The Sycamore Institute’s office in Nashville has moved downtown!
We challenged ourselves to ask and answer the hard questions about how to be an organization that will add value to public policy discussions in Tennessee
Communications & Engagement Manager
Grace Graves serves as the Communications & Engagement Manager at the Sycamore Institute, an independent, nonpartisan public policy research center for Tennessee. She is passionate about reducing political polarization by making complex ideas accessible to a wide audience. At Sycamore, she works to build strong relationships across the state through community events and excels at developing and implementing communication plans, managing media relationships, and creating engaging content. In her previous role, Grace worked for Q Ideas, curating speakers and content for events that reached thousands of faith-leaders across the country.
An East Tennessee native, she cares about crafting sound, evidence-based public policy that address the distinct issues facing the Volunteer State. In her free time, she has served as a volunteer for civic organizations like tnAchieves. She holds a B.S. in Government and a Master of Business Administration from Bryan College.
Brian Straessle is the Executive Director of the Sycamore Institute, an independent, nonpartisan public policy research center for Tennessee. As a public policy generalist and veteran communicator, he helps to equip decision-makers and advocates from all perspectives with clear, reliable information on our state’s toughest challenges.
A founding member of Sycamore’s leadership, Brian leads a bipartisan team of experts dedicated to the organization’s mission of producing impartial and actionable policy research and analysis. Their work is respected for being both rigorous and accessible, and is used by governors, executive branch leadership, legislators, media, community leaders, and citizens to better understand and craft solutions to the state’s most complex challenges.
Previously, Brian shaped policy and public relations efforts for Congressman Tom Price (R-GA), the U.S. House Republican Study Committee, and the American Petroleum Institute. Those experiences include active roles in debates over economic policy, health care, welfare, energy, transportation, and the federal budget, and he started his career as an intern at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C. In college, Brian pursued a broad liberal arts education at the University of Florida and came out the other side with a degree in history, French, and business administration.
Brian and his family live in East Nashville, where he plays for the local vintage base ball club, plants trees with Root Nashville, and harvests fresh fruit from his yard. He is a graduate of Nashville’s Young Leaders Council, a member of the American Enterprise Institute’s Leadership Network, and serves on the boards of Cumberland Region Tomorrow and the United Ways of Tennessee.
Posts by Brian
Special Projects Manager
Joseph Page is the Special Projects Manager for the Sycamore Institute. In this role, Joseph coordinates a wide range of programs and activities that advance the organization’s mission. In addition to managing Sycamore’s network of Tennesseans working on criminal justice fee and fine policy, he also provides support to the leadership, research, and communication teams. Joseph joined the Sycamore Institute in 2023 after serving as the Campaign Manager for the SEIU Local 205 and Regional Organizing Manager for The Equity Alliance, where he managed political and community outreach projects.
Joseph comes from a background of political organizing, having previously worked in Chattanooga and Memphis. He became interested in policy and research after serving as an intern in former Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke’s office.
Joseph grew up in Memphis and holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga in Political Science with a minor in Business Administration.
Posts by Joseph
Mandy Spears Pellegrin is the Deputy Director of the Sycamore Institute, an independent, nonpartisan public policy research center for Tennessee. A seasoned policy expert and strategic thinker, Mandy is a trusted guide to elected officials, journalists, and citizens who seek to better understand and shape our society.
As a founding member of its leadership team, Mandy helped establish Sycamore’s accessible, objective, and evidence-based approach to explaining complex issues. She has overseen the production of hundreds of publications with clear and actionable information on the state budget, health, education, criminal justice, and beyond.
Mandy has over 15 years of experience supporting federal and state policymakers – including as a Presidential Management Fellow and advisor to senior leaders at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. She also served as a legislative aide to former U.S. Representative Lincoln Davis (D-TN) and policy adviser to U.S. Representative Bill Pascrell (D-NJ). A native Tennessean, she started her public policy career in the state Comptroller’s Office of Research and the Tennessee General Assembly.
Mandy is a member of Leadership Tennessee and Young Leaders Council and serves on the board of the Civic Design Center. She is an adjunct professor of public policy at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College and Lipscomb University’s College of Leadership and Public Service. In 2022, the Nashville Business Journal recognized her as one of the region’s Women of Influence. Mandy holds a master’s degree in public policy from Georgetown University and a bachelor’s degree in political science from Lipscomb University.
Mandy maintains strong ties to her local community through volunteer activities and her creative endeavors. She now calls East Nashville home.
Posts by Mandy
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.
Deidre Malone is the President/CEO of The Carter Malone Group, LLC (CMG), a public relations, marketing, advertising, and government relations firm headquartered in Memphis, TN, and an office in Jackson, MS. Before opening the agency in May 2003, Malone served as Vice President of Marketing Development for ALSAC/St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. ALSAC is the fundraising arm of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. She also held the position of Director of Public Relations for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. Malone is a former broadcast journalist. She served as a news producer for WMC-TV Action News 5 in Memphis.
Malone served as a member of the Economic Development Growth Engine (EDGE) Board and the Memphis and Shelby County Port Authority Board. She is a member of the Memphis Regional Chamber, Black Business Association, Mid-South Minority Business Continuum, Public Relations Society of America and PRSA Counselors Academy. Malone is a founding member of the Tennessee Public Relations Alliance with MP & F Strategic Communications in Nashville, Moxley Carmichael Public Relations in Knoxville, Q Strategies in Chattanooga, and Hispanic Marketing in Nashville.
Malone plays an active role in the Memphis community. She was elected to the Shelby County Commission in 2002, where she served as chair of the budget, community services, and housing and economic development committees and vice-chair of the education committee. In September 2008, Malone became the first African American woman to chair the Shelby County Commission and the first female to chair the budget committee. Malone ran for Mayor of Shelby County and is the first woman to win a major party nomination for that position. Malone is the 1st Vice President of the National Women’s Political Caucus, past President of the Tennessee Women’s Political Caucus, former Vice President of the Shelby County Democratic Party, Past President of the NAACP Memphis Branch, Philanthropic Black Women of Memphis, and is a trustee at Bethlehem Missionary Baptist Church.
She is a 1999 graduate of Leadership Memphis and in 2001 served as Leadership Memphis Alumni Association President and a member of Beta Epsilon Omega Chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. She serves as Vice President of the Best Media Properties, Inc. The board of Directors, the ownership group for the New Tri-State Defender, is also an M1TV Network partner.
A graduate of Jackson State University, she received a Bachelor of Science Degree in Mass Communications and a minor in Marketing. Deidre and her husband, Dr. Patrick Malone, have two sons, Patrick II and Brian. She is the proud grandmother of Patrick III “Trey” and Bailee Christian.
Matt Marshall serves as President/CEO of the United Way of West Tennessee. He was formerly Executive Director and Head of School at Hands Up! Preschool, a non-profit Early Childhood Education program in Jackson, TN. Before that, he spent eight years in Higher Education at his alma mater, Union University, where he did his undergraduate work in Christian Ethics and then earned a Master’s in Education.
During his time at Union, Matt served as the Director of the Center for Racial Reconciliation, and the Director of Student Success.
He is passionate about our state and longs to see the day when every Tennessean has access to an equitable and healthy life, a quality education, and a financially stable home.
He’s the Co-founder of the Jackson-Madison County Equity Project; Chair of the United Ways of Tennessee State Association; Past-Chair of the Anti-Poverty Task Force for the City of Jackson; member of the United Way Black CEO Alliance; member of the City of Jackson Recovery Court; and the Jackson-Madison County School System Parent Council. He also serves as the Young Adult Pastor at the Historic First Baptist Church.
Matt is the recipient of the David Hallock Award for Outstanding Non-profit Leadership, The William H. Graves Humanitarian Award, the Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth Jim Pryor Award, the WestStar Emerging Leader Award, the Jackson Madison County Branch NAACP Race Relations Award, and the Broadman & Holman Ministerial Award, among others.
He is a native Jacksonian, but when not serving in the community, he enjoys spending time with his wife, children, and extended family.
Senior Policy Analyst
Sarah Clark Henderson is a Senior Policy Analyst at the Sycamore Institute. In this role, she turns complex data and research into clear, actionable information on Tennessee public policy. Sarah joined Sycamore in 2022 after three years with Vanderbilt’s Department of Health Policy, where she managed a research hub using statewide health and education data to evaluate child outcomes over time. In addition, she supported research faculty on topics that ranged from prescription drug policy to Medicaid policy in Tennessee.
Sarah found her passion for population health, policy, and research-practice partnerships in 2013 while evaluating a county-wide school nutrition intervention in South Carolina. She led several community-based projects as a graduate student, including a needs assessment for a federally qualified health center. She also coordinated a patient navigation program for metastatic breast cancer patients at Emory University’s Winship Cancer Institute and Grady Hospital.
Sarah graduated from Furman University with bachelor’s degrees in Health Sciences and Spanish and earned her Master of Public Health degree from Emory University.
Posts by Sarah
Young Leaders Council Intern
Taylor Berry serves as an international telecommunications consultant, focusing on strategies to increase access to high-quality, affordable technology tools, training, and infrastructure. Through this work, she has collaborated with international development banks, governments, foundations, and global corporations. The book she co-authored, Driving Demand for Broadband Access (2014), addresses the demand side of the global broadband gap and continues to guide policy makers through detailed best practices studies and strategy recommendations.
Taylor also worked for five years at Nashville-headquartered Asurion. Here she served on the Women’s Initiative Network board, co-founded a virtual support network for women returning from maternity leave, and spearheaded the internal “Project Period” to collect feminine hygiene products for local students. This work led Asurion to nominate her as the firm-wide candidate for the 2019 ATHENA Award.
Outside of her professional work and commitment to empowering women, Taylor passionately advocates for reproductive and maternal health. She serves as a member of Planned Parenthood’s Community Advisory Board, attends related legislative sessions, and created an advocacy group dedicated to advancing the women’s reproductive health and voter engagement conversation.
Taylor graduated from Wake Forest University (B.A.) and Georgetown University (M.A.) and received certifications in International Trade and Development from both Georgetown and the Graduate Institute of Geneva. She and her husband moved to Nashville in 2014 and spend their time wrangling their two toddlers and Labrador Retriever.
Gabe Roberts is the Founder and Chief Executive Officer of the Roberts Consulting Group (RCG). RCG is an advisory firm that partners with health plans, providers, and government/health plan vendors to assist them in identifying and operationalizing market opportunities, driving enterprise value, and advancing strategic priorities. It also provides strategic health care and regulatory insight to private equity and venture capital firms.
Prior to founding RCG, Roberts served as the Chief Executive Officer of the Tennessee Medicaid agency (“TennCare”) as a member of Tennessee Governor Bill Lee’s Cabinet. In this role, he was responsible for, among other things, the day-to-day operations of the $12 Billion annual budget, leading 1,200 employees, providing essential health care services to 1.4 million Tennesseans, and designing/implementing/driving further adoption of nation-leading policies that ensure the long-term fiscal sustainability of the Tennessee Medicaid program. During his tenure, Roberts was elected to the Board of Directors of the National Association of Medicaid Directors and was named a Fellow with the Medicaid Leadership Institute (a program run by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Center for Health Care Strategies). Prior to serving as the TennCare CEO, Roberts served as the agency’s COO and General Counsel. Prior to joining TennCare, Roberts was a corporate attorney with the Nashville law firm Sherrard, Roe, Voigt and Harbison, and, before entering law school, he was a CPA with Ernst & Young.
In addition to his work through RCG, Roberts serves as a Board member and Advisory Board member to multiple health care companies and is a Fellow with the Nashville Health Care Council. He is active in community having served as a Board member for multiple city and statewide not-for-profits and is an active member, with his wife Ashleigh and their five children, of Covenant Presbyterian Church in Nashville.
Roberts is a graduate of Vanderbilt University Law School, where he was a member of the Vanderbilt Law Review, and of the University of Mississippi, where he graduated with degrees in Accountancy and Economics and was inducted into the University’s Hall of Fame.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.