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Drewry Nash Fennell '85

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Attorney, advocate, policy adviser pursues passion for justice

Drew Fennell

​Drew Fennell

Drew Fennell first came to the University of Delaware midway through her undergraduate studies, transferring to UD after taking a break from school for a few years following the death of her father.

It was a fresh start that rekindled her interest in academics, she says, and a first step to what has been a career dedicated to advocacy and public service.

“I’m incredibly grateful to have had the opportunity to continue my education and for everything the University did for me,” said Fennell, who earned her bachelor’s degree in English in 1985. “The University of Delaware put me on a new path again.”

For Fennell, who has received a 2020 College of Arts and Sciences Alumni Achievement Award, that path later took her to law school and to a varied career pursing a deep commitment to fairness.

John Ernest, the Judge Hugh M. Morris Professor of English and chair of the Department of English, summarizes her professional accomplishments as “almost too many to mention.”

“She has been a leader in promoting better government, social justice and the public welfare,” said Ernest, who nominated Fennell for the alumni award.

After law school, Fennell worked as a corporate attorney but was drawn to advocacy and became the executive director of ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) Delaware. She was brand-new to the job and about to attend her first meeting with the organization’s board in 2001 when the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the U.S. occurred.

“The events of that terrible attack, and then a lot of civil liberties issues that followed” occupied much of her time with the ACLU. It was critical, she said, “to find ways to protect the freedoms that make this country great.”

Many of the other cases brought to the ACLU’s attention involved prisoners’ rights, often focusing on access to health care. In 2010, Fennell became executive director of the Criminal Justice Council of Delaware, providing criminal justice policy research and planning for the state.

At the council, she led a team that won a federal grant allowing Delaware to participate in the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, a program designed to reduce prison populations.

In 2014, Fennell joined the administration of Delaware Gov. Jack Markell, serving first as policy director and then as chief of staff, overseeing the work of 16 cabinet secretaries and other senior staff. It was primarily her interest in criminal justice issues that led her to accept the position, she said.

“Moving from being an advocate, an outsider, to working within government was a change,” she said. “But Governor Markell was interested in addressing so many of the same issues that I cared about—juvenile justice, adult criminal justice, mental health, foster care. … In government service, you really can change things.”

Fennell has also led campaigns to address such topics as child welfare and LGBT rights, among many other concerns. She and her wife, Lisa Goodman, were the first couple to have a civil union in Delaware.

Today, she is the chief communications and experience officer for the ChristianaCare Health System. In this role, which she began in 2017, she is responsible for leading communications strategy and philanthropic efforts and serving as senior adviser to the organization’s president and CEO on board and trustee engagement.

The challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic have been especially difficult for health-care workers, and Fennell said ChristianaCare has remained committed to providing clear and accurate information to the public throughout the pandemic. The goal, she said, has been to live up to the trust that the public generally places in information from health-care professionals.

Throughout Fennell’s wide-ranging career, she has been recognized as trailblazer and has been awarded numerous honors, including the Order of the First State, the 2019 Women’s Leadership Award from the Women’s Leadership Conference and a 2018 Woman of Distinction award from the Girl Scouts of the Chesapeake Bay. In 2019, she was inducted into the Hall of Fame of Delaware Women, and she has been recognized for her leadership by the Delaware Human Relations Commission, state Bar Association and many other organizations.

At UD, Fennell has taught and been a guest speaker in various classes, talking about legal careers and civil liberties issues and telling students that her English degree gave her valuable writing and critical-thinking skills.

When she spoke recently, via Zoom, to a “Field Production for TV News” communication class, instructor Nancy Karibjanian introduced her to students as “an engaged and enthusiastic Blue Hen.”

Fennell serves on the College of Arts and Sciences Dean’s Advisory Council and has helped the ChristianaCare CEO build partnerships with UD Athletics, in addition to maintaining other connections with the University.

She is particularly involved in Delaware Public Media, where she is a board member, and in working with the College of Arts and Sciences to sustain its partnership with the news service, an NPR member station that is the only public media news service founded in and covering Delaware.

When asked what sparked her involvement in Delaware Public Media, Fennell has a quick answer: the First Amendment.

“You can’t overstate the importance of an independent press,” she said. “It’s hard to be a community—it’s hard to even be a place—without a vibrant press.”

Article by Ann Manser

Published May 28, 2021

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Drew Fennell, who earned her bachelor's degree in English in 1985 and has had a varied career as an advocate and in government service, received a 2020 Alumni Achievement Award from the College.
5/19/2021
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