By Samuel W. Anderson

Generations Ahead, a network-building nonprofit which became an independent organization earlier this year, works to expand the public debate on genetic technologies by looking at the benefits and consequences for different communities.  The group aims to build the capacity of social justice organizations to take more informed positions and advocate for socially just policies on genetic technologies.  I interviewed Sujatha Jesudason, Executive Director of Generations Ahead.

GeneWatch: Can you give me idea of how Generations Ahead got started?

Sujatha Jesudason: Generations Ahead grew out of the Program on Gender, Justice and Human Genetics at the Center for Genetics and Society (CGS) in 2008.  The goals of the program and now the goals of Generations Ahead are to build a national network concerned with social implications of genetic technologies and to build a proactive policy agenda. Our primary goals are to increase the awareness of these complex issues, build the capacity of social justice leaders to participate in the debates, and advocate for policies that protect human rights and affirm our shared humanity.

When Generations Ahead was getting set to become an independent organization, what was the vision for the group?  Were there specific goals you felt you would be better able to accomplish?

CGS is an organization that is putting out cutting edge thinking on these issues. As we started working with social justice organizations, because they were new to these issues, it was a big leap for some of them to get involved in the debates.  In California, when we were working on legislation to ensure the health and safety of women giving eggs for research, we found our reproductive rights allies hesitant to get involved in the discussion both because they didn't know that much about the issues and because they didn't feel comfortable with a policy that women shouldn't be compensated.  They needed the space and opportunity to explore a variety of positions, and that was hard for us to create under deadline since CGS clearly took a position that women should not be compensated for fear of creating an exploitative market in eggs. Generations Ahead, while deeply rooted in social justice and human rights values, tries to create an open space for different organizations to figure out their policy positions, particularly in dialog with other allies

We support social justice groups to make genetic technologies a part of their broader justice agendas and work their way towards policy positions on these complex topics.  We still look to CGS for the cutting-edge issues, and we create opportunities for groups to discuss those issues and come up with their positions and plans for action.  To create an open space that worked for organizations just taking on these issues, we needed an organization more committed to facilitating dialog and policy development across different movements.  Generations Ahead works closely with reproductive rights, disability rights, racial justice; human rights and LGBTQ rights movements, bringing them together to figure out what a collective policy agenda would look like.

Can you tell me what you mean by "policy-neutral?"

It's critical that there are organizations like CRG and CGS putting out good policies. We start with those policy proposals and work to build broader alignment around what can be the more winnable policies.  Generations Ahead does not start out with a defined policy position. We develop our position with our allies in the context of what they think is workable and winnable.

There's a certain amount of pragmatism in our approach rooted in the complexities of existing policy struggles.  For example, the right has pushed for policies around "informed consent" to discourage women from having abortions.  While it is definitely the right policy to give women comprehensive genetic counseling in the prenatal context, we have to figure out how that doesn't get used as an anti-choice practice, otherwise reproductive health and rights advocates will not be on board.

Can you tell me about your typical day - or is there such a thing?

Usually I start out in meetings with our program directors.  We have ongoing conversation about our issues at the intersection of different movements, and are constantly refining our strategies across the four different program areas: reproductive rights, racial justice, disability rights, and Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Questioning and Intersex rights.  We talk about areas of growth: working with young people, working with families, and working with progressive religious organizations.  And as you can imagine, all these groups have their own issues and agendas. We are constantly trying to figure out how to grow our organizational capacity so that we can do more outreach and capacity-building for our allies.

I usually have a meeting with a racial justice organization, where we talk about Generations Ahead briefing their staff and members about these genetic issues and then we explore if there's some collaborative project we can work on together to increase their capacity for engagement.  Then I usually have at least one conversation with a funder - both current and potential funders - letting them know about our work, trying to find out how much they have been tracking these issues, and whether they would be interested in funding us.  Right now we're trying to get funding for a national racial justice strategy meeting.  We're planning to bring together racial justice leaders from across the country for a three day meeting to talk about race and genetics (DNA databanks, behavioral genetics, race-specific medicines, and ancestry testing) and figure out what work we want to get off the ground together.  We're working with the Center for Social Inclusion to co-host this meeting in the next six months. We're doing similar national strategy meetings for disabilities rights and LBGTQ rights.

Is there an issue that you feel is the single biggest issue Generations Ahead is tackling right now?

I just got back from the CRG conference on DNA databanking, and think of the many issues raised, perhaps DNA databank issues are the most pressing right now.  One of the challenges we face is that genetic technologies often don't seem pressing to organizations working on educational reform or post-Katrina rebuilding.  So it's hard to mobilize people on those issues right away.  With the DNA databanks, there's a pressing need for policies: the technology is in place and it's being used right now, so the impact is more immediately felt, as opposed to, say, reproductive cloning.

When you decide which issues to prioritize, is it a question of relevancy to the movement's goals, chances of success, or something else?

Because we work with multiple movements, we start with: what are the most pressing concerns for those groups: LGBTQI, racial justice, disabilities rights, reproductive rights?  Within each movement we have priorities, and we look at the possibilities given the political landscape, and the possibilities in terms of political ripeness - is there enough energy or interest around a set of issues - and strategic leveraging.

For instance, there's been a lot of concern and interest around cloned beef.  But from our perspective strategically, that hasn't been an issue that has activated the people we work with because it doesn't speak enough to their core concerns - but I think the DNA databank issue speaks very directly and strategically to what they're already doing.

The way we see our work is that we're not creating whole new sets of issues, but that this is an extension of groups' existing justice-related concerns.  For racial justice movements, the DNA databank issue fits in with what they're already doing.  For reproductive rights organizations concerned about fertility and infertility, reproductive technologies are an extension of that set of concerns.  We're updating political agendas for an age with increasing issues around biotechnology.

How did you get into this work?

In 2004 I was working for an Asian reproductive rights organization, and I had been invited to a meeting hosted by CGS.  That was my first introduction into these issues.  I knew the conversations in the reproductive rights movement and nobody was talking about human genetic issues.  It was the same in the racial justice movement.  If both reproductive rights and racial justice groups were not taking part in the debate now, when the terms of the debate are being set, then at the point of policy-making we would end up always fighting defensively.  I got involved because I wanted to make sure that social justice movements were an integral part of the policy debate.

Before this- I'm a social scientist, not a life scientist - I hadn't thought about genetic technology as a social justice issue.  Now, as I understand these technologies, how they are developed and used, I totally get how socially constructed they are and how important it is to shape how we understand, develop and used them.

Social justice organizations and leaders need to be thinking about science as a social justice issue, particularly for the biological sciences and human biotechnology.  How we relate to each other and define family, community and humanity - all of these come into question with human genetics.

How do you find allies - or coalition members, if that's your term - or how do they find you?

We definitely consider them "allies" - not just our allies but allies that work with each other.

We do most of the finding.  We have a movement strategy for each movement that locates key leaders and organizations and what they are working on.  We identify where there is compatibility with our approach and our issues, and we go  talk to them.  We proactively go seek them out and we also do a lot of work to get invited to the conferences and events within these movements.  This way people get a chance to hear about our issues, and then often afterwards they will approach us and ask if we can come to their organization and give them a briefing.

It sounds like you travel a lot!

Yes!  Yes I do.  All of our project directors travel a lot.  The social implications for these technologies are really just on the edge of peoples' consciousness, so if we were to wait for groups to come to us, it might be too late. Even when people do start tracking these issues, it's hard for them to find the time and resources to figure out what to do about them organizationally.  That's where we provide an important service.  We go to them where they are and show them some options of what they can do.

How does Generations Ahead - and how do you personally - approach "opponents," if at all?  Or do you actually classify any groups, corporations, individuals as "opponents"?

We don't tend to think in terms of opponents right now, in part because so much of our work is building the capacity for social justice organizations and leaders.  We aren't quite ready or interested in sitting down with whoever the opponents might be yet.  The only clear opposition that we do not meet with right now are anti-choice advocates, because we clearly position ourselves within a progressive agenda on women's health - though there are other organizations that are trying to work across that "choice" divide.

When you're looking at how to get a message out or how to pursue action on a certain issue, are there certain venues or approaches you find are becoming more difficult or promising?  Are you noticing a trend?

What I have noticed is that you need to have a lot of organizational infrastructure to truly have an impact on policy either at the state or federal level, and part of that is having resources and relationships.  We partner with organizations that already have very robust policy advocacy departments - for instance, Planned Parenthood has a very powerful presence in Washington D.C., as does the American Association of People with Disabilities and the Center for American Progress.

One of the things we're doing is bringing together policy folks from different movements together to develop a set of principles in terms of evaluating policies that are coming up and developing shared messaging and activation strategies.  So we see ourselves in policy work rather than grassroots work - and a big part of that is just that we're a small organization.

Is there such a thing as 'too big' for Generations Ahead's purposes, or do you think there is an optimal size?

There's definitely such a thing as too big for our purpose because of our network building strategy - we don't want to be one of the "big" organizations, we want to help activate networks of organizations. We are at six staff now, and I can imagine probably the biggest we would be is 12 to 15.  We have a network-centric advocacy strategy - relying on a network of organizations and leaders and coalition building as opposed to creating a big organization with a membership base.

What's your ultimate goal as an activist?  Is there a time that you could ever stand back and say "our work here is done?"

We will know our work is done when every social justice organization is working on issues in genetic and reproductive technologies, that they have their own in-house experts on it, and that they see it as an integral part of their work.  That is our discrete 5-year organizational goal.  In the long term our mission statement says: "Generations Ahead brings diverse communities together to expand the public debate and promote policies on genetic technologies that protect human rights and affirm our shared humanity."

Now, in terms of our long-term goal - it's not totally clear what that will look like, in part because we haven't heard from everyone yet on what a social justice agenda on genetic technology would look like, so we don't know yet what that success would look like at the policy advocacy level.  We are clear about our values and about our strategies.  What this changed world will look like is yet to be determined by all our allies working together to envision a hopeful world in an age of genetics.

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