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Q+A: Aura Kanegis, director of public policy and advocacy, Washington D.C.

Q: What is AFSC’s approach to advocacy for policy change?

A: AFSC brings our experience working with communities worldwide to policymakers, amplifying the voices of those often left out of decisions on issues impacting their lives. We must make sure policies aren’t just shaped by consultants and pundits in Washington, but by people whose lives, well-being, and tax dollars are at stake.

As a Quaker, I grew up on my grandfather’s stories about integrating lunch counters before the civil rights movement became widespread, and about earlier Quakers like John Woolman who were part of the century of organizing that went into the movement to abolish slavery. AFSC’s approach deeply embodies these Quaker values—working not toward what is possible now, but toward what must be made possible to bring forth a more just and compassionate world.

We don’t shy away from bold positions, rooted in these values and the realities of impacted communities rather than political expedience. In talking about immigration, for example, we challenge others to move beyond talking points about “hard-working” immigrants and to resist the temptation to only advocate for certain groups to the exclusion of others, particularly those who’ve been involved in the criminal legal system. Those messages may test well with focus groups, but in the long run they undermine the principle that all people have human rights and deserve protection.

 

Q: With the start of a new presidential administration and Congress, what do you see as opportunities in advocating for social change?

A: We see important initial steps from the Biden administration and the new Congress. But one thing that many advocates learned the hard way during the Obama administration is that we can’t relax just because officials have been elected whose positions better align with ours. It takes ongoing advocacy and organizing to create conditions for policymakers to follow through on their campaign promises.

There is a huge space between what a majority of people in the U.S. want and what may be politically feasible this year. It will be hard to move senators worried about being challenged in a primary. But though some in Congress are more responsive to far-right media than to their constituents, I still see ways that human connections and personal stories can motivate politicians to take bold action.

 

Q: What are some of the policy issues AFSC is prioritizing now?

A: AFSC has long advocated for cutting military spending and investing in human well-being. Now is a crucial time to bring that call to the forefront. When so many face economic hardship, when a pandemic and disasters fueled by climate change have made clear that the greatest threats to humanity worldwide cannot be met with military might, how can we spend most of our discretionary budget on the military? Congress must shift federal budget priorities toward human needs and engage peacefully with the global community toward shared well-being.

We also need Congress to address this economic crisis with structural reforms that build long-term human security globally. We’re expanding our call for immigration policies that respect the rights and dignity of all, including creating a pathway to citizenship for all undocumented people in the U.S. And we must act to protect voting rights, ensuring the voices of long-marginalized communities are counted as we work for change.

 

Q: What can people do to advocate on the issues they care about?

A: We want people to keep up their work as citizen activists. Exercise your sense of ownership over your elected officials—they are accountable to you. Even if they’re not aligned with you, their job is to represent you, and they need to be reminded of that by your presence in their offices, inboxes, and town halls.

The ways that the arc of history has bent toward justice are the result of millions of people standing up again and again in the name of what is right. Their courage is the force that opens the way for new possibilities. When I step back from the daily frustrations of this work, I see that breathtakingly huge changes have taken place just over the course of my quarter-century career. It makes me hopeful for what we can make possible when we keep showing up to make the case for the world we need, even when it seems out of reach.