Alumni Spotlight: Shena Elrington ’04
For Shena Elrington ’04, growing up in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York was the first step toward an interest in racial and economic justice. Going to Princeton was the next step. Elrington, the second youngest of six children whose parents came from Belize, is currently the director of the Health Justice program with the New York Lawyers for Public Interest (NYLPI), a civil rights law firm.
A graduate of Yale Law School, Elrington joined the NYLPI after a public interest fellowship from the law firm Simon Thacher & Bartlett LLP. Her health justice work focuses on dismantling institutional barriers to healthcare access, increasing immigrant access, and combating hospital closures in low-income neighborhoods.
Elrington received her A.B. in the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and a certificate in African American Studies. During her time at Princeton, she worked to revive the defunct Black Student Union.
“We realized the need for an organization that addressed African American issues on campus,” said Elrington. “We held conferences, a ski trip, had a mentoring program, and focused on welcoming black students to Princeton.”
Elrington said she “came from an activist family.” Her mother was a nurse and her father was one of many attorneys in their family. Her childhood in Bedford-Stuyvesant partly inspired her senior thesis on supermarket access among low-income communities of color.
“I was struck by the proliferation of unhealthy eating places in neighborhoods like Bed-Stuy,” she said, especially when she encountered all the local food stores on Manhattan’s affluent Upper East Side. “I realized that the food landscape was not an accident—it was based on policy decisions.”
Elrington’s thesis solidified her interest in health and social justice issues. At Yale Law School, Elrington thought she wanted to become a law professor, but then began a track toward legal activism. She worked at the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity and the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice. She also helped to launch a program with New Haven’s Jamestown Project that encouraged civic engagement and democratic participation among historically underrepresented groups in the city.
Her current work in health justice can best be described as multidisciplinary. “It’s definitely not a desk job. No two days are alike,” Elrington says. Her work takes her from the Bronx to Manhattan to Brooklyn, meeting with stakeholders and clients.
The NYLPI also focuses on environmental and disability justice, using an approach known as “community lawyering.” They employ community organizers on staff, which Elrington says is rare for a law firm, and do more than just litigation, including lobbying state officials, helping draft legislation, and medical outreach into lower-income communities.
“I fundamentally believe access to healthcare is a civil rights issues,” she says. “Racial and social justice are not often discussed in the health care context, but these issues don’t exist in a vacuum.”
“Princeton was actually a wonderful place for me to grow these interdisciplinary interests,” she says. “For someone like me whose interests don’t really fit into one department, it was awesome to have the space to think about these issues.”