Transition and Transformation:
a conversation with Víctor Sánchez and Manuel Pastor

As he steps into his role as LAANE’s Executive Director, Víctor Sánchez talks with Manuel Pastor (USC Sociology Professor and director of the Equity Research Institute) about their fifteen-year history together in the movement for justice, balancing personal and professional lives, the importance and meaning of loss, building community, and what’s next for LAANE.

As he steps into his role as LAANE’s Executive Director, Víctor Sánchez talks with Manuel Pastor (USC Sociology Professor and director of the Equity Research Institute) about their fifteen-year history together in the movement for justice, balancing personal and professional lives, the importance and meaning of loss, building community, and what’s next for LAANE.

Finding the Path

Manuel Pastor: Let me just start by saying how proud I am, Víctor, of who you are, who you’ve become, and who you will be, particularly in this new position. I’ve had a chance to wander in and out of your life over the last 15 years. I wonder if you could start by saying a word about how we first encountered one another. 

Víctor Sánchez: I was an undergrad at UC Santa Cruz. It was my first year. I had a tough time feeling like I fit there, to be honest. I enrolled in your Intro to Latin American and Latino Studies course. I will never forget walking in and hearing “Chan Chan” by Buena Vista Social Club. From that moment, my heart knew I was where I needed to be. You—along with a lot of other folks at Santa Cruz—helped shape my path and my direction. It was inspiring to know there were folks who walked similar paths and were doing amazing things. 

MP: I kind of know what you were going through. I grew up in La Puente and went to high school in Whittier. I went to UC Santa Cruz as an undergraduate and dropped out after my first year. I needed to figure out what path to be on. So: you caught the activism bug. Did you have it before you went to UC Santa Cruz? Or did you catch it there? 

VS: I was a senior in high school in 2006, when immigration marches were big. Witnessing those marches allowed me to see the power of people coming together to demand change. It opened my eyes to systemic inequality—the role that systems play in people’s lives—and the power of protest on policy.

Student activism at UC Santa Cruz gave me the chance to put my voice to work. I got involved around college access and affordability. In my mind, it boiled down to: if you play by the rules, do your work, and get into school, there is no reason why you shouldn’t be able to come to a UC. Instead, there were a bunch of financial obstacles or documentation status issues preventing people from being able to fulfill the promise that was sold to us. 

I was introduced to the labor movement on campus when the service workers went on strike with AFSCME 3299. I remember the campus being shut down and showing up to pickets alongside workers who looked like me. 

MP: My dad was always a union person, my mom too. As an undergraduate, I was helping organize an urban boycott for the United Farm Workers—until they realized that I could fix cars. You may remember that everybody in the UFW had a Dodge Slant-Six. So people would be out protesting, and I’d be changing oil for the farm workers. That’s how I made my way to the labor movement. 

VS: [Laughs] I first went to DC to do student organizing with the United States Student Association, the same thing we were doing in California: fighting against student debt, expanding Pell grants, and making education a right and not a privilege. After that, I went to the AFL-CIO to work on immigration reform, voting rights, and politics. I was deployed into different states to do election protection or run canvasses for labor friendly candidates. I ended up doing work with the AFL-CIO in Boston, and I came across a LAANE sibling organization there. It’s actually where I came across your report around transformative transformations—I forget the actual name. 

MP: Transactions, Transformations, Translations. 

VS: I was like, “This is it. They are doing it. This is what I want to do.” I thought to myself, “I want to go back home and continue doing this work in LA.” I ended up applying to USC and getting into the Masters in Public Policy program, and that’s where we reconnected.

Masters in a school of policy, research in a school of power

MP: What did you learn in grad school and working for what’s now called the Equity Research Institute?

VS: In many respects, I was writing about the work I’d already been doing. About ordinary people taking collective action and having a monumental impact. It validated the work that I had done and solidified my resolve to continue doing this type of work. 

MP: Yeah, it’s funny. You were getting your masters from a school of policy, but you were doing your research in a school of power. So, how did you get to LAANE? 

VS: I came to realize that being right is not enough, that having righteousness on your side is not enough. A former coworker sent me an email with the job opportunity at LAANE. It was to direct the Long Beach campaign; I’d never lived in Long Beach. But I understood that, at the end of the day, all of our work is a part of this larger ecosystem moving toward the world we want to see. So I jumped on board. 

MP: I might have given you a reference. 

VS: A very important reference. I started in 2017 and the rest is history. 

Baptized by Loss

MP: You jumped into the Long Beach campaign and immediately lost. I want you to talk about that. I think that we don’t understand loss as well as we should. How to assess it, how to build power to not lose again. I think about being baptized by loss. Can you talk about that loss, and what you learned? 

VS: It was my second day on the job. The campaign had been going on for about four and a half years. We were at Long Beach City Council. The policy was up for a vote. Hotel housekeepers were packed into Chambers. The energy was great. It was a big vote, and we lost. I remember the oxygen being sucked out of the room. These señoras were not asking for anything impossible. They were asking to be protected from sexual assault, and to have more protections on the job. 

We were angry. I think it was important to sit with that, to grieve, to have space to mourn what had just happened. But what I value tremendously about LAANE is having a very clear understanding that we did not have the power we needed to win that council vote. So we asked: where do we have power? In partnership with Unite Here Local 11, we took the policy to the people. We ended up collecting over 46,000 signatures to get Measure WW onto the ballot, ran the campaign, and won with 64% of the vote. That experience was very formative for me. It was an exercise in being disciplined about what our definition of power was, and whether we actually had it or not. 

MP: One problem with our progressive movement is the pride we take in losing something gloriously and righteously. But people’s lives are affected. Winning is absolutely crucial. How do you be unromantic about it? Assessing that, OK, we don’t have the power. How are we going to get it and deploy it? That’s a political strategy that involves looking in the mirror and looking at the landscape, rather than pointing fingers at someone you think should have saved you and didn’t step up. Because they’re not gonna step up unless the political calculus is such that it’s favorable for them to do so.

Impatient about Injustice, Patient about Strategy

MP: Tell me what else you’ve worked on at LAANE that has struck your heart and been crucial to your learnings. 

VS: I’ve had the fortune to be able to work on LAANE’s long-term care campaign in partnership with SEIU Local 2015, and most recently on our climate campaign in partnership with IBEW Local 18 and 11, the Building Trades, and UTLA. I never thought I would do healthcare or climate work. But those campaigns were effectuating larger systemic change for workers. 

LAANE’s work permeates so many different issues. It’s important for us to think strategically about how to create impact at scale, and how that change plugs into the larger vision for the world that we want to see. That means being able to hone in on the strategies, the role of research in uplifting the stories and the data, the role of organizing in engaging workers and community members, and the power of narrative and storytelling.

MP: We wrote an article about LAANE in which we talked about having a LAANE brain, meaning figuring out how to weave together the research, the policy analysis, the narrative, and also a strategy about the succession of wins. That is, if you win here, it opens up space to win some higher policy. We need to be impatient about injustice, but patient about strategy and figuring out what the steps are. 

So you’ve been involved in LAANE leadership over some tumultuous times: the Trump election, the murder of George Floyd, the recognition of the climate crisis. And some deeper things too for LAANE: LAANE having to figure out how to play the inside outside-game in different kinds of administrations. LAANE, which had too few Black workers and staff members in the midst of a time in which there was such a demand to do that. There’s of course what’s going on, maybe as a result of the pandemic, where people are demanding a more humane workplace out of movement organizations that have been sometimes so mission-driven that they’ve churned through and burned out people. How have you been leading through these times? Not just the racial reckoning in the world, but trying to think about racial justice within LAANE? Not just healing the bigger planet, but healing within the organization? 

VS: That’s a really good question. These ruptures in time remind us of the persistent systemic inequalities that our communities live through, and inherently our staff are living through it too. We aren’t immune to any of this stuff. But I’m an eternal optimist. I move forward by maintaining hope and remembering that the sun is going to shine in the morning. 

Thinking through how to turn these moments—and the movements that are birthed from them—into actual change, we have to think about the long game. What’s missing? What’s preventing us from reaching our long term goals? Whether it be in our movement or our systems or our narrative capacity to tell the story and build on the passions of folks who want a better workplace, or even internally, here at LAANE, to have better systems to improve recruitment, accountability, and our effectiveness as advocates. It’s being able to create the space to mourn and reflect, but also the space to have hope. And thinking about the systems we need to make sure that we are better prepared to move forward.

MP: I’m an eternal optimist as well. I mean, partly. That’s being the kid of immigrants and it’s also having lived in the worst days of LA with the civil unrest and watching the rebirth of movements afterwards. Someone said to me once that optimists are people who can walk into a room full of manure and go, “Wow, there must have been a pony here. How exciting!”

We are the Ones

MP: You were asked to direct LAANE. Talk a little bit about that moment. I would imagine two things went through your head. One: “Wow! How exciting. What great things I can do.” And two: “Oh shit. That’s a lot of work at a very difficult time. Am I ready?” So what was your “oh yeah” moment and what was your “oh shit” moment? 

VS: I don’t remember a time where my heart jumped into my stomach faster. There was anxiety and feelings of imposter syndrome. But there was also a feeling of resolve. There’s this Alice Walker quote, “We are the ones that we have been waiting for.” I needed to own my power and understand that I am the right person for this moment. That my story, and my parents’ stories—our lived experience—reflect the stories of the people’s lives we’re trying to change, and that kind of experience is what we need to tackle the challenges we face now.

It’s a big step to take, but it’s one that I’m excited about. It is that old child of immigrants schtick, you know? You’re going to work as hard as you can to make sure that it’s successful. And doing that by leaning on the amazing team that we have, especially Roxana Tynan who is staying on as a Senior Advisor, and also with the history that LAANE has, is an honor.

Reach for the stars, but keep your feet on the ground

MP: What are your priorities for LAANE? What is new that you want to bring? 

VS: I want us to grow. Our growth and success are the labor movement’s growth and success. There are campaigns that we can grow in the next few years to be powerhouses that can change Los Angeles and, honestly, the nation, because a lot of what happens here serves as a model elsewhere. We can do that in long term care, we can expand our work in climate, or look at other sectors that are slated to grow in the next 10 to 15 years and build that out. 

Internally it’s our infrastructure, getting our systems right. It’s making sure that we are operating in the most effective and powerful way possible, that folks feel supported, and that we retain the balance needed to make our work sustainable. It’s about our impact, but it’s also about the people who do the work. I’m coming in with an eye for that and trying to make sure that we’re reaching for the stars and that we’re taking care of the infrastructure that’s needed to do that. 

MP: Reach for the stars, but keep your feet on the ground. Part of keeping your feet on the ground is you’re happily married and you’ve got two young kids. You’re about to jump into a job that is incredibly demanding. How are you going to balance that? I’m not sure I ever did a good job. My kids still like me. I really don’t know why. And I’m still married to the same woman after 42 years. 

VS: What I’ve learned is that parenthood is a constant balancing act, and an imperfect one. I need to be forgiving of myself and the pressure that I put on myself. That is how I want to show up at work, with empathy and understanding. Becoming a parent has changed the way I look at the world. I can show up and people have no idea what I’ve gone through that morning. And I know that there are other silent battles that folks go through on the day-to-day. 

I also feel the responsibility to help build a world of opportunity where my kids can thrive, and to ensure those opportunities are accessible to everyone. Everyone should be able to live a life with uncompromised dignity and respect.

It’s going to be tough. I’m under no illusions. I’m grateful, though, for the amazing partner and wife that I have in Juana, for my parents who are around the corner from me, and for the village that we have. Without that, this would be a lot more challenging. 

MP: Speaking of your parents, when I think about my parents, two things that I learned from my dad have guided me professionally and personally. One is that my dad, who had a sixth grade education, was the smartest guy I ever met. So if I couldn’t explain something in a way he understood, I knew I must be making a mistake, choosing fancy words to get at a topic that could be spoken plainly. The other thing I learned is about parenting. One of my fondest memories with my dad is when he would take me on odd jobs that he would do to supplement our income. It’s one thing I did a lot with my kids too, which is like, “Hey, we’re going to a demonstration now. Hey, we’re going to a meeting now. I know it’s not going to the zoo, but you can get a sense of what dad does in this world.” 

What did you learn from your parents that you take into your professional life, into your personal life?

VS: A few lessons: first, there are no shortcuts. Obviously working hard is something that was instilled in me by watching my parents work hard to make ends meet for our family. Another is: there’s always a path forward. We just either haven’t thought of it or haven’t been patient enough to really think through our steps. 

The other thing too is just treating others how you want to be treated. The opportunities that were afforded to my parents are important, and it’s important that everyone has those opportunities. I’ll always hold their experiences near and dear to me. My parents are a big reason why I do this work. I don’t know what I would be—and what a lot of us who are in similar situations would be—without them. 

MP: Any questions for me before we depart? 

VS: You’ve been with LAANE since the beginning. What advice would you give me as I step into this role?

MP: I was on the board of the Tourism Industry Development Council, the precursor to LAANE. And I still remember it was Madeline Janis, and a fax machine that only occasionally operated, in a little corner of an office. So from that experience, I would urge you to be bold and big in your vision. Remember that it was a ragtag group that said they were the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy. That name seemed to completely overstate what anybody could do: visualize a new economy, infuse it with justice, build an alliance across Los Angeles of labor and community. LAANE is an enormous gift for Los Angeles. LAANE helped spur the Partnership for Working Families, which is now Power Switch Action, and it spurred community benefits agreements all over the United States. 

In this moment of deep crisis when democracy is at stake, when working people’s lives are being ignored, when the climate is under threat, we’d better go big or go home. I want you to be as thoughtful and kind as you always have been, I want you to be as focused as you always have been, and I want you to be the Víctor who set his sights on UC Santa Cruz, student organizing, and labor organizing, and build bigger and bigger platforms for justice. 

VS: Thank you Profe. I’m so grateful for your time.