Of the amazing gifts our team brings to the work, one of our most valued is building community and partnerships. The power of people is the backbone of our organization. From grassroots to foundations to corporations, we have forged strong alliances dedicated to rebuilding and redesigning a nation that works for all. This week we welcome you to meet Axel Santana, Laura Hughes, and Yasmin Zaerpoor — our colleagues working to build networks and support powerful coalitions to accelerate equitable policy change in transportation, housing, and water. Their personal connection to policymaking and their place in the movement speaks volumes to the cornerstone we are laying as the foundation for a country reborn.
Axel Santana, Laura Hughes, Yasmin Zaerpoor
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?
Axel: I have always been passionate about helping others. As the son of an immigrant and two very worldly and well-informed parents, I've always been aware of how unforgiving and unjust this world can be. I thought, "how can I use whatever privilege I have to help others?" And I think that's what our work is about — using whatever power we have to help others unlock their power. I believe coming from a multicultural background has made me more open to others who are different from me; being in an interracial relationship also means I'm used to communicating with people from different cultures and perspectives. It's easier to do this work when you see people for their humanity, and you embrace their differences as something to be celebrated and fought for! This mindset has inspired me to do this work in support of communities that have been marginalized and disregarded. My heritage of Indigenous Latin and West African ancestry also means I have a personal stake in this work. My Afro-Latinx indigeneity means my ancestors suffered at the hands of colonizers, but my Iberian roots also mean that some of my ancestors were colonizers themselves. This paradigm exemplifies the stories of many people in the Americas (including the US), and the rectification, reparation, land-back, justice demands of the equity movement are all linked to this history. Our liberation here in the US is tied to the liberation of our POC siblings across the globe.
Laura: My Mom and older sister taught me that equity is the answer to the injustices I saw and framed simply as unfair growing up. As an adult, I know the solutions to our most pressing challenges are at the intersection of race, gender, sexuality, and poverty. The equity movement centers itself at this intersection. This is what pulls me and pushes me. I am a 41-year-old Black, bi-attractional woman from the South, raised by strong women — I am constantly challenged to dream because of my identity and background.
Yasmin: My worldview was largely shaped by my parents. Although my father is no longer religious, he was raised in the Baha'i Faith, which centers around social justice. After the Iranian revolution, the Islamic regime persecuted, tortured, and executed many Baha'is. Although it took several years, my father made it safely to the US as a refugee. When my mother and I eventually joined my father, we started with very little material possessions but received some support from friends of theirs who had already emigrated from Iran. Like many other immigrants in the US, my parents started from scratch and poured everything into their schooling and their kids. Whereas my father bestowed in me a desire to address injustice in the world, my mother bestowed a complementary (and restorative) habit of recognizing and appreciating the beauty in what is often taken for granted in daily life.
Beyond their direct influence, I know that being the only Iranian (and usually the only Middle Easterner) in my elementary schools in Indiana and Kentucky influenced how I place myself in relation to having an insider-outsider identity (i.e., both belonging and feeling out of place). My experiences as an immigrant and living between two worlds largely shaped who I am, especially in finding the common threads that bind.
What brought you to PolicyLink in particular?
Axel: I have been at PolicyLink for six years and in my time here, I have grown to understand the power and gravitas of PolicyLink. In most of the spaces I'm in, PolicyLink has been invited to participate or lead because of our reputation for impact and our focus on equity. PolicyLink has been doing for decades what many organizations and agencies are now coming to realize is the important work of empowering community voices and putting people of color and low-income communities first in decision-making and policy. I think the power of this organization is in being the passionate person in the room, consistently asking the tough questions, and never being satisfied until everyone is meaningfully included, well-represented, and empowered to make change.
Laura: I have followed PolicyLink for years with admiration for Angela [Glover Blackwell] and Michael [McAfee]'s leadership and, frankly, for the inspiration to keep going. I was searching for an organization that didn't tinker along the edges or apologize for demanding and shaping a world through radical imagination. I literally saw my job posting and sent it to a colleague sharing what a "dreamy" job this would be, and she encouraged me to apply.
Yasmin: Before PolicyLink, I was teaching classes related to climate justice, climate-induced migration, and environmental dispute resolution at Boston College. I love teaching, but felt frustrated by how long it would take for my work to have any impact and wanted to work on informing policy, but from the grassroots level to hold government accountable and to explore solutions outside of the status quo. This opportunity to work on water equity and climate resilience in a way that centers frontline organizations was my dream opportunity.
What inspires you about your work?
Axel: I'm inspired by our vast and deep partnerships with grassroots and frontline leaders from across the country. Working closely with partners who are incredibly passionate and personally invested in the work motivates me to get things done and push through the toughest of challenges. Their never-ending dedication to lifting up the communities we care about is what makes the work rich, intentional, and culturally rooted.
Laura: Seeing organizers and communities such as St. Paul, MN win rent stabilization. And it isn't the winning, although sweet, that inspires me. It is the knowledge that these wins resonate across the nation. That all of our work builds towards tipping points and the recognition that we stand on each other's shoulders and that our work is the legacy and dreams of our ancestors.
Yasmin: The people — at PolicyLink, on my team, and our grassroots partners. More specifically, their recognition that we, as a collective, have deep healing and reflection and work to do. Those who point to everything that is broken and hold others accountable play an important role, but I appreciate that everyone I've encountered in this space also goes the additional step of rolling up their sleeves and getting messy in pursuit of an equitable and sustainable world.
Thinking about this past year, what is something that you are proud to share?
Axel: I am proud of the work I've done to bring in resources for the organization to engage in transportation equity work again. We had a gap in funding since we lost staff who led this work, and I had been filling the gap at a very high level. We cultivated relationships with funders and were invited to apply for a couple of grants to reinvigorate the Transportation Equity Caucus, a network of grassroots partners, and dedicate more staff time to this work. I'm proud to have led this effort and look forward to continuing the work and seeking out more resources and opportunities in the coming year.
Laura: I'm really proud of the investment we made in St. Paul from human and social capital, to time,energy, and expertise, to dollars to support a brilliantly led, local campaign. If we were a different agency, we wouldn't have seen the possibility and made the investment.
Yasmin: At a personal level, I'm proud of my and my partner's leap to the West Coast and our resulting career shifts. After spending a lot of time reflecting on our values, interests, and dreams (the silver lining of quarantine), we decided to start making choices in life driven by love and hope rather than out of fear. We made a commitment to ourselves and each other not to settle for opportunities just because they could offer stability. I’ve only been in this role a few months, but I am proud that I leaned into a position that is different from what I’ve worked on in the past, but more aligned with the work I’ve been wanting to do.