“I would love to start a nonprofit,” says Shena Elrington ’00, thinking ahead to future career goals. “It would be working closely with immigrants, related to access to health care.”
A public interest lawyer, Shena’s vision for the future isn’t far removed from what she has already accomplished. As director of Immigrant Rights and Racial Justice Policy at the Center for Popular Democracy, she helps draft legislation, writes policy reports, works with elected officials and partners with community-based organizations to build grass-roots campaigns. The issues she tackles include voting rights, housing, education and health-care access.
“We’re the organization other organizations come to for support,” Shena explains. One of her latest initiatives rolls out immigrants’ rights campaigns in several states and is modeled after the ID program in New York. Such programs allow undocumented workers to open bank accounts, Shena says, enabling individuals to better integrate themselves into the communities in which they live and work. “The local economy is boosted and it’s good for everybody all around,” she explains.
Shena’s previous job also involved creating policies to support individuals’ rights, focusing on health-care access. For four years (after graduating from law school at Yale and working at the firm Simpson Thacher & Bartlett), she was at the civil rights law firm New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, helping direct health justice initiatives. Her accomplishments included partnering with the State of New York to improve foreign language access on the New York Health Insurance Exchange, increasing awareness about health-care options in communities of color, and fighting insurance-based steering practices at large hospitals.
Shena says that her passion for public interest work began at Spence, where she remembers being encouraged by her teachers to examine and debate issues of racial and social justice. One of the most important lessons she learned from Spence teachers, she says, was that “voice matters,” and she developed the important skill of “not being afraid to speak up in a room.” It was a talent that didn’t go unnoticed by one of her first professors at Princeton, who couldn’t believe this “chatty Cathy” was a freshman, and then asked her to be his assistant.
As a member of the board of Princeton’s Project 55 Fellowship program, and a member of the Spence Alumnae Board, Shena lends her voice to good causes even outside of her job. And with a long and promising career in front of her in her ongoing work on health care and immigrants’ rights, she is sure to continue to speak up on behalf of those who need it most.