How One Activist Decided to Leave the Resistance to Work in State Government

After months of running a resistance organization and collaborating with other resistance and progressive leaders, I found myself faced with a conundrum: whether to work as a full-time activist organizing to make change from the outside; or whether to embark on my planned path as a lawyer by accepting a job in government and try to create change from within. This debate has always raged within activist spaces, and there are important reasons why I chose the latter at the end of the day.

It feels like a peculiar time to become a lawyer. On the one hand, it feels like a privilege to join a profession that makes and enforces the rules of our society. On the other hand, the rule of law is under constant siege by the people at the highest levels of our federal government, including the President and his administration. We see this daily in reports of ethics violations, acts of self-enrichment, an unwillingness to appoint people to key positions and a general disregard for the norms and values that make us a nation of laws as opposed to the whims of a single individual. Most recently, we saw this in the pardoning of Joe Arpaio in a break with DOJ guidelines.

And yet, I remember crying after I represented the United States in federal court for the first time. I recall being in a state of awe realizing that I, the granddaughter of refugees from Pakistan to India and the daughter of immigrants from India to the United States, had just been given the opportunity to stand up and represent the American people as a law student doing an internship with the Eastern District of New York. In deciding whether to return to government or continue as a full-time activist, I had to ask myself whether laws and government can truly help make the lives of everyday people better.

As a criminal justice reform advocate, I always knew that the law falls short of protecting the rights and liberties of all people equally. I know that our legal system and institutions were not built to protect every person, or to even consider them as fully human. Still, prior to this election, I had always believed that we could help push the moral arc of the universe closer towards justice by working within our systems and institutions to forge the change necessary to build a more just and equitable society.

Following Trump’s election, I began to fear that our political leaders would fail to exhibit the courage needed to ensure that the integrity of U.S. law and government remained intact. That fear is what prompted me to co-found the Resistance Manual, a comprehensive policy guide, as a means to educate and inform fellow Americans about the issues we are all facing. The Resistance Manual is a way to democratize information about what the government is doing through a crowdsourced platform with fifteen federal policy areas, 50 state pages, and tons of resources for action. Amidst similar tactical and organizing tools that launched post-November, The Resistance Manual was set apart by its central function as a civic education resource to help newly awakened activists understand government processes and how key policy issues relate to each other. These efforts were anchored in my belief that intersectional approaches allow resistance organizers to not only stop harmful policies, but to resist in such a way that allows the values of justice and equity to thrive within American democracy.

Photo credit: Ashley Pridmore

So, as I wrestled with my decision about whether or not to return to government, I remembered standing up in court and saying “Aditi Juneja, for the United States of America.” Resisting is just as much an act of patriotism. As an activist, I stood up for the values I thought my country did and should stand for. However, in making my decision, I realized that there are still places in government that seek to improve people’s lives — if there is someone on the inside willing to listen. I had seen the value and learning in listening through my activist work as the creator and host of the podcast Self Care Sundays. I hope that I can bring the lessons of my activism to my role in government and that we will all be better for it.

It wasn’t a simple process to reach this conclusion. It is easy to feel despondent with the state of our politics. Our current federal government feels, at best, impotent, and at worst, emboldening the worst elements of our society. I tried to remember why, as a criminal justice reform advocate, I chose to work with prosecutors. I remembered that I made that decision because I wanted to work with those with decision-making power, rather than with those who try to influence those decisions. I remembered struggling with whether it was possible to do good work within a deeply flawed system and creating a framework for how one could ensure justice was done.

Then, I thought about the United States post-Trump and who has decision making power to resist his authoritarian and hateful impulses. I realized that two parts of our government have been successful in providing checks and balances on President Trump’s agenda — the judicial branch and state legislatures. Although Congress was designed to create checks and balances against the President, they have failed to demonstrate the moral courage necessary to do so. They have failed to take strong stances against foolhardy legislation and nominations as well as by failing to condemn his hateful rhetoric.

The judicial branch has thoughtfully interpreted the law and, therefore, limited Trump’s ability to enforce his Muslim ban. Even as the President pardons Joe Arpaio, who was held in contempt of court for enforcing an Arizona state law on immigration enforcement that was deemed unconstitutional, other states are working to assure and protect their immigrant communities. We have seen states step up to meet the targets of the Paris Accords even as the President stated his intention to pull the United States out of the agreement. We’ve seen states pass paid family leave and higher minimum wages at the urging of activists. While the federal government has barely limited Trump’s agenda, state governments continue to make progress. This emphasis on state government is why, as part of my activism, I’d co-created OurStates.org to help provide people with the resources they needed to advocate to their state legislators.

I realized that, as someone graduating law school, I had the opportunity to make a career decision that would allow me to be in the room where those decisions were being made. Through my work in the resistance, I tried to provide context for the decisions being made and to illuminate new opportunities for activism, such as participating in the public comment process for rules and regulations in federal agencies. However, I began to realize that if I worked for state government, I could bring my experience as an activist and organizer to that work. My experience collaborating with activist organizations reaffirmed my belief in the wisdom of the people. We are a government run by the people, for the people. Our leaders answer to us and we, the people, are our own leaders.

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