Joanna Cahoon joined Trustees as a legal fellow this fall. Her move to a fellowship has allowed her to shift her legal focus and experience while lifting up all voices. Here she talks a little about her journey to Trustees.
Seventeen years ago, I met a group of friends that bonded over traveling into Alaska’s backcountry. We’ve got careers and have started families now, but we still hike, kayak, ski, fish, and scheme our next adventures together. It just takes a little more planning now, and more purpose, too.
What matters to me most is preserving the wild places that nourish us for the next generation, so when I got the opportunity to change gears and join Trustees for Alaska, I did not pass it up.
Protecting the body, protecting the land
Back when I applied to law school, I knew I wanted to do public interest work. Along the way, I had a pivotal experience in Vietnam working with orphaned children with disabilities, which led me to focus on poverty law and disability rights. For the last six years, I have worked as a staff attorney doing social justice work for the Disability Law Center of Alaska.
The work involved challenging unconstitutional practices such as jailing individuals in need of mental health evaluations and expanding Medicaid coverage of autism services for children in need. It was rewarding work and I will forever be mindful of the ways our society marginalizes individuals with disabilities, and squeezes families in need.
Changing gears to protect water, land, food access and wildlife means gaining experience with a new set of laws, while still working for people squeezed out of decision-making processes that affect their health and ways of life.
Making sure all voices get heard
Working in the disability field is about amplifying unheard or ignored voices. I view environmental protection in the same way. While the health of our environment impacts everyone, we often only hear from the most funded voices, or the voices with the most connections to powerful people and agencies.
There is no better example of this dynamic than the marginalization of Indigenous voices in the push for industrial exploitation of Alaska’s Arctic. It is a familiar power differential and I feel privileged to join the cause to make sure all voices get heard.