Meet Christina Walsh. Christina is currently the Director of Activism and Coalitions at the Institute for Justice. On any given day she can be found defending freedom at a city council hearing, giving a media interview on a civil liberty case to inform the public about their rights, organizing grassroots activists and scheduling community outreach events. In her role, there are no “typical” days, and she provides a better understanding of the diverse opportunities that are available in the field of activism. This is why Christina is the perfect person to spotlight for Students For Liberty’s inaugural “Day in the Life” series with noteworthy individuals in the global liberty movement.
You’re the Director of Activism and Coalitions at IJ. What does that entail?
I oversee IJ’s activism team. We are community organizers, and we work with people whose rights are violated by the government. Our work focuses on four key areas that are essential to individual freedom: economic liberty, private property rights, educational choice, and free speech. Often, people don’t realize that they have these enforceable rights and that they can fight City Hall and win—especially in vulnerable and politically powerless communities. Our job is to respond to abuses of government power in a community, educate people about their rights, and empower them to fight back to protect their homes, livelihoods, or children’s futures. From there we organize information campaigns to help them raise awareness, hold public demonstrations, and go before city councils or state legislatures to fight government overreach.
What made you interested in activism?
I grew up in a politically engaged home but became really disenchanted with politics while I was in college. I always thought that there was value in working with people on issues that transcend politics—everyone can fundamentally agree that certain government actions are just wrong. I saw value in the way progressive movements organized communities to achieve change and saw a void when it came to helping communities who were victims of government power with limited resources to defend themselves, who desperately need a liberty-oriented solution—not more government. What drew me to IJ is that it bridges this gap. We are apolitical, and we focus on issues that can both dramatically help people, and resonate with almost everyone.
How have your perceptions about activism changed since entering the field?
You have to be adaptable in activism to always-changing circumstances, and always responding to the real needs that exist in the community. We never impose our outsider solution—what may look good on paper might not work on the ground. I’ve learned that listening is paramount: how are the government’s actions impacting the day-to-day lives of the entrepreneurs or property owners we seek to help? How is this scholarship program for low-income kids changing families lives? The answers to those questions drive our work.
What's the coolest thing about your job?
What I love is that we get to work with so many different people, but our issues unveil a deep and innate appreciation for liberty in everyone. We could be protesting on the streets of an economically depressed urban city one day, arm-in-arm with a self-proclaimed socialist; or in an elderly, conservative community in a rural area the next day, carrying the same message: more freedom. Our issues translate and resonate in these different communities in a really eye-opening way, and our hope is that they are empowered to continue to fight the government's abuse of power, beyond our work with them.
What has been the biggest victory in your career so far?
Our biggest victories are with eminent domain cases, and we just celebrated a major win this week! The town of Leonia, New Jersey, was pursuing a “condemnation redevelopment” study of dozens of well-kept homes and successful businesses. If approved, the town could use eminent domain within the study area against any home or business owner to facilitate private development and replace long-standing residents who don't want to sell with new retail properties or condos. We worked closely with the property owners, helped them organize and did a massive public information campaign. We hosted a town hall that 70 people attended, including the mayor, and a city councilwoman who had recently taken to the local list-serv to call us “junkyard dogs for the Trump administration” (…IJ’s first eminent domain lawsuit was against Trump…). On March 18th, the town reversed course in response to this public pressure and passed a resolution removing eminent domain from the study. Through grassroots activism - without ever going into a courtroom - we have helped save over 20,000 homes and businesses from eminent domain or bogus "blight" designations.
What is the most challenging case you’ve worked on so far?
There was a development project in Mount Holly, New Jersey, a modest neighborhood of hundreds of row houses. The township threatened to use eminent domain to seize residents' homes if they didn't sell. They even parked giant construction equipment on vacant properties as an ominous reminder. The town started tearing these houses down as they acquired them, but they were connected, so when the town knocked down one home, they also compromised the structural integrity of the neighbor's house. So many people, most of whom had lived in these homes all their lives, sold out of sheer fear. We did everything we could: we hosted events, put up billboards, conducted research on the cost of the project to the town, produced a video, and published op-eds in the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Huffington Post. But the town was relentless and pursued this project until it ran out of money, and by then, the neighborhood had already been destroyed. A key challenge with this case was keeping up the momentum in the face of overwhelming odds.
What’s the biggest project you’re currently working on?
We are exploring exciting new ways to make an even bigger impact at the local level, through reforms to cities’ business and licensing regulations, red tape, and land use codes. My teammates are doing trailblazing work in Washington, D.C., where they are working to make it simpler, cheaper, and faster to start a small business - especially for entrepreneurs of modest means. What started with door-to-door surveying of small business owners has culminated in multiple bills before Council that would have a dramatic impact on the lives of hardworking entrepreneurs. The team even produced a flowchart detailing every step it takes to start a small business in Washington, D.C. - and it is massive. We just returned from SXSW’s Cities, Government and Politics track, where we learned there is a thirst at the local level for these types of reforms, and we are excited about the huge opportunities that lie ahead.
What would you say to students who are thinking about following in your footsteps at IJ or in a similar organization?
Appreciate the grind, and what you learn when you're starting your career. When I started working at IJ in 2004, I wasn't an expert in activism or coalition building. It was beneficial to me to find people to emulate, understand every aspect of the organization and have a mentor who supported my growth. Above all, apply to our team if you're interested! Nobody joins us already having this kind of activism expertise, and we all learn on the job. I still learn every day!
What is your favorite quote?
“Never use legality as a guide to morality.”