5 Questions with Reena Szczepanski

1) Who is your greatest inspiration?

The women of Emerge are a deep well of inspiration and support to me, because they are together pushing themselves to do better, and to represent their communities.  The network that we have woven in Emerge is literally redefining our state’s collective concept of who our leaders should be.

My children inspire me to play more, to slow down, and to make damn sure I’m investing the time when I’m not with them in making our state a more fair, more kind, and more joyful place.

2) What has led you to the work you’re doing today?

In 2004, I sat at a table in a coffee shop, staring into the bright blue eyes of a tiny woman with curly gray hair.  I had just started a new job running Drug Policy Alliance NM, and Essie had been the only person who responded to my open call to meet with anyone interested in medical cannabis.  I wanted to know more about it. She was living with HIV, and described how she depended on this medicine to survive. As I looked into her eyes, I decided that I would pass that bill.  

I had this feeling of firm resolve to do what was right, coupled with a small worry that I hadn’t the faintest idea how to get this done.(!)  Essie taught me to leap.

Everything I learned working to pass legal access to medical cannabis and other bills like Ban the Box and prohibiting bias-based policing, I use every day at the Roundhouse.  And sometimes, I still don’t know how I’m going to do something, I just know it needs to be done because it’s right.

Ten years later, the then-Minority Leader in the House called and asked me to be his Chief of Staff.  My kids were 3 and 5, but with my husband’s steadfast support, I leapt. Working with Speaker Brian Egolf and the NM House team has been some of the most fulfilling work I could imagine.  And the work requires me to leap, often.

3) What issue gets you out of bed in the morning, and how do you make a difference?

Our state has big issues that need to be addressed.  The urgency, particularly for our children, sits with me from the moment I read the news in the morning to the time I come home, and sometimes late into the night.  

Secondly, as the daughter of immigrants, I have felt too keenly how unfriendly and inaccessible institutions can be.  And access is just the first step. Our institutions should reflect the communities they serve, foster safety, be responsive and accountable – and those are the themes that run through my day.  Part of why I love my job is that I can make a difference in both of these arenas.

4) How do you stay brave in the work you do and in your day-to-day life?

I do what I think is right, what I believe in my heart will lift people up – I think of those that are depending on me and just do.  Every now and then, I have a moment where I am filled with doubt, where the magnitude of what is riding on seemingly small actions that lie behind me and ahead of me really makes me catch my breath.  If I let those feelings show, a mentor or friend always seems to be around the corner to pick me up (or shake me!) Sometimes it’s just 30 seconds, but the kindness and confidence of people that understand my vulnerabilities and believe in me, really centers me and allows me to move forward.  

Thank you to all of you who have done this for me.  You keep me going.

A word about mentors: I spent most of my youth searching for a mentor without much success. I was the first person in my family to graduate from college, and I’m not sure I even knew who or what to ask.  But as soon as I landed in New Mexico 18 years ago, I found mentors and kindred spirits, one after another. They inspired me with their incredible work and also extended a hand to me. Because I treasured their help so much, I try as much as I can to be a mentor and ally to those around me.  At times my entire life shifted because just one person opened a door for me. I’ve always been determined to remember that I might be that person for someone else.

5) What advice or inspiration would you give to yourself 10 years ago?

You can be the greatest, and you get to choose what that means.


Reena currently serves as the Chief of Staff for the Speaker of the House, Brian Egolf. She is the former Executive Director of Emerge New Mexico and the former director of the Drug Policy Alliance of New Mexico where she lead the charge for legislative victories including legal access to medical marijuana, a statewide ban on racial profiling, the first-in-the-nation 911 Good Samaritan Act, and second-in-the nation “Ban the Box.”

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