Electing to Act
How Scripps alumnae and students are shaping the issues that matter to voters
By Amy Derbedrosian
The heat of a political campaign season brings lots of talk. But for many Scripps alumnae and students, the issues confronting the country call for action as well as thoughtful discussion.
Scripps women who are passionate about tackling today’s issues aren’t waiting for election outcomes or fulfillment of campaign promises. In legislative corridors, schools, business boardrooms, nonprofit organizations, and other settings across the nation, they are improving the systems that shape American society and the lives of people within it. They are informing education and criminal justice reform, advocating for better healthcare, promoting job growth and environmental justice, empowering communities, and protecting the rights of workers and voters.
“At Scripps, being politicized is about organizing and action,” says Thomas Kim, associate professor of politics and chair of the Department of Politics. “If we told students they get to be politicized every two years by voting, they’d say that’s not enough.”
Scripps prepares students and alumnae to not only get involved, but also make an impact. The interdisciplinary nature of a Scripps education is crucial, says Kim. Graduates have a greater capacity to understand and address complex issues than those with more narrow training.
Assistant Professor of Politics Sumita Pahwa sees other reasons for their engagement. She explains, “I think it results from the support and encouragement they receive here. That women take chances and run things is completely standard for them.”
“The education students receive at Scripps enables them to look at politics through a variety of lenses, not just institutions or conventional political processes,” adds Pahwa. “Students learn to see how the stories we tell ourselves about the world, cultural norms, historical processes, and hierarchies related to gender, ethnicity, and race shape how power is experienced and exercised. Their understanding of society and power is multidimensional.”
Of course, not every alumna passionate about tackling today’s key issues started out studying politics. Regardless of major, however, many graduates voice sentiments similar to those of Pandwe Gibson ’04.
“Scripps laid the foundation for me. I learned to think critically, solve problems, and position myself to be competitive and be a force,” says the black studies and history major who has since made her mark in both education and green manufacturing. “I would not be as successful without that foundation.”
Pandwe Gibson ’04
EcoTech Visions, Miami
After starting charter schools in her native New Orleans, Pandwe Gibson ’04 moved on to a new challenge: create a business incubator in Miami focused on green manufacturing. Through her company, Gibson brings together budding entrepreneurs, workers seeking to develop skills for new industries, and her particular business expertise. In the process, she’s revitalizing low-income communities and promoting economic development.
“My greatest reward is seeing companies grow. An example is Earthware, which went from an idea to a contract for sustainable cutlery in schools. That means they can hire more people at $15 per hour. It also means some of the issue with Miami-Dade County landfills can be addressed—they’re filling up. The byproduct of innovation is often a better society for everyone.”
Adrienne Lindgren ’11
Business Development Manager
Office of Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti
Adrienne Lindgren ’11 applies her experience in the public, private, and nonprofit sectors to mobilize support for economic development and workforce training in Los Angeles. Working primarily with the manufacturing and aerospace industries, she is helping the city capture a share of U.S. companies choosing to return, expand, or relocate within the area, contributing to the creation of stable jobs for the Los Angeles community.
“My work is about public service, generating employment, and matching people with opportunities. I am able to give back to my community through jobs creation, and I enjoy helping businesses articulate what it is they bring to a community so that it is well-received and achieves positive outcomes.”
Emily Taylor ’05
Policy and Engagement Manager
Solve ME/CFS Initiative, Los Angeles
Working with legislators and policymakers in Washington, D.C., prepared Emily Taylor ’05 to advocate for patients whose health issues are often neglected or misunderstood. As a director of policy and advocacy at the Special Needs Network, Taylor represented those with autism from low-income families of color living in South Los Angeles. Now an advocacy and engagement manager at Solve ME/CFS Initiative, she increases awareness of myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME), also known as chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), a debilitating disease that leaves one quarter of patients bedridden. ME/CFS disproportionately affects women at a rate of four to one. Taylor’s own mother has suffered from the disease since 2008.
“I don’t see policy—I see the people behind policy. My passion is the patients. I want to be the voice and make change for patients who can’t do this for themselves. Their story needs to be told.”
Grace Reckers ’18
Laspa We Act Grant Recipient
Koreatown Immigrant Workers Alliance (KIWA), Los Angeles
A Scripps politics class initially inspired Grace Reckers ’18 to pursue community outreach efforts, and she partnered with Los Angeles’ KIWA. Through her Scripps’ Laspa Center for Leadership We Act grant, Reckers spent some time in Guatemala, where she perfected her Spanish, and Cuba, where she assisted in a medical program designed to increase access to care. She then returned to KIWA to administer health outreach and raise awareness about the dangers of lead paint poisoning in the predominantly Latino neighborhood.
“Through my time with KIWA and in class discussion, I learned about political organizing and was able to reflect on my own beliefs about politics, justice, and organizing. I realized I want to serve those who are most exploited and support the long-term struggle for health for all.”
Criminal Justice Reform
Elizabeth McElvein ’14
Senior Research Assistant
Brookings Institution, Washington, D.C.
Elizabeth McElvein’s ’14 original research, data collection, and writing toward rethinking the U.S. criminal justice system earned her a co-author credit on the major report “Framing the Debate on Criminal Justice Reform: What Citizens and Policymakers Should Know,” published this year by the Brookings Institution. The report explores a range of key issues, including the causes of prison overpopulation, the cost to taxpayers, and the demographic makeup of incarcerated individuals.
“I jumped at the opportunity to work on a project that would allow me to apply an intersectional lens to public policy research, a kind of analysis that was central to my education at Scripps. The point of our report is to inform policy debate, and I feel I helped set the framework for thoughtful, evidence-based legislation.”
Justina Acevedo-Cross ’02
Program Officer, The David and Lucile Packard Foundation
Los Altos Board Chair, Californians for Justice, San Jose, California
In her job and as a volunteer board member, Justina Acevedo-Cross ’02 looks for ways to improve education. Her work in grant making at the foundation supports kindergarten readiness and after-school and summer learning opportunities for children of all ages. At Californians for Justice, she provides leadership for an organization focused on making public education more equitable and empowering students to advocate for themselves. Acevedo-Cross knows the importance of this role: She once served as a student advocate at her own high school in Hawaii.
“I feel our educational system is where I can make the greatest difference. The changes aren’t happening as fast as I’d like, but that’s the challenge. I hope all decision makers, from presidents to local leaders, are thinking about what we can do as a society to support all children and families, both in and out of school.”
Alice Opalka ’12
Center for Reinventing Public Education, Seattle
Alice Opalka ’12 started in education by working directly with students as an AmeriCorps literacy coordinator and college coach. Now she contributes to research and policy analysis, where she makes a positive impact on educators and students in cities nationwide, while gaining a big-picture perspective on improving public schools.
“If students aren’t getting a good education, we’re not fulfilling their civil rights and standing in the way of progress as a country. Fortunately, there’s a lot of interest and momentum in improving education, which is encouraging, because it means people are paying attention.”
Kristen Liu ’19
Laspa We Act Grant Recipient
Boys and Girls Club of the Peninsula, Menlo Park, California
Realizing that not every student in the Silicon Valley has the same educational opportunities, Kristen Liu ’19 wanted to help the Boys and Girls Club of the Peninsula reduce the gap. She combined her interest in understanding how social media can be used in positive ways to create social media, website, and video content to expand the organization’s outreach efforts, especially to much-needed volunteer tutors.
“In Silicon Valley, there’s not only a wealth gap, but also an achievement gap in public education. We’re trying to make it possible for every student to finish high school, go to a four-year college, and then come back to the community and work for a high-profile company like Google or Facebook.”
Sarah Rich ’03
Southern Poverty Law Center, Immigrant Justice Project, Atlanta
Two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in Mali led Sarah Rich ’03 to think about laws that dictate whether people can migrate to better their family’s lives. Today, she works on behalf of migrants in the Southeastern United States, primarily on employment and civil rights cases involving guest workers in low-skilled jobs. Rich helps ensure they are paid in accordance with the law and also advocates for improved working conditions for immigrants vulnerable to abuse.
“When you’re engaging in advocacy or policy, you need to think about how society influences who succeeds and fails. The impact of the Immigrant Justice Project is based in recognizing we’re a nation of immigrants and reaffirming the humanity of immigrants.”
Lisa Ramirez ’96
U.S. Immigration Law Group, LLP, Santa Ana, California
Interests in politics, policy, and international human rights led Lisa Ramirez ’96 to work in all aspects of immigration law. Ramirez helps businesses as well as artists, scientists, educators, and athletes meet the legal requirements for workers to come to the United States. She also addresses the immigration and humanitarian needs of families and individuals, guiding them through the citizenship process and providing pro bono legal services to victims of violent crime and individuals seeking political asylum.
“I’m grateful for the opportunity to play a small, yet significant, role in helping people navigate our U.S. immigration system. It’s an honor and a privilege to help businesses grow and help families and individuals succeed.”
Isela Gutierrez-Gunter ’03
Associate Research Director
Democracy North Carolina, Durham
Isela Gutierrez-Gunter ’03 is dedicated to increasing access to voting in a state with newly restrictive election laws. In addition to research and policy, her work for the nonpartisan organization involves an election protection hotline, polling-place monitoring, voter advocacy strategies, and documenting violations of voting rights. While pushing for reform, she and her organization serve as an educational resource for advocacy groups, political parties, and voters alike.
“I was raised with a strong sense of self as someone who could have an impact, and at Scripps, I was encouraged to speak out. Voting rights and democracy issues are ideologically contested. They’re connected to empowerment and enfranchisement, and to larger questions: What kind of country are we? What kind of history are we writing?”
Madison Hobbs ’19
IGNITE, Scripps College
In Madison Hobbs’ ’19 home, family dinners were a time to eat and discuss the news of the day. She continues her interest in debating current issues while engaging with others through her involvement with IGNITE, a national nonpartisan organization that promotes political ambition and community participation among young women. Though the math major plans to become a statistician after graduation, she doesn’t rule out running for political office someday.
“There’s a false sense of activism when we’re talking to friends and on Facebook. Talking is important, but it’s not often translated into policy. We also have to get involved by running for office and being allies on the front where decisions are made.”
Sarah Goodspeed ’07
Center for Earth Energy & Democracy, Minneapolis
Sarah Goodspeed ’07 researches and analyzes energy and environmental policy from multiple perspectives, including its impact on racial and economic equity and intersections with other policy issues, such as housing or city planning. Much of her work to promote environmental justice involves building a long-term movement for change, but Goodspeed can also point to instances of more immediate progress, including seeing community members empowered to act after attending her workshop on reducing energy use and costs.
“We try to balance research with action. The most rewarding part of my work is connecting people to the decisions affecting their communities and giving them an opportunity to have a voice in those decisions.”
Edith Jaicel Ortega ’18
Laspa We Act Grant Recipient
San Antonio High School, Claremont, California
Knowing firsthand that few students from low-income communities have the opportunity to participate in paid internships or sustainable agriculture, Edith Jaicel Ortega ’18 helped coordinate summer culinary and agricultural internships that provided both.
Through the internships, students from an alternative high school tended and harvested a vegetable garden, assisted in the production of jam making from local fruit, and visited an organic farm to learn about sustainable agriculture on a larger scale.
“My goal was to bring together groups of people from different disadvantaged communities and increase their awareness of sustainable agriculture through practice as well as learning. I also wanted students to feel the empowerment that comes from having a paid internship.”
Civil and Employment Rights
Jennifer Richard ’91
Senior Policy Advisor
California Employment Development Department, Sacramento, California
As a legislative and policy advisor in California state government, Jennifer Richard ’91 delves into numerous workplace and civil rights issues, including caregiver benefits, disability insurance and accommodations, and safe schools for all students, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. Among her contributions is work on the country’s first paid family leave program and the first hate crimes legislation to include protections for transgender people.
“When people engage in the political process, they think about national politics. They ignore the real power of what happens at the state and local levels and the opportunity to have national influence through that work. I’ve had an incredible opportunity to be involved in creating policies that have an impact on people’s lives.”
Anna Salem ’10
Youth Leadership Institute, Marin County, California
Anna Salem ’10 focused on racial and gender inequality in U.S. public policy as a Scripps student, and she hasn’t stopped since. Salem advocated with transgender classmates as student body president at Scripps, she ran a youth center tutoring program, and worked for the ACLU of Northern California, where she promoted inclusive, welcoming school environments for queer and transgender students. Today, she trains young people in advocacy while also offering guidance to schools about supporting LGBTQ students.
“Working with queer students and their families to provide a support system, tools, and resources is rewarding. But my biggest reward is watching parents advocate for their young people—their unconditional love—and seeing students advocate for themselves.”
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