Working across state lines to create collective, bold, and meaningful systems change.
October 20, 2022
Jen Wagner is the new Director of the Shriver Center on Poverty Law’s Legal Impact Network, a dynamic collaboration of 36 advocacy organizations from across the country working with communities for racial and economic justice.
You’ve spent over 20 years working on social justice initiatives in both rural and urban areas. How do the issues facing communities in a rural area differ from those in urban areas?
While a great deal of emphasis tends to be placed on geographic difference, I’ve been struck by the commonality of the problems that people experiencing poverty face, wherever they live. These include food deserts, lack of access to affordable and quality health care, lack of access to meaningful and well-paid work, under-resourced education, inadequate affordable and safe housing, no transportation, polluted air and water, and a state apparatus that tears apart families rather than supporting them.
Similar issues do take different forms in different places. For example, in rural West Virginia, there is no public transportation, so a family’s inability to afford a reliable car means they can’t get to the grocery store for food, to a job, to medical appointments, or to appointments to maintain public benefits or preserve their immigration status. In a city, where many rely on public transportation, an unreliable and poorly supported transit system will have the exact same impact.
No matter the geography, these problems stem from systemic racism, other bias, and privileging of wealth, all of which are baked into our social welfare, legal, financial, and other systems. Despite the tremendous resilience and strength of people, these structures work to tear us down and pit us against each other in an attempt to stop us from collectively making real and lasting change. Efforts to redress and creatively course-correct these barriers connect the work of communities, advocates, and organizations across geographies.
Where did you and your colleagues go to stay creative and energetic in your work?
As anyone doing social justice work knows, it is vital to maintain strong support networks, which ensures that we see ourselves as part of a greater movement. Our work is critical and also emotionally taxing; there is simply no way to do it and do it well without community.
In each of my roles, I’ve had the good fortune to have creative, passionate, and compassionate colleagues and friends whom I could learn from and with whom I could collaborate, think through ideas, and build enthusiasm. In addition, at my most recent position, we were able to access support through more formal networks, including the Legal Impact Network. LIN provided us with the tools and space to engage with colleagues around the nation doing similar work for strategic support and collaboration. Seeing the work and approach of other LIN members helped inspire and generate new ideas and possibilities at my own organization. That space for group learning, inspiration, comfort, problem-solving and excitement is so central to being able to do the hard work of envisioning a more just society—and actually making it happen.
What are the biggest challenges facing advocates today? What are the greatest opportunities?
The recent shift in the Supreme Court’s approach to the law is a huge challenge to those of us who have focused on the law as our dominant strategy for social change. While the Constitution was written by those in power to protect that power, it has been interpreted over many years to expand civil rights and help move us toward a more equitable society. Now, the Court is not only curtailing civil rights, but also preventing states from protecting their own residents. This limits advocates’ ability to create change through both litigation and policy reform.
This challenge presents an opportunity to work together, be expansively creative, and think outside of existing structures. Together, we can re-envision the way we truly want our systems to work—and experiment and collaborate on bringing those visions to life.
What are you most excited about in your new role? How do you envision leveraging the power of the network to advance change?
I am so excited about so many things about this role and for myself! I can’t wait to learn more from the LIN members, who are each doing such creative, powerful, life-changing work. I look forward to continuing the current ways that LIN supports the members, but also investigating how to really build out the impact and value of the network. I think this starts, continues, and ends with the members themselves—asking them how we can continue to support and build collaborative, multi-state strategies; what successes they’d like to share and challenges they’d like to problem solve collectively; and the ideas that they have to leverage our collective power.
There’s so much appetite among LIN members to work with, learn from, and support each other. I’m excited to facilitate that by helping to create spaces for those conversations and links with national movements and between organizations, and to substantively support the actual social change work through the efforts of LIN and the Shriver Center team. I see my role as helping members have the space and resources to work together to share their strategies and ideas, and work across state lines to create collective, bold, and meaningful systems change.
What inspires you?
I feel most inspired when my baseline assumptions about what’s possible are challenged. This can be through witnessing collective action and protest movements, participating in creative and engaged synergy around strategy development in large or small gatherings, or seeing people stand up individually for what they know is right. I have been deeply inspired by my clients who decided to stand up against unjust systems to seek justice not only for themselves but for others as well, taking huge risks in the process.
How can one learn more about or get involved with the Legal Impact Network?
If you have ideas about multi-state advocacy, opportunities for collaboration with LIN, funding or resource-sharing possibilities that would support member organizations, or questions about the network, please reach out to me. I look forward to connecting with you!
Our laws and policies must support people by ensuring fair work at a living wage and by providing the income supports families need to be successful.
Everyone deserves access to affordable, comprehensive, culturally appropriate healthcare, no matter their income, race, gender, or where they're from.
All people should have the right to a safe, stable home to build better futures for themselves and their families.
Our policies and laws must value families, center communities, and end racial inequities.