The titles and roles of activists may differ, but a good activist can be spotted by their passion and dedication to their work. Most of us choose our paths of activism based on the impact we want to have or life sort of decides for us by placing us in social locations where the only path that makes sense is one of resistance. High levels of recognition are typically reserved for a few select folks. This blog series is not a remedy to this situation, but rather designed to highlight activists and their justice work through brief interviews. This installment is an interview with Kimya Forouzan, MPH, Esq. Responses were provided during a one-on-one call, and this transcription was reviewed and approved by the interviewee prior to publication.
How do you make sense of your work to people who are unfamiliar with what you do?
Usually, when people think about lawyers, they think about people who are going to litigate in a courtroom or that they’re working for a law firm on the private side of things. My title is legislative counsel, but sometimes people call it public policy counsel. I work in legislation, so I review bills. The organization I work for, and a lot of nonprofits in general, will have bills that they draft themselves that they will work with legislators on to get passed. Sometimes, I work on amendments to different bills. We work hand in hand with folks who work in government relations, or just have direct contact with legislators. It’s basically drafting and reviewing legislation, sometimes talking with legislators or other stakeholders in a state who might have concerns or a different approach to how things are drafted in a bill and trying to find consensus. We do also look at broader policy and try to get to the point where legislation is introduced in different states. For example, right now I’ve been looking into dementia and how that’s been dealt with in advanced directives in different state statutes.
Sometimes, I produce research and policy papers so that we can formulate how we want to approach the issue or identify what the issues are. A lot of the research I do is internal to my organization to give folks a sense of the particulars on a specific issue, so they know what’s going on and how it’s being dealt with in different states. We use those as informal working documents. Sometimes, we get all that information and create much shorter resources that can be used for public consumption. If we identify a specific issue and want to draw attention to it, we might draw up a one-pager and share it with the public with things to consider and resources on an individual basis. We might share them with legislators or do community outreach and reach out to organizations we want to partner with to let them know that this is something of importance that they might want to look at.
Taking a step back, how did you shift into working in movement spaces?
I was working on Title IX as a college student. I had a personal stake in the issue due to my experiences. I was super involved with organizing on the campus level, and that sparked a learning pattern that opened me up to work on many other issues and understanding the many different factors at play that created the injustice I was seeing in the small campus environment. I went to law school after college. I thought I wanted to work in the anti-violence realm but got discouraged because I saw so many organizations intertwined with the criminal legal system in ways that I didn’t agree with. From there I was introduced to the reproductive justice framework.
We had an If/When/How chapter on my campus, and for people who don’t know, they do a number of different things in the repro realm, but one of them is having law school chapters to encourage people’s interest from law school into the legal profession. I got involved and learned a lot more about the reproductive justice framework and the different roles within the legal profession advocating for reproductive rights, and that’s something I became really passionate about. I went to law school in Philadelphia, which is the area I’m from. People think of it as a left-leaning city, and it is, but in the state as a whole, that’s really not the case. There are a ton of terrible abortion bills that make it pretty far every year, which work to galvanize my interest and passion in that realm. I worked in reproductive rights in a fellowship when I graduated law school and moved to the realm of end-of-life care because I saw some overlap and wanted to explore health equity from a different perspective.
Everyone has ideas about how easy or hard a job is going to be before they start. What is something that surprised you about conducting movement work full time?
I thought doing advocacy work would be my whole life. I thought I was so lucky to have this as my job when this is typically something you do on the side. I thought it would feel like my whole identity or what I would do 24/7 but moving into it as a job challenged me to find an appropriate work-life balance and a long-term path. It was a hard realization and surprised me because I was like, “This is something I feel passionate about, why don’t I want to do it all the time?” I realized that even though I do advocacy work full time there are other ways I want to contribute to issues I care about on my own in a different facet. I feel like I can use my skills for other work. For instance, I volunteer as an abortion doula in the D.C. area, so that’s something very different from my full time job where I do a lot of research. It’s in a completely different environment, relies on a completely different skill set, requires talking to someone one-on-one, centering their needs, and leaning more into the gentle side and other aspects of myself that aren’t a part of my day job.
How have your lived experiences helped you build your philosophy and practices?
I came to the work that I do thinking a lot about my own community and how I wanted to see things different for them. I felt an obligation to serve my community and people that I knew growing up. I didn’t realize that big picture was a driving force for me. I came to it through a gradual process. I mentioned this before, but a part of this spark that happened for me was doing the Title IX work in college and came out of my personal experience trying to navigate resources on campus. That was the spark but looking back and reflecting it’s something that’s been building and continues to evolve and change as I go.
What are some things that make your work the most frustrating?
For many different sectors within this, it’s just that things take so much time to change. Sometimes I feel like I will do so much work on something, and in the grand scheme of things it’s such a minor change to the status quo. Sitting with that can be really hard. It can be demoralizing at times to think about all these systemic issues, and we can only do so much. The things that we can do seem to move so slow toward what we really want to see.
What are some things that make your work the most fulfilling/rewarding?
Seeing something I’ve worked on for a very long time with other people have a successful outcome, and hearing from people who are directly affected by that can be fulfilling and rewarding. Also, too, building my life around my work and looking at it as a big picture and my life in my day-to-day and thinking about what brings me joy and doing that.
In what ways would you like to see support for you and your work improve?
The biggest thing I think of isn’t so much on an individual basis. I know with nonprofits in general funding can be a real issue, and how much staff can be supported. However, on more of an individual basis, I think that people go in and out of being involved and caring about certain things. I get it is hard to keep track with everything going on, and finding where you can fit in, but it is important for people to commit within their realm. It’s impossible for one person to solve every issue, or be present on every issue, but committing where you can and staying committed is important, and if everybody did that then we would see the impact.
What are some lessons you’ve learned that you think might help others who may want to follow in your footsteps?
My advice would be to reach out to people who are already doing the work, especially in the policy realm. For the most part, if people have the time and are not overwhelmed, they are willing to help out and give you some perspective. In policy there are so many specific things you can do. Policy is an umbrella for the different types of jobs that are out there. Just learning about what you want to do, making those connections, and remembering that you’re one part of this larger picture and this larger puzzle because it can help you find your path and the spot that’s right for you. Not approaching it as if you will be able to solve all the problems, and you will be able to lend your skills to the work you want to do.
Kimya Forouzan, MPH, Esq. is a lawyer and public health professional who is dedicated to access to quality healthcare that prioritizes patient autonomy. Outside of work, Kimya volunteers as an abortion doula with DC Doulas for Choice, as a text line volunteer with Jane’s Due Process, and as an interpreter and advocate for immigrants who have newly arrived to the United States. Follow Kimya on Twitter.