience in community engagement and public policy at the Tennessee General Assembly and the Knoxville Utilities Board. Most recently, she worked for State Senator Raumesh Akbari (D-Memphis) and served as Press Secretary for the Tennessee Senate Democrats. Brittney earned a master’s degree in Corporate Communication from Austin Peay State University and a bachelor’s degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville.
Director of External Affairs
As Director of External Affairs for The Sycamore Institute, Brian manages all communications, marketing, and outreach to policymakers, journalists, and the public. He works closely with Sycamore leadership on organizational strategy and fundraising and with the policy research team on content, editing, and publication.
A veteran public policy communicator who joined Sycamore in 2017, Brian has shaped messaging and public relations efforts for U.S. Representatives Tom Price (R-GA) and Jim Jordan (R-OH), the Republican Study Committee, and the American Petroleum Institute. His congressional experience includes active roles in debates over the Affordable Care Act and the federal budget, and he began his career with an internship at The Heritage Foundation. Brian earned a bachelor’s degree in history from the University of Florida.
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Laura Berlind joined The Sycamore Institute in 2015 as the founding executive director. She provides Sycamore’s organizational vision, strategic planning, and day-to-day management. Laura holds a master’s degree in public policy with a focus on business and government from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and a bachelor’s degree from Boston College. Her role at Sycamore reflects her longstanding commitment to using data and research to bring together diverse stakeholders and work complex problems.
Laura brings with her almost fifteen years of nonprofit and government finance experience, most recently serving as the CEO of Renewal House, a holistic residential treatment center for women and their children affected by addiction and poverty. Prior to her role at Renewal House, she worked as a financial analyst at Vanderbilt University and as a vice president in the public finance department at Ambac Financial Group in New York, NY. At Ambac, Laura worked with wide range of government and nonprofit clients to evaluate and execute publically funded capital projects ranging in size up to $800 million.
Laura maintains a strong connection to her local community through service on nonprofit boards and other volunteer activities. She is currently serving as the chair of the Tennessee Department of Mental Health’s Planning and Policy Council and is an active member of Rotary Club. In 2014, Laura received the Volunteer of the Year award from the Tennessee Association of Alcohol, Drug and Other Addiction Services. She was also recognized as one of the Nashville Business Journal’s 2014 Forty Under 40 award winners and was a member of the 2016-17 class of Leadership Tennessee.
Bill Bradley is a retired director of the Division of Budget, Tennessee Department of Finance and Administration. He worked for Tennessee state government for 39 years, including 32 years in the Budget Division, where he was director for 14 years, and 7 years in the State Planning Office, Local Planning Division. He earned a B.A. with honors at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, majoring in political science, and earlier was an air traffic controller in the U.S. Air Force. He was awarded a Life Membership in the National Association of State Budget Officers in 2013. He retired in 2013 and lives in Nashville.
Lewis Lavine served as a Board Member of The Sycamore Institute from its inception until he passed away in 2018. His professional career included two stints with The Ingram Group, a Nashville and Washington based business consulting firm, first as a chairman and later as a senior strategist. In between, he served as the president of the Center for Nonprofit Management. While at CNM, the agency expanded to serve more than 800 nonprofits, offering 120 workshops and nearly 100 consulting engagements each year.
His career also included a number of government posts including chief of staff to then-Governor Lamar Alexander. In 2011, he assisted current Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam during his transition into state leadership. Lewis served on nonprofit and government boards in Tennessee and Washington, including the Nashville Metropolitan Transit Authority, The Sycamore Institute, and the Nashville Public Education Foundation. In 2006, Lewis served as co-chair of Celebrate Nashville commemorating the city’s 200th birthday.
A graduate of Davidson College, he earned his master’s degree in economics from Vanderbilt University. He was awarded the Jane Eskind Community Leadership Award by Family and Children’s Service, and the Ned R. McWherter Leadership Award by the Tennessee Center for Performance Excellence.
Mandy joined The Sycamore Institute in 2016 as the Policy Director. She has the lead responsibility for developing the organization’s research plan and conducting and curating research and analysis.
Mandy holds a master’s degree in public policy with a health policy concentration from Georgetown University and a bachelor’s degree from Lipscomb University. Mandy brings with her over a decade of experience in health policy – including as a Presidential Management Fellow at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services advising senior HHS leadership under both President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama on budget policy issues and as the Health Policy Adviser to U.S. Representative Bill Pascrell (D-NJ), who served on the Ways and Means Committee during the drafting, consideration, and passage of the Affordable Care Act. She began her career in policy as an intern and then bill clerk in the Tennessee General Assembly.
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