If undergrad memories are sorted by genre, one that stands out for Scott Astrada (BA ’06) might be a comedy—at least everyone survived.
Professor Jacques Lezra summoned Scott to his office about his paper on George Orwell, “Fight Club,” and violence. “I have no idea what you’re trying to say. And I don’t mean this as a compliment,” Lezra told Scott. Prior to transferring to UW–Madison from FIU as an English major in 2003, Scott gravitated toward Michel Foucault and other poststructuralist thinkers. “I related to their critical assessment of the world around me, especially in regard to exposing injustices,” he explains. He also admired their elliptical writing style. As Scott and Professor Lezra attempted to decipher the paper, he saw how his intentions had gotten lost in mock-Foucauldian complexity.
Exposing injustices, Scott realized, would require clarity. “If you’re lucky to have someone listen to you, you have to be outward-focused and bridge-building, rather than list several multisyllabic words in a row,” he learned.
Now, as the Director for Federal Advocacy at the Center for Responsible Lending in Washington, DC, Scott’s work is all about building bridges, constructing narratives, and recognizing where systematic injustice appears. He conducts research and writes policy to create a more inclusive lending marketplace. Prior to this, Scott served as an Economic Policy Advisor in the US Senate under former minority leader Harry Reid, and as an attorney for the Obama administration from 2013-14.
Scott talks about the sector of non-profit law and politics as a kind of clearinghouse where ideas are translated into policies that affect millions of people’s day-to-day lives— and where clarity of expression is absolutely crucial.
Although exposing injustice and making a positive difference in people’s lives was always his goal, Scott originally wanted to do these things as an academic. “I wanted to write the book that changed the world,” he laughs. The son of first-generation Americans, Scott’s parents urged him to pursue law or medicine. While his belief in the power of language prompted him to major in English, it was an internship with WisPirg that showed Scott how language could have a different kind of impact. After graduating, he attended law and then business school at Marquette University, and entered the non-profit sector. Here, he realized that he could “make a contribution in fair lending and anti-discrimination laws—policies that create the world around us.”
POETRY AND POLICY
Scott’s background as an English major guides his approach to financial policy. “Poetry and policy are interconnected for me,” he says. “Literature shows how an individual relates to the world on a personal level; policy is how you create the community around you through law and regulation. If you have law and regulation with nothing personal, you create a power structure divorced from people’s lives that is, at worst, oppressive. If you have literature without policy, you have no way of influencing power structures beyond the personal level.”
To bridge the gap between the personal and the political, Scott creates policy from the ground up. This approach is analogous to the reading of literature, he explains. For one thing, literary voices reveal personal and subjective experiences that are not our own. He points to Dostoevsky’s psychological realism, which conveys the richness of an inner world that may not be written on a person’s face.
It is not just what we read, but how we read that matters to Scott. Reflective reading also exposes how our readerly judgments and expectations construct the world. He cites Hemingway’s famously spare style for revealing how we tend to impose ideas on others: “When you’re trying to figure out what somebody’s thinking, you realize how much of your own values create someone else for you,” he says.
Audre Lorde’s subversive poetry exemplifies for Scott how poetry can reflect the harm of status quo thinking. Lorde’s personal lyrics highlight the structural causes of the poet’s marginalization as a queer black woman. “Those secret, personalized spaces are the result of systemic oppression and racism,” he says. “By giving voice to those, you’re disrupting the power structure that’s created the world around you.” In other words, poetry and policy are intimately linked. “Poetry is personal and self-reflective, but giving voice to something can be one of the most radical social statements that we can have. That’s what drives social change, and that’s what drives policy, on many levels.”
By working for financial protection for lower income communities and people of color, recognizing and fighting against predatory financial practices, such as payday lending, and discriminatory auto lending and mortgage practices, Scott fights for the voices of people who are excluded by discriminatory narratives and stereotypes. “Creating a fair financial marketplace allows people to share prosperity and really live the American dream,” he says. Fighting for fair lending practices for more people, Scott helps create opportunities for new, previously unimagined life stories and voices to emerge. — Lauren Hawley