Location: Washington, DC
Growing up, Alex Ashbrook’s next door neighbor was an attorney, and Alex admired him. She was pretty sure that was what she wanted to do, and that she wanted to focus on civil rights, but she had a very basic notion of what it meant to be a lawyer. As she got older, her plan to use the law as a way of addressing injustice (especially the inequity she saw firsthand in Washington, DC, where she lived) became more nuanced. Her mom (who did a lot of service on behalf of the right to die with dignity and mental health) had always wanted to be a doctor, but was not able to go to college. Alex knew medicine was not her path because she couldn’t deal with blood, but she wanted to honor her mother and the missed opportunity she had at her age. “The law,” Alex says, “seemed like the best way to effect social justice and equity issues in a systemic way.”
Her commitment to pursuing a career in social justice and community service was reinforced at Haverford College, a Quaker-based institution that Alex picked because it was so values forward. She then attended Georgetown University Law Center (where we met), intending to learn the law that would let her put her ideals and the activism Haverford had encouraged into practice. But her first year had her questioning her decision. “So much of what I was studying that first year seemed so out of touch with what drove me to law school,” Alex says. She remembers feeling particularly frustrated in Property class, where the study of things like the possession and ownership of land seemed focused on transferring rights and wealth from one entitled generation to another. Alex remembers thinking that what she was studying was in fact part of the problem.
By her second year, when she was able to pick her own courses and pursue opportunities that were more in keeping with her ideals and goals, things got back on track. She did learn, however, that her notion of the law as the way to solve all wrongs was naïve and misguided. “I thought the Supreme Court was where you could go to right wrongs and serve justice,” Alex says. “But I learned that you sometimes just run out of process.” She also saw how the law, when combined with the activism and community engagement that her mother had modeled for her, could have a real impact on the things that mattered to her.
Alex and I were both students in GULC’s Street Law Clinic, where we taught practical law to inmates in the DC Correctional system. We also both clerked on the DC Superior Court in the year following our 1992 graduation. Alex was then awarded a fellowship at Neighborhood Legal Services Program (NSLP) in Washington, DC. Her clients, all of whom were living in poverty, struggled with myriad basic needs and challenges – evictions, the termination of their food stamps, qualifying for Medicaid, missing child support payments – that Alex found very difficult to prioritize. “I felt torn between trying to be a lawyer and a social worker and doing a good job with so many open cases.” Even though her time there was short and long ago, the lessons and insights she learned at NSLP from the lawyers and clients continue to inform her legal career and garner her deep admiration.
She returned to the GULC Street Law Clinic as a fellow (another time our paths crossed!), overseeing the high school program. “I saw it as a way of empowering people to gain the skills and knowledge they needed so that they could be their own problem solvers.” She valued the fact that Street Law is geared to high school students who had largely been dismissed by the educational process, giving them a voice and letting them know that their voice was important. “They got to experience the value of education, knowledge, and critical thinking,” Alex says, “and use these as their own tools to help get out of poverty.”
Alex valued her Street Law work so much that she followed up her fellowship with ten years at Street Law, Inc, where she continued to work with law schools on best practices for setting up street law classes and programs and also worked on programming for pregnant and parenting teens. She valued her role in making the law more accessible so that people could use the law to solve or avoid legal problems. “Teaching teen parents about housing law and what to look for in a lease was directly applicable to their lives,” Alex comments, “A key attribute of Street Law is students never had to ask why do I need to know this.”
She is now using her own voice to address another systemic problem—hunger—that she has seen in her work with people struggling with poverty. She joined the Food Research & Action Center (FRAC) in 2007. Alex spent nine years as FRAC’s director of D.C. Hunger Solutions working to end hunger and improve the nutrition, health, and well-being of low-income people and then moved to a new position at FRAC. “It is appalling that so many people across the country are struggling against hunger,” Alex says. “It is an issue we can resolve if we can galvanize the political will to address it.”
At D.C. Hunger Solutions, Alex worked to raise awareness of hunger and address it by expanding participation in the federal nutrition programs – like SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) and WIC (Women, Infant and Children) in the nation’s capital. During her tenure, Washington, DC became number one in the country for participation in the school breakfast program, continued its number one standing for the free summer meals program, and made huge strides in connecting more low-income families to other vital federal nutrition programs. “I worked with the community, schools, community organizations, faith-based organizations, state agencies, the DC Council, and the media to lift up policies and make these miracles of public policy even stronger,” Alex says.
In her current role at FRAC as the director of special projects and initiatives, she is focusing on threats and opportunities that impact hunger. She is working on protecting immigrant access to nutrition programs (the current atmosphere of fear makes immigrants less likely to access programs for which they are eligible). With a growing senior population, Alex is also addressing the struggles seniors face accessing food by partnering with health care providers to screen older patients for food insecurity and intervene by connecting them to nutrition programs. In keeping with her time at Street Law, Alex is working to increase voter registration opportunities at public assistance agencies so that more people can have a voice in our democracy.
The common thread in Alex’s advocacy, and the different ways she has used her JD, is her continuous support of low-income communities. As she puts it, “I try to increase opportunities for families to live life as they desire without having to struggle to access basic needs, health care, or education.” She acknowledges that strides have been made (“The federal nutrition programs are feeding millions of people every day across the country and improving their health, nutrition, and well-being,” she says) but she knows there is still so much work to do. Alex can feel good, however, about her role in making a dent. She can tell her younger self that she found a way to put her law degree to good use. She has always sought to level the playing field, working on policies and programs that can lift people out of poverty.
For more information about FRAC:
For more information about Street Law, Inc.