By Paloma Mexika
I spoke with New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty’s new senior education attorney, Alisa Diehl, about her experience working in social justice. Ms. Diehl has years of legal and advocacy experience. She attended law school at University of Iowa College of Law and received her undergraduate degree at Arizona State University. This interview has been edited and condensed.
What made you interested in social justice/advocacy work?
I grew up aware of inequity and injustice. My parents protested in the 70’s against the Vietnam war because of racial violence. My dad was moved by the injustices of the government—because of the war itself and the response to protestors at the time. My dad also was committed to learning about the injustices faced by Indigenous people.
These perspectives were ingrained in me from a young age. I feel I have a responsibility to have a role in fighting against it.
What in your upbringing influenced your decision to be a lawyer?
My parents made sure that I grew up aware of my privilege and that my life was easier because of it. I felt a responsibility to fight for equity, justice, and accountability, and one way to do that is through policy and the law. The law can help effectuate change.
To do this work, it’s important to really listen and understand what others are thinking, feeling, or experiencing. I put great value on humility, relationship building, and communication and supporting the work of Black, Indigenous, and people of color.
What is your proudest accomplishment in this work?
What sticks out most are the several-year-long clients I worked with that turned into meaningful relationships. Before coming to the Center, I worked at Legal Aid focusing on unemployment benefits, housing, and domestic abuse litigation. I did individual client work, which is a much different form of advocacy work.
In one specific unemployment benefits case, I represented a woman from the administrative level through the Iowa Supreme Court, where we were finally successful in helping her obtain benefits. She’s a working mother, a survivor of domestic violence, and a woman of color in a very white state. We had a great legal outcome, but more importantly, we connected and built a friendship over the years. We grew trust, practiced patience, and went through several legal hoops together because I helped her with other legal issues that arose in her life as a domino effect during that time. We still stay in touch.
The way her life was impacted by the circumstances that led to her unemployment benefits case was so stark in a state where the racial disparity for incarcerated Black residents is among the worst in the country. The events that happened to her showed very clearly the systemic and institutional racial inequalities that function effortlessly together.
Why did you want to join the Center’s education team?
I am a product of public schools, as is my husband and family. Public education has always been personally important to me. Perhaps more importantly, I am connected to this issue as a parent myself, because everyone wants a good education for their children.
Our social and economic systems maintain racial inequities and discrimination. The public education system is perhaps the greatest example of this. At the same time, public education has the most potential to be the great equalizer IF it’s administered and funded fully and equitably.
I am excited to be part of a multifaceted approach to education advocacy. I look forward to developing and maintaining community relationships as part of the Transform Education NM coalition and the Yazzie counsel. I’m eager to join the formidable advocacy efforts of generations of New Mexican parents, teachers, community organizations, and education experts.