Many activists, and many politicians, view the road to change as composed of two separate lanes—one spanning the legislative agenda and the inner gears of institutional systems, the other, home to the world of ‘soft power’ – civil disobedience, protest, co-ops and community organizers. On this highway, lane changes are verboten—you pick a side, and you’ve made your choice, no backing out. The problem is: this isn’t how the world works.

Take the Voting Rights Act; the V.R.A. may have been signed into law on August 6, 1965 by President Lyndon B. Johnson, but not even the most ardent electoralist would contend that its passage was the spontaneous result of legislative goodwill. Rather, it was a response to years of lobbying by the SCLC, SNCC, and an organized movement of Black activists. At the same time, there remains no conceivable way that marches and rallies alone, unassisted by congressional action, would have secured unburdened suffrage for minorities in the South; or that the House would have been able to pass the V.R.A. absent the mass of liberal northern Democrats elected in 1964.

Very often, and very quickly, these situations devolve into a chicken-or-the-egg type paradox. The least-satisfying answer—that both forms of change are near-equal in importance—is in my view, the correct one. More importantly, I think that acknowledging this intersection, instead of dealing in absolutes, allows us to better improve each model.

Legislative action’s sheer power can be seductive, but it’s also extremely vulnerable to the soul-less magnetism of electoral math— shaving down broad strokes and bright visions into meaningless compromises and blue-ribbon commissions. How do you counter this trend? By connecting legislators to constituents and stakeholders, via direct and indirect pressure.

Soft power coalesced in community action offers the flexibility and spark lacking in most institutions, but when its objectives lack focus it can stagnate— if it falls off policymakers’ wavelength, significant effort can be exhausted with few results. How do you counter that trend? Again—by connecting activists to legislators with awareness of policy windows. More often than not, what each side of the equation needs most is the other half.

Living at the crossroads is right where I want to be.

The Place of Policy

When I was younger, I used to marvel at the whirls and twists of highway overpasses whenever my family drove through downtown Houston. By the time I was eight, I could probably navigate my way through the web of different freeways that weaved across the city, and in a few years, I had added trains and planes to my repertoire. I was obsessed about the ways that people got where they needed to go—to me, it was the essence of government: building cool things that cost a lot of money.

Growing older, the other side of the story came into focus. I learned about freeway revolts—I learned why certain things were built certain places, why the airport closer to my home had been turned into a golf course in the 1990s while the federal government simultaneously poured billions more into one nested inside of a Latino part of town. Suddenly, my love for shiny cool things was thrust into jeopardy.

I didn’t stop drifting towards government as an interest, however— and so it became a necessity for me to find a way to reconcile this conflict. Could policy be used to do transformative things, or was it bound to exacerbate inequalities in the process?  You can find countless voices on either side of that divide, some calling for a colorblind government to floor the accelerator, and others demanding that all progress cease until we can exile bigotry from the mind of even the least repentant racist.

I think that that’s a false choice. I think that the best option for all of us is to move forward, while also lifting upward. And I think that listening to voices of color, and centering them in the policy process, can be one of the most effective ways to achieve that.

That’s why I became a part of this program: to create that option, and to find that way forward.