Public affairs, political science alum follows great-grandmother’s legacy of community service
Evelyn Gratts’ life of activism inspires ’21 grad Alisha Cathirell-Tanzer in her AmeriCorps work to reduce poverty in Los Angeles
Editor’s note: This is a feature highlighting successful careers in public service as part of ASU’s Salute to Service celebration.
Alisha Cathirell-Tanzer’s great-grandmother, Evelyn Gratts, dedicated her life to the youth of Los Angeles through political activism and battling for change.
Today Cathirell-Tanzer is also in the thick of public service, working with AmeriCorps to organize volunteers for local nonprofits dedicated to relieving poverty in the nation’s second-largest city. Gratts never went to college, but Cathirell-Tanzer did — recently earning two Arizona State University bachelor’s degrees — and is doing many of the same things her great-grandmother did.
“She was a remarkable woman who lived her life for the children of Los Angeles, but the funny thing is that I didn’t know much about her accomplishments at all,” said Cathirell-Tanzer, who works for L.A. Works, a nonprofit that partners with AmeriCorps to alleviate poverty.
Cathirell-Tanzer couldn’t have asked for a better role model than Gratts, who lived at a time of great social upheaval during the 1960s and '70s. She marched with labor leader Cesar Chavez; campaigned for the first Black female major-party presidential candidate, Shirley Chisholm; and was friends with Los Angeles’ first Black mayor, Tom Bradley.
“She was just Grandmother Gratts to me,” Cathirell-Tanzer said. “I knew we would volunteer and help feed the elderly during the holidays and that she traveled a lot to talk to people, but I never fully understood what was going on until (I participated in) a project at Santa Monica College, where I talked to some of my older relatives about their experiences growing up during the civil rights movement.”
As she researched her great-grandmother, Cathirell-Tanzer said she discovered a woman “who fervently believed that her role was to speak truth to power. She worked tirelessly to speak for the children and Black communities of Los Angeles. Despite not having a higher education or an elected position, she had done exactly what I was going to school to do.”
A returning student, Cathirell-Tanzer earned two Bachelors of Science from ASU in December 2021. The first is in public service and public policy from the School of Public Affairs in the Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions, and the second is in political science from the School of Politics and Global Studies in The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, both via ASU Online. She is continuing her higher education, pursuing an online Master of Public Administration degree from the University of Southern California, expecting to graduate in August 2024.
Read on to learn more about Cathirell-Tanzer, her time at ASU and how her work today continues to honor her great-grandmother’s legacy.
Question: Tell us a little about yourself today and your early years.
Answer: I was born in Altadena, California, and I’ve lived here for almost my whole life. After high school, I worked in medical billing, had my daughter, Jade, and lived my best nerd life. Eventually, though, I decided I needed to do more. I started taking classes online at Santa Monica College. SMC helped me figure out that going back to school was possible and helped me see what I could do with that education. But I wanted to do more than what SMC could offer, so I transferred to ASU.
Along with starting at ASU, I also started working at L.A. Works. My job and education complemented each other really well, and I was frequently able to use examples from work in class, or things we had discussed in class for work.
I still live in Altadena with my dad, my 13-year-old daughter, my husband, our baby and an exuberant corgi named Nugget.
Q: You’ve said you’re following in your great-grandmother’s footsteps. Tell us more about her and the importance of having a strong connection to her legacy.
A: From a young age, she was dedicated to her community. As a young woman, in a time when women, especially Black women like her, were broadly discouraged from driving, she learned how to drive and maintain cars, and then proceeded to teach others in her neighborhood. This early, hands-on activism would grow into a passion for education and fighting to bring resources to underserved communities. ... She became an education advocate and lobbyist at City Hall, at the state Capitol in Sacramento and even in Washington, D.C.
One of her great successes was helping bring Head Start to Los Angeles. Her tireless fight for education led to the city paying tribute to her by changing the law on the books to allow her to be the first living person in Los Angeles to have two elementary schools named after her.
She passed when I was young, and my family’s no-nonsense, stoic attitude means that we don’t really talk about past accomplishments, so I hadn’t known any of this. But once I found out, I felt vindicated in my pursuit of higher education, as well as angry that I was fighting the same battles today for my daughter as she fought for hers. She has become a guidepost for me, a reminder that what I want to do is both possible and necessary.
Q: What obstacles related to being a nontraditional student did you face?
A: As a single, working mother, my biggest challenge early in my pursuit of higher education was time. While at SMC, I was able to find a decent part-time job (and met my future husband through mutual friends), which helped give me room to make education part of my life again, but by the time I started at ASU, I had transitioned to working full time at L.A. Works and had to learn to juggle work, parenting, school and being in a relationship.
Another challenge I faced is that I am the first in my immediate family to pursue higher education. My parents and grandparents did not attend college. So while they were supportive, they didn’t really understand what I was going through, and I didn’t have an example to follow.
Q: Today you’re working with AmeriCorps with L.A. Works. What are you doing there? Tell us about the people you serve.
A: I am L.A. Works’ director of AmeriCorps State and National, VISTA. (It’s a mouthful.) L.A. Works’ primary mission is to mobilize volunteers in Los Angeles, typically partnering with other nonprofits or corporations. I work with AmeriCorps (an independent agency of the United States government formerly known as the Corporation for National and Community Service) to place AmeriCorps members at local nonprofits.
Our VISTA members serve a term of one year at nonprofits focused on alleviating poverty in Los Angeles. These volunteers provide professional-level services to build the capacity of their host organization. In return, they receive a stipend and an award upon completion of their term of service. Our VISTA host sites focus on everything from literacy programs to food insecurity projects.
Around the time I graduated from ASU, I also led an effort to secure a grant through the new Public Health Program, which will place full- and part-time volunteers at public health nonprofit organizations to help build public health initiatives serving underserved communities across Los Angeles.
Q: How did your time as a student prepare you for life after graduation?
A: It is impossible for me to detangle life after graduation and before. I started my position at L.A. Works very close to when I started at ASU, and the two experiences are entwined.
In almost every class, I found things that I could relate immediately to my job. And in almost every class, I was able to use my experiences at my job to inform my work. For example, at the same time as I took a class that focused heavily on intergovernmental and extragovernmental cooperation, I was heavily involved with the California Climate Action Corps, a statewide program to place volunteers at organizations focused on environmental goals. This program involved heavy interaction between state and local governments, as well as government agencies and nonprofits. Not only was I able to use my experience in papers, but the subjects covered in class helped me and my team to build and manage the program more effectively.
My education provided me with real and actionable knowledge that I was able to put to use immediately. My ability to grow our programs and manage a growing team — along with my promotion to director — would have been impossible without the things I learned at Watts.
Q: Why did you choose ASU?
A: As a working mom, online education was a must, and ASU’s program was the best fit for me out of all the programs I applied to. I was extremely happy with the ease of use of ASU’s systems and the transparency of the application process and what the road to my degree entailed. Other programs seemed too convoluted, or their systems were difficult to use, or their classes were handled in a way that was too inflexible to fit my life. I knew what degree I wanted to pursue from the start, so I liked that ASU gave me a map of what I would need to take, giving me clear goals to pursue.
Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?
A: For those who are already in the thick of it, run your race to the best of your abilities. You got this. My final semester at ASU was a doozy. I found out in July that I was pregnant, so my then-fiancé and I decided to step up our original plan for our wedding from March 2022 (after graduation) to October 2021 (before graduation). So I ended up planning our destination wedding while doing my senior capstone. At the six-month mark of my pregnancy, right after our wedding, my son decided that I had my fun and began really kicking my butt. I got gestational hypertension, carpal tunnel and had three final papers due. Life is going to throw everything it’s got at you, but even with huge obstacles, you can do the work. Sometimes you’ll have to ask for help or extensions, but if you just keep focused on getting the next assignment done, then the next, you will get there.
For those who are getting started, be precise and purposeful about plotting out your classes. I made sure I plotted out at least two semesters in advance, so I was never stuck if a class wasn’t available that semester. Check your road map and make sure not to leave off any little requirements until too late. Also, try to game the system a bit and find things that will satisfy multiple requirements; that will make sure you have room for the things you want to focus on.
Lastly, don’t completely lose who you are and what you love. Academia can be rigorous, but once it's done and you achieved your degree, then what? You still have to be a whole person, so never lose your hobbies or the things that made you happy on the way to achieving your goals.
Q: What is something you think would surprise people to learn about you?
A: It doesn’t come up a lot in school and work, so I think people are often surprised at how big a nerd I am. I have a huge collection of dice. I met my husband because of our mutual love of a Dungeons & Dragons actual-play podcast. I read comics and watch anime. I try to have all the consoles when I can afford them. I love cheesy Kindle Unlimited romance stories. School takes a lot of time and effort; it’s important to try to keep in touch with the things you love. I might not have enough time to play D&D or do cosplay these days, but they’re still important parts of who I am.
Q: What is your life motto in one sentence?
A: My family are very practical people, so I think our motto would be, “When it comes to helping others, get it done.”