Meet Our Team Members Working on Federal Advocacy and the National Equity Atlas

Last week, through the personal stories of Axel, Laura, and Yasmin, we got to hear more about our team’s amazing ability to build community and foster partnerships. This week, we’re excited to introduce you to Tracey Ross, Jessica Pizarek, Michelle Huang, and Selena Tan — our colleagues who actively use data to activate grassroots leaders, design equitable federal policies, and support systems of change within federal agencies. At PolicyLink we know that to truly enact change, we must measure what we’re up against and listen to the voices of those it directly impacts. Only then can we move forward with a plan that works not just on a national level but also on a grassroots level within our communities. 

Tracey Ross, Jessica Pizarek, Michelle Huang, Selena Tan

Equity work can be very personal; what brought you to work in the equity movement? How does your identity/ background inform and influence your work and overall view of the equity movement, if at all?

Tracey: In many ways, I was born into it. My parents instilled a sense of pride in me as a Black woman and made it clear that our community is part of a continuous march towards justice that I have to be part of. My parents have long been active members of their communities and believed in the people's power to change this country. As Black people growing up in the 1950s, they were active out of necessity. I grew up hearing stories from my father about organizing work he did as a teen in the housing projects where he grew up. And my mother told me about volunteering on Shirley Chisholm's presidential campaign. They led by example, but they also included my sister and me in their efforts. I was on the picket lines when my father's union went on strike, and my mother talked to me about environmental justice as we drove near refineries in Richmond, where she worked. They instilled a sense of responsibility in me. As I got older, I had a better appreciation for the barriers they faced in life and how where they grew up shaped their life outcomes. In many ways, I wanted to do the work that I wished people did for them. That's how I started to work on place-based issues specifically. They also taught me early on about the privileges I hold and how to ensure I am always making space and opportunity for others.

Jess: I grew up in a multiracial, multiethnic "chosen family" — a set of families with children and adults with varying abilities/disabilities and an abundance of other intersecting identities, brought together by our fiercely feminist mothers who all worked in a preschool founded for children of varying abilities/disabilities. Within my family, I have witnessed what the equity movement relentlessly pursues — inclusivity of all people regardless of race, gender identity, ability/disability status, economic status, etc. And holding all of that as true about the people who I love and the family that I cherish, I have had the opportunity to learn how detrimental the pull towards universality and colorblindness can be when they are used as proxies for equality. As I have come to understand how structural racism has defined and embedded itself into public systems (and I'm still learning), it has also become increasingly clear that the idealized role of government that was built in my mind as a child raised by public educators and civil servants will never come to fruition unless we hold our public systems accountable for their structural flaws and rebuild them to serve all people by removing white supremacist biases and centering people of color. For me, as a white woman working in the equity movement, my participation will always entail a continuous learning journey and so I try to approach all of my work with intentionality and confident humility.

Michelle: My family and I immigrated to the United States from Taiwan when I was young. Seeing my parents' struggles and experiences with racism and discrimination from both people and institutions deeply frustrated and angered me. While at the same time, I also grew up around anti-Black and colorism rhetoric among my parents, their circles, and parts of the Asian American community. Holding both of these remind me that there is a lot of work to be done, both in dismantling oppressive systems and also to move hearts and minds of people and culture. Navigating our society as a first-generation immigrant and Asian American woman, I have found myself filled with frustration and anger at our unjust systems that continue to exploit and leave people behind. When a close family member experienced illness when I was younger, I saw the ways that our social services and health-care systems fail to protect people in times of crisis. I found the roots of my work in this health equity lens and the fact that these systems of oppression are all interlinked. Dismantling them is necessary for all of us to thrive.

Selena: As a first-generation daughter of immigrants, my parents' journey and experiences have influenced me at a personal level of understanding migration and moving between cultures. My parents always taught me the importance of serving others and loving others. As an Asian American woman, I've also had to do a lot of my own research and learning about the contributions of Asians in this country and to the equity movement, stories that are often not told. For a long time as I got started in this work, I believed that APIAs were supposed to stay in the shadows, because I had not learned about my ancestors and their contributions, in addition to their struggles. This has taught me a lot about what it means to honor and tell the histories of all peoples, and that there is a place for APIAs to lead in this work, not just support. It's been a journey for me in understanding my own identity as an Asian American woman, learning about the history of my people in this country, and wanting to be a part of the work of my elders in the equity movement.

What brought you to PolicyLink?

Tracey: I long admired PolicyLink and the unique place it has in the equity movement. PolicyLink has the ability to partner with the people doing the hard work in communities while being able to navigate the political dynamics at the national level impacting these issues. 

Jess: I came to PolicyLink in 2013 with big, ambitious dreams to get involved in the Promise Neighborhoods movement. Impassioned by the work being led in local communities around the country connected to the federal Promise Neighborhoods program to restructure education systems equitably, I had been involved in local efforts to plan a cradle-to-career strategy and learned very quickly how challenging cross-sectoral collaboration can be when policy allows (and often encourages) racialized barriers and inequities to persist in the education, housing, and transportation systems in communities where kids and families — and predominantly kids and families of color — live. 

Michelle: I love data and research as a way to make sense of the world and to inform decision-making. But I knew that for my work to align with my values and to help shape the world that I want to see, it needed to be in service of and in partnership with community members. PolicyLink and the National Equity Atlas longstanding commitment to center people who are the closest to the issue prove that data is not the end-all and be-all. For our future to be inclusive and equitable, knowledge building needs to be people-powered and information has to be transparent and accessible.

Selena: I've always been drawn to making changes through policy as a way to address wider systems and institutional issues, and have been a fan of the work of PolicyLink for many years. As I had the opportunity to learn more about the organization itself and Angela [Glover Blackwell] and Michael [McAfee]'s vision and leadership through the years, I was even more drawn to PolicyLink as a place that also really internalized the work of equity within, not just talked about it outwardly. 

What inspires you about your work?

Tracey: I have had the pleasure of working with many activists, advocates, and grassroots leaders who have become friends. Seeing their endless dedication to the work is inspiring and a gift to the causes I care about. 

Jess: I draw inspiration from movement advocates who refuse to settle for our reality and who are building towards a world of new possibility. I am constantly in awe of the deep well from which equity advocates simultaneously pull determination, accountability, compassion, inclusion, and inspiration.  

Michelle: I am constantly inspired by the community partners who I work with across the country. I am grateful for all of the local organizers and leaders who work to dismantle the structural inequities — unaffordable housing, barriers to power, employment, and opportunities, etc. — and continue to rise up to meet those challenges. Leveraging the National Equity Atlas to provide concrete data and research to contribute to these partners' campaigns and perhaps to push their work just a bit further over the finishing line makes me feel proud of our work.

Selena: My colleagues at PolicyLink who do amazing things and are also strong, brilliant, and lovely people. I also get so much inspiration from the partners we work with who are tirelessly leading frontline campaigns every day, and they always continue to have hope and passion which inspires me to keep going.

Thinking about this past year, what is something that you are proud to share?

Tracey: I am really proud of my role in helping lead our federal policy responses through one of the most challenging years in recent memory. I became Director of Federal Policy & Narrative Change at the beginning of 2020, which meant I had to quickly pivot to guiding our response to Covid, the historic protests, a transition to a new administration, and the first 100 days. I am proud of all the work we accomplished as an organization during this time to shape legislation and guide leaders, and I am more proud that while we moved quickly, our work was still informed by the community.  

Jess: I am deeply grateful for and proud of the collaborative work that the organization has leaned into to ensure that spending bills — from the American Rescue Plan to Build Back Better — center the wisdom, priorities, and demands of frontline communities, and that the federal government has been compelled and offered assistance to not only fund well but partner well as communities utilize that funding. 

Michelle: I am really proud of the ways that our team has continued to produce unique and timely research throughout this pandemic. In particular, I led the Bay Area Equity Atlas's research on the diversity of elected officials in the region, looking at the results from the November 2020 elections as well as a new analysis on the diversity of candidates who run in places that utilize district-based elections. This new research was proposed by our partners at Bay Rising who are doing tremendous work organizing to increase the number of Black, Indigenous, people of color (BIPOC) leaders who run for local office. Through these conversations, we determined a new methodology to analyze the race/ethnicity of candidates and to answer the question if having district-based elections (versus at-large) would increase the number of candidates of color who might not have run or won in a city-wide election. We found that more people of color run and win in cities with historically white city councils.

This research was covered in several media outlets and I spoke on a local radio show to talk about this work. It is exciting to see our research being disseminated more widely and hopefully encourages more conversation and understanding around diversity in local elected offices.

Selena: I'm really proud to have joined PolicyLink this year, as it is an organization I've been a fan of for a long time. We launched the Racial Equity Data Lab soon after I joined and I'm really proud of that because it helped me feel like I could contribute something to this organization and the field of equity work. I also got married! And I'm proud that we found ways to celebrate us and our loved ones, even amidst it being not the situation we had initially imagined. 

The future demands that we win on equity. PolicyLink is advancing an agenda to perfect our democracy and economy, resulting in a just and fair society where all can participate, prosper, and reach our full potential.