By Kristin Jones
Allison Neswood is a health care attorney for the Colorado Center on Law & Policy (CCLP), a Trust grantee and participant in Health Equity Advocacy, a group of organizations working together to build a strong and diverse field of health equity advocates in the state. Her job at CCLP is to advocate for access to health care and other basic needs, with a focus on public benefit programs.
What are you most proud of in your work?
In my role, I work in partnership with many phenomenal people to ensure that Coloradans have the tools to create prosperity and good health in their own lives. Broadly speaking, this work is meaningful to me because it gives me the opportunity to apply my legal training to the fight against poverty and the unfair systems that create it.
I feel lucky that I get to wake up every morning believing in the work that I do. I view it as a central role of an attorney to fight for justice and that fighting poverty is fundamentally a justice issue. Poverty is not about attitudes, beliefs or moral failures. It’s systemic.
One of the things that CCLP is trying to focus more on is to think about the equity implications of our work and whether our work is really meeting the needs of all communities, including communities of color in Colorado. One of the things I’ve been focusing on is immigrant access to health care and public benefit programs. This has involved making sure that program rules are implemented in accordance with the rights of our immigrant communities and that immigrant families aren’t foregoing the public support they’re entitled to because of fear. There’s legitimate fear in immigrant communities because of policies and rhetoric on the federal level. One of the areas of my work that I am most proud of is my work to build CCLP’s capacity to support our immigrant communities.
What’s the most challenging part?
On a personal level, the work requires me to step out of my comfort zone all the time. Reaching out and having conversations with legislators—especially when they don’t see the world the way that I do—is scary for me sometimes. I also go outside my comfort zone when I give presentations to other advocates and community groups on substantive policy issues. But even though that’s sometimes scary for me, I also feel like it’s one of the most rewarding parts of my job to help build the capacity of communities to be powerful advocates in their own right.
Another challenge in this work is the cultural assumption that poverty is a moral failing instead of a systems issue. You have to get past that with people, because of the messages that are very prevalent in American culture about individuality and meritocracy. People often assume that people are poor because they make bad choices or have bad attitudes or bad cultures, and that anyone can climb the economic ladder if they just tried harder. These assumptions are rooted in bias and addressing them in a way that doesn’t feel like an attack is a challenge.
In addition, developing and implementing policy solutions to complex social problems is just hard. There aren’t easy solutions and people disagree on the right course. Navigating that makes the work challenging as well.
When did you know you wanted to be an attorney?
I think it was in college. Sometimes, in Native American communities, the idea of success feels limited or constrained. At least that was my experience. The message I got was: “In order to help our communities, you have to be a doctor, or you have to be a lawyer.” I suppose that’s a fair assumption for communities that have experienced oppression. I always knew that I wanted to do something of service, but felt resistance to pressure to fit into a certain mold. But then in college, I found I was most interested in legal-focused classes.
I became really interested in the idea of working as an attorney on Native American rights issues. After college, I worked at a private law firm that served Native American clients on sovereign rights issues. And while I believe in the importance of really high-quality lawyers working with the tribes’ interest in mind, I found that the work didn’t speak to me. We were still serving clients that could pay, working on oil and gas development on Indian reservations. I didn’t find that I was serving Native American people in the way I hoped I would.
About a year after working at the law firm, I found that CCLP had a position open. And even though it doesn’t focus on Native rights issues, its justice orientation and focus on meeting the needs of low-income people and underserved people in the state really spoke to me. I think it would be great if there were more CCLP-type organizations on Indian reservations to hold tribal governments accountable.
How does your cultural identity inform your work?
I’m Navajo. As it concerns my work, my identity as an indigenous person informs my understanding of why people live in poverty. It’s colonialism, racism. These forms of systemic oppression impacts us, our communities, people of color. I think it’s as a result of my experience as an indigenous woman that I see the fight against poverty not as a fight against attitudes or beliefs or failing individuals, but as a fight against inequitable and oppressive systems. That’s a baseline I bring to my work and my life.
My identity also informs my belief that communities know what the problems are in society and have valuable ideas about what the solutions are. I think I’ve been interested in breaking down this concept of expertise in policy advocacy work. People know their lived experience and have real power. We really need to pay attention to community voices because they’re the real experts.
What’s your vision of health equity in Colorado?
In an equitable Colorado, people will have the opportunity to live healthy, fulfilling lives regardless of their race, the neighborhood where they are raised, their gender, their gender identity or their sexual orientation. Social factors or identities such as these are determining people’s access to well-being and optimal health; in an equitable Colorado, that won’t be the case. Opportunity structures and institutions will treat each individual fairly. In that world, I suspect many more Coloradans will have contended with the truth of injustice in our country. I suspect there will be greater levels of concern and compassion across race and across other categories of social difference. And I suspect we will have done significant work to limit the influence of money in politics.
What are the biggest barriers to that vision?
I think it’s very hard for people to truly be in other people’s shoes and to see the world from that perspective. Even for someone like me who believes it is important to try to see things from different perspectives, it is hard. We talk about this a lot in terms of privilege. If systems work for you, you don’t need to see the barriers that systems create for other people. This mismatch in perception leads to misunderstandings about the problems we face as a society and the appropriate solutions, so we often end up just shouting past each other. All of that widens the polarization that we see in society.
I guess the one-word answer I’m trying to get to is “division”—division and the inability to work through it constructively are two of the biggest barriers to progress in my view. We’re not trained to talk to each other about hard issues in constructive ways. At the same time, we have communities that have been facing generations of economic and other forms of oppression. It’s very hard to pull communities out of that, especially when we’re divided.
I also would be remiss if I didn’t mention concentrated wealth as a huge barrier. Our system works to make the very rich much richer and increase inequality. That is, in large part, because our political system responds to wealth, often at the expense of justice and equity. Those in power—generally due to wealth—have become adept at keeping us divided, too.
How would you describe the importance of racial equity in achieving your vision of health equity?
Race is one of those social identities that have a huge impact on an individual’s ability to live their healthiest life and experience well-being. That’s because of the way institutions and systems act on people of color. Our communities of color are more likely to face barriers to good health and opportunity. That’s why it’s critical to keep that lens in place. It’s also critical because our cultural practice of “othering” in America is imbued with racial bias. Biased and racialized narratives—about “welfare queens” and “illegal aliens” and “Mexican rapists and drug dealers”—are so prevalent in our society. They scapegoat people of color in order to undermine public investment in government programs that make our communities stronger.
This is taxing, exhausting work. How do you care for yourself?
I revel in time spent with my son. I just love being a mom and I take the time I want to take to be with my boy, to teach him to play basketball and have him teach me to do the Rubik’s Cube. That part of my life provides so much balance.
Just to get enough sleep, I’ve developed a practice of writing down the tasks I need to do the next day. By writing things down, I can let them go. Otherwise, I stay up thinking about them because I’m afraid I’m going to forget.
I also look for encouragement and inspiration to take care of myself. There’s a quote from Audre Lorde that I love: “Caring for myself is not an indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” I guess I just try to remember that, especially for women of color, caring for ourselves is part of the fight. It makes us stronger, makes us more focused, makes us all the things we need to be to do this work effectively and for the long term.