Challenging status quo fuels organizer’s passion for activism

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Emily Fetsch’s pursuit of answers at a young age led her on a path of advocacy and into the role of lead organizer for Justice Matters.

Growing up in Olathe, Fetsch says, she always asked “why.”

“Why can’t I stay up late when I’m little …  like why are things the way that they are?” Fetsch recalls. “And I feel like advocacy allows you to ask those kinds of ‘why’ questions and then do something about it.”

Fetsch came into the job at the interfaith nonprofit in October, replacing Camille Debreczeny, who resigned to pursue other advocacy work but has helped Fetsch during the transition.

Fetsch works alongside associate lead organizer Adriana Flores and hundreds of network volunteers, including members of 14 congregations and Douglas County residents who don’t belong to a faith congregation. Together, they strive to end injustice across systems.

How that looks varies, but previous work has involved members conducting a letter-writing campaign directed at public officials, hosting human rights advocates from the Balkans, and holding a prayer vigil. Members also have spoken at school board meetings and addressed city and county commissioners on disparities affecting students of color and marginalized residents experiencing homelessness or incarceration, among other issues.

Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Stickers reflecting Emily Fetsch’s views on faith and advocacy adorn her laptop.

Fetsch defines justice as “creating a community where every one of our neighbors has dignity and opportunity.” She views her role in Justice Matters’ grassroots efforts as an assistant rather than a director.

“I think my role is really one of supporting the members of Justice Matters as they do their work, helping, whatever they need,” Fetsch says. “To be their cheerleader.”

Justice Matters operates on an annual cycle that begins each fall with a listening process where small groups of existing members and potential new ones talk about “the things that keep them up at night,” as Fetsch puts it.

A Community Problems Assembly follows. Last fall, more than 200 people attended. Fetsch says that’s when the issues that “rose to the top” and were heard “again and again” during listening sessions were prioritized.

“This year, we did not vote on a new issue,” Fetsch says. “We decided to focus on the ongoing issues that we have.”

Those main issues include ending chronic homelessness and fortifying the elder care workforce and quality of life for Douglas County’s seniors.

During the coming months, Justice Matters volunteers will dive into those topics and meet with interested people during research and committee meetings. Their work will culminate Sunday, April 28 with the Action Assembly and public asks for a commitment to work on those issues from those who wield power and influence, including locally elected leaders.

Those asks, however, don’t make Justice Matters a political organization, according to Fetsch.

“I don’t think it’s political to be interested in building justice in our community,” she says.

Fetsch’s goals as lead organizer include growing the Justice Matters network and improving the community in which she’s raising a family and has lived for six years. She believes voices are most powerful when working collectively with others.

“Obviously, the reason that Justice Matters exists and the reason why I wanted to join the team is to make a difference in my community and to address the root causes of some of the problems that are in our community,” Fetsch says. “Lawrence is such a great place to live and I want to be part of an organization that’s working to try and make it even better.”

Sharon Miller, steering committee member for Justice Matters, says she will miss Debreczeny, but she’s excited to welcome Fetsch to a leadership role.

“I think we’ve had maybe a handful or less meetings with Emily and our steering committee, but I’m looking forward to moving, to continue our work, our volunteering and reaching functional zero,” Miller says, referring to Lawrence and Douglas County’s strategic goal of bringing homelessness toward zero. “So I’m excited to have her on board and looking forward to getting this done.”

Fetsch has worked in research and advocacy for 15 years. Previously, she was employed for five years at Kansas Action for Children, a nonpartisan and nonprofit advocacy organization based in Topeka. She’s also worked for Kansas Center for Economic Growth, Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, Public Religion Research Institute, and National Religious Partnership for the Environment and has served as a Lutheran Volunteer Corps member, according to her Linkedin profile.

Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Emily Fetsch
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Tricia Masenthin (she/her), equity reporter, can be reached at tmasenthin (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.

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