Scott Astrada

Scott Astrada

Scott B. Astrada was a Non-Resident Fellow at the Digital Civil Society Lab (2018-19, 2019-20).

Scott is a senior policy executive, based in Washington DC. Scott has testified before both U.S. House and Senate Committees on financial technology policy, small dollar lending regulation, consumer financial protection law and policy, and retirement security. Scott has provided commentary for national media outlets such as American Banker, CBS, Politico, the Atlantic, NPR, and on-camera breaking news interviews. Scott also is an adjunct Professor of Law at Georgetown University Law Center.

Scott has previously worked as an economic policy advisor for the U.S. Senate Democratic Policy and Communications Center under former Minority Leader Senator Harry Reid and previous Chairman Senator Chuck Schumer. Prior to the Senate, Scott was an attorney in the Obama Administration at the White House Office of Management and Budget, Office of General Counsel. Before joining OMB, Scott was a legislative fellow, completing his placements on the U.S. Senate Banking Committee, and then at the National Council of La Raza.

Scott has also published academic and peer reviewed articles on race, law & society, and political economy in journals such as the University of Pennsylvania Journal of Law & Social Change, University of Maryland Law Journal of Race, Religion, Gender & Class, and the Georgetown Public Policy Review. Scott has also been a panelist or presenter at conferences hosted by Netroots Nation, The United States Chamber of Commerce, the Financial Times and the Atlantic Magazine. Scott has been awarded previous fellowships by New Leaders Council, The Bryce Harlow Foundation, and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute.
Scott received his BA from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, his JD and MBA from Marquette University, and his LLM from the Georgetown University Law Center.

Fellow Followup December 12, 2023

Scott Astrada was a DCSL fellow during 2018-2019 and 2019-2020. Based in Washington DC, Scott works with state and federal legislators to ensure fair and equitable practices across a variety of industries and sectors.

In this interview, Scott discusses barriers that impact the lives of marginalized communities, particularly around financial services and housing. His work is largely informed by a deeply personal understanding of financial injustice, rooted in his parents’ experiences navigating predatory financial systems.

Scott’s fellowship project focused on the concept of the Regulatory Sandbox, a policy that addresses the complex terrain where technological innovation intersects with civil rights and compliance with various consumer protection laws. Despite encountering some big obstacles in managing his research during his time as a fellow, Scott emphasizes the value of thinking big and embracing collaboration.

Since the fellowship, Scott has remained dedicated to advancing equity at the intersection of technology and regulatory oversight. While the policy landscape may have shifted, his commitment to addressing systemic issues persists. 

Tara: You have quite a track record when it comes to working across government and conducting policy research. Can you talk a bit about your background and what led you to the fellowship?

Absolutely. So, one of the key things that has always driven my career is equity, and how that concept manifests in various industries and communities (both professional and cultural). From a practitioner perspective, I think about what it means for me to approach fairness in my everyday work. That has always been the start. When my parents first moved here in the late 70s, I think about them being met with the worst of the financial services system. My parents didn’t even speak English, and they were signing predatory contracts and documents. Their experiences have been at the core of my education. 

I studied English and philosophy in undergrad, then went on to law school because I was motivated by the idea of fairness–and to be quite honest, anger towards what I saw around me. I was grappling with the question of how to turn the problems my parents confronted into actual solutions. I became disillusioned with purely theoretical approaches to fairness and justice, which was why the law seemed like such a great fit for me as a profession. Yet, when I got into actual practice, I found there was only so much I could do on an individual client level. In many instances, I saw myself mitigating systemic injustice on an individual level at hearings and legal negotiations. It was not too long after graduating law school that I felt compelled to attack the broader wide scale problems plaguing vulnerable communities. I wanted to do my best to make sure they were being treated fairly in terms of equity of opportunity. The question of what fairness and equity look like stuck with me and ended up shaping my career in the long run.

One of the most informative experiences I had was when I was a revocation hearing attorney for the state of Wisconsin. I left many hearings with the feeling that so much has gone so wrong for a lot of people, whether it was poverty, health inequities, or financial service inequities. I was trying to help people dealing with all of these issues get back on their feet. 

So, I looked to policy for answers. In 2013, I came to Washington D.C. and jumped right into policy work at the US Senate when the country was very much in the middle of the housing crisis. Specifically, I was working on housing finance reform to better understand what went wrong. What was apparent was that those who suffered the most, suffered first. They’re also the ones who can least afford it, and so many times, found themselves stuck. 

All of those experiences eventually led me to the policy world and nonprofit advocacy spaces. When I applied for the fellowship, I was exactly where I wanted to be professionally; that is, working at the intersection of practitioners, academia, and advocacy. But I was missing that community or that group of folks that were also doing this kind of work. 

Then when I started researching fellowships, I saw the Stanford PACS fellowship and thought it was a perfect fit. It had the rigor and depth of academia and the pragmatic application of solutions-based problem solving for folks across different areas of advocacy. The projects, resources, and Lucy Bernholz–Director of the Digital Civil Society Lab, who I already knew would be an amazing leader for the program–it all made me feel really energized, more so than I’ve felt in any policy space I’ve been in previously.

I really got to see a bird’s eye view of what other folks were doing. Everything from prison reform to algorithmic advocacy to what I was working on in financial services. There were so many different types of approaches to problems that were actively being addressed by some amazing practitioners working in the field. It was invigorating and inspiring to be part of the fellowship group. There’s no other fellowship space like it that I know of. 

Tara: What projects did you work on while a fellow?

I was working on a policy novelty called Regulatory Sandbox. On a topline level, it really is a space where technological innovation and civil rights are at loggerheads. If the promise of  technological innovation is to provide more affordable and responsible credit products to communities that have been traditionally left out of the financial mainstream and forced into the crosshairs of the more predatory dark financial market, then great. But that’s not always the case. Companies have a lot to risk, especially from a reputation and business sustainability lens, if they are going to be in violation of compliance and/or anti-discrimination laws. So there’s this question of, can we bring technology forward while not losing ground on civil rights?

At the risk of oversimplifying here, generally from an advocacy standpoint the response is, no, we’re not giving up on civil rights or enforcement of compliance and consumer protection laws. If companies can’t do innovation within a certain structure, then it’s just not happening. 

The sandbox was meant to be the policy solution, but in a very limited, controlled environment supervised by regulators, to see what we can do. The CFPB [Consumer Financial Protection Bureau], in essence, said you can apply for a sandbox program, which means you can test out your product under our supervision. That’s where the term sandbox came from. You can try out some new things, but we’re going to be on top of it to make sure it’s done right. This is, of course, a very general summary, and I can already hear most experts bemoaning that I am leaving out crucial nuances and crucial details. 

That concern is exactly what my fellowship project explored—all  nuances, issues, and tensions. 

I also wanted to dive a little deeper. So, I was looking at the current sandboxes and applying a critical lens to what is really needed at a policy level. It’s like a knit sweater, you pull one string and the fabric begins to unravel. I wanted to talk with everyone, from harline advocates to industry folks. I wanted to start a dialogue. My project ended up being a resource made up of a series of blogs and whitepapers, and a website with multiple stakeholder perspectives.

Tara: With your sweater metaphor in mind (which makes sense), given that there were so many different groups involved in your work, I can only imagine that it became a challenge to manage. Can you talk about lessons learned–and what advice you would  give to new fellows doing similar work on tech?

Yes, the cliche ‘bit off more than I could chew’ comes to mind! 


I knew I was working in the middle of a complex ecosystem. I underestimated the breadth of what I would need, like time and resources, to give the project more nuance. Even with the time and flexibility that the fellowship provided, I was only just scratching the surface.

The challenge for me–and one of the reasons why I love the fellowship–was the flexibility to dream big. I would have never had the ability to fall short if I didn’t have the space to outkicked my coverage, to use a sports analogy.

In other words, I made it farther in my research by falling short only because I was allowed to dream big. So the challenge for me was trying to pack too much into my fellowship because it was such a complicated topic. It was also challenging to balance working on a specific issue while also addressing a broad problem. I tried to make my research broad. But really it’s about finding the perfect balance between going in-depth and covering enough for general audiences. 

Here, my inexperience in academia is showing because when you’re in academia, you have a timeline and a research question. For me, when I approached the project, I was basically thinking like this was something I could wrap up in ten months. A shortcoming on my end.

I also think whether you’re an academic or practitioner doing this work, we’re all the kind of folks who want to do the most with what we have. Sometimes we can, sometimes we can’t. But it’s good to know when you can’t. The fellowship really helped me see what my limitations were and who I can collaborate with when I end up falling short.

Tara: Anything else you’d like to share about what you’re currently working on?

Unfortunately, and mainly because different policy areas took center stage, my involvement in sandboxes has significantly waned. But I’m still very much involved in work at the intersection of equity, technology, and regulatory oversight. The questions I’ve been thinking about haven’t necessarily gone away, they just moved to different spaces. Now, you have other conversations on AI and machine learning. But those issues are also wrapped up in problems facing the financial sector, especially when it comes to access to credit and legacy laws. This will always be at the center of what I do, and was doing during my time as a DSCL fellow.

One of the things I would encourage or remind folks of is to take advantage of everyone’s knowledge especially coming from different spaces, whether it’s in the private sector or working in government or non-profit. There’s so much impact you can have by just bringing a different perspective to the work you’ve grown accustomed to doing in certain ways.

I’m always learning. The phrase ‘you don’t know what you don’t know’ has been the defining phrase of the last four years since I left the fellowship. It’s been an amazing and once-in-lifetime journey. 

Tara: You’re reminding me of my conversation with Anika Collier Navaroli when talking about her research and encouraging others to expand on what she’s done with the fellowship. That’s how I think about what you’ve done, and how you’re also calling others in to expand your work into these newer spaces.

The only thing that counterbalances my frustration and cynicism with regards to the news and the problems facing the world right now is the talent and passion of people I meet on my journey —people like the fellows I met in the fellowship . For the moment, I really think we’re going to be okay as long as there are programs like this that continue to give a space for folks like me to dream bigger than their capabilities. So, I’m forever appreciative of my experience during the fellowship, and happy to stay engaged however I can.