Saveon Grenell says leaders encourage those around them and inspire people to be
better version of themselves. That’s one reason why he speaks to detained youth.
Tell us about your background – where did you grow up? What are some of your meaningful childhood memories?
I grew up in Auburn, Ala., also known as “the Loveliest Village on the Plains.” Auburn is a beautiful, small, and family-oriented town; the home to Auburn University. Unless you follow college sports or are from the South, you probably haven’t heard of Auburn. I have the fondest memories where my friends and I would walk through creeks, hop on our bikes to ride through the woods, or ride to the recreation center to play basketball.
My childhood was great, and being in Auburn had a lot to do with it. For the most part, everyone in Auburn is pleasant. My parents taught me how to be respectful, but the concepts of “southern hospitality” and “family” shine through that place wholeheartedly.
You moved to Wauwatosa from Auburn. What brought you here, and what was the transition like?
My family moved to Wauwatosa a few days after I finished my sophomore year of high school because my father accepted a position at Marquette University, associate provost of diversity. I was only 16 years old at the time.
In Auburn, I had developed long-lasting friendships with people I had known since I was in kindergarten and daycare. Leaving the place where you spent the vast majority of your childhood is not easy. The emergence of social media, such as Myspace and Facebook, made it easier to keep in contact with my friends. But it was still a hard adjustment, from living in relatively warm weather year round to walking home in blizzards after school.
What is your family like? How has your family influenced you?
Family is everything. I don’t know where I would be without the love and support of my parents, my two siblings, and other loved ones. A vast majority of my family is from the Mississippi Delta. That region has historically been one of the poorest regions in the United States but it has so much rich history. Great American leaders and other accomplished people have come from the Mississippi Delta.
- Years in practice: 4.5 years
- Undergraduate: Bethune-Cookman University, Daytona Beach, Fla.; B. S. in International Business
- Law school: Thurgood Marshall School of Law, Texas Southern University, Houston, 2014
- Other states licensed: Texas
- Favorite dog breed: Boxer
- Favorite TV show: Game of Thrones
- Book I'm currently reading: The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson
- Contact: email@example.com
Both of my parents, who have been married for 36 years, grew up in Cleveland, Miss. I am a true “southern boy” through and through, and I like to think it shows based on my morals and values. I grew up Southern Baptist Christian, so that means long church services and huge gospel choirs showering everyone with amazing vocals.
Education and faith were very important aspects of my upbringing, and my parents and grandparents made sure to always remind me of that. Honestly, I just wanted to make everyone proud of me. They had to sacrifice so much for me to be in the position that I am now, and I owed it to them to make good on those sacrifices.
My mother’s parents did not live to see me become a lawyer, but I believe they know and they’ve been smiling down on me all this time. My father’s mother passed away two years ago, and that was a very difficult time for me. There are some people in life who you just can’t imagine life without, and my father’s mother was one of them. I have never made a big deal out of me being an attorney, but she was never shy about telling people I was her lawyer!
What made you decide to pursue law?
There’s this joke among most lawyers I know that we chose to go to law school because we weren’t great at math. There is some truth to that.
I wanted to be a few things growing up, including a zoologist and a computer animator. I was closer to choosing computer animator as a profession than anything else. I love to play video games and that was a true passion of mine as a young boy. I wanted to make video games.
I did not have any lawyers in my family that I knew of. I made up my mind to study law when I took an AP (advanced placement) government course at Wauwatosa West High School. Learning about politics and government, my urge to help those around me, and watching Barack Obama (then a U.S. Senator) emerge on the scene back in 2006 and 2007, I knew I wanted to be a lawyer.
I told myself that I wanted to become an attorney by age 25. With a lot of sleepless nights, faith, and good fortune I made that happen. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
After college, you attended Thurgood Marshall School of Law at Texas Southern University. What brought you back to Wisconsin?
Thurgood Marshall School of Law is a school with a lot of history. Texas was good to me, and the law school thoroughly prepared me for the practice of law, but Milwaukee is home. I wanted to come back to where my parents were and where I felt most comfortable. I thought I would move elsewhere after a few years, but I’ve developed a new found love for the city and I’m really excited about the future.
Tell us about your career path – what has worked for you? What would you do differently?
After graduating from law school and taking two different bar exams within a span of seven months, which I wouldn’t recommend, I started my first full-time job with Milwaukee Public Schools. I stayed with the district for nearly three years before moving to the Milwaukee City Attorney’s Office.
I believe what has worked for me is being a “people person.” In my interview for Milwaukee Public Schools, one interviewer asked what set me apart from other people. I did not hesitate in stating that I treat everyone with respect and compassion no matter whether the person is the custodian or the superintendent. I meant it, and I was true to my word.
You have to be authentic and be yourself. I believe others recognize that in me. You cannot try to be someone you aren’t.
I also believe my willingness to learn and volunteer for projects and areas of law that I am unfamiliar with shows my eagerness to grow as a professional. I’m not afraid to roll up my sleeves and work on something new or challenging. So with that said, I’m not sure I would do anything drastically different. If anything, I would have gotten more involved in my community sooner than I did, but I had to take some time to really navigate through my professional and personal life goals.
What is your primary role as a Milwaukee assistant city attorney? What do you enjoy most about your work?
My primary role and responsibilities have changed some over the past year and a half. When I first started with the city, I was in general municipal prosecution and a part of our Community Prosecution Unit (or Community Policing Unit). That could mean anything from interfacing with the general public in municipal court or circuit court to advising police districts, department heads, and elected officials on legal matters.
During my time with the city, I have also represented Milwaukee Public Schools in arbitrations, represented the city in the United States District Court of Wisconsin, and written a few legal opinions along the way. At the moment, I am the chief prosecutor for building and zoning violations but soon will transition to a new assignment within the office.
What I enjoy most about being an assistant city attorney is the interesting relationships and partnerships I have established. These relationships don’t just benefit me, they also benefit my community, and that means a lot to me.
You regularly mentor youth who are in a juvenile detention center. How did that come about? What do you hope to accomplish?
When I worked at Milwaukee Public Schools, administrators often asked me to speak to their students so they could speak with a young, African-American lawyer and see what’s possible for them. That familiar request felt much different when Rob Kalpinski, who taught my high school AP government course, asked me if I would talk to his students involved in the Milwaukee County Accountability Program at the Vel Phillips Juvenile Justice Center.
I had never spoken to youth navigating the criminal justice system and knew that the criminal justice system has historically disenfranchised minorities, but nothing prepared me for how that first interaction would affect me. Despite the circumstances that preceded their arrival to the detention center, seeing young black and brown boys behind bars disheartened me. Their intellect is apparent, but the lack of opportunity, access, and positive life experiences act as barriers to future success. I have been back several times, and it is my hope that I can help some of them change their lives for the better and diminish some of that disparity.
Do you have a particularly memorable story about mentoring young people in the detention center?
Dealing with teenagers can sometimes be challenging. On one particular visit, they were not being respectful to others in the room. One of the young boys stood up and told the group that they were being disrespectful, that I did not have to be there speaking with them, and that they don’t know anything about me and what I could possibly do for them in their lives.
When he left the room to take a test, I followed up by stating he was a leader and what he said took courage despite what his peers might say. Some of the students stated he was only being that way because I was there. For me, that was immaterial, because first impressions are important and he showed me that he could be a leader and that I would never forget him for what he said in that moment.
You believe strongly in the legacy of leadership. Tell us about that commitment and why it’s important to you.
Leadership is more than position or title. It’s the way you carry yourself professionally, personally, and in your community. I happen to believe that people who are remembered for their leadership are those who put words into action. They lead by example and with purpose and integrity. Leaders promote forward progress, free thought, and active participation from all interested parties. Leaders encourage those around them and inspire people to be better versions of their selves.
The next generation desperately needs those types of people, and I am committed to being someone they can look up to. It is important to me because as I become more of a leader in my community and the organizations I am affiliated with, I hope to identify people who are willing to rise to the occasion and take on responsibilities that will make positive impact in their lives and the lives of others. This is how we ensure our society flourishes; cultivating the next generation of future leaders.
Bonus: What do you enjoy during your free time?
During my free time, I love to play video games, read, and travel. I’ve also taken up golfing over the past year and a half so I’m happy that the weather is starting to get warmer!
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How do you go from idea to action?
Data collection is the first step in the process of going from idea to action. Strategic research can help with forming the directional pursuit of implementation and validation to make the idea a reality. Ideas are purely conceptual so if no plan of implementation exists it will be difficult to move on in the process. To take an idea to action you must often take risks and have confidence in the idea itself.
I believe most people are able to get through the conceptual part but are confronted with a lack of courage to implement the idea. Furthermore, being amenable to “pivoting” an idea is crucial. In other words, you have to be open to tweaking it or going in another direction altogether. In all, have confidence in yourself and the idea, be open to modifying the idea when necessary, and be willing to take input from others. That is how I have gone from idea to action.
Saveon D. Grenell, Milwaukee City Attorney's Office, Milwaukee.
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