Anti-poverty advocate 1st of 3 guest speakers in Seeking Justice in Arizona series
Alex Gulotta focuses on assisting low-income families, protecting voters rights
On Sept. 7, he will deliver a lecture titled "Don’t Believe the Propaganda, Our Elections Are Secure," which is the first of three webinars in the 18th annual Seeking Justice in Arizona lecture series hosted by the School of Social Transformation at Arizona State University.
The school sat down with Gulotta to talk about voter participation, the state of democracy and ways that the ASU community can get involved in policy change.
Question: Please tell us about your background and your current position.
Answer: I'm currently the Arizona state director for All Voting is Local. We work to expose and dismantle threats to voter freedom in order to make voting safe, fair and accessible, to build a democracy for us all. I've been doing this work since the summer of 2018. Before that, I was a legal aid lawyer, an anti-poverty lawyer and was the executive director of legal aid programs in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the San Francisco Bay Area before I came to Arizona in 2018.
Q: What is something that you learned during your academic journey or your professional journey that surprised you or changed or perspective?
A: I learned the importance of maintaining hope in the face of tough odds, because fighting for real equity and fairness in the world – it's a long road. Sometimes it's hard to maintain hope, but, in fact, maintaining hope is critical. There are victories every day. If we focus on them, that can give us hope, but it requires effort. As best we can, we need to focus on the ways we are making progress and then work together to make the leaps of progress bigger and more expansive.
Q: Can you describe the social problems you work on, and why you think these issues are important?
A: I was an anti-poverty advocate for 33 years as a lawyer, fighting to make systems fairer for low-income families. I moved to Arizona in 2018 to continue to do consulting with anti-poverty groups, but I grew concerned about the status of our democracy. It was under attack. Although we were beginning to see a democracy where the voices of communities that had historically been suppressed and disenfranchised were starting to be heard, some powerful and well-financed politicians didn't like that. They started doing everything they could do to change the rules to prevent those new voices from being heard, and those new communities from exercising real power.
So that seemed like a critical issue to me. I decided to get involved in democracy work and happened upon All Voting is Local. We fight for fair rules, regulations and processes to make voting safe, fair and accessible. I felt like I was at the right place at the right time, because guess what? The other rights we fight for, like access to housing, fairness surrounding consumer protection or creating a real and fair justice system … they're not going to happen unless we do a better job electing leaders that reflect those values. We can't do that if anti-democratic people successfully silence those voices.
Q: Why do you think these fundamental problems exist?
A: They exist because we live in a system where people with the biggest pocketbook get to have the most power and make the most important decisions. That's not the way it should be. Until we change that dynamic and stop giving rich people the ability to rule the rest of us, then that's what we'll get.
Q: How did you become involved in this type of work? Where did this interest stem?
A: I was raised as a Catholic and, during my college years, had the good fortune to be around radical Jesuits who believed in social justice, fairness and racial equity. They not only preached their values, they lived them. I went to law school as a practical way to live out those values.
Q: Law school can be a direct avenue to advocate for those changes you hope to see. Earlier, you mentioned remaining hopeful despite messages that could make folks feel otherwise. Is there anything else that inspires you to keep working toward social change, even when you're feeling discouraged?
A: Arizona's amazing. In terms of the power of young people here, the energy they have to change the way that society treats people … it’s awe-inspiring. I don't think I've ever lived in such a vibrant place with so much hope and energy. In the voting rights work that I do, there's a group of young people — people who would have been victimized by SB1070, the “show me your papers law” from a decade ago — who were like, "No way. That's not going to happen here. We live here. This is our home. We're going to make this a place we can love and respect, and a place where we get love and respect." They've done an extraordinary job of becoming powerful leaders of nonprofits and other organizations. Eventually, inevitably, they're going to be the people who are leading our state legislature and sitting in the governor's office. That's what gives me so much hope. There are tons of energetic, engaged, young people here who are committed to making Arizona a place that reflects true community values.
Q: Arizona is a hidden gem. Some may think California is the hub of change, but there is a lot of it here, too. What do you like best about what you’re doing?
A: I was trained as a lawyer, practiced as a lawyer for 30-some years. It has huge advantages, but it also involves a fair amount of red tape. Now, I’m an advocate where I work to prevent there from being a lawsuit by convincing people why a policy is good and should be adopted or why a position is wrong or illegal and should be avoided.
Q: What are a few concrete steps that people in the community can take to address voting-related justice issues?
A: Vote. Make sure you're registered to vote. Have a plan to vote. Make sure all of your family and friends are doing the same thing. Figure out what's happening with the ballot initiatives. There's a ton that are going to be on the ballot this fall. Figure out what they do, which ones support democracy in the way that you believe democracy should be supported, and support those. There are opportunities to volunteer for election protection. In 2020, we had 1,100 volunteers during the early voting period and on election day. They were in the communities standing outside of polling places, guiding voters and helping voters who were having problems. There're tons of opportunities. Go to democracypledgeaz.com, sign the pledge and check out the Get Involved page. There are a multitude of ways to get involved in improving our democracy.
The Seeking Justice in Arizona Fall Lecture Series, now in its 18th year, brings in experts from our local communities to discuss critical national issues in an Arizona context. Each lecture is followed by a Q&A session and time to interact with the speaker informally. These events are free and open to the public, and are held virtually on Zoom from 3 to 4:15 p.m. Video recordings will be available on YouTube following each event.