Alumni and Friends

Alexandra Piñeros Shields, PhD’07 | 2020 Recipient of the Florence G. Heller Alumni Award

Alexandra Piñeros Shields, PhD’07
Alexandra Piñeros Shields, PhD’07

Alexandra Piñeros Shields, PhD’07, is one of 15 alumni to receive a 2020 Florence G. Heller Alumni Award. A community organizer, activist-practitioner and scholar, Piñeros Shields is the executive director of the Essex County Community Organization (ECCO), an interfaith, interracial and interclass network of 40 faith congregations whose mission is racial and economic justice. She is also adjunct senior lecturer at the Heller School, where she teaches diversity, equity, and inclusion in the Master of Public Policy program and also serves as board chair for the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center. She spoke to Margaret Post, PhD’08, a friend and classmate from the Heller PhD program, about her work at ECCO and the way she approaches social justice work.

Margaret Post: I remember we spoke on the phone when I was a prospective student, and you said to me, “At Heller, we talk a lot about knowledge advancing social justice. We may not always agree on what that is or how to do it. But, at least, we talk about it.” I found that to be very compelling. What are some of your fondest memories of Heller?

Alexandra Piñeros Shields: [Professor Emeritus] David Gil taught a course entitled “Work and Inequality” where we interrogated hierarchical and oppressive work structures and the prevalence of low wage labor in neo-liberal capitalist systems. One day, while on break, some of my classmates and I were talking to the janitor about what we had been discussing in class. We invited the janitor to join the second half of the class, and we knew that David would be fine with that. The type of democratic pedagogy that I learned from David Gil has been instrumental in the way that I understand myself as an educator. I'm currently on the faculty at Heller and strive towards that type of democratic pedagogy. That is a very fond memory for me.

I am who I am today because of the education I received at the Heller School, there's no doubt about that. I learned to think critically [at Heller], and in particular, I learned the rigor of interrogating a problem and understanding it at various levels of analysis.

From Jim Callahan, I learned that in order for social change to happen, we need actors in every sector: within government, outside of government, and people on the ground. The social policies we cherish the most were made possible by both insiders and outsiders.

MP: How do you think about yourself, as an organizer and leader for racial and economic justice?

APS: I have developed a theory and practice of mujerista power; I think of myself as a midwife for power. Those of us who have given birth with midwives understand that the midwife is there to support, to encourage, to guide, but it's the mother that does the labor. It's the mother that does the hard work of giving birth. I am interested in figuring out how we can create spaces, strategies, policies and systems that allow oppressed people to birth their own power. That is how meaningful and lasting transformation and liberation happens.

MP: It's such a beautiful metaphor and really captures who I know you to be. Where does your motivation for this work come from? Why do you do what you do?

APS: I think it comes from two places. First, it comes from my faith. My understanding of my God, and what I am called to do in the world is work towards liberation. And when I think of liberation, I think of the divine. I currently run an interfaith community organization and I know that most of the world's major faith traditions think of this in similar ways. I believe when people think and act for themselves, they participate in the creative force of the universe.

And secondly, I am an immigrant. I came to United States when I was four and my family, like many immigrants, struggled economically even though my parents were college educated. This oppression has shaped my understanding of the nature of our economy, of economic exploitation, of being an outsider. This has motivated me deeply and continues to do so. 

MP: What stands out to you as some of the most important moments of your career?

APS: I'm happy to share success stories, but I want to be cognizant of the fact that none of us succeed in isolation. I'm a community organizer. The successes that I'm going to share are about mobilizing a community to work together to exercise its power.

First, I would say the sanctuary policies that we have established in four municipalities on the North Shore of Boston through my work as executive director of ECCO. [Sanctuary policies are intended to improve trust between law enforcement and immigrant communities.] At the beginning of the Trump presidency, we focused on establishing sanctuary policies in cities in Essex County and we were successful. Salem is a sanctuary city, and other cities now have sanctuary policies embedded in their policing. That’s something that I am very proud of.

The other is our police accountability work in the city of Lynn. A couple months after Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, Black member congregations in ECCO proposed to address police profiling. It may be the hardest thing that I've ever done. We spent two years trying to get the police department to carry out implicit bias training with the community. We had numerous meetings between the police chief and clergy and several large public assemblies without success. The police feel like they're under attack, they're very insular, they close ranks.

So instead of holding one more large public assembly where we presented research and testimonies of police brutality, we met with the police chief in a Catholic congregation because he was Catholic. We only had 30 of ECCO’s Black, Latino, and white leaders come instead of two or three hundred, and we went around the room, sharing testimonies of times we acted in racist ways. Upon finishing our stories, we acknowledged that we needed  implicit bias training and we invited the police chief, and the eight police officers with him, saying that we knew they would benefit too. When we took that approach, which some have subsequently called ‘public confession,’ the police chief said, “Of course we will join you.” It was what we had been asking for two years. 

We spent the day doing implicit bias training with a national trainer, about 75 leaders from the community sitting side-by-side with the police command staff and sharing their experiences. Research shows that when police train with community leaders, the results are better. After the training was over, during an interview with the press, I asked the police chief, “You keep saying how we had a rocky start but that then we had a great meeting in April and that is why we are here today. How do you explain what happened at the April meeting?” He immediately replied, “Oh, that's easy. You saw us as human beings.”

That was a deep lesson for us who work for justice: Everything depended on seeing the humanity in each other. We have been conducting implicit bias trainings every year since then. This type of transformative work is what it means to be a midwife for power.

MP: One of my early memories of you is going to an immigrant rights rally in Boston together. At the time I remember thinking, we have so far to go. Now we live in a time that is even worse. I'm wondering if you could share with us how you feel about the time that we're living in today.

APS: Those are fond memories that you recall. That was the spring of 2006; the largest immigrant protests in the history of the United States. Then there was a backlash, after that summer detentions and deportations quadrupled. As you say, things have gotten even worse for immigrants and as an immigrant, I care deeply about that. But what has happened to immigrants since 2006 is not necessarily about immigrants, it is about the nature of our country.

To use the metaphor of the canary in the mine: Immigrants and all people of color are the canary in the mine, the real problem is the mine not the canary.

I think the lesson we should draw, when we look at immigrant children in cages, when we see Black men and women being killed with impunity—these are examples of a military state, of a police state. The immigrant detention and the criminal justice systems form a bureaucracy of mass incarceration, a system of extracting profit off of Black and brown bodies. Our democracy, our country is in deep trouble.

I think all of this is powerfully captured in a quote by Justice Louis Brandeis who said, “We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can't have both.” During the first three months of the COVID-19 pandemic, the 18 billionaires in Massachusetts increased their wealth by $15.2 billion, while Massachusetts has one of the highest unemployment rates in the nation. When you have that kind of economic inequality, you need a militarized police system to keep inequality in place because none of us would willingly accept it.

MP: What advice do you have for Heller students—including the Heller students you teach today?

APS: Our students are so brilliant and so accomplished. We can change this world. I’ll share another lesson from David Gil: When work is meaningful, when work enables us to follow our passion, allow our skills to blossom, to be who we are meant to be in this world, we do good work. We produce amazing results. I tell students to choose work that is life-giving. So that's my motto: Choose work that is life-giving, because very good things will follow.

And sometimes that work is not exactly what we imagined it would be. There are so many ways in which to approach justice and to build solidarity. We need to build movements. We can’t do it ourselves.

About the 2020 Florence G. Heller Alumni Awards

To honor our 60th anniversary, the community chose to honor 15 awardees for living a life that exemplifies the mission and vision of the Heller School and honors the legacy of our namesake, Florence G. Heller. Award recipients have produced positive and impactful change through the rigor, creativity, and innovation of their work. Additional selection criteria included the national, global, local impact of accomplishments, identification with the Brandeis community, and/or sustained impact and leadership over time.