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Shanna Batten Aguirre has never been one to fit into a specific box. Her dynamic and impactful career has been fueled by her ability to see complex issues from multiple perspectives.

From the courtrooms of Los Angeles to the halls of international diplomacy, Aguirre has forged a career path defined by her dynamic approach to justice and unwavering commitment to equity. As a citizen of the Nottoway Indian Tribe of Virginia and their legal advisor, Aguirre's personal and professional journey is intertwined with seeking recognition and justice for marginalized communities.

After graduating from Duke and then the University of Virginia (for her law degree), Aguirre took on the role of Deputy District Attorney in Los Angeles, where she prosecuted serious felonies, including cases involving sexual assault, gang-related crimes, and domestic violence. Her tenure in the justice system laid the foundation for her subsequent roles, where she expanded her focus to include international law enforcement and counterterrorism.

Transitioning to roles within the U.S. Department of Justice and Department of State, Aguirre's strategic thinking and legal acumen became instrumental in shaping policies and initiatives to combat global threats. As a Senior Attorney at the DOJ's Office of International Affairs, she collaborated with domestic and foreign partners on complex criminal investigations spanning multiple continents.

Now serving as a Senior Justice Advisor at the U.S. Department of State, Aguirre's expertise is focused on advising in support of the rule of law worldwide. In her role within the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement, she travels to partner nations, studying their justice systems and identifying opportunities for capacity-building and resilience-building initiatives.

In her personal and professional capacities, Aguirre embodies the principles of resilience, integrity, and advocacy. Her ability to navigate complex issues with optimism and realism is a testament to her dedication to justice and empowerment.

We recently talked to Aguirre about her time at Sanford and how it laid the groundwork for a career where she strives for equal justice.

How did you become interested in public policy? What does public policy mean to you?

When I was at Duke, there actually wasn’t a public policy school. It was still an institute. I gained enough credits for three majors: public policy, political science, and cultural anthropology. In a way, they were all versions of each other.

They all had benefits, but public policy has always felt the most kinetic. It’s a more strategic type of major. It teaches you how to think critically and how to strategize creatively. In all types of situations, even midstream ones, a public policy foundation inspires you to analyze from a range of perspectives, visualize an array of potential outcomes, and think outside of the box. Public policy made me a more strategic thinker.

There are a lot of trendy terms right now that I think are trending for a reason: growth mindset… systems thinking…, and terms focused on interconnection. Public policy is about recognizing situations that may not be related but are nonetheless interconnected in their functioning or overlapping interests.

It’s all part of understanding what justice means to each person. You can’t just tell someone they have received justice. They have to be convinced of it themselves.

Shanna Batten Aguirre

What excites you about your work?

I advise our government on how best to invest foreign assistance to support the rule of law globally. I travel to partner nations and study their justice systems as a function of multiple, interconnected systems. I identify opportunities in which the United States can collaborate with them to build self-sustaining capacities, justice system infrastructure, legitimacy, and resilience within the rule of law. Essentially, my job is to support partner nations when they want to be supported and, within the context of U.S. policy, to help them maximize their potential.

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Aguirre works in countries around the world.
Shanna Batten Aguirre 

Many of these nations are under-resourced, with relatively fragile democratic structures, and need capacity-building assistance. So, I spend time in each country, analyzing their justice sectors to identify the gaps or challenges they face. Then, I recommend a range of possible solutions that align with our government’s overarching policies. It’s one thing to conclude, “They need to do this better.” Still, it’s another to say, “How can we help them to get from A to B?” Meaningful support requires innovation, strategic policy thinking, and reliable, on-the-ground knowledge. What can we practically and responsibly put into motion?

Terry Sanford implored folks to stand for something. What do you stand for?

I stand for an expansive definition of justice. A lot of what I do is trying to help countries define what justice is for them, what it looks like, how its processes function, and how it can reflect the best of their societal and cultural priorities.

Justice has to be a responsive concept. It doesn’t matter how it’s defined if people don’t feel they have received it. You can’t just tell someone that they have received justice. They have to be convinced of it themselves. So, many things in my life have been oriented toward helping people achieve their definition of justice.

This concept of justice applies to my own life as well. I am a citizen of the Nottoway Indian Tribe of Virginia.  I’m also the Tribe’s legal advisor. Incidentally, our chief, Lynette Lewis Allston, graduated from Duke University in 1972, and the position of legal advisor was passed on to me by her husband, Allard Allston (Duke Law ’76)!

Our Tribe’s name reflects our historical relationship to the Nottoway River. Our Tribe's existence in the Commonwealth of Virginia has been documented dating back to 1677 when our chief joined other Native American chiefs in signing a treaty with the Kingdom of England as represented by the colonial Virginia government, the Treaty of the Middle Plantation.

Our Tribe’s land ownership subsequently was restricted to two parcels of land called the Circle and Square Tracts. Insultingly, our land was ‘managed’ by trustees appointed by the colonial government and blatantly abusive of their positions.

During much of the 20th century, our Tribe's documented existence was almost erased by the Commonwealth's odious implementation of the "one drop rule," which legally categorized people only as “colored/Negro” if they were even suspected of bearing any percentage of African ancestry. But, of course, insidious manipulation of documentation cannot erase a people. Of course, we Nottoways continued to exist!

In 2010, we provided the proof, including certified family lineages, governing documents, and evidence of our continuous existence, and the Commonwealth passed legislation legally recognizing our Tribe. Was that complete justice, though? In 2023, the National Landmark Registry designated the last remaining portion of our reservation as a national landmark.  

It’s illogical, though, that our land is historically significant because of its connection to our Tribe, yet our Tribe has not been legally acknowledged by the federal government. Is that justice? It's not even debatable. So, as the legal advisor, I am working with the Tribe, advocating for legislation to deliver the simple dignity of federal recognition.

Whenever you advocate for the undeniable rights of marginalized or under-resourced communities, each act of advocacy is a degree of justice. You're helping to bend the arc of justice. So, no excuses. Get to it.

Shanna Batten Aguirre

Any advice for students interested in representing/advocating for underrepresented groups?

It is important to be able to look at yourself every day and to know, in your gut, that you contributed something to make the world better. I’ve always needed a direct connection to that gut feeling. What you do to contribute doesn't have to be the same thing that pays your bills, but inevitably, it will make your life richer.

Helping others achieve justice (yes, sometimes a very subjective term!) has never failed to make me feel connected and purpose-driven. Whenever you advocate for the undeniable rights of marginalized or under-resourced communities, each act of advocacy is a degree of justice. You're helping to bend the arc of justice. So, no excuses. Get to it.

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