An Interview with Sonja Diaz, Director and Founder of The Latino Policy and Politics Initiative

By Jessica Zaldana

The Latino Policy and Politics Initiative (LPPI)

     Could you tell us a little bit about the LPPI?

The UCLA Latino Policy and Politics Initiative firmly believes that there is no American Agenda without a Latino Agenda, and our work is reflective of that. Drawing on the expertise of the deepest bench of Latino academics in the country at UCLA, we are focused on confronting the challenges facing Latinos to find solutions now. Through research, advocacy, mobilization, and leadership development, we examine issues through a Latino lens to propel policymaking forward to improve the quality of life for all Americans. Fundamentally, LPPI is about centering policy on the needs of our growing and youthful communities of color, and our value-add is strictly to leverage the research-might of the nation’s number one public university in service of community.

 

As the founding director of the Latino Policy and Politics Initiative in 2017, how did you find the support to establish LPPI? 

Relationships have been essential to my professional development. As a law student at Berkeley, I convened a national symposium on voting rights prior to the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Shelby County, which struck down an important provision of the Voting Rights Act. One of the symposium invitees was Dr. Matt Barreto, who traveled from the University of Washington with graduate students to take part in the program. Flash forward, a few years later, I reconnected with Matt when he landed at UCLA and it was in that first discussion where the idea for LPPI was born. Matt and I have similar origin stories; we both worked at Latino-focused policy centers after college, and neither of our former organizations were able to evolve in the decade after our graduation, which motivated both of us. Hence, LPPI started not with resources, but with shared experiences and substantive relationships. 

How has the pandemic affected research collection for LPPI?

LPPI has always been focused on being responsive to the policy needs of Latinos at any given moment. It was no different when the pandemic began. LPPI quickly recognized that this was likely to be a profound moment in history that required our attention, but also that it could not be divorced from the existing inequities we were already working to confront, like healthcare access and economic opportunity. Very quickly, we went to work to make sure that the impact of the pandemic on Latinos did not get lost or brushed over. We shifted resources and put a spotlight on the economic and health impacts of COVID-19 on Latinos and other communities of color. Working as a rapid response team in partnership with our LPPI experts from the Fielding School of Public Health, Geffen School of Medicine, and the Center for Neighborhood Knowledge, we were able to quantify the impact of the pandemic on the health and wealth of historically disinvested communities. We didn’t stop there. LPPI’s Voting Rights Project also shifted from voter protection to election administration, thus carving out an early research niche in the efficacy of universal vote-by-mail as a safe voting method, which later evolved to include impact litigation to protect voters in Texas and Georgia. 

 

How does the Fellows Program offered by the LPPI prepare selected students to be future leaders? 

Our Policy Fellowship program not only offers students critical research skills, but we show them how the passion and care they have for their communities can be directed back through meaningful policy work. Our fellows have the opportunity to work with some of the brightest Latino experts in the country, both here at UCLA and in important states across the nation like Arizona, New York, and even Georgia. Fellows get a bird’s eye view on emerging policy issues like COVID-19 and ongoing challenges like access to housing or a ballot. This access gives our fellows the insight necessary to make sense of an often complex and confusing political landscape, so that their future careers are an evolution of practice instead of a matter of first impression. While this skill building is an essential part of our program, equally important is the professional connections our fellows make during their time with us. From academics to elected officials at all levels, our fellows are given meaningful opportunities to engage and build relationships that are critical to anyone seeking to lead change on a large scale. Again, it was relationships that started LPPI in the first place. 

 

    Previously you served as counsel for the former California Attorney General and now Vice President, Kamala Harris. How did this role prepare you for your current role? 

Working for an elected official provides vital perspective about the policy landscape; how politics play into making big, significant changes; the lack of substantive representation and how it perpetuates inequity; and the lack of data and facts backing many of our policy decisions. LPPI acts as a direct response to that context. We fill the informational gaps and provide critical analysis and recommendations that enable elected officials to drive more meaningful policy and push for bold change. 

 

Career and Education

     How did it feel when you returned to UCLA not as a student, but as the executive director for the LPPI? 

It was a full circle moment. In addition to being an alum, my relationship with UCLA started as a toddler. We joke in my dad’s family that everyone either goes to UCLA or East L.A. Community College. Sometimes to both. For me, I remember climbing trees at Perloff Hall when my dad was a student and was so fortunate decades later to call his advisor, the late Dr. Leo Estrada, my mentor when I was in the MPP program.  As a woman of color, it is a privilege to be able to architect a new research center, and the icing on top is to be able to do it hand-in-hand with the next generation of changemakers.  

 

Looking back to your time as a student or when you first began to practice law, was there an experience that challenged your perspective? 

As an undergrad and grad student, I did not have a fundamental understanding or appreciation of the role of law, especially the U.S. Constitution, in shaping affirmative public policy solutions. My perspective was challenged on one occasion when I used mixed-methods research to advance a set of policy reforms for a client that, under their interpretation of federal court decisions, would be considered unlawful. I didn’t understand their reasoning until I pursued a legal education. Looking back, it makes perfect sense to me now because I had to learn about policy before I could add a new tool to my arsenal for racial justice. For me, the law is all about problem solving, and it creates a new layer to control for in the process of shaping policy and navigating politics. Absent this legal knowledge, my solutions would be less viable and more resource-intensive to get off the ground. Although I feel strongly that anyone can be an advocate and not every policymaker needs a law degree, I accept that for me, it’s been an asset in my own journey towards advancing civil rights. 

 

 Professional Advice

How did you get started with your career? 

        This is a hard question to answer. Once it was legal for me to work, I had a job. The only time I worked in the private sector was when I worked as a hostess at a restaurant during high school. This work, along with being a student-athlete during secondary school, helped me understand the value of showing up, the diversity of a team, and the strategic mindset of accomplishing tasks, no matter how small. I’ve been immensely privileged to be able to enter and stay in professional occupations, starting with paid undergraduate internships through the Getty Multicultural Internship Program to policy fellowships at non-profits in California. These early experiences were formative in understanding the diversity of organizational leadership and the sectoral challenges and opportunities to pursue a career in improving communities. 

 

Is there something else you would like to share about careers

One of the things I’ve learned through my mom, my tías, and my own experience, is that professional careers are difficult for ambitious women. The same is true for today’s cohort of leaders, who will enter the job market during another recession and at a time when women of color face astronomical rates of unemployment. We all have a stake in ending failed practices that limit shared prosperity. I try to do this by ensuring that LPPI’s organizational culture is values-driven, and that all team members, faculty, staff, and students have a seat at the table to collaborate on projects and strengthen partnerships. It’s the commitment to leadership development and opening the door to problem solving that will be the lasting impact of the organization. I’m already seeing it; alumni of LPPI are working as policy staffers in the California and Texas state legislature, researchers in nationally recognized think tanks, and as funders at community foundations. So, success for me is making it easier and faster for the next generation, and I joke that the ultimate goal is for my student colleagues to hire me as a consultant when they are running things.  

 Any advice for students, alumni, and/or recent college graduates? 

I graduated from college right as the Great Recession started and entered graduate school with George W. Bush still in office. If I look at the factors that allowed me to succeed and navigate the hurdles of being a woman of color professional during this chaotic moment in the economy, it is clear that the predominant asset I had was a strong network. Now, these weren’t people who could pull the trigger to hire me, but they were my peer-group who shared information, were honest with their failures and embraced their successes. My career is not linear. I don’t expect it will ever be. One of the reasons I’ve been able to retain meaningful work is that I have a diverse and robust network, strengthened by shifting sectors and changing schools, and maintaining and growing those relationships based on shared goals and interests. As difficult as it may be to initiate new professional contacts, it’s so important to grow those relationships through the highs and the lows of your career. It creates deeper bonds and provides a mutual interest in shared success. 

 

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