The Assertive yet Humble Idealist
By Meghna Maharishi, News Editor
During the final round of a 2017 national Policy Case competition, Olesya “Lesi” Hreb and her team were the youngest and only all-female team. Hreb’s team designed a policy to address the education gap between men and women in India. The team was up against male graduate students from Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and did not expect to win.
When judges announced the winner of the final round, CAS senior Hreb’s team was in complete disbelief. They came in first place, beating out the other older, male-dominated teams.
For Hreb, the experience highlighted how important it was for women to speak up.
“It’s important not to have just one woman for diversity, it should be OK to have an entire team of young women,” Hreb said. “I noticed the gender gap, but it didn’t stop me or my team in any way.
The Policy Case competition further fueled Hreb’s interest in politics, and her interest in advocating for herself as a woman in politics. She sees her advocacy as something personal.
“I think a lot of times women are told ‘don’t be too aggressive’ or ‘don’t be too confident with yourself,'” Hreb said. “Women grow up thinking these things and that translates to low representation in government. It’s important to point these [characteristics] out in yourself first.”
Hreb currently works in Queens as District 30 Office Manager for New York Assemblyman Brian Barnwell. Somewhere down the road, Hreb envisions herself running for office.
On a chilly Wednesday morning in a Greenwich Village cafe, Hreb spoke softly yet passionately about her work at Barnwell’s office, recounting an experience guiding a woman through the eviction process.
“I knew housing, gentrification was an issue, so seeing it firsthand definitely makes you realize that you’re having an impact,” Hreb said.
When she spoke to me, she stopped herself every few minutes and apologized for bragging about how she managed to move up the ranks in Barnwell’s office.
She’s soft-spoken, yet still manages to assert herself and make sure that her voice is heard — something that’s hard to do in a field where women are highly scrutinized.
At a women’s political action conference with only a dozen attendees, Hreb arrived late, but was not afraid to discuss the lack of female representation in politics. When most people remained silent at the conference, Hreb spoke up about her intentions to potentially run for office in the future. She served as a mentor to first-year attendees and in a few short hours, befriended nearly everyone at the conference — with whom she now regularly keeps in touch.
Donned in a black blazer and gray turtleneck, Hreb looked ready to tackle her day of classes and sandwich making for the homeless at the Saint Sebastian Parish in Queens. This is one of Barnwell’s monthly initiatives to encourage community engagement among his staff.
Since the predicted forecast was three inches of snow, Hreb brought along a large beige bag filled with boots and a heavy jacket in the event that she would need to shovel the streets in the district. Whenever it snows, she, along with other staffers at Barnwell’s office, shovel snow to prevent low-income and elderly residents from facing fines for snowy sidewalks.
Ilaria Carbone, one of Hreb’s co-workers at Barnwell’s office, commented on how Hreb always shows up to shovel snow in the night despite her long commute.
“Lesi often comes late at night to the district in order to help the team of volunteers,” Carbone said. “[It] shows not only how dedicated she is to the job, but also how much she cares about the citizens she works for.”
Hreb partly attributes her assertive drive to her mother. When Hreb was a child, Hreb’s parents separated, and during this time, she says she became more vocal. At Ukrainian school, whenever a teacher would order the class to do a certain task she did not want to do, she would be quick to voice her thoughts.
“I remember going to protests, I grew up in a very patriotic family,” Hreb said. “It’s very much a big part of my identity.”
As a child, Hreb grew up immersed in Ukrainian culture. She spoke Ukrainian at home, traveled between New Jersey and Ukraine to spend time with her grandmother, participated in Ukrainian summer camps and was even runner-up in the 2018 Miss Ukrainian NJ pageant.
When telling me about the Miss Ukrainian NJ pageant, she chuckled, her cheeks flushed with embarrassment. The pageant was a charity event to aid wounded soldiers in Ukraine. She avoided speaking too much about the pageant, simply saying “My mom made me do it.”
Hreb partly attributes her desire to advocate for herself and for others to her Ukrainian background. Growing up in a patriotic Ukrainian family, Hreb was always outspoken on issues plaguing Ukraine, yet participated in rallies in support of Ukraine.
In 2014, Hreb attended a rally outside of the Ukrainian embassy in New York City. The rally was in support of the country’s revolution to overthrow President Viktor Yanukovych, who some felt favored Russia’s influence in Ukraine’s affairs. Hreb and hundreds of other protestors marched from the embassy on 49th Street to Times Square.
Hreb never questioned attending the rally; to her it felt more like an obligation.
As she spoke, Hreb showed me her necklace that she wears almost every day. The necklace has the golden pendant of a “tryzub,” which is Ukrainian for trident. The tryzub, typically superimposed on a blue shield, represents the country’s coat of arms.
Despite being raised in a politically active family, Hreb did not always have a personal interest in politics. Initially, she was keen on photojournalism. In high school, Hreb placed fifth in a national photography competition and had some of her photos published in a magazine.
Hreb studied in Paris her first year at NYU as part of the Liberal Studies Core program.
Two months into her first semester at NYU Paris, the Paris attacks happened, killing 130 and injuring 413.
“[My interest in photography] faded out, especially in Paris,” Hreb said. “When you’re exposed to the world and issues, and you’re going through more concrete life experiences, you start thinking of your place in the world and how you can have the greatest impact.”
Before the frenzy surrounding the attacks, she befriended CAS senior Mahathi Vemireddy. The two met while they were stuck in an elevator and after the Paris attacks, they visited vigils in the city. Vemireddy remarked how caring Hreb was during that tumultuous time.
“She was very kind and thoughtful during that time — as she always is,” Vemireddy said. “We definitely checked in with each other often then.”
The attacks led Hreb to search for something more meaningful. Once she arrived in New York City, she participated in policy case competitions, which gave her a glimpse into designing policies that could have a real impact.
After her 2017 policy case competition victory, Hreb was a summer intern at DOROT — a nonprofit organization that aids senior citizens. DOROT exposed her to a slew of issues senior citizens deal with regularly, such as not having enough money for groceries or medications. Seeing how these problems manifest made Hreb think that governments needed to do more to serve vulnerable individuals.
“Our government can’t provide basic resources, so nonprofits have to step in and do the job, but they are often underfunded, understaffed,” Hreb said. “It made me open my eyes and I thought, ‘Wow there needs to be a big policy change.’”
In order to have an impact on policy, Hreb initially joined Barnwell’s staff as a Public Affairs Fellow, but then quickly moved up the ranks to become a District Office Manager. Currently, Hreb is one of two undergraduate students that work in Barnwell’s office.
As a Public Affairs Fellow, Hreb specifically worked on policies pertaining to senior citizens, inspired by her work at DOROT. Organizing events, speaking on behalf of the office and working on constituent cases — problems which people raise that the district tries to fix — are not normally jobs that interns get to do.
Even as an intern, Hreb had the opportunity to work on legislation. One of the initiatives she worked on included giving senior citizens larger tax breaks because of issues such as gentrification and rising property taxes. After Hreb made countless calls to other Assembly members, the bill got over 20 co-sponsors.
“It was definitely an opportunity that most offices don’t give [you], especially in politics,” Hreb said.
As for the future, Hreb speaks with an air of uncertainty on what exactly she will do after she graduates this spring. All she knows is that whatever it is, it will involve helping people in any way possible.
“For me, it’s very important to interact with people as a person and careerwise,” Hreb said. “I like to talk to people, I like to figure out why they’re having issues whether it’s on an external level such as having a pothole and offering to fix it.”
Email Meghna Maharishi at [email protected] A version of this article appears in the Thursday, March 14, 2019, print edition on Pages 20 and 21. Read more from Washington Square News’ “Up-and-Comers 2019.”