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Ayanti Grant is running things

In the same week in October, Ayanti Grant was named one of the 100 most influential Black people in Connecticut and to the Fitch athletic hall of fame for her track and field career. So who exactly is Ayanti Grant?

"You're not supposed to know me," Grant says from U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney's Norwich office on a recent November day. "I'm just supposed to get the work done, and you're supposed to know Joe."

Grant, the district director for Courtney, oversees his Enfield and Norwich offices. She's camera shy because — she and her friends say — she is entirely focused on the work Courtney's office can do for constituents.

The work

Courtney's headquarters in Norwich is in a building that houses businesses. Grant's office has an inviting view of the Thames River from Main Street. Thank you cards and other knickknacks from people she's helped adorn her walls. She offers candy immediately upon arrival as a function of her deadly sweet tooth.

On this November day she's busy scheduling and preparing for a virtual Town Hall event that was sent out to more than 100,000 constituents, in addition to her regular casework. Her main portfolio is immigration, but she also does economic development, small business, transportation and a little bit of everything else.

The top question asked to Grant and Courtney's district office regardless of the issue is, "Why is it taking so long?" Sometimes it's an application or a petition pending, or someone or a small business is waiting for an IRS return to be processed so the SBA can then process their Economic Injury Disaster Loans.

"That's one of my big issue areas right now for casework, getting those EIDL loans either approved or adjudicated or denied and funds disbursed," Grant said, "but, 'Why is it taking so long? Why can't someone answer the phone? I've been sending them the same documents over and over again, why do they keep asking for it?' Those questions transcend every other issue area."

Grant said people have been reaching out to the office for help more since the pandemic, noting that Courtney's offices "were one of the only places of influence that was open and answering the phone on the federal, state and local levels." Grant and staff often work on veterans' issues, Social Security and questions with the IRS.

Asked if people are aware of the work Courtney's offices do, he said "yes and no."

"The word certainly has gotten out about issues like crumbling foundations or our veterans' case work, Medicare, Social Security," Courtney said. "I think the work product and the efficiency is very high due in large part to Ayanti's leadership. COVID added a layer or degree of difficulty in terms of working remotely but still answering the phones and dealing with agencies that were also kind of limping along. She kept everything together."

Although she is eminently positive, by her own account, Grant did note that Washington's bureaucratic knot has become more difficult to untie since she first began to work for Courtney in 2007.

"How we respond has had to change," she said. "When we first started, I could literally pick up the phone or shoot an email and flip a visa, or get a decision made on something on the phone." Grant snapping her fingers for effect. "Now sometimes it takes two to three weeks or six months for me to get an answer."

When a constituent calls the office, Grant said, she and staff clearly describe how the office can help and give a sense of the federal bureaucratic process.

"We also like to, depending on the case, offer alternatives. 'OK, this path may be blocked but let's also pursue this, and let's see how this might shake out,'" Grant said. "It's kind of like a puzzle. You put the pieces together to try make you whole as fast as you can until the other issue or the underlying issue is resolved."

In a typical day, Grant convenes with interns and staffers, walks through casework, meets with walk-ins, and firms up Courtney's schedule.

The career

Grant was born in San Diego and moved to Groton in 1992, when she started at Fitch Middle School. She graduated Fitch in 1997 and went to Hofstra University for her undergraduate degree, graduating in 2001. She graduated with a law degree from Southern New England School of Law in 2005.

Grant and Courtney both credit Lonnie Braxton, a New London prosecutor, for putting her on the newly elected congressman's radar.

"Courtney was elected in 2006, I had been a clerk at the courthouse for a year and a half at that point," Grant said, "and State's Attorney Lonnie Braxton was like, 'Hey kid why don't you see what's going on with Joe Courtney, he's a good guy,' and I said OK."

Grant said her law background and being a licensed attorney as well as her vested interest in immigration issues — it's long been her focus of study and work, and she's a first-generation American, her parents being from Panama — called out to Courtney.

"When you're a new member you don't have an office. You've gotta assemble your own team, and she was referred to me by my friend Lonnie Braxton," Courtney said. "At that point she was interested in casework with the State Department and Homeland Security, which is not for the faint of heart. I was very impressed with having a lawyer who's admitted to practice and can deal with the complexities of that work, and she is very energetic and organized, and she just shouted out that she was a good pick. She's extended her portfolio since to just about everything."

Grant has maintained since she was hired that she's not a political person.

"I knew back then I was as well, but I still believe I'm the least political person in the office," she said. She argued that this outlook has aided her approach.

"When people come to me, whether they were Joe Courtney, or not Joe Courtney at all, they're going to get the same respect, the same work ethic, the same treatment, from me and my entire team," she said. "When people call and say, 'I was that 83rd vote,' or someone says, 'I'll never vote for Joe Courtney,' I say, 'We're here to help you.' Knowing you'll be treated the same way regardless keeps me and the constituency in a pretty positive place."

Cutter Oliver, the director of external affairs for the state Senate Democrats, worked with Grant from 2008, when he started as an intern, until 2016, after Oliver ran Courtney's campaign. He's also a fellow Fitch graduate.

"In this business a lot of people look for the limelight and recognition," Oliver said. "She's definitely not like that, she's all about the work. "It's hard to find people like that now doing this job. A lot of people don't realize there's a congressional office and there's people there that are helping, it's not always about the politics. Unfortunately, with everything going on in the past few years, people have this negative outlook of what government does. She's one of the good ones. I think she's always tried not to be political, which is tough sometimes, especially when you're district director."

Grant feels fulfilled in her role. She's confident but not completely comfortable — "Once I feel like I know it all, then it's time for me to go."

Grant was an All-ECC performer and team MVP in indoor and outdoor track. She earned Class L indoor all-state honors as a junior while placing second in the 300, 55 dash and as a member of the 4x200 relay team. She still holds indoor school records in the 300 and 4x360 meter relay.

She compares her job to running: "If you're going to invest your time and energy into something, you make sure you do it well. Otherwise, time to move on." But everything isn't always so smooth or straightforward.

"There are some days, I'm not going to lie, where I'm like, 'Why do I do this to myself?' You take a call or a few calls back-to-back and you're like, 'I'm here 50 hours a week, sometimes longer, seven days a week, holidays, and they don't care,'" she said. "Then you think about the other people you've impacted, not just for that immediate moment but forever. We have done work that will change a person's life forever. Who can say that? It's those families, it's those individuals, it's those businesses that flourish that are generational and can continue to be so, because of work we're doing. I have a boss who's pretty amazing and gives me the latitude to do what I need to do and trusts me to do it."

'That's my life'

Grant, who lives in Groton, has a niece and a nephew she sees every day. She enjoys traveling, camping, going to the beach, food and the sweet sounds of such musical acts as Nas, Ashanti and Dave Matthews Band. A normal resume.

Except for the constant award winning and recognition: in 2019 she was named Connecticut Congressional Staffer of the Year. She never imagined herself on a list like the 100 most influential Black people in the state.

"I don't do anything for recognition," she said. "I appreciate it, but that's not why I do it. It's actually kind of embarrassing."

On Nov. 9, at a news conference staged at Ocean Beach announcing $100 million in federal funds to restore and preserve Long Island Sound, Grant stood out as the lone Black woman amidst eight or nine white men, including Courtney, U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, staff and other event speakers.

"Every day. That's my life. That's my life," Grant says, laughing. "Unfortunately, it is what it is. But, I just try to do my job well enough that when someone else that isn't me but looks like me is in the room, they're treated with the same level of respect that those individuals give me. As you saw, I had pretty good rapport with everybody there. I want to be the template for how they treat others, and hopefully it won't always be that way. But it is what it is, and I roll with it, and I do the best that I can."

Grant was in predominantly white spaces in college as well, where people often assumed she got into the college because she wasBlack and not because she was smart.

"I went to Hofstra, so yeah," she said. "While I was there, they had this program, NOAH, for kids without that much money and without the same opportunities as others at Hofstra. It was seen as, 'Their grades weren't that great' or 'They wouldn't get in on their own.' And it was only Black and brown folks. So it was assumed that you were a NOAH student. You aren't smart enough. You're there on scholarship. You're there for the demographic. That's always been my life, and I've learned to navigate it, and stand out."

s.spinella@theday.com

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